How the Cubs Fare Against Power Pitching

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:

  1. pitchers who threw 95+
  2. pitchers who threw between 92.5 – 94.9
  3. pitchers who threw between 90.0 – 92.4
  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.

Cubs vs. Pitchers Grouped By Velocity, 2015
95+ 0.212 0.292 0.326 0.233 0.300 0.348 0.294
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
Below 90 0.271 0.337 0.443 0.269 0.328 0.434 0.324
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs

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.

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8 years ago

Of course it’s a huge disadvantage to be down 2-0, but they could have salvaged arrieta after one inning to throw again in game 3. Losing and burning Arrieta is pretty much season over 🙁

The Secret Life of Arrieta
8 years ago
Reply to  Joe

This is a stupid thing to say.

David Price
8 years ago
Reply to  Joe

I don’t get why they wasted Arrieta either. A 3-run lead is pretty much insurmountable in the postseason.

8 years ago
Reply to  Joe

I’m assuming this comment is trolling but no manager pulls a star like Arrieta after giving up 3 R in the 1st. Managers don’t manage to win, managers manage to keep their jobs. Sure, winning is the biggest part of keeping their job but nothing loses a job as quickly as making an “unconventional” move and having it backfire. Pull Arrieta and then the Cubs score 3 in the bottom of the 1st or 2nd and them some reliever gives up a bundle of runs and now the manager is left looking like a dummy. It’s why Price was sent out in relief in game 4 of the LDS and (using the best example I could think of) why Randy Johnson was sent out to pitch the 5-7 innings of game 6 of the 2001 WS despite having a 15-0 lead.

It’s just what managers do and that just the practical side of it. From an actual strategy standpoint, you can’t punt games in the post-season because each single game is worth so much more. Arrieta gave them their best chance to win that game at that point. Gotta stick with him. (it’s worth pointing out that after those 1st 3 hitters, his line was very Arrieta-like: 5 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 2 BB and 8 K)

8 years ago
Reply to  Joe

I can see where the poster could think this way, and it isn’t “stupid.” But, using comments like “stupid” are pretty “stupid.” Anyway, even though I can understand this posters sentiment after the game is over, I still feel that you have to play to win every game in the postseason. 3 runs is nothing for a power hitting team like the Cubs.