By Shane Nicholson
The Cubs are in the playoff race, reason enough to celebrate for a much maligned fan base. But shockingly, in this rather exciting season – one that’s about a year ahead of the projected timetable Theo Epstein laid out in his early days at Wrigley – it is the bats letting the Cubs down, not a pitching staff many expected to be a bit of Lester, Arrieta, and Pray For Rain.
You can go through the lineup and pin the blame on a few likely suspects. Starlin Castro is bad. Bad bad.
His slash line of .240/.273/.309 is shocking for a starting shortstop with no glove. His Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) is a lowly .278, over 40 points below his career line.
This totals up to a -0.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the Cubs every day starting shortstop, one who’s keeping Addison Russell off the position. He’s the seventh worst position player in all of MLB. (Granted the White Sox have three players somehow worse, but let’s stick to the Northside.)
Besides Castro, you’ve got Jorge Soler coming in under projections for this season. His .377 BABIP is leading the Cubs among the regulars but he’s simply not putting the ball in play enough, a common thread in this lineup.
In fact, after Anthony Rizzo (3.4 WAR), the suddenly struggling Kris Bryant (3.3), Chris Coglan (1.8 from a platoon-level player) and the aforementioned 21-year-old Russell (1.2) you’ve got a lineup full of holes. Even Kyle Schwarber‘s current .542 BABIP couldn’t save this lineup (plus he can’t catch at all).
But Joe Maddon, as brilliant a manager as he is, is steadfastly holding to a very very stupid idea that is costing his team runs.
Maddon loves batting his starting pitcher in the 8-spot. The commonly accepted reason for doing this is that having a quality (relative) hitter in the 9-spot can give you a de facto “second lead off hitter.” (Ben Lindbergh talked about this tactical move throughout history over at Grantland last week.)
The truth is doing this takes the bat out of the hands of a major league hitter up to 20 times over the course of the season.
The simple nature of a batting order dictates that the first spot in the lineup is going to see the plate more over the course of a season than the second spot in the lineup, and on down the line. In 2010 number hovered around 19.8 more plate appearances (PA) per spot in the batting order relative to the one below it. Last year it checked in at around 16.9.
Of course how good the top of your lineup is will decide how many PA the bottom of the order sees, and in Rizzo and Bryant the Cubs feature an above-average 3-4 combo, along with the recent addition of Schwarber, that has the players behind them reaching the plate more often.
So here we have a team laden with young talent, embroiled in a playoff race a year ahead of schedule, a lineup struggling to score runs, and a manager doing something that will simply cost his team runs over the course of 162 games.
The eighth spot in a National League lineup last season scored a shade over 52 runs per 162 games last year. The nine spot: under 40. RBIs follow a similar trend: about 56 for the eight spot against 35 for the nine hitter.
If all PAs were equally distributed through the lineup then this wouldn’t matter. But they’re not, and a 12 run gap over the course of the season can be the difference between making the playoffs by a single game or sitting out another postseason–Wait til next year.
The Cubs need to score more runs. They can score more runs by no longer batting their pitcher eighth.
Graphs courtesy Smart Fantasy Baseball.