You know about the Cubs. It’s the team that entered spring training as the consensus World Series favorite. It’s the team with the already impressive collection of young stars who tacked on with a splashy offseason. It’s the team that already threw a no-hitter. The team with the potentially historic blend of discipline and power. Maybe you’re tired of hearing about the Cubs already. Maybe you think the coverage and attention has been overkill. Or maybe you think they’re deserving of more coverage, and more attention, considering they’re 14-5 with a run differential (+64) nearly as large as the next two best teams by that measure combined (Cardinals and Nationals, +74).
Whatever your stance, you’re getting one more Cubs post for the time being, because for all the attention the lineup and rotation has received, there’s another area in which they’re deserving of attention, an area that often goes overlooked but that can very much matter. In addition to the lineup having a top-five adjusted batting line with the most runs scored, the rotation being the best in baseball by ERA and second-best by FIP, and the defense leading everyone in Defensive Runs Saved, the Cubs have also been the best base-running team in the sport. Not only is it a continuation of last year’s success in that department, but it’s something that was seemingly improved by one offseason acquisition, and perhaps more importantly, amplified by another.
First, the numbers. Right now, the Cubs lead baseball with five additional runs above average coming by way of their base-running. Team base-running can be broken down into three components: base stealing (wSB), double-play avoidance (wGDP), and efficient advancement (UBR) — in other words, taking extra bases while avoiding unnecessary outs.
Cubs base-running runs and ranks
- wSB: 0.0, 14th
- wGDP: +0.9, 4th
- UBR: +3.9, 1st
The Cubs are 11-for-16 on steals. Perfectly average. They’ve avoided double plays better than most, but it hasn’t made a big impact thus far. The area where the biggest impact can be made is taking extra bases and avoiding extra outs, and it’s also the area where the Cubs have been the best in baseball.
|Team||BT||OOB||XBT%||1B to 3B||1B to 3B%||1B to Home||1B to Home%||2B to Home||2B to Home%|
They’ve done a better job advancing on tag-ups and taking advantage of balls that get past the catcher. They’ve made fewer outs on the bases, while being more aggressive. They’ve gone first-to-third, first-to-home, and second-to-home all at a better-than-average rate. There isn’t anything not to like here.
Last year’s Cubs were the second-best base-running team in the league, and now they look better. The obvious place to look is the additions, and therefore Jason Heyward. Heyward hasn’t yet hit much this year, but he’s played his always-stellar defense in right field, and has also been the best individual base-runner in the game. These are the ways in which Heyward can provide value even without elite offense, the kind of things that keep his floor so high, the kind of things that allow a team to feel comfortable handing out nearly $200 million to a guy without an upper-echelon bat. Heyward was a top-five base-runner last year, and has always been among the best at taking the extra base, despite not being a traditional speedster.
He’s gone second-to-home on singles and forced bad throws:
He’s gone first-to-third on balls hit to left field:
Heyward mixes good speed with good instincts and well-timed aggression. Not everyone picks up on that deflection off Nick Ahmed’s glove as quickly as Heyward while having the speed to make it to third. He’s not a burner, but he’s got enough speed and enough smarts to be a plus on the bases, like his teammate, Kris Bryant.
The Cubs were already a good base-running team, and Heyward makes them better, but there’s another part of this equation that’s equally important as the base-running itself, and that’s allowing the base-running to manifest itself. In order to run, you’ve got to have the opportunity to run, and in order to have the opportunity to run, there’s got to be a ball in play. Last year’s Cubs were an efficient base-running team, but they limited their opportunities to capitalize on that ability with their league-worst strikeout rate. Shortly after their postseason ended, general manager Theo Epstein had this to say about the club’s future plans, per The Daily Herald’s Bruce Miles:
“I think we can get better as a situational hitting team and as a contact-hitting team, and that’s something you can address through player personnel if the right player is out there, the right fit but also through emphasis and coaching,” Epstein said. “We’ve already talked — Joe [Maddon], Jed [Hoyer] and I — about how situational hitting is going to be an emphasis in spring training.”
The Cubs wanted more contact. They went out and got Heyward, who makes an above-average amount of contact. They went out and got Ben Zobrist, who makes an exceptional amount of contact. Presumably, they worked with some of their existing players and focused on getting more contact out of them. Last year, no one struck out more than the Cubs. This year, only six teams have struck out less than the Cubs, who have cut down their team strikeout rate by nearly five percentage points. Bryant’s strikeouts are down, Addison Russell‘s strikeouts are down, Jorge Soler’s strikeouts are down, and adding Heyward and Zobrist can only help.
Who knows whether the Cubs are actually a better lineup with fewer strikeouts. Could be that with more contact, they’re actually sacrificing some other part of their offensive game. Tough to say what strikeouts mean in the big picture. Through the lens of base-running, though, more balls in play is objectively a positive.
This particular sequence caught my eye as a fun way to wrap this all up:
Heyward puts a ball in play with two strikes. Fowler gets a good read and takes the extra base at home. His aggression forces a throw that allows Heyward to make a good read and take the extra base at second. Extra bases for everyone!
Last year’s Cubs were good. This year’s Cubs look better. They’ve hit with the best of them. They’ve pitched with the best of them. They’ve even fielded and run the bases with the best of them. We’re seeing one of their points of emphasis from the offseason pay dividends, and it’s something that amplifies their ability on the basepaths. Remember how uniquely captivating rookie season Mike Trout was, at one time leading the league in offense, defense, and base-running value, while patching up weaknesses on the fly? That’s essentially been this year’s Cubs.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.