I Am Concerned About the Cubs Strikeouts

Before you read my post, I suggest you read AJ’s post from yesterday about the Cubs’ strikeout problem.

In general, his point that strikeouts can be overcome by getting extra base hits and home runs is absolutely true – there’s definitely a break-even point where a few extra strikeouts are negated by a home run or two. Out of this concept arose a somewhat-faulty assumption in the internet community that a “strikeout is the same as any other out.” As with most things, though, it breaks down on the extreme ends.

For individual players, the strikeout limits overall production. Most players have a batting average on balls in play (or BABIP) that falls within a window between .270 and .330, meaning that a player with a high strikeout rate is going to need to hit a lot of home runs to sustain a decent on-base percentage.

To rip off something FanGraphs did a while back (I’d just link you to it but I cannot find the page anymore), let’s look at how a severe strikeout rate affects a hitter’s on-base percentage over 650 plate appearances, assuming an 8% walk rate and a .300 BABIP (league-average marks):

hr vs ks

As you can see, even elite power is going to hold back OBP. League non-pitcher OBP is just .319 this season, and even then it’s tough to maintain an above-average OBP if you’re striking out in the mid-20% range.

Now you’re probably shouting at me that OBP is just as lousy a stat by which to judge a player in this context as batting average, and for individual players you’d be right – that guy with 40 HRs and a 27% K% probably has an enormous OPS despite the middling OBP.

Where this OBP chart does become useful, however, is in a team context. If you have a team collectively striking out more than 24% of the time (as the Cubs are), where are the baserunners coming from? Even the Orioles, with their 205 homers on the season, are only averaging 22.4 HR per 650 PAs. For a team with a 24% K-rate and only average walk rate, you’re likely looking at a sub-.310 team OBP.

Never mind looking to the future, you can see this problem manifest itself in the 2014 Cubs’ season. The team’s non-pitchers have a .297 BABIP and 7.4% BB% (respectable enough) while ranking 2nd in the NL in HRs and 7th in slugging percentage. And yet, the team is 26th in baseball in runs scored. Why is this happening? The 23.3% K-rate (second highest in baseball) has depressed the team’s OBP to the point where there’s simply no one on base to knock in – the Cubs have come to the plate with the bases empty 58.5% of the time, 5th-most-often in baseball.

Unfortunately, I really don’t see how this strikeout-fueled on-base crisis will be resolved. Baez, Bryant, and Alcantara are all going to have very high strikeout rates, and only Bryant projects to have an above-average walk rate. He’s played too little to really get a feel for where his BB% and K% might settle, but Jorge Soler looks like he might be good-not-great on both fronts. Almora has walked like four times in three minor league seasons, and Addision Russell only walked 9 times with Tennessee.

Combined with Rizzo and Castro, this team could have a decent OBP in their collective prime, but it doesn’t look like the kind of high-on-base juggernaut you want to pair with elite power.

So, yes, I am worried about the strikeouts in the Cubs organization right now. I love the Earl Weaver style of baseball – “pitching, defense, and three-run homers” – but if the Cubs can’t get guys on base those three run bombs are going to be few and far between.

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