The wheels started spinning for me Friday afternoon. I was absentmindedly scrolling through numbers, looking for anything relevant to the NLCS, when I came upon something on the Baseball-Reference Cubs splits page. I’ll show you the exact thing I saw:
Go ahead and squint. You’ll make it out. You see categories, designating power and finesse pitchers. Then you see the Cubs’ hitting statistics. They’ve been much, much worse against power pitchers, and while everyone is much, much worse against power pitchers, the Cubs still look worse if you adjust for that. That’s what the last column shows. I made a note to try to write this up. See, the Cubs are playing the Mets, and a lot of the Mets happen to throw super hard.
As it happened, Buster Olney wrote about something similar the other day, because Olney writes an awful lot, and he’s greatly informed. But I am a stubborn person, so I’m writing this anyway. I’m not one to give up an idea without a fight. There was something nagging at me about the Baseball-Reference numbers — the site doesn’t have velocity information, so it classifies pitchers by their strikeouts and walks. That can work as a decent proxy, but I wanted to go further. According to those splits, the Cubs have really struggled against power pitchers. But how have they done against actual power pitchers, where we can classify by pitch speed? There are a few ways to examine this.
Firstly, and quickly, let’s designate an arbitrary threshold. How’s 95 miles per hour? That’s fast, so let’s use that as a cutoff. This year, against pitches at least 95 miles per hour, the Cubs posted the third-highest swing-and-miss rate in baseball. That’s not real good, but then, this year, against pitches below 95 miles per hour, the Cubs posted the highest swing-and-miss rate in baseball. The Cubs swing and miss. It’s what happens in between all the times they swing and hit. It’s no secret that the Cubs have been strikeout-prone.
Meanwhile, against pitches at least 95, the Cubs slugged .357. Against pitches under 95, the Cubs slugged .402. Without any context, that seems like something, but the former ranked the Cubs 18th, while the latter ranked them 20th. So again, here, it’s like there’s nothing to see. Baseball overall slugged .370 against 95+, and .408 against pitches under 95.
I don’t think this is all that satisfying, though. Those are measurements of performance against the fastest pitches, but that’s not the same as a measurement of performance against the fastest pitchers, because not every hard-throwing pitcher throws everything in the upper 90s. So the next step took a little time, but I pulled all individual pitching performances against the Cubs this year, and I linked the pitchers to their average fastball velocities from our own leaderboards. That way you can directly split however you want, with pitch-speed information.
I decided to create four groups:
- pitchers who threw 95+
- pitchers who threw between 92.5 – 94.9
- pitchers who threw between 90.0 – 92.4
- pitchers who threw below 90
I calculated how the Cubs did against each group, then I calculated a weighted average for the pitchers in each group, based on their overall season lines and on how much they pitched against Chicago. So you’re going to see, in the table below, the Cubs’ average, OBP, and slugging, and then the weighted average numbers for the groups as well. Those are marked with an x for some reason. I also threw in BABIP just for the hell of it. This is the Cubs’ BABIP against each group, not each group’s weighted-average BABIP.
|92.5 to 94.9||0.237||0.316||0.394||0.252||0.319||0.391||0.298|
|90.0 to 92.4||0.252||0.331||0.410||0.260||0.324||0.415||0.306|
If you prefer, for simplicity, here’s OPS, with the pitchers’ average OPS in parentheses:
- 95+ miles per hour: .618 (.647)
- 92.5 – 94.9 miles per hour: .710 (.711)
- 90.0 – 92.4 miles per hour: .741 (.739)
- Below 90 miles per hour: .780 (.762)
At either extreme, you can see some slight potential effects. Against the fastest-throwing group, the Cubs came away as a below-average team offense. Against the slowest-throwing group, the Cubs came away as an above-average team offense. Against the middle groups, the Cubs were just about exactly average, even remarkably so. You’ll note, of course, that the fastest-throwing group is just a lot better than the slowest-throwing group. You’ve got a difference of 115 points of OPS, in part because the first group has more relievers, and in part because the first group is just more talented. But as far as the Cubs are concerned, their own OPS split shows up as 162 points. Taken at face value, it is an indication that the Cubs might struggle to a greater amount against the most powerful arms.
One caveat would be that we have limited samples. The Cubs had 851 plate appearances against the fastest-throwing group, and 1,009 against the slowest-throwing group. So there are error bars, as you split the data, and you’ll notice there’s nothing interesting about the middle two groups. I also didn’t control for the hitter identities, so there’s no guarantee the Cubs are represented by the same bats in each group. Basically, the right conclusion ends up being “if there’s an effect, it’s small,” which is the least interesting sort of conclusion. I recognize that, but here we are.
Why might the Cubs struggle a bit against the hardest throwers? Maybe they have slightly more complicated swings. Maybe they have uppercuts that leave them more vulnerable to high heat. Maybe it’s nothing. If Kyle Schwarber struggles against good velocity, the Mets don’t seem to think so. It makes only so much sense for there to be such thing as a team-wide trait, anyway. The Cubs have better hitters and worse hitters; they’re likely better and worse against all pitchers.
After the research, we can’t rule anything out. The Cubs might indeed be worse than average against power pitchers, and better than average against finesse pitchers. That would help to explain their struggles against the Mets, against Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey. Probably the best explanation, though, is that Syndergaard is really good, and Harvey is really good too. Some nights, it doesn’t really matter who’s at the plate. And unfortunately for the Cubs, it’s not about to get easier.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.