CHICAGO - In 2003, Michael Lewis' Moneyball exposed to the world the value of such things as on base percentage and the base on balls. The Chicago Cubs planned on buying a copy, but they left the Border's gift card in their other pants and never quite got around to it. Blissfully ignorant, Cubs' batters seemed unable or unwilling to take a walk. In 2007, they finished 15th in the NL in free passes, an improvement over the 16th they finished in 2005 and 2006, but not as high as in 2003 and 2004, when they were 14th in the league.
Organizationally, the Cubs were incapable of walking.
But like night baseball and post-season play, all baseball fads eventually work their way to Wrigley Field. Now, the Cubs are third in walks, first in OBP, first in the standings, and a game short of the best record in baseball.
How much can be attributed to the arrival of Kosuke Fukudome? Probably a lot. Fukudome leads the team in walks with 16 and leads the league in pitches per plate appearance. He is a human souvenir machine. His style rubs off. Aramis Ramirez, whose career high in walks is all of 50 is on pace for 104. Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Geovany Soto is on the same pace, and hopes to someday walk in a tee-ball game.
Manager Lou Piniella probably deserves some credit as well. The Cubs walked 105 more times in Piniella's first year than they did in Dusty Baker's last. Still, just as nature abhors a vacuum, Cubs hitters have long abhorred the free pass. From 1988 to 1993, they were dead last in the league in walks, a stunning stretch. In those years, the Cubs featured Shawon Dunston, who occasionally swung at pick-off throws to first and walked fewer times in his 18-year career than Barry Bonds did in a single season.
It seems those days are gone. The Cubs walked the dirt road to first eight times in an Earth Day victory against the Mets, 21 times in a three-game sweep of the Pirates, and parlayed two bases on balls into the game winning run in extra innings against the Phillies. In 2007, Derrek Lee was the only Cub with a .400 on base percentage. On April 19th of this year, all the Cubs starting position players had an OBP that high. Perhaps it was a Borders field trip.
But the circle is not yet complete. Soon Alfonso Soriano returns. He appears destined for the lead-off spot, from which he registered all of 31 walks last season, following in the tradition of Juan Pierre (32 walks in 2006), and Corey Patterson (68 combined in 2004 and 2005). Perhaps Sweet Lou will move Fonzie down in the line-up, where he can drive in his suddenly walk-addicted teammates.