Over the first two months of the season, the Cubs (10.8%) had MLB’s highest team walk rate. However, that rate has gone off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote and ranks 15th in baseball since the end of May (8.2%).
The Cubs were walking in just 8.4% of their plate appearances in June and that mark is even lower as we near the end of July. So they’re walking nearly 40% less than early in the season, a serious indictment of their collective plate approach and a contributing factor to their general failure to put enough runners in scoring position.
Since Joe Maddon took over as manager in 2015, the Cubs’ mantra has been “selective aggressiveness.” They’ve taken free passes when given and waited pitchers out until the right opportunities present themselves. This hasn’t been the case recently, though, as we’re seeing something of a philosophical shift.
As the offense has experienced issues with consistency, the buzzy phrases have changed: ambush the pitcher; put more balls in play with runners in scoring position; go to the opposite field more; situational hitting; opportunity hitting. This emphasis on contact-based outcomes may be having an effect on the team, something we see pretty clearly in Kyle Schwarber.
The slugger was walking at a 14.5% rate through May 15, below his team-high 15.3% last season but above his 13.1% career average. At the time, only 18 qualified hitters were walking more frequently. But Schwarber began employing a more aggressive approach not long after being placed in the leadoff spot, perhaps because he’d been too patient with two strikes and his walks have plummeted to 9.8% since May 16.
Believe it or not, this team trend toward fewer walks may have even been a factor in Ian Happ’s promotion. Contact issues aside, Happ knows how to work a plate appearance and showed this past weekend in Milwaukee how he can impact a game without putting bat to ball.
I don’t know exactly why the Cubs are walking less or whether they can reverse course over the next two months, but it’s something they may want to work on.