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Jed Hoyer on early returns from high-contact Cubs lineup

Ryan Avatar
April 20, 2022

The Cubs president of baseball operations isn’t necessarily one to read too much into the results of a season that’s less than two weeks in.

Sure, there’s data to look at and parts of the game that need to be discussed, but Jed Hoyer isn’t overanalyzing the results knowing his team has yet to even complete the its fourth series of the season.

“If we were struggling, you wouldn’t want to over-focus on the results,” Hoyer said before the Cubs’ 6-5 loss to the Rays on Tuesday. “I think it’s the same thing as if you’re doing well.”

One of the things he feels does need to be addressed, however, is the contact-based lineup that he had the largest hand in constructing.

No, he’s not worried that the contact numbers (78 percent contact rate, eighth-best in baseball, per FanGraphs) won’t hold up. It’s more that when Chicago is making as much contact as they are, often times, it’s the kind of contact the Cubs don’t necessarily want.

As of Wednesday morning, Chicago leads the majors with a 53 percent ground-ball percentage. The Cubs also lead all 30 teams after grounding into 15 double plays. Despite the fact that they managed to avoid another GIDP on Tuesday, as a team, Chicago still had 13 groundouts against Tampa Bay pitching on the night.

“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’re exceptionally high right now.”

One of those groundouts came at the end of a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh. With both Seiya Suzuki and Willson Contreras on base after back-to-back two-out walks and the Cubs down by 1, Happ rocketed a ball on the ground through the right side of the infield, with Statcast projecting a 101.7 mph exit velocity and an expected batting average of .590. The reason it made it through the infield, though, was because Rays second baseman Taylor Walls had shifted into shallow right field, gobbled up the grounder and beat Happ with the throw to first.

Happ had the game-winning RBI on a single through the left side on Monday, and when he was interviewed by reporters postgame, he was wearing an Obvious Shirts t-shirt that read “Launch angle is overrated.” One reporter asked if that was true.

“Today it was, yeah,” Happ quipped.

Considering that hit eventually won Chicago that game, even with a six-degree launch angle, sure.

But despite the fact that his grounder really should’ve been a game-tying single on Tuesday, the shift rules that would’ve ensured Walls was stationed on the infield dirt aren’t in Major League Baseball yet. So, maybe some launch angle could’ve helped in that scenario.

“On the positive side, (there’s) the contact. On the negative side, the ball is on the ground too much,” Hoyer said. “I think that’s what we have to address. There’s always something you’re addressing, and that’s certainly one thing right now.”

Still, it has been a refreshing change from what the Cubs became before the dismantling of the old core prior to last year’s trade deadline. Just take a peek at what this new-look offense has done through its first 11 games and compare it to the first 11 games of 2021 (stats from FanGraphs).

  • The No. 8 contact percentage (78%) in the big leagues this season has already been mentioned. Through 11 games last season, though, Chicago’s 70.8% was the second-lowest in the majors and the lowest in the National League.
  • Right now, the Cubs hold the sixth-lowest swinging strike percentage in baseball at 9.6%. At this point last year, they had the eighth-highest at 13%.
  • Neither was as prone to chasing as other teams, as the 2021 and the 2022 iterations of the team had identical 28.6% swing percentages on pitches outside the zone 11 games into the season, both the fifth-lowest in the NL. However, in ’21, Chicago’s contact percentage on pitches outside the zone was 54.8% (second-lowest in MLB). Meanwhile, this year’s club sits at 65.1% (fifth-highest in MLB).
  • On pitches in the zone, the 2022 Cubs have a contact percentage of 86%, which ranks sixth in baseball. And in 2021? Chicago sat at 80.4% in the same category through 11 games, the fourth-lowest in baseball and the lowest in the NL.

“There’s been a lot of contact,” 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.”

And yes, Hoyer believes that, with the way the roster is constructed, those numbers will hold up in the long run. He mentioned players with high-contact profiles like Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner, who both rank in the top 20 among qualified major leaguers in contact percentage at 91.5% (fifth) and 87.1% (16th); Suzuki and Frank Schwindel, who are also in the top 75 among qualified players in the same category (Suzuki is 57th at 80%, Schwindel is 72nd at 78.8); and Contreras, who sits just outside the top 100 (No. 104) with a 75.4% contact rate.

Oh, and there’s also Happ, whose 78.1% mark ranks 82nd and would finish as far and away the best of his six-year career.

“I think when you look at a number of our positions, we have guys that should be able to put the ball in play,” Hoyer said. “… I do think that’s a pretty sustainable trait. It’ll probably vacillate from time to time with different matchups and different handedness, but I do think that we should be a fairly high-contact team.”

Again, it’s a roster that was built from Hoyer’s vision. He’d seen what the offense had become in the years following the 2016 World Series, and the moves made over the last year-plus came from him wanting to remake the roster. The 6-5 win-loss record doesn’t mean a ton either way at this point (remember when the Cubs were tied for first-place in June last year?), but the fact that the contact numbers are in line with what was expected from the lineup means things are likely going how Hoyer had planned so far.

OK, maybe the volume of ground balls weren’t part of the plan. But Hoyer also knows that, until the team can start getting more air under the ball consistently, they’ll just have to keep doing everything else that’s been bringing them success at the plate.

“We’re not going to hit as many three-run homers as we once did, and as a group, we can’t be waiting around for that,” Hoyer said. “We have to create our own offense through contact and probably putting guys in motion a little bit and just grinding out at-bats. So far this year, we’ve done a good job of that.”

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