Change-UpApril 26, 2008
North Siders Make Outs Less Frequently, Score Runs
By Patrick Sullivan

Though it's been said many times, many ways, one would find themselves hard-pressed to exemplify the merits of getting on base better than the Chicago Cubs of the last five seasons or so. Season after season, the likes of Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez, Moises Alou, Sammy Sosa, Jeromy Burnitz, Jacque Jones, Alfonso Soriano and others have been banging out home runs for the Cubbies and yet, they have never really been among the Senior Circuit's most prolific run scoring teams.

Fans and baseball personnel alike, when acknowledging a quality offensive player, will often say, "that guy can hit." For different individuals, it means different things but it almost surely means that a player can put a nice swing on a baseball. Rarely - hell never - will you hear someone say "that guy can really create runs." And yet, that is all a baseball player is charged with when he has a bat in his hands. His mandate ought to be to do everything he can to help his team put runs on the scoreboard.

Jacque Jones has a gorgeous swing. A classic lefty, to witness Jones catch a fastball flush and yank it out to right field is to enjoy one of the most pure moments there is in baseball. Meanwhile, to watch Derrek Lee take four close pitches for balls while watching one strike go by can often lead to frustration. After all, it's not just chicks. We all dig the long ball.

But long ball has not been a problem for the Cubs, at least not for some of these recent Cubs teams. They have demonstrated proficiency in slugging the baseball, but have time and again fallen short in getting men on base. As a fan, this phenomenon does not necessarily trigger intuitive disappointment. Heading to Wrigley, witnessing a couple of four-baggers and a four run output by the home team makes for an entertaining evening.

What Cubs fans are now learning is that watching the Cubbies hang a bunch of crooked numbers on the board also makes for an enjoyable time at the Friendly Confines. Seven Cubs that log regular playing time have notched on-base percentages of greater than .380 in 2008.

Fukudome   .463
Soto       .447 
Lee        .413
Johnson    .394
Ramirez    .392
DeRosa     .389
Theriot    .384

Avoiding outs leads to incremental opportunities for teammates and since most MLB'ers fall within a relatively narrow band of batting average output (say, .225 to .325 or so), more opportunities for other teammates means the law of averages will lead to more hits per game. Moreover, when you do not make an out it means you reach base so that those incremental converted opportunities lead to more players crossing home plate.

To take it a few steps further, strike zone management is critical even within the context of one plate appearance. Recognizing a ball and a strike allows a hitter to put a swing on balls that are tossed in there to be hit while letting pitches outside the zone to pass. Jacque Jones often flails at bad pitches because he must hit from behind in the count. Derrek Lee waits for his pitch and often creams it. The final benefit, one pointed out by John Dewan this week, shows just how helpful making pitchers throw more pitches can be. The more pitches you let go by, the more often you will get your pitch to hit, and the more pitches you see, as the game wears on you get into the dregs of other teams' pitching staffs (read: middle relievers) more quickly.

It would be difficult to overstate just how advantageous it is to field an offensive attack that possesses exceptional pitch recognition. Let's look at how Cubs teams have stacked up over the last five seasons in various critical offensive categories:

        SLG   OBP   RS   PA/BB
2004     2     11    7   11.74
2005     2     11    9   13.16
2006    10     16   15   14.67
2007     8      9    8   11.44
2008     5      2    1    8.46

The slug, on-base and run scoring numbers are National League rankings. The PA/BB number is simply their figure in that given season. The 2008 PA/BB number is an obvious outlier, just as their on-base and run scoring rankings are. The Cubs have slugged it in the recent past, but never put runs on the board like they have thus far in 2008.

Dusty Baker
, the former Cubs Manager, has been on the record more times than we can seemingly keep track of touting the merits of "being aggressive" and denouncing those that reach base only to "clog" them. Presented with the data above, one has to wonder how even Dusty would explain the formidability of the 2008 edition of the Cubs offense.

These guys must really be able to "hit".