Cubs make their move from going yard to getting on board

ST. LOUIS -- For much of the season, there has been a power outage on the north side of Chicago, as the Cubs have worked to transform their offense from one of many strikeouts and home runs to one that makes more contact. Of course, they want to keep the long ball in play -- and they're starting to deliver home runs as well -- but right now they rank just eighth in the National League in homers per game (1.1) after missing out on the league lead last season by just one big fly.

"That's not a good thing because power was down for my team last year," hitting coach Chili Davis said with a half-smile on Saturday before the Chicago Cubs played the St. Louis Cardinals.

Unprompted, Davis addressed the small elephant in the room. Last year, his Boston Red Sox hitters were last in the American League in home runs but currently rank second in that category. Meanwhile, the Cubs are the team now hitting fewer homers under Davis, but they are striking out less as well.

"It makes sense because if you're up there swinging for home runs, you're going to strike out more," Davis said. "You're going to leave your zone more, and your swings will be bigger."

Currently, the Cubs chase pitches out of the strike zone 1 percent less than they did last season, so perhaps the message for more contact is getting through. But who doesn't like home runs? The goal is to hit homers at a high rate and make lots of contact, though that's easier said than done.

"I think it's something we have to evaluate over a little bit of a longer period of time," general manager Jed Hoyer said regarding the Cubs' reduced power. "We haven't hit as many home runs, and in theory that's concerning, but it's a small sample. Let's look later on and see where we're at."

Fair enough. It's what many players said as well, though some echoed Davis' thoughts: Fewer strikeouts probably mean fewer home runs.

"I would say that's a natural thing," Kyle Schwarber said. "If you're going to make more contact, you might not take as big of a swing."

Have the Cubs moved too far in that direction? There are days when the long ball is about all you might get, and the Cubs haven't been able to square up as many balls as they did in the past. For example, last Wednesday was a tough day to hit at Miller Park for both the Cubs and the Brewers. The roof was open on a sunny day, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Seeing the ball was an issue, and Lorenzo Cain accounted for the only run of the game with a solo home run.

"The Brewers got their home run, and we didn't," manager Joe Maddon said afterward.

Two days later, the Cubs played home run derby when they went deep three times against the Cardinals in a 13-5 win. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Cubs hit three homers in 18 percent of their games last season. That's down to 13.4 percent this year. The question the Cubs must answer is one that team president Theo Epstein asks often: Is it "baked" into their approach?

"I prefer our guys to make adjustments with two strikes, but we're still full-throttle with less than two strikes," Maddon said.

Perhaps the Cubs have some middle ground to find. After all, with Maddon and Davis preaching more contact and scoring runs with outs, it was bound to have an effect, but hitting home runs can never be a bad thing -- unless, of course, it's all anyone is swinging for.

"The guys that have power are going to hit for power," Davis said. "You don't have to force power. ... It's when they try to hit for power when a guy isn't pitching to him, that becomes a problem."

Does the early-season home run drought matter?

Here's the thing about the Cubs: They ranked second in runs scored in the NL last season, with 5.07 runs per game, and they're leading the league this year going into their game against the Cardinals on Sunday night with only slightly fewer runs per game, at 5.03. How they've achieved that ranking each year looks decidedly different, in part because of the home run disparities. For example, in place of home runs, the Cubs have increased their batting average from sixth in the league last season to first. That equates to more run-scoring -- just not by the long ball.

"It's overrated in teaching," Davis said. "If you're teaching hit the ball in the air, hit the ball out of the ballpark, that's how you are going to get paid, you have to be willing to accept lesser on-base percentage and a lot of strikeouts."

Davis hit on the one thing that hasn't been mentioned yet: on-base percentage. It continues to be the most important team statistic in baseball. A good OBP is the common link between the Cubs of 2017 and 2018. They led the league last season and currently do again. That's the stat that will get them to the playoffs -- no matter what warts you might think they have on offense.

"We're all out there trying to do our jobs and put ourselves in the best position to win a baseball game," Schwarber said. "Getting on base is the simplest form of that."

Consider this: From 2005 to 2017, every team that led the NL in on-base percentage made it to the postseason. Think about that for a moment. The best correlation between a statistic and making the playoffs isn't team ERA or home runs or even runs scored -- it's on-base percentage. Understanding why that is might be a whole other story, but if history means anything, it's good news for the Cubs. Going into Sunday, they lead the NL in on-base percentage by a whopping 14 points. There's a very good chance they'll finish first in that category for the third consecutive season.

Some might lament the Cubs' inability to plate runners in scoring position, but because of that strong OBP, it's a misleading stat. The Cubs hit .252 with runners in scoring position, 10th in the NL, but they have scored the second-most runs in that situation because they create so many chances. Scoring runs is the name of the game, and even though it would be nice to score even more, with so many chances, the Cubs are scoring enough to produce a good record.

The last idea that confuses fans is the notion that the Cubs lead the majors in games in which they've scored 10 or more runs, yet sometimes they revert back to struggling at the plate. But the anomalies are the high-scoring games, not the lower-scoring ones. In terms of plating three or fewer runs in a game, the Cubs are smack dab in the middle of the pack in the NL. It's going to happen -- even to good offenses.

The bottom line is as long as the Cubs keep getting on base, their offense will be just fine. They'll really hit their stride once the home runs start to pile up, as they have started to this weekend against the Cardinals. One weakness, which hasn't changed from one year to the next, is getting home a runner from third base with fewer than two outs; the Cubs aren't very good at that.

But for now, they'll take what they have while hoping to improve and counting on history to repeat itself.

"As of right now, our power is a little bit down, but our averages are higher," shortstop Addison Russell said. "It may go hand in hand, but as long as we get on base, good things usually happen."

Just ask all those teams that led the league in OBP.