Dale Sveum has managed, for the most part, to keep his composure throughout a very difficult season for his team. However, one of the things that has proven to get under the skin of the Chicago Cubs manager is when his team gives away at-bats.
Last Thursday against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sveum was thrilled to see the offense ‘grind’ out 11 walks in a 12-11 comeback victory.
“When we can walk 11 times, you know there was some grinding going on in nine innings,” Sveum said at the time. “That was pretty impressive, there were some great at-bats. Guys saw a lot of pitches, got the counts and ended up getting some hits in those situations.”
It’s days like that which Sveum and interim hitting coach James Rowson can point to and know that their constant preaching of having smart at-bats is starting to rub off on the younger players.
Veteran David DeJesus is someone that Sveum has repeatedly pointed to throughout the season as the perfect illustration of how to have a strong at-bat. Even if he ends up making an out, Sveum can rely on DeJesus to have a quality at-bat by forcing the pitcher to throw numerous pitches.
DeJesus has always been patient at the plate, averaging 3.86 pitches per plate appearance for his career. But this season DeJesus has taken his plate discipline to another level, seeing 4.10 P/PA, good for fifth in the NL.
“It’s hard to put a value on it, he’s that important to the club,” Rowson said of DeJesus’ ability to work a count so well. “He does it in his game naturally, he’s done it for his career. It’s good for the younger players to watch him do it because he leads by example and it’s good to see him perform that way.”
The Cubs are among the least patient teams in baseball with 345 walks coming into Sunday’s contest, good for 28th. But with Rowson preaching a more patient approach and DeJesus setting a strong example at the top of the lineup, the young kids on the team are starting to get the hang of things.
“I think the more pitches I see, the more I can learn as a hitter,” rookie Brett Jackson said. “Also, the better chance I get on base, which in turn leads to more runs. I’m an aggressive hitter, but at the same time I’m always looking for a good pitch to hit. My role in helping the team is getting on base and driving in runs. In that regard, that patience at the plate, that kind of discipline is what helps me help the team.”
The focus early on in Jackson’s career has been his proclivity to strike out (41.1 K%). But in a small sample, Jackson leads the team with both 4.30 P/PA and a 15.8% walk rate.
“(Jackson’s) got a great eye at the plate, he doesn’t chase a lot of pitches out of the zone,” Rowson said. “He sees the ball well. Sometimes strikeouts can be misleading to a certain extent. When you’re looking at strikeouts you want to look at: Are pitchers making good pitches? Is he taking pitches that he really can’t hit? Is he fouling off pitches? Are they swing and misses? Sometimes you get strikeouts because a pitcher made good pitches. You almost have to back in and analyze strikeouts.”
Probably the most important player to the Cubs’ future success is Starlin Castro. Coming into play on June 25, Castro had a measly six walks on the season through 72 games. But in his 60 games since that point, Castro has drawn 21 walks and looks as though he’s significantly altered his approach at the plate. It’s not a coincidence that Castro’s newfound patience began shortly after Rowson was named interim hitting coach.
“He’s focusing on (being more patient),” Rowson said. “We’ve talked about it and to his credit he’s really come out and worked hard on his pitch selection. He really has made a great effort to get better pitches and you see it. You’re starting to see him work pitch counts, there’s been some occasion where he’s gone from 0-2 to drawing a walk, which is outstanding for him. It’s really tough for a player to do that midseason, it shows what kind of athlete Starlin is and what type of hitter he can be.”
Castro, who has consistently been a .300 hitter early on in his career, has seen his batting average plummet to .275, a side effect of adjusting his approach midseason. However, it’s Rowson’s contention that this is merely a bump in the road for Castro.
“I expect this guy to be the hitter that he’s always been, we’re just adding a little to his arsenal,” Rowson said. “Obviously there’s growing pains with anything you do for the first time. But he’s taking it head on, he’s working really hard at it. But I do feel like he’s going to be an elite hitter at the major league level for the future.”
Rowson added that despite his struggles, Castro hasn’t been deterred in his quest to improve his offensive skill set. They’re both focusing on the positives and know that as Castro continues to have strong at-bats, not only will he walk more, but he’ll once again hit like he’s proven he can. The added benefit to Castro being more selective is that he’ll be swinging at better strikes and thus be able to drive the ball better, leading to more extra-base hits.
It’s not a coincidence that the teams that are at the top of the league in on-base percentage are also scoring the most runs (both Texas and St. Louis lead their respective leagues in both OBP and runs scored). The Cubs are last in the NL in OBP (and second to last in runs scored), but the staff’s constant preaching for patience is the first step in remedying that issue. With youngsters like Jackson and Castro embracing the philosophy, the potential for a strong offense in the future looks bright.