Changing the Cubs' culture on offense came one player at a time

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs' front office knew it would take time. It’s why it likened changing over the team's offense to turning an ocean liner around. It’s a slow process, but at least Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer knew what they were looking for: Hitters who got on-base.

It sounds like a simple concept, but the Cubs were anything but an on-base team when the current front office took over before the 2012 season. They were a pretty good home-run-hitting team, but it was on-base percentage which correlated most directly with runs scored. The front office brass knew that from its days in Boston and set out to change the makeup of the Cubs' lineup.

“We always talked about if we were going to improve our on-base skills we had to put our money where our mouth is and acquire guys that grind at-bats and get on-base,” general manager Hoyer said recently.

The front office and manager Joe Maddon both agree that drafting or acquiring guys that were good at getting on was the way to go instead of trying to change players who weren't inclined to take walks. They’ve said as much many times throughout the years. It’s not really a teachable thing.

Free agency wasn’t much of an option at the time, so drafting and trading for on-base guys was the way to go. Kris Bryant fit the description for a power hitter, as did Kyle Schwarber, but so did little-known infielder Tommy La Stella. He’s a great example of the Cubs “putting their money where their mouth was.”

“They wanted to pick up a reliever,” Hoyer said of the Atlanta Braves' mindset in late November 2014. “So we have a quick discussion. This was a chance to acquire a guy with an offensive profile that we like, so we did it.”

At the time, pitcher Arodys Vizcaino was one of those “internet names” people talked about. He had actually been acquired from the Braves a few years earlier but was slow to return from Tommy John surgery, among other complications. When he did finally get back on the mound he was throwing heat, reaching 100 miles per hour on the radar gun in bullpen sessions. He had yet to really break through in the majors, though.

With a possible future closer on their hands, the Cubs' front office pulled the trigger for a 5-foot-11, 180-pound, eighth-round pick. But La Stella could make contact and get on-base, as evidenced by his .404 minor league on-base percentage to go along with 143 walks to just 106 strikeouts in five seasons.

“If you’re going to turn it around it takes one acquisition after another and eventually you end up with a team of guys that do that,” Hoyer said. “Tommy was a good example of that ... Our analytics team was probably the first group that noticed his skills, then we scouted him.”

The irony is the Braves needed Vizcaino because they had traded a pitcher in the deal that sent Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cubs would get Heyward a year later. Dexter Fowler followed La Stella, also via trade, and then the signings of Ben Zobrist and Heyward occurred. Even Jorge Soler had a “good eye” profile when the Cubs brought him in. Slowly, then quickly, it changed for the Cubs. They were a different offense.

“There wasn’t necessarily an on-base big board, but we had a list of guys we wanted to acquire if it came up and help that profile,” Hoyer said.

And even though the Cubs don’t believe it’s a completely teachable skill, being around guys that are good at being patient at the plate does have a way of rubbing off. That might be what’s happening with shortstop Addison Russell, who has surprisingly increased his walk percentage from 8 percent last year to about 15 percent so far this season.

“He came from an organization (Oakland) that stressed getting on-base, so this wasn’t the first time Addy had heard that,” Hoyer said. “For young players to be around that is very valuable. Guys see that. When you watch our lineup its gratifying for us to see how difficult it is for a pitcher to navigate. It grinds down the opponent.”

The lineup turnaround could not have gone better. No longer does the front office have to scroll all the way down the computer screen to find where the Cubs rank in on-base percentage. In 2012 it was 29th. They moved up one spot to 28th in 2013 and stayed there in 2014. They were 12th in 2015 and now rank first in all of baseball with a .371 on-base percentage entering play Wednesday night.

“We had a low on-base profile when we got here,” Hoyer said. “We set out to change that.”