Chicago Cubs: Perfecting the art of not-walking

Justin K. Aller

The Cubs, a team with a long history of hacking, are at it again.

Over the weekend, Theo Epstein, Cubs President of Baseball Operations, lamented his team's on-base percentage, saying, "To be blunt, we haven't made much progress improving the on-base skills of some of the players here. If we can't make improvements with the existing group, we will have to be even more aggressive acquiring players with on-base skills." As we head into Monday's action, the Cubs' team OBP is an even .300, trailing all but four teams. Chicago's senior circuit has three regulars with sub-.300 OBPs -- Alfonso Soriano, Starlin Castro, and Darwin Barney.

The Cubs' OBP problems are largely attributable to a club-wide reluctance to accept ball four. Chicago as a whole has been a no-walking zone -- the Cubs are last in the majors with 113 walks as a team; the White Sox, with 119, are second-worst. Having walked in just 6.2 percent of their plate appearances, the Cubs are on a pace for somewhere in the vicinity of 374 walks. They are the only team in the majors on a pace to draw fewer than 400 walks, although the White Sox (on a pace for 407), Phillies (406), Brewers (406), and Marlins (401) are close.

This is tremendously hard to do. Since baseball went to the 162-game schedule in 1961, only 25 teams have drawn fewer than 400 walks in a full season. More than half of the examples took place in the mid-to-late 1960s, when pitching was in its ascendancy; since 1968, it's been achieved, if that's the correct word, just 12 times:

TEAM

YEAR

BB

OBP

W

L

Tigers

1975

383

.301

57

105

Expos

1978

396

.306

76

86

White Sox

1980

399

.311

70

90

Royals

1983

397

.320

79

83

Rockies

1993

388

.323

67

95

Pirates

1998

393

.311

69

93

Tigers

2002

363

.300

55

106

Tigers

2005

384

.321

71

91

Cubs

2006

395

.319

66

96

Mariners

2007

389

.337

88

74

Royals

2008

392

.320

75

87

Giants

2009

392

.309

88

74


Getting on base being the sine qua non of offense, it probably doesn't come as a surprise that most of these teams were rather poor, with an average record of 72-90. You can find some truly amazing seasons by individual players on these teams -- to pick just one example, the 2002 Tigers, managed by Phil Garner and Luis Pujols and tutored by veteran hitting coach Merv Rettenmund, saw third baseman Chris Truby take five walks in 292 plate appearances, center fielder Wendell McGee draw 10 walks in 364 PAs, and designated hitter Randall Simon take 13 walks in 506 PAs, five of them intentional. Note that the Cubs' pace would give them the second-lowest total of the period.

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Conversely, the 15 teams during that same period that have drawn over 700 walks (most recently the Barry Bonds-powered 2004 Giants) have won an average of 93 games. No team seems likely to get there this year; the Red Sox, the team with the highest percentage of walks drawn, are on a pace for about 650.

As for the Cubs, since the 162-game schedule came in they've been above-average in walks just 16 times in 52 seasons. Their worst was the Dusty Baker-signature 2006 team. Their best came just two years later under Lou Piniella. The 2008 Cubs led the National League with 636 walks -- the club had added 241 walks in just two seasons. If they did it once, it can be done again, though the Cubs largely overhauled their roster in the interim.

The 2008 Cubs were one of just five editions since 1961 that has been above-average in OBP. That's an astounding number, and goes a long way towards explaining the team's long championship drought -- simply put, they've had too much Neifi Perez and not enough Ron Santo. They have had four player-seasons over 100 walks and only 14 of 90 or more. There are clubs that have had fewer, the Mets, say, but they were also an expansion team, starting from zero. Considered from 1969 on, both teams have had 12 such seasons.

It's a strange, counterproductive affliction the Cubs have had, and in its own weird way fun to watch -- just because drawing 300-something walks is a negative achievement makes it no less rare, no less special. Manager Dave Sveum, hitting coaches James Rowson and Rob Deer, and their players have arrived at a kind of perfected impatience. They've already had 18 games in which they've drawn one or no walks. In this, they are doing the club a favor, drawing a bright line under its area of greatest need. It will get better, possibly quickly, but in the meantime, we get to watch as they turn even the wildest of opposing starters into Bob Tewksbury.

(H/T Hardball Talk)

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