No team in the last five years has reached the playoffs while striking out as frequently as the Cubs have so far in 2015.
That much is a cause for concern, as the Cubs entered Saturday’s tilt with Cincinnati sporting a 25 percent strikeout rate. This is a team that strikes out once every four trips to the plate, which through a traditional lens would seem to show a warning sign for the months ahead.
Lineup regulars Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Dexter Fowler, Miguel Montero and Addison Russell all are striking out in more than 20 percent of their plate appearances. Reserves Chris Denorfia, Junior Lake and David Ross are all above 20 percent as well.
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Manager Joe Maddon, though, brushed aside any concerns about how frequently the Cubs make outs by not putting the ball in play.
“I totally disagree with the concept that all strikeouts are created equally,” Maddon said. “I don’t believe that.”
Bryant’s numbers go a long way toward explaining Maddon’s argument.
Baseball America’s former No. 1 prospect has a 29.5 percent strikeout rate in his 227 plate appearances entering Saturday. That’s the seventh-highest rate among qualified major league hitters.
But in 63 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Bryant has walked as much (14) as he’s struck out. In 16 tries with runner on third and less than one out, Bryant has four strikeouts and 13 RBIs.
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Those are situations in which putting the ball in play is the No. 1 goal, and Bryant for the most part has accomplished it. He’s taken his bigger hacks and waited on his pitch more with nobody on or a runner on first — in which putting the ball in play could lead to a double play — and has 53 strikeouts in 164 of those chances.
“I’ve talked about strikeouts have to be in different buckets,” Maddon said. “They’re not always in the same bucket. For a long time the strikeout has been viewed as an out only. … Two outs nobody on, no big deal. Two outs, runner on first base, no big deal. Runner on third base nobody out, big deal. Runner on second no out, big deal.”
The same is the case for Montero, who only has one strikeout in 11 plate appearances with a runner on third and less than two out. The strikeouts, for the most part, are coming in non-crippling situations. The same can’t be said for Soler, though.
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The 23-year-old — who’s currently on the disabled list with a sprained ankle — has baseball’s third-highest strikeout rate (32.2 percent) but is striking out at a higher rate with runners in scoring position (50 percent in 56 PA). He’s struck out five times with a runner on third and less than two out, but has a 30 percent strikeout rate with nobody on base.
Outside of Soler, though, members of Cubs’ lineup have been solid at putting the ball in play when they need to. Maddon attributed that to a good understanding of when a strikeout is fine and when it’s not.
“I definitely see them involved in those at-bats when there’s runners in scoring position,” Maddon said. “It doesn’t always work, but I can definitely see the mental involvement. I do appreciate that.”