COMMENTARY | The only statistic that really matters in the end is wins. But among all the myriad metrics utilized by baseball cognoscenti, a few truly stand out as a collective barometer for the Chicago Cubs this season.
As Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine so eloquently stated back in the 1990s, chicks dig the long ball. Of course, so do players and fans. Only trouble is, the big fly can cause big problems when used as a crutch. And on the other side of the ball, ERA has long been the preferred measure of a pitcher's worth, though WHIP has certainly made a nice name for itself over the last few years. But the Cubs' tale of woe isn't written in the go-to box-score stats -- it's in the situational numbers.
Let's take a look at three in particular:
Batting Average With Runners in Scoring Position (BARISP):
When it comes to big hits, the Cubs are doing just fine. They are second in the NL with 140 long balls and third in all of MLB with 240 doubles. Yet they are batting only .239 overall, with just the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros keeping them out of the cellar. The same is true for total hits.
And when we drill down to the telling stat of BARISP, the Cubs are at the bottom, sporting a far-from-robust .222 total. That's more than 100 points below the St. Louis Cardinals, who lead the majors at .327. Of course, sacrifice flies don't apply to batting average, so it would figure that the Cubs might simply be moving runners along without a hit to show for the effort, right? Wrong. The Cubs are tied for last in sac flies, with only 21 -- that's one sac fly every 6 games.
Hypothetical extrapolation is dicey at best, but if the Cubs increased BARISP to their overall total of .239, they would have an additional 16 hits and, likely, at least 16 runs. They have played in 42 one-run ballgames, going 16-26, so one can reasonably assume that 16 additional runs could have resulted in a few more wins.
The all-or-nothing approach that fans so lamented during the "In Dusty we Trusty" era has reappeared, though it's now more magnified because the nothing is much more evident than the all.
Admittedly, this one is sort of like fishing with dynamite or like shooting ducks in a barrel, as a friend of mine is fond of saying. The Cubs are tied for 5th in the majors in quality starts (74) and are 12th in WHIP (1.29), and they sport a not-entirely-cringe-worthy ERA of 4.00, good for 20th of the 30 teams in baseball. Heck, they even rank 9th in Batting Average Against (.246, still 7 points higher than their own hitters, though).
But it's the late innings in which they have really soiled the bed, to the tune of 24 blown saves, most in the majors. While it certainly isn't fair to assume that they should have closed out all of those games, we can look to the MLB average of 15 as a benchmark for mediocrity. Those 9 additional win would put the Cubs, currently 19 games under .500 at 54-73, at 63-64 and at least treading water.
At this point, I'm probably swinging a stick at a horse that died long ago. This is truly a telling statistic, particularly as it relates to others. The Cubs are right in the mix in terms of slugging percentage (.399) and OPS (.700), but as we examined above, they fall decidedly short in OBP with an anemic .301 tally.
The NorthSiders can once again thank the 'Stros and Fish for keeping them from the nadir, though that is little consolation. The Cubs are 23rd in MLB in walks (346), which is a lethal combination when taken with their .239 BA. There is a bright spot when it comes to Cubs batters reaching base, though: They are 5th in MLB with 49 hit-by-pitches. It would figure that a team that puts only 3 in 10 batters on base would be forced to take as much advantage of those runners as possible.
But the Cubs have been neither aggressive nor effective on the basepaths, attempting only 83 stolen bases and coming in safe only 56 times. Contrast that with the fellow National League Central bottom-feeding Milwaukee Brewers, who have stolen 111 bags in 152 attempts. For a more moderate comparison, the major league average is 70 steals in 96 attempts. Of course, when you hit only .222 with RISP, all the steals in the world might amount to nothing.
Simply put, the Cubs don't put enough men on base, aren't aggressive when they actually do reach, can't drive runners home from scoring position with consistency, and then can't hold a lead when they actually do perform in any of those previous areas.
Of course, this is an over-simplification of the situation and no team's season can be boiled down to three statistical categories. But the silver lining to this gray cloud is that incremental improvements in just a few situational spots will yield tangible results. And Cubs fans can take solace in the fact that, as bad as things seem now, at least they're not Marlins or Astros fans.
Evan spent his formative years on a farm in Northwest Indiana in the days before Wrigley Field was illuminated. As a result, every summer afternoon was spent watching or listening to the Cubs on WGN, a practice that ingrained the team into his DNA. His kids are named after the team and years of frustration have made him a self-loathing, yet still unapologetic, Cubs apologist. And yes, he knows that that is contradictory.
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