CHICAGO -- Sunday notwithstanding, the Chicago Cubs are trending the right way when it comes to making contact. Make no mistake, this is a big issue come playoff time. If the Cubs’ hitters have high strikeout totals in October, it could be a short postseason run. If they repeat their April and August performances, then their fortunes are likely to be a lot better. September might tell a lot in regard to this part of the Cubs' game as well.
“We talked about it at the All-Star break and challenged the guys to get back to what we were doing earlier in the year,” manager Joe Maddon said over the weekend. “You just have to keep reminding young hitters until it becomes part of their fabric. Our guys definitely have it within them.”
It’s uncanny how the fortune of this team from month to month corresponds directly to its strikeout totals. Usually, you can’t draw a direct line from one stat to the win/loss column, unless it’s related to starting pitching, but we know from the past that the team’s Achilles' heel can be the swing-and-miss.
In April, when the Cubs went 17-5, they ranked 14th in the National League in strikeouts. A trend the other way began in May, when the Cubs went 18-10 and climbed to fourth in the NL. At about the time the Cubs hit the road for a good portion of June -- including playing 24 games in 24 days leading into the All-Star break -- things really got hairy at the plate, and the Cubs ranked second in the NL in strikeouts that month and finished 16-12. In a span of 12 weeks, the Cubs went from striking out second-least to second-most -- and their record showed it.
“When you’re tired, you make more mistakes,” Maddon said. “Chasing pitches is a mistake. That’s my point. The fresher you are, the better chance you have at making better decisions. It’s not the swing-and-miss -- it’s the decision to go outside the zone. Fatigue plays into that.”
It’s well-documented how exhausted the Cubs were during that stretch from late June until the All-Star break, but after the break -- and another round of the coaches telling the players that strikeouts are bad -- the trend started to go the other way, and the Cubs’ record followed suit. They went 12-14 in July, mostly due to their pre-break issues, but improved from striking out second-most in the league in June to sixth-most in July. In August, it has been even better. Going into Sunday’s finale in Los Angeles, the Cubs ranked 13th in strikeouts in the National League this month.
"As a little kid, 'Hit the ball in play,'" Anthony Rizzo said of the message in youth leagues. “Can’t put the ball in play without contact. I do think it’s contagious, especially lately. We’re not living and dying on the long ball. We’re just making some contact."
Sunday didn’t go exactly as planned, as Dodgers rookie Brock Stewart struck out eight in five innings, and like clockwork, the Cubs struggled to score runs. But that has been the exception to the rule lately. Although it might seem logical that a high strikeout month for a team would negatively affect its win/loss record, it seems to be especially true for the Cubs. For example, the San Francisco Giants were the only team to strike out less than the Cubs in April, yet they went only 13-13.
“It’s not something to practice. It’s a mental adjustment,” Maddon said. “If you make the mental adjustment, the physical will come.”
What will September bring at the plate, and will it have any carryover effect into October? If the regular season to this point is any indication, then the Cubs’ fortunes might be tied to that one stat. Luckily for them, their worst stretch came when they were the most tired. That’s well in the past.
“I know I struck out quite a bit,” Rizzo said. “Hitting is contagious. When you’re going well it affects others. Same the other way.”