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The Cubs slump: The signal and the noise

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Let’s take a look at the stats during this bad stretch.

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Koji Uehara looks as frustrated as the rest of us as he gives up a run to solidify the Cubs’ sixth loss in a row as they are swept by the Padres
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Let’s be really clear — the last week of Cubs’ baseball has been frustrating at the best of times and downright maddening at the worst. After seeing this team do so many incredible things a lot of us are wondering where this futility came from and how the team can get back on track.

Some context for this post. The Signal and the Noise is the title of a pretty awesome book by Nate Silver (he of Baseball Prospectus and fivethirtyeight.com fame). He’s made a living making statistics accessible to the masses, and became famous for being more right about his predictions than a lot of other people, yet at the core of this book (which covers everything from baseball to elections and climate to poker) he’s pretty cautious about the ability of statistics to accurately predict anything. So in the spirit of that book, this is a post about some statistics and explanations for the Cubs performance during this slump, along with my analysis for what they mean. I’m not going to pretend I have all of the answers, but I do have some interpretations. I’ve even taken it upon myself to invent a “worry-o-meter” which is my own take on a scale of 1-10 as to how much these things matter. Take a look, and offer your own takes in the comments.

Super obvious disclaimer — none of this is a crystal ball. Different people will interpret these numbers in different ways. That said, let’s take a look at what’s been going on with this team, in no particular order. Also, all numbers are from Fangraphs unless specified otherwise.

It’s not the weather

This one isn’t a statistic, but I already gave you my above disclaimer, so...

The weather hypothesis has been disproven. Full disclosure, I was one of the proponents of this line of analysis. It’s been unusually cold, there have been tons of rain delays, there was hail in Colorado and the travel schedule has been brutal. I didn’t say exactly that, but I said something pretty similar — I was clearly wrong.

The Cubs just had a week in Southern California where apparently 64 degrees and cloudy was enough for Len and JD to call the weather “gloomy” during their last game against the Padres. I guess they aren’t used to clouds in San Diego. The bottom line? The weather doesn’t get much better than what the Cubs experienced this week.

Actual worry-o-meter? 4 No one can control the weather, but it was nice to think that might be the reason things aren’t clicking.

Let’s talk about BABIP

Sara, what is BABIP? Well, I’m glad you asked.

BABIP stands for Batting Average on Balls in Play, and it is a proxy for figuring out what happens with baseballs that are hit. The cooler part about the stat, though, is that you can use it to figure out when teams are in statistically weird slumps. A remarkably low team BABIP (particularly by a team with noted offensive talent) is unlikely to be a signal of actual ability. It’s more likely a signal of bad luck. (Similarly, a remarkably high BABIP is a sign of silly luck, and that player or team will probably come back to Earth soon.)

The Cubs have the worst BABIP in the major leagues in May, and it’s not close.

That probably sounds like a terrible thing, in reality it’s a good thing. No one stays that low in BABIP forever, particularly not a team with this much offensive pop. It feels bad now, but it’s a statistical anomaly and they should bounce back from it.

For comparison purposes: Last May when the Cubs were beating the tar out of everyone, the team’s BABIP was way too high. See what I mean?

These are the types of things that even out over a 162-game season.

Actual worry-o-meter? 1 Honestly, this is probably a good sign for the Cubs, it’s highly statistically unlikely they’ll continue to have this much bad luck.

This chick is sick of the long ball

At least when Cubs pitchers give it up. Which they’ve been doing. A lot.

I want to look at two stats for this, and specifically I want to look at how they changed over the course of May.

The first is HR/9. Pretty straight forward, this is the number of HRs you give up over nine innings. For the entire month of May that number is 1.21 for the Cubs. That number actually isn’t bad. It’s not great. It ranks 17th in the major leagues in HR/9 for May.

In the past week, however, that number is 1.58, which is the sixth highest HR/9 in the major leagues. That’s a big jump. The Cubs went to California and suddenly started giving up a lot of home runs.

Let’s look at that number a different way: HR/FB. This is the percentage of fly balls that become HRs. For the entire month of May that percentage was 14.8, good for 13th in the major leagues. Right in the middle. For the last week that number was 20.8 Yep, over 20 percent of the fly balls the Cubs gave up on the last road trip became homers. Yikes. Oh, and for those of you tracking at home, that number is good for fourth worst HR/FB ratio in the major leagues.

It really isn’t supposed to work that way — the place Cubs pitchers are supposed to give up a lot of home runs is Wrigley, that cozy little park where the wind howls out to the lake half of the time. Not the cavernous West Coast parks where the marine layer* is supposed to make fly balls die. I’m hoping this is just a fluke, some extra pop on the part of the Dodgers and the Padres this week. Some noise, as it were. If this becomes a trend, it’s going to be a long summer.

Actual worry-o-meter? 7 Balls fly farther out of Wrigley than pretty much everywhere east of Coors Field. The Cubs need to figure out how to get opponents’ balls back in the park.

*Full disclosure, this study calls into question the anecdotal tales of the effect of the marine layer, but it still concludes that it probably affects balls about six feet either way. We saw a lot of that this last week. Six feet for the Cubs opponents, not for the Cubs. *sigh*

Lay off the high ones

The Cubs are getting killed by high fastballs. The Dodgers bullpen throws the highest percentage of high fastballs, Cubs hitters can’t lay off ‘em and they can’t hit ‘em (at least they can’t hit ‘em very effectively. Cubs batters were trying to drive them out at every moment and with a few exceptions wound up popping everything up.) Then they went into San Diego and the Padres decided to try the same thing. What happened? Lots of pop-outs.

The biggest problem with this is that these pitches are strikes and they just aren’t doing a lot with them. Compare these two pitch maps for Luis Perdomo from PitchFx, he clearly altered his approach yesterday, and it worked:

Perdomo pitch map v. Cubs
Brooks Baseball PitchFx
Perdomo pitch map v. Nationals
Brooks Baseball PitchFx

The Cubs need to figure out how to lay off the high ones, because it didn’t take long for the word to get out that their young guys have a problem with that part of the zone.

Actual worry-o-meter? 8 I think they’ll figure this out, but it reminds me a lot of the struggles some Cubs hitters had against off-speed junk last year. There were some pretty long stretches where they were getting blanked by random junk baller X that were painful.

The silver lining

The Cubs play in the NL Central and neither the Brewers nor the Cardinals have taken advantage of a pretty serious slump. This six-game losing streak is the longest losing streak since September 2014 when the Cubs lost seven in a row (and let’s let that stand, shall we?)

If we played in any Eastern or Western division (the AL Central has problems of its own) we’d be a long ways out of first right now. As it stands the Cubs are 2½ games out with a three-game set against the Cardinals on the horizon. If they can get their mojo back for that one, it will go a long way towards righting the ship.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, that Nate Silver guy? He’s the guy who invented PECOTA. The Cubs’ pre-season PECOTA was 91 wins, which would win the division. As of this AM fivethirtyeight.com projects that even with this slide and struggle the Cubs will win 88 games, and win the division, which isn’t far off that 91 number. While this clearly isn’t the magical back-to-back 100+ win season we were dreaming of in March, it should get us to October.

But it’s time for the Cubs to start playing like a team that can win their division.