Beyond K's, Cubs seek on-base formula

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer should know all about high-strikeout teams. They ran the Boston Red Sox when they won the World Series in 2004 while leading the American League with 1,189 strikeouts. In a counterintuitive twist, the Red Sox also led the league in on-base percentage (.360) that season. By definition, they made their outs by making less contact, but it didn't deter them from getting on base.

The team Epstein and Hoyer run now is about halfway to that accomplishment. Unfortunately, it's the strikeouts the Cubs have mastered, not so much the on-base percentage.

"Strikeouts are part of the game now," Anthony Rizzo said Sunday after the Cubs' 3-2, 12-inning victory. "They happen but you just have to move on from them."

Before winning the game by making contact in the form of a drive to the right-field wall, Rizzo struck out twice against the Tampa Bay Rays as part of a 17-strikeout day by the home team. For the weekend, the Cubs struck out 44 times, tying a modern-day record for most in a three-game series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"It's been trending that way for a while," manager Rick Renteria said.

Anyone who follows baseball knows strikeouts are up, but Renteria couldn't put his finger on why. He indicated only that it's how a player strikes out that's important.

"You have to look at how the strikeouts are coming and then address it that way," he said.

So when Javier Baez -- a nine-strikeout victim over the weekend -- is swinging wildly as he did on Friday, it's a concern. When he's making the pitcher work and battling through an at-bat that ends by strikeout, then it’s not as bad. His at-bats were better and better throughout the three games. He struck out four times Friday, three Saturday and two Sunday. The irony came on his final whiff and 44th for the team as a dropped third strike allowed him to reach base and keep the inning going before Rizzo's heroics.

"It depends how the strikeouts are occurring with your hitters that you concern yourself with," Renteria said. "If it's chasing or swinging at bad pitches you address that."

But nowhere are the actual strikeout totals addressed because they are simply more part of the game now. The Cubs are building a powerful team, but it's going to strike out a lot. Currently, they are second in the National League and third in all of baseball with 1,016 strikeouts. A lot of those belong to Junior Lake and Mike Olt, but Baez will add to that total -- as will Kris Bryant when he gets here from the minors.

"Putting the ball in play and fighting are things guys will continue to develop as hitters," Renteria said.

What's interesting about an Epstein-led team is that he had just taken over the Red Sox when they won in 2004. By the time they won again in 2007 he had more of an impact and his team once again had a high on-base percentage (.362) but dropped to ninth in the American League in strikeouts. In 2013, two years removed from Epstein, the Red Sox won the World Series with the highest on-base percentage in the league but with more strikeouts, ranking fourth in the AL. Coincidence? Maybe. But there's little denying at some point Epstein is going to put a team on the field that gets on base. Right now the Cubs are second to last in the National League in that category. It probably means moving a slugger or two and making way for guys who can reach base.

There's another option that can work but probably won't make for a consistent winner. The Atlanta Braves most closely resemble the Cubs right now. The Braves made it to the playoffs last year with a 96-66 record while striking out an NL-high 1,384 times. But they were only 13th in baseball in on-base percentage. Right in the middle. They made the postseason because of their power. They led the NL with 181 home runs. The Cubs finished second behind them with 172 long balls.

The Cubs could be the Braves of the near future but that formula is risky. An off-year in the power department -- the Braves rank 11th this year -- could doom a team with no other ways to score runs. Epstein and Hoyer may put up with a softball type of team for now, but high on-base percentages with or without strikeouts and with or without power (probably with) is still going to be their goal.