The Zobrist effect: Improving Cubs' contact rate

November 21st, 2019

CHICAGO -- The Cubs knew that the end of the era was going to arrive at some point. Last season, Chicago unexpectedly got an early taste of what that could mean for its lineup, and the veteran's absence magnified one of the team's offensive flaws.

When Zobrist left the Cubs to tend to a family situation, Chicago's already-declining contact rate became an even greater issue. The rate of fastballs thrown to the Cubs kept trending down, and the pace of curveballs and changeups ticked up. And when the season was over, the North Siders had the lowest contact rate (73.8 percent) and swinging-strike rate (12.3 percent) in the National League.

"We're certainly losing the contact battle," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the end of the season. "We make the least contact out of anyone in baseball. And I think, despite those great offensive individual seasons, I think we're still a team that can be game-planned for."

The trend

The amount of whiffing in 2019 was not a one-year development for the Cubs. Chicago's fall to the bottom of the contact-rate column has been a multiple-year process. The Cubs only ranked 24th in that department during the World Series drought-ending ‘16 campaign, but let's look at how the contact percentages have dropped since that magical season.

Contact rate (swinging-strike rate):

• 2016: 77.0 (10.4)
• 2017: 76.1 (11.3)
• 2018: 76.0 (11.4)
• 2019: 73.8 (12.3)

In the first half of '18, the Cubs actually had a 76.7 percent contact rate and a 10.9 percent swinging-strike rate. That was right on the '16 pace. What Cubs fans saw in ‘19 was a continuation of the issues that surfaced in the second half of the previous season, when the team had a 74.9 percent contact rate and a 10.9 percent swinging-strike mark.

According to Statcast, the Cubs saw 12.0 percent curveballs (including knuckle curves) last season, which was tied for the highest rate in the Majors. Chicago also saw 57.5 percent fastballs (all types) and 11.4 percent changeups. That marked the second fewest and second most, respectively, among National League teams in '19.

The Zobrist effect

Throughout his career overall, and especially during the past four seasons with the Cubs, Zobrist acted as a kind of stabilizer for Chicago's lineup. For his career, the switch-hitter has turned in an 85.5 percent contact rate and 5.5 percent swinging-strike rate. With Zobrist in the mix, the Cubs could live with a little extra swinging-and-missing elsewhere in the name of maximizing other players' strengths.

From May 7-Sept. 2 last season, though, Zobrist was not in the lineup. Predictably, the Cubs' contact rate dipped to 73.0 percent and the swinging-strike rate climbed to 13.0 percent in that time period. Chicago's hitters were swinging more sans Zobrist (48.1 percent in that span, compared to 47.2 percent in '19 overall), but whiffing more on pitches both inside and outside the zone.

The Cubs made an upgrade to their bench at the July 31 Trade Deadline with the acquisition of the contact-oriented . Zobrist made his return to the lineup on Sept. 3. Then, shortstop -- another player with good bat-to-ball skills -- came up from the Minor Leagues on Sept. 9. Those three additions contributed to a different look down the stretch.

From Sept. 3 through the end of the season, the Cubs had a 75.6 percent contact rate and 11.8 swinging-strike rate. That was still not great, but it was a clear improvement over the season as a whole. Contact outside the zone in this period jumped to 64.5 percent (compared to 59.4 percent in the period without Zobrist). There was a similar jump in contact on pitches in the zone (84.4 percent, compared to 82.8 percent without Zobrist).

What’s the fix?

With Zobrist now a free agent and his future uncertain (2020 would be his age-39 season), the Cubs have to find a way to at least make incremental progress in the contact battle.

Internally, adding Kemp helped bring that attribute to the bench and Hoerner (81.9 percent contact rate in his first taste of the Majors) offers an in-house solution potentially as soon as Opening Day. If becomes a serious trade chip, backup (79.5 percent for his career) could help tick up the overall team rate in a more prominent role.

Chicago might also look to free agency or trades to enhance this aspect of its lineup. One example on the open market would be free-agent second baseman (a Cubs target at the Trade Deadline), who had an .810 OPS and 89.3 percent contact rate in '19.

Epstein told reporters at the GM Meetings earlier this month that it is also important not to focus too much on one specific offensive element when targeting external upgrades.

"If you get too sort of wrapped up in the shape of that performance," Epstein said, "you can end up making bad decisions. And, if you ignore the shape of the performance, you can end up kind of one-dimensional and make bad decisions that way, too.

"So, I think it's about having the right perspective, where you'd love a well-rounded offense, but you also don't want to be so single-minded about finding certain traits that you end up finding those traits, but no talent with it. I think striking the right balance is important."