The Cubs' offense has been a strange entity this season.
They’ve been near the lead in the league in batting average -- currently second at .276 -- but their struggles to hit with men in scoring position have been well publicized. Three weeks ago they sat last in the league hitting with runners in scoring position, but some recent success has brought them up to 10th in the league at .236. The majority of the time, an odd statistic like that is just a case of bad luck, if a team can hit, it can hit, regardless of the situation.
However, there is another number for the Cubs that belies expectations, they are third in the league in on-base percentage at .331, but surprisingly last in the league with only 140 walks as a team. Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo discussed his philosophy on taking walks when working with the team.
“We always talk about being patient, but I’m not talking about somebody going up there trying to walk,” Jaramillo said. “Our recognition should take care of that, young kids like [Starlin] Castro and [Darwin] Barney, they’ll get better with maturity.”
Jaramillo said he walks a fine line when working with aggressive hitters like Castro, because it’s that aggressiveness that has made him such a great player. However, the low walk numbers with Castro are acceptable because he’s always been a contact hitter, and he provides doubles, triples, and as his body matures, hopefully home runs.
On the other hand, Barney -- who leads all rookies with a .314 batting average -- isn’t expected to develop much power. When he eventually hits that slump every player goes through, drawing a walk here and there will be essential for him to continue to benefit the team.
“When you’re that size, the pitcher is going to challenge you,” Jaramillo said of Barney. “You can’t take strikes just because you’re trying to walk. Barney’s getting strikes and he’s swing at [them], so I’m fine with that.”
If Barney continues to hit, pitchers will eventually adjust and start throwing him pitches out of the zone, Jaramillo believes. In response, Barney will have to adjust to seeing less strikes and hopefully that is when the walks will come.
Castro has already had to make a similar adjustment. Earlier in the season he went in a 7-for-51 slump and seemed to be chasing pitches out of the zone. After a day off, Castro was inserted back into the lineup and seemed to make it a priority not to swing until he saw a strike. He reaped the benefits immediately as he drew a walk in his first at bat on four pitches.
“Walks are really important, obviously you make the pitcher work, you see more pitches and get into the bullpen,” Jaramillo said. “Everybody wants walks because it puts men on base, we’ve been doing a good job of getting on base without as many walks as we’d like.”
Jaramillo pointed out that OPB is down all around the league, as the pitching has been stronger than it has in recent years. In recent years the average team OBP has hovered around .330. However, at .319, the NL is in danger of posting it's lowest average since a .315 mark in 1992.
With a new player being called up from the minor leagues on what feels like a daily basis, Jaramillo has made it a point to talk to hitting instructors at all levels to make sure they’re all on the same page and ensure the transition to the big leagues is as seamless as possible for prospects.
Manager Mike Quade said he’s not worried about the team’s lack of walks, he’s still focused on the team driving in runs when there are men on base.
“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, we just need to have quality at-bats, particularly with men in scoring position,” Quade said. “Just continue to set the table and I do believe that if those quality at-bats get better, that there will be walks involved.”
Soto returns: One thing that may help the Cubs walk numbers is the return of catcher Geovany Soto from the disabled list. Soto, returning from a strained groin, led the team last year with a .393 OBP and was second on the team with 62 walks.
Soto said his groin felt good during his rehab assignment with the Cubs' Double-A team.
“In my head it was a little bit of a concern,” Soto said. “But I never felt it.”
While Cubs fans are sure to be happy with Soto’s return to the big league club, he also delivered some good news for the Cubs future as well. Soto caught the Cubs top pitching prospect, Trey McNutt, on Saturday night and had a glowing review.
“He was throwing the ball really good, hitting his spots really good,” Soto said of McNutt. “I have a feeling he’s pretty close, he’s gonna be [in the big leagues] soon.”
McNutt struggled with a blister on his throwing hand early in the season, but has been throwing well of late. He has a 2.34 ERA in eight starts and has struck out 22 men while only walking eight.