Stats: Cubs problems are within the strike zone -- not out of it

ATLANTA – The Chicago Cubs are in the midst of a strange season on offense. Their home runs are down but their walks are up. Their batting average isn’t very impressive and they lead the National League in strikeouts. And most important, they rank 11th in the NL in runs scored. That’s not very good for a contending team.

“Pitch selection,” manager Joe Maddon said recently. “It’s within our DNA to become better at that. And if we’re better able to make decisions at the plate with the ‘what to swing at and what not to swing at’ those other things will come up. I much prefer focusing on getting our strike zones in order and once we’ve done that, heads up.”

It makes a lot of sense but the numbers don’t necessarily support the claim the Cubs are swinging wildly outside the strike zone. According to ESPN Stats and Information, since May 1 -- when a lot of their struggles on offense seemingly began -- their chase percentage is 27.9 percent, good for second best in the NL.

Admittedly the league is bunched up in this category but for a team that leads the league in strikeouts you would think they would rank lower than second. In fact, their high walk totals are in line with that lower chase percentage. They ranked second in the league in walks in May, third in June and first this month. Overall, they rank second in free passes.

The interesting part is their on-base percentage doesn’t necessarily correspond with the high walk totals. Overall, they rank ninth (.315) going into Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Braves. It’s their .239 batting average which is killing them.

“We’ve been out of the zone a little bit,” Maddon said. “When guys struggle it’s not because they need new hitting mechanics they need to swing at better pitches. More often than not.”

Maybe the problem is the swings within the strike zone. ESPN Stats and Information indicates the Cubs rank just 12th in the NL with a .282 batting average on swings in the strike zone. They’re ninth in slugging and ninth in OPS. They need to start hitting the good pitches.

Maddon says he and his coaches are trying to send a “consistent message” to his hitters. Of course, some are chasing pitches -- Kris Bryant comes to mind lately -- but as a team they need to hit the balls in the strike zone as much as anything.

“Once you get rolling in the right direction it becomes contagious,” Maddon said. “And then you’re going to see it.”