By: Holly Horning
The Chicago Cubs scare me. They really scare me. And I hope that the Tigers will never have to face them in the World Series as long as Joe Maddon is their manager.
There is much to admire about the Cubs since Theo Epstein took over and eventually brought Maddon in. But it was a stat last week that led me to explore just what they do to win games.
In only 6 games, the Cubbies got to see more than 235 more pitches than their opponents. If you break it down, that’s almost 40 extra pitches per game.
Given that the top batters from 2015 saw 4 pitches-per-bat on average, that breaks down to approximately 10 more at-bats per game! One analyst likened it to the Cubs being given an extra 3 innings per game + just for hitting which greatly enhanced their chances of scoring and winning each game.
So how’d they manage this?
Joe Maddon and his coaches got every single player to buy into working the count at every at-bat. Every single player. And not only that, working the count has also produced an average of almost 6 walks per game, which leads all of MLB.
The Tigers, on the other hand, don’t work the count. They take fewer pitches than their opponents in the majority of the games they play. They are known for a tendency to make contact on the first pitch. They also average just over 2 walks per game.
This was never more apparent than in JV’s second game which the Tigers lost this week. Despite a poor starting pitching performance, the game technically had the potential to be winnable. The Tigers had runners in scoring position with the tying run at the plate. But the next 2 batters quickly made back-to-back outs with both of them swinging on the very first pitch. No working the count at all. Inning over. Rally killed.
The bottom line is that the best teams have a number of tools to use. Tools that always provide an option for how to win the game. For the Cubs, that tool box grew substantially when Joe Maddon came in as manager last year and led the Cubs to winning 24 more games than they did in 2014. He had a plan with his old boss, Epstein and brought in the coaches who could help them with their strategy.
So what is the Cubs secret weapon? It’s a guy you’ve never heard of, but he’s got a substantial track record. It’s the hitting coach, John Mallee. A guy who majored in kinesiology in college and uses it to analyze everything from the angles of pitches to body alignment to swings. A guy who develops an individual plan for every player on the team. A guy who uses stats, visual, video and every other resource available to gather his information and coach his hitters.
Oh, and he’s the guy who taught everything he knows to two of his players when they first hit the majors. Miguel Cabrera and Giancarlo Stanton. That alone gives him instant street cred.
Mallee’s philosophy is simple. Get as many chances at the plate as you can. Put the ball in play. Get runners on base whether through hits or walks. Plate discipline is his mantra and he hates to see his players striking out.
On the flipside, his counterpart with the Tigers, Wally Joyner, preaches “free swinging.” He takes a laissez-faire approach to his players and believes that hitting style is ingrained in the minors and thus unlikely to change much in the majors. His words, not mine.
He believes in swinging at the first pitch, not working the count and thus negatively impacting the number of walks. He’s focused more on working with players who are having problems rather than working with players to improve their overall hitting. You could say he takes a more reactive approach while Mallee is proactive.
There’s a case to be made for both arguments as to whether Joyner was successful in his job last year. The Tigers had great overall team offensive stats in 2015. But there was a significant problem in turning these hits into runs. Part of the issue was due to abominable base-running, which fortunately, was not part of his job.
But despite the overall strong offensive stats, the Tigers finished last in 2015 with only 74 wins. Injuries, the ever-cursed bullpen and very bad baserunning were all factors. But you also have to look at the overall ability to score on a daily basis. Games in which the Tigers scored large amounts of runs can skew the real picture.
The team scored 2 runs or less in 40% of their games last year. That’s almost 65 games. Out of those, they won only 10 of them. The 53 losses, in theory, could have occurred primarily or as a contributing factor of the inability to score enough runs consistently.
While the Tigers have made changes this year, it does not yet appear they have changed their philosophy about how to score runs more consistently. It is early and the week of games is still an incredibly small sample size.
An easy test is to watch the players during their at-bats. Which ones are consistently working the count? Other than Miggy and VMart, and possibly Kinsler, who else? It’s not enough for one-third of the team to buy into wearing the opposing pitcher down. Where are the other 6 on the spectrum?
Let’s keep an eye on those box scores every day for total pitches thrown by each side. When we start to see the opposing team’s total pitch count exceed that of the Tigers more often, it will be a positive sign that the Tigers are addressing last year’s scoring problems.
Especially important in a year where there is some uncertainty about the effectiveness of some of our starting pitchers. The Tigers need to add whatever they can to their tool box.