So Far, the Cubs Have One of many Finest Offenses in MLB, However There’s One Large Purple Flag

When this roster was assembled in the offseason, we had, uh… a few questions about how it would all come together. Fair to say?

For example, was Seiya Suzuki really going to hit like a $100M player? Could Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel find their footing again after finally breaking out last season? Would Ian Happ continue his hot streak? Could Willson Contreras perform like an All-Star again? Will Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner hit for enough power? Is Jonathan Villar going to be a difference maker in part-time duty? Would Clint Frazier break back out? Would Michael Hermosillo, Rafael Ortega, and Jason Heyward make it work in center field? And so on.

Well, given that we’re just 11 games into the season, trying to answer any of those questions right now wouldn’t be particularly useful (though they’d mostly all return positive reviews so far!). But as a collective unit, this group has done some seriously good work.

All told, the Cubs have scored an average of 4.82 runs per game this season, 9th best in MLB and 5th best in the NL. And as you can see by all the other stats above, they’re almost uniformly ranking out as one of the top-10 offenses in MLB (much higher than that in certain categories/overall).

Using the eye test, I can just tell you they look good doing it. The easiest way to put it? The Cubs are one of just ten teams with more hits (97) than strikeouts (86). And that is just a fun brand of baseball to watch.

As I teased in the headline, though, and the end of that tweet, there is one big red flag we can’t avoid much longer: All those dang groundballs.

Right now, the Chicago Cubs are “leading” MLB with a 53% groundball rate. That’s very, very high. I’m going to share the top-10 highest team groundball rates so you can get a sense of how much higher they are than the field:

1. Cubs: 53%
2. Rockies: 50.2%
3. Blue Jays: 48.2%
4. Marlins: 46.7%
5. Pirates: 46.1%
6. Rays: 46.0%
7. A’s: 45.9%
8. Nationals: 44.7%
9. Parents: 44.2%
10. Red Sox: 44.1%

To put some of these numbers into words: The Cubs are (one) one of just two teams above 50% for the season, (two) five percentage points higher than the 3rd highest team groundball rate, and (3) *more* than 10 percentage points higher than the league average. And it’s not like that group of ten is loaded with offensive powerhouses.

Another, more useful and modern way to consider this same problem is looking at launch angle. The Cubs have the lowest average launch angle in MLB at 6.0 degrees. They’re one of only seven teams below 10 degrees for the season and that’s less than HALF the MLB average this year (12.6 degrees).

Why does that matter? Well, in isolation, it kinda doesn’t. Even with this groundball rate, the Cubs have managed to produce as much on offense as almost any other team in baseball. But the game isn’t played in a vacuum. And we know for a fact that launch angle is important.

“We’ve got to get the ball in the air more. That’s obvious,” Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. “And the double-play numbers have to normalize at some point, a little bit. They are exceptionally high right now.”

Entering play today, the Cubs have grounded into a league-leading 15 double plays. That puts them on pace for 221 double-plays by the end of the season. For reference, no team in the history of baseball has hit into more than 174. So, uh, yeah… that’s an issue.

But it’s not just about taking runners off the bases and runs off the board. It’s about the quality of their contact meaning a whole lot less when it’s smashed into the ground. I love that the Cubs have a top-6 average exit velocity this season (90.1 MPH), but it’s not representative of a productive approach when much of that contact is being beaten directly into the ground.

As an extreme example, last season, Jason Heyward’s 42.4 hard% was well above the league average of 38.5%, but with a launch angle of just 7.5 degrees, he wound up as one of the bottom-10 hitters in MLB by wRC+. Too many groundballs saps the utility of that hard contact.

My point here is that the Cubs could probably stand to sacrifice some of their extreme contact skills – and even how hard they’re hitting the ball – to elevate a bit more often. I don’t want to take them out entirely of what’s been working for them, but they clearly have room to move on the margins. (Brett: Or maybe they could simply improve the launch angle a click without changing the contact rates at all! That’d be swell!)

Now, with all that said, this is not a universal Cubs problem. There are some more serious offenders, and I’m sure you could guess who without looking.

Nick Madrigal: -5.4LA, 66.7GB%
Jonathan Villar: -1.4LA, 50GB%
Raphael Ortega: 0.4LA, 62.5GB%
Nico Hoerner: 2.1 LA, 58.6 GB%
Willson Contreras: 3.1 LA, 55.6 GB%
Jason Hayward: 3.7 LA, 42.9 GB%
Ian Happ: 3.9 LA, 62.5 GB%
Frank Schwindel: 9.0LA, 59.5GB%

Some of these guys have some obvious, positive regression coming based on their career marks — Ortega (13.0 LA), Happ (11.9 LA), and Contreras (7.8 LA), in particular — and I’ll further add that Happ’s number is being anchored by a 70% ground ball rate as a righty, though that seems to be part of a broader new approach from that side of the plate that is working for him.

But for a lot of those guys? That’s just who they are/have always been. And if it doesn’t change, they could start hurting the Cubs offense more than they’re helping by erasing runners with double plays, and not hitting for enough power to justify their presence.

On the flip side, two guys who haven’t quite taken off yet — Michael Hermosillo and Clint Frazier — have the two highest LAs on the team, though they have just a combined 23 batted ball events, so we’ll let things even out a bit more before addressing their issues. But the guys in the sweet spot in terms of average launch angle? That would be Seiya Suzuki and Patrick Wisdom (who happen to be the Cubs’ top two qualified hitters by wRC+).

Now, listen, there’s nothing groundbreaking here. My point is pretty simple: Even if we want to lean into this entirely new type of offense (and I do!), there’s no reason to be Este extreme in terms of putting balls on the ground, just as Hoyer said. There’s room to give, and if it means a modest uptick in whiffs for guys like Madrigal, Villar, Heyward, and Hoerner, then so be it.

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