Labor of Love: Are the Cubs Getting Better at Manufacturing Runs?

Ah, Labor Day. That holiday most of us take for granted as the last bastion of summer, little more than an excuse to day-drink and grill on a Monday. Now, if you’re like me, Labor Day also bears the attendant anxiety of waking up and having to remind yourself more than once that, no, you don’t have to be at work today.

And even though the Cubs have been largely unwatchable for the past several years, they’re looking better lately and the holiday gives us the chance to catch a matinee from Wrigley this afternoon.

So in keeping with the spirit of a day devoted to the labor and sacrifice of American workers, I wanted to research the Cubs’ ability to manufacture runs, specifically in the form of the sacrifice fly.

It’s no secret that Major League Baseball is in the midst of a historic offensive drought. Run-scoring has reached its lowest point in the last half-decade, a nearly-unrivaled stretch of futility. That is exactly why the Cubs have invested so heavily in bats, hoping to spark a renaissance of sorts.

At only 4.09 runs per game, it’s virtually assured that MLB will finish its 5th consecutive season with under 4.5 runs/game, a stretch unequaled since 1988-92. This comes in stark contrast to the 18 seasons in between during which average runs per game never once dipped below 4.5.

What more, the run average exceeded 5/game on three occasions (’96, ’99, ’00). Consider that, prior to 1996, MLB’s average had only topped the 5-run mark 4 times total since 1900. It’s no secret that PED’s are largely responsible for the epic scoring binge, but I’m not here to talk about that today.

No, I’m here to talk about what the Cubs are doing on offense, even if that has largely been a painful topic. Since a high-water mark of 4.23 runs/game, the Cubs had been dropping off steadily, from 4.04 in 2011 to 3.78 in 2012 and then 3.72 last season.

Baseball on the whole has dropped off over that span as well: 4.38, 4.28, 4.32, 4.17, 4.09. It’s really kind of depressing when you think about it. But you notice that I left out the Cubs’ 2014 number.

That’s because, in a reverse of the trend, the Cubs are actually scoring more runs this season. Sure, it’s only 3.82/game, but a small improvement’s still an improvement. Looking more closely at the month-by-month averages, we see that the Cubs have been (surprise!) somewhat inconsistent in their scoring.

They have bounced from 3.81 in March/April to 4.00 in May, then down to 3.5 in June and back up to 4.12 in July, capped by 3.7 in August. Oddly enough, the Cubs’ two winningest months came during the two in which they scored the least.

So how can this be? Normally, I’d look to home run totals or batting averages, but neither of those appear to be culprits.

While June’s batting average of .227 was a season-low, it was only 4 points under May’s total. And August saw a .241 average, which is higher than the Cubs’ season mark, if only by 2 points. And while home runs were up in July over June (29 to 24), they spiked in August (39). So those seem like dead ends.

But there are more ways to score runs than launching a ball over the fence, or even getting a hit in general. And as much as we’ve all lamented Ricky Renteria’s propensity for bunting, there’s something to be said for the efficacy of small ball, for manufacturing runs.

In the months of June and August, their two lowest-scoring on the season, the Cubs drew their fewest number of walks and also had their fewest number of sac flies. On the season, the Cubs have drawn an average of 2.64 free passes each game. Take out the months of June (2.10) and August (2.33) and that number jumps to 2.95.

That might not seem like a lot, but an extra half runner per game would have given them 14 more men on base in June and 10 more in August. It’s a stretch, but let’s say that just under a quarter of them came around to score. That would give the Cubs 5 more runs in those two months. Again, that seems pretty trivial until you see that they lost five 1-run games in July and 2 in August.

Likewise, the two months in question also saw the Cubs total their fewest sac flies, with only 5 in each frame. In general, this team has been pretty awful in generating runs via this method, but it may be starting to sac up on the whole. In fact, their current average of .25 SF’s/game is their highest in the last 5 years (and .15 below the league-leading Detroit Tigers).

We’re talking about some really small totals here, but had the Cubs maintained their average in this category in June and August, they’d have scored 3 more runs in each month.

But the really good news in all of this? Both the walks and the sac flies can be easily improved upon, and have been in spurts. As the young players the Cubs have brought up continue to learn and grow, they should become more patient at the plate and gain better situational awareness.

A stat like the sac fly isn’t one that’s going to get a lot of publicity and it’s certainly not very sexy. But tell me it’s not exciting to see a guy tagging up on a shallow fly to left in an attempt to score the winning run. One look at the featured image will remind that it most certainly is.

A few tweaks here and there, and this Cubs offense can not only be exciting, but efficient as well. Here’s to hoping you won’t be working too hard as you watch your team try to manufacture some runs on Labor Day.

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