September 27, 2022

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Cubs' contact-heavy approach has pros, cons

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CHICAGO — Seiya Suzuki stood in the on-deck circle, bat in hand, waiting for one more chance on Tuesday night. The move to the lineup’s second slot was meant to maximize his opportunities, given his incredible showing out of the chute.

“I thought it was a good time to put a little different look at the top,” Cubs manager David Ross explained before Tuesday’s 6-5 loss to the Rays at Wrigley Field.

The construction of the Cubs’ 2022 lineup can be traced back to last season. The early portion of the current campaign has given Ross a chance to test different batting orders to see how this new mix of offensive traits play together.

Chicago’s latest showing — albeit in a loss to Tampa Bay — featured some of the positive and negative attributes that have risen to the surface. The group fought back with its ball-in-play style, but also continued to pound pitches into the ground.

“There’s been a lot of contact,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “Certainly, that’s a little bit of a change from the past. We’re definitely way less explosive than we were, but I feel like we’ve faced some pretty good pitchers so far and we’ve been able to limit the strikeout numbers for the most part and put the ball in play.”

At the July 30 Trade Deadline last year, the Cubs addressed the lineup’s contact issues in a big way by reeling in an elite bat-to-ball hitter in Nick Madrigal from the White Sox. He was out with injury in the second half last year, but Frank Schwindel showed off a strong combination of contact and power down the stretch when he was handed the keys to first base.

Those two, combined with Nico Hoerner, plus the offseason additions of Suzuki and Jonathan Villar, gave the Cubs a strong foundation of contact ability. Entering Tuesday, Chicago ranked fifth in the National League in contact rate (77.5%) and tied for fourth in swinging-strike rate (9.9%).

There are positives to all the contact, but it is a trait that can also cause issues.

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

To Hoyer’s point, the Cubs headed into Tuesday’s game with an NL-leading 52.5 ground-ball percentage and 15 double-play groundouts (no other NL club had more than nine). Per Statcast, the Cubs’ 6.1 degree launch angle was also the lowest mark in the Majors.

During Tuesday’s loss, Chicago’s hardest-hit ball (108.1 mph) was a groundout by Villar. The North Siders grounded into 13 outs as a team in the loss to the Rays. One of those was a 101.7 mph grounder from Ian Happ that was sucked up by second baseman Taylor Walls in a pull shift to end the seventh inning.

“That’s the type of play where you hit the ball hard,” Happ said, “and they shifted right before the pitch. They weren’t in it the whole at-bat. That’s what they do, though. They’re very good at that.”

Still, the Cubs left Tuesday’s performance with a .266/.349/.437 slash line as a team. There were plenty of positives to pull from the evening, too.

Schwindel (RBI double) and Patrick Wisdom (pinch-hit two-run homer) delivered in the fourth. Hoerner added a run-scoring triple in the seventh. Suzuki saw his nine-game hitting streak come to an end, but all he did was see 24 pitches in four trips to the plate, drawing three walks in the process.

Four of Chicago’s hitters (Suzuki, Wisdom, Villar and Happ) are above the MLB average for pitches per plate appearance. As a whole, the Cubs have improved their walk rate (9.8% through Monday, compared to 8.7% pre-Trade Deadline in ’21) and cut down the strikeouts.

“We’ve got a fun lineup,” Wisdom said. “Everyone has a unique skill set and everyone brings something to the table. That makes us dangerous. I love it. You guys see it night in, night out. We either hit homers or we get a lot of base hits.

“Seiya walking a ton. Just getting guys on base and creating stressful at-bats for the opposing pitchers. That’s what we want to do.”

So far, the Cubs have given Ross a glimpse of what he has to work with this year. The manager will keep testing different lineup configurations in search of the right formula.

“We have to create our own offense,” Hoyer said, “between contact and probably putting guys in motion a little bit and through just grinding out at-bats. I think so far this year we’ve done a good job of that.”

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