Last year the Chicago Cubs were not known for their offense. It was common to turn on a game and see the Cubs struggling to score runs. Kris Bryant was injured most of the year, while Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras struggled mightily in different halves of the season. There were points last year where it felt like if Javier Báez did not do something the offense wasn’t going to do anything period. Almost as soon as the season ended the Cubs fired their hitting coach Chili Davis and hired a new hitting coach, Anthony Iapoce.
As I’m in the middle of typing this the Cubs are playing their tenth game and while results aren’t quite normal yet they have begun the process of normalizing. How much of an effect has Iapoce had, and is the offense trending back to the powerhouse it was throughout all of 2016 and most of 2017? Let’s turn to Baseball Savant for some early comparison numbers. The minimum at-bats have been set at 30 for all tables.
Exit Velocity can tell us a few things, namely how hard the Cubs are hitting the ball. Last year the Cubs did not hit the ball all that hard. They were middle of the pack in all of Major League Baseball, twelfth out of the thirty big league teams. This year they have jumped to fourth while adding 1.9mph to their average Exit Velocity. That may not seem like much, but we know based on human reaction time and traveling distances that adding nearly two miles per hour of speed to the ball off of the bat does make a difference.
Batted Ball Distance
These next two stats are an indicator of how well the Cubs are driving the ball. Frankly, if you are a Cubs fan these are the two stats that should scare you the most. They have regressed in both categories, by substantial amounts. The Cubs Launch Angle has been trending downward since 2016, getting rid of Davis has not helped that in any way. Yet again this year the Cubs have lost another degree and are second to last in MLB when it comes to Launch Angle. Batted Ball Distance isn’t much better, as the Cubs are nearly last in that category as well. Put simply, when it comes to elevating and driving the ball the Cubs continue to trend in a negative direction.
In terms of distance and out and out power the Cubs are much improved in 2019 compared to 2018. Their xSLG and ISO have improved by almost an entire half a point and placed them in the top 10 in the whole league in both categories. It has seemed like the 2019 Cubs are hitting the ball much harder than last year, and the results back that up. Moving from twenty-third to eighth in ISO is a massive jump. The Cubs are squaring the ball up more, hitting it harder, and while they aren’t hitting it too far or high they are scoring more extra base hits and displaying more raw power.
Bringing everything together is xwOBA. It’s not surprising that the Cubs were still decent in 2018 in a statistic that heavily involves getting on base. Even at their worst, the Cubs have a lineup built around a heart of the order that takes their walks (Javy notwithstanding) and generally gets on base. xwOBA is a metric that also heavily factors the quality of contact being made. The Cubs are near the top of the leaderboard in 2019 because not only do they continue to get on base but they are doing so while flashing more power and hitting the ball harder.
More doubles and home runs plus harder general contact while still getting on base at or above their usual clip equals out to a team that is much improved on offense. Your eyes are not deceiving you if you think that the 2019 Cubs have been a better offensive team than the 2018 version. They are, and while the results have yet to be what Cubs fans want in terms of the win-loss column, that’s not because of the offense. There’s no reason to think that this version of the Cubs won’t stay at or even surpass their current production. If the pitching can somehow find a way to get better the Cubs will become once again a top tier team in the National League.
Lead photo courtesy of Jon Durr – Getty Images