Tuesday, April 25, 2006

smoke and mirrors

now four games into the post-derrek lee 2006 season, the cubs have managed to acquit themselves to a 2-2 record while scoring 4.25 runs per game. this is a slight decline on the year on the whole, where this team has managed to plate 5.16 a game -- a considerable early improvement on the 2005 offensive return of 4.34 and good for 5th in the national league.

given the benevolent outcomes of the cubs offense thusfar, there has been some sentiment expressed in cubdom that the team is well-prepared to score sufficiently to win even in the absence of lee, and that no extraordinary effort need be made to acquire an offensive replacement to bridge the next three months.

it must be said, however, that how such production has been arrived at bodes ill for its durability. the cubs for the season are mired in 12th in on-base percentage and 13th in slugging. they have been a merely median hitting club, but have drawn a league-low figure in walks.

it seems mystifying that a club with such peripherals could be managing over five runs a game. but the source of the scoring is to be found in the cubs' performance with runners in scoring position (abbreviated risp), where the team leads the league by a wide margin in opportunities capitalized upon.

this writer figured the number of runners on base managed by each nl team per game thusfar -- that is, hits, walks and hit batsmen less home runs -- to find that the cubs rank 13th in the league at 10.71. however, the cubs rank first -- at 38.9% -- in scoring those runners.

this is in large part due to the large differential between their overall team batting average and on-base percentage and their similar figures with runners in scoring position. the cubs are currently hitting 39 points higher with risp (.264 vs .303 w/risp), the largest such difference in the league. similarly, the cubs are leading the league in obp differential (54 points, .317 vs .373 w/risp) and slugging differential (a whopping 121 points, .417 vs .538 w/risp, vastly greater than the runner-up atlanta at 83 points).

how that is ominous for the cubs may not be immediately evident. one of the great statistical truths of baseball works against one of its great myths, which is hitting in the clutch. though many attach great romance to the idea of ballplayers rising to the occasion, it is a wearily tried concept in baseball statistics that can find little empirical grounding. though in short runs a player or team can randomly exceed or underperform their more general batting average under some special circumstance or another, over the long haul the average of a team with runners in scoring position approaches its batting average -- that is to say, clutch hitting and its converse, choking, are myths of small sample sizes.

relevantly to the cubs this year, this means that, as the number of games and at-bats increase, the cubs performance with runners on is likely to decline to approach the team's overall averages -- which are clearly considerably less amenable to scoring runs. and it must be said that this is a far more likely path of reconciliation than its opposite -- that is, having the broader averages rise to the level of those with risp -- as the broader averages are already based on a sample that is over four times as large (605 ab vs 145) and therefore four times as significant.

the cubs have so far lived in defiance of these odds. last night's game -- in which the cubs were limited to four hits and ten baserunners by a pitching staff that consists almost uniquely of talent that would, in most organizations, be in the high minors -- is an excellent example of how the cubs have performed poorly in general but have capitalized on more opportunities than they have any right to expect to, plating six of those men.

when these underlying factors begin to express themselves more forcefully in the fullness of time, such efficient offensive outbursts are likely to become far more rare and the rate of scoring for the club significantly decrease.

this eventuality is something that, should the cubs management believe themselves contenders still in this young 2006 season, they are obligated to rectify in the best manner possible. this page had very little hope for 2006 even before the injuries to lee and prior, and has even less now. a good case can already be made, it seems here, to concentrate on lining up the organizational ducks for 2007 and beyond. but it is still very early in the year, and baseball can be an odd game -- there is still plenty of room for hope, even if one should recognize the unlikelihood of it being realized. and if the organization still holds out that hope, it all but must seek an offensive replacement for lee. substituting jerry hairston, john mabry or neifi perez into the lineup in lee's absence is an offensive death sentence for a club that was going to be mediocre in the run scoring department with a healthy lee. with the return of ailing pitching seeming to be ever further distant, moves have to be made to improve.

the alternative, it seems, is for the cub organization to admit the probabilities that this page has noted and start preparing for next year -- with only three weeks gone into this one. and this writer wonders if they are yet prepared to do that.

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