Three surprising statistics that tell the story of the Cubs’ strong start
The Cubs are doing unexpected things in several areas, and that’s helped lead to wins in the early going.
When the Cubs are good, I love digging through the bowels of Fangraphs, finding statistics that tell the story of a successful club. When the Cubs are bad… well, I also love digging through the bowels of Fangraphs, finding statistics that tell the story of the core problems sinking the ship.
Thankfully, the Cubs are good thus far in 2023! So, here goes: A look at a few statistics that help explain the winning ways of our club to date.
First, I was struck by two truly superb stats that speak to the level of success of Cubs pitchers this year in the two most important ways. Pitchers are oftentimes evaluated based on their ability to control the three true outcomes: walks, homers, and strikeouts. Cubs pitchers have been middle of the pack when it comes to limiting walks (3.39 BB/9 – 18th in MLB) and homers (1.05 HR/9 – 13th in MLB). However, Cubs pitchers are racking up punchouts at an elite rate as their 9.83 K/9 rate is second in the Majors, trailing only the crosstown White Sox. However, while the White Sox find the walk and homer rates allowed in the bottom quintile of the league, the Cubs are pairing their elite strikeout rate with average rates in other categories. That alone would yield success. However, it’s the next stat that, when paired with their strikeout rate, really stands out: the Cubs have allowed the lowest exit velocity of any team in baseball this year with their average batted ball allowed leaving the bat at just 86.8 miles per hour. Only four other clubs — the Rays, Angels, Pirates, and Marlins — are even below 88 miles per hour on average.
Combine strikeouts and weak contact, and we’ve got a stellar recipe for Cubs pitching success. In fact, the league-leading Cubs have allowed a hard-hit rate of just 32.3 percent, a full percentage point ahead of the second-place Rays and a mile ahead of the 29th-place Cardinals at 44.8 percent. Based on data from prior years, the Cardinals’ figure will drop and the Cubs’ figure will increase. But if your eyes have told you that Cubs hurlers are doing a nice job of inducing weak contact, trust your eyes.
Second, you may have noticed that the Cubs purchased an influx of established power this winter and have enjoyed a real upswing of pop as a result. This is also true. The Cubs’ teamwide isolated power increased from a below-average .148 in 2022 to an above-average .168 thus far in 2023. Perhaps some of this is due to an unseasonably warm spring thus far in Chicago. On the other hand, this power increase has also come despite (a) just three homers over 134 plate appearances from the combined efforts of Trey Mancini and Eric Hosmer, (b) corner outfielders Ian Happ and Seiya Suzuki also combining for only three long balls over 132 plate appearances, and (c) prized shortstop acquisition Dansby Swanson still awaiting his first homer as a Cub. This section probably could’ve just been retitled “In Praise of Patrick Wisdom, Cody Bellinger, and Yan Gomes.”
The defensive and on-base production offered by Happ, Suzuki, Swanson, and double-play partner Nico Hoerner (two homers himself) has overcome the lack of homer production from this group; that’ll happen when all four have on-base percentages of at least .400! Cubs’ first base production will surely improve when
the front office stops messing around and tells Matt Mervis to bring his big stick from Des Moines to Chicago Mancini and Hosmer settle into their new homes and start making better contact. But even before that happens, the Cubs have found additional power this year without a team-wide explosion of homers. That’s very encouraging.
The third statistic doesn’t offer as much optimism as the first two buckets. Simply put, the Cubs have an astronomically high .330 batting average on balls in play or “BABIP.” BABIP is great when it works out in your favor, but, over time, a BABIP well in excess of .300 tends to be unsustainable. A high BABIP could be more sustainable in the post-shift era, but the Cubs’ high-water mark in the last decade was .313 in 2018, a number that ranked second in MLB just like this year’s club to date.
The 2023 club’s BABIP will come down. It’s inevitable. But the team has done a nice job producing extra runs — and, more importantly, wins — while batted ball luck has been in their favor.
The 2023 Cubs have been fun thus far. There have been encouraging signs and, paired with some luck, the Cubs have successfully converted their advantages into wins. Here’s hoping for more of the same!