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A statistical look at Anthony Iapoce’s time with the Rangers

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... and what it can tell us about the Cubs’ new hitting coach.

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Anthony Iapoce (it’s pronounced eye-uh-poh-SEE) returns to the Cubs organization as their hitting coach after spending the last three years as the Rangers hitting coach. He oversaw minor league hitting as a special assistant to the general manager with the Cubs from 2013-15 so he’ll already be familiar with a large number of Cubs players who were in the minors at that time including Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras.

While the Cubs have had some incredible runs during Theo Epstein’s tenure he has yet to be satisfied with the Cubs approach at the plate. This position has been a bit of a revolving door with six different hitting coaches during his eight years with the club. So today I wanted to take a look at what Iapoce accomplished with the Rangers to see if it provides a bit of insight into what Epstein is hoping to see from the Cubs’ hitters in 2019.

The broken offense

Among many candid moments in his postseason press conference one stood out. Epstein admitted that the Cubs offense “broke somewhere along the line” and said he would fix it. It was not particularly shocking that Chili Davis was fired shortly thereafter. It’s worth taking a look at some of the components of that broken offense.

In early June I took a look at the Cubs offense and found that they were the most potent offense in the National League. This wasn’t the result of cherry-picking stats or categories. It was true by almost every measure.

And then, it wasn’t true anymore. Below is the chart of National League offense from my article on June 1, what follows is the National League offensive stats for the second half. One of these things is not like the other:

National League Offensive Stats as of June 1

Team G PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Team G PA BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Cubs 788 2145 9.8% 20.3% .173 .310 .262 .345 .435 .336 110 13.5
Braves 818 2208 9.2% 19.7% .165 .306 .264 .336 .428 .329 107 10.9
Pirates 798 2152 8.5% 19.4% .167 .296 .258 .327 .425 .324 104 9.0
Giants 833 2151 7.8% 24.5% .150 .327 .260 .321 .410 .317 102 7.0
Mets 815 2063 9.3% 22.1% .152 .289 .242 .318 .393 .310 98 7.3
Nationals 799 2125 10.0% 20.8% .172 .276 .240 .322 .412 .317 97 7.7
Brewers 831 2141 8.8% 23.3% .160 .299 .248 .318 .408 .315 95 8.1
Cardinals 812 2083 8.9% 23.1% .151 .291 .242 .318 .394 .311 95 6.8
Dodgers 872 2159 9.4% 22.0% .156 .283 .236 .315 .393 .307 95 6.6
Phillies 782 2041 10.3% 25.6% .157 .298 .236 .320 .393 .311 94 5.9
Reds 842 2204 9.1% 21.5% .134 .296 .245 .322 .380 .308 91 5.0
Padres 828 2134 8.0% 26.1% .139 .293 .229 .295 .368 .289 84 2.2
Diamondbacks 803 2027 9.4% 25.6% .156 .267 .215 .291 .371 .289 79 4.2
Marlins 835 2106 7.5% 23.2% .113 .291 .233 .301 .346 .285 79 1.6
Rockies 794 2102 8.9% 23.6% .163 .289 .240 .312 .403 .310 78 1.7
Selected offensive stats for the National League Fangraphs compiled by Sara Sanchez

National League Offensive Stats 2nd Half

Team G BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Team G BB% K% ISO BABIP AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
Dodgers 1089 10.6% 23.7% .201 .309 .259 .344 .460 .344 119 16.9
Nationals 1030 10.6% 19.2% .175 .311 .268 .353 .443 .342 112 14.1
Brewers 1068 8.6% 22.2% .185 .309 .263 .333 .449 .335 107 13.4
Cardinals 1060 8.6% 21.6% .168 .300 .255 .330 .423 .324 104 13.0
Braves 1010 8.0% 21.0% .161 .300 .255 .322 .416 .317 96 10.1
Mets 952 8.9% 22.6% .159 .294 .244 .320 .403 .314 101 9.6
Pirates 908 7.3% 20.7% .150 .307 .258 .317 .408 .312 96 7.7
Cubs 1093 8.1% 22.6% .140 .303 .249 .316 .389 .305 89 7.6
Diamondbacks 998 8.7% 23.2% .158 .295 .243 .313 .401 .309 90 6.7
Rockies 1013 8.5% 22.6% .182 .301 .253 .322 .435 .325 87 6.2
Reds 975 7.5% 23.9% .152 .298 .244 .306 .396 .304 86 4.8
Padres 963 7.4% 24.6% .160 .290 .239 .297 .399 .300 88 4.6
Phillies 1088 8.5% 24.4% .164 .282 .233 .307 .397 .305 90 4.6
Marlins 963 7.0% 23.5% .114 .279 .224 .286 .338 .275 74 0.9
Giants 968 6.2% 26.0% .108 .283 .219 .272 .326 .262 63 -2.1
Selected offensive stats for the National League - 2nd half Fangraphs compiled by Sara Sanchez

These numbers are really startling. The Cubs offense was worth more WAR in April and May than in the entire second half. Their wRC+ goes from a league leading (and above average) 110 to sixth worst in the league (and below average) 89. Most tellingly, their SLG went from a league leading .435 to the third worst in the league at .305.

It almost seems like Theo’s statement about the offense being broken is an understatement. This is like a tale of two teams, one of which knows how to hit for power and score runs and the other of which is incapable of either.

Dingers

Regular readers of my writing know I’m not all about home runs and think the launch angle revolution has gone a bit too far, but there is a difference between trying to hit solely for power and not hitting for power at all. The Cubs offense had a power outage. It’s really easy to see this in comparing HR numbers between 2017 and 2018. In 2017 Cubs hitters hit 223 home runs. In 2018 they hit 167. That’s fully 25 percent fewer home runs in a season with roughly the same hitters.

Now, to be fair, the Rangers also saw a home-run decline in 2018. In 2017 Rangers hitters hit 237 homers compared to only 194 in 2018, However, the Rangers also lost 46 homers combined from Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli. While the Cubs lost some offensive production from Kris Bryant being hurt (16 HR difference between 2017 and 2018) they didn’t lose anything like the home run production of two players.

Another home run detail that caught my eye with the Rangers is that in 2017 they were the first team to have nine players hit at least 17 homers. That type of power spread across multiple players is reminiscent of the 2017 Cubs being the first team to have five players under 25 hit at least 20 homers. If at least some of that power comes back, while the Cubs maintain a high OBP, I think the Iapoce hiring will have been a success.

Hard hit rate

The other stat that caught my eye for the Cubs in 2018 was their relatively low hard hit rate. The Cubs hit the ball hard just 31.7 percent of the time, which was third to last in MLB (only the Orioles and Phillies had lower hard hit rates than the Cubs.) The Rangers, meanwhile, were ninth overall in MLB with a hard hit rate of 37.3 percent.

While that 37.3 percent was a bit of an outlier for Iapoce’s time with the Rangers, it is worth noting that the Rangers’ hard hit rate was higher than the Cubs for every season Iapoce was with Texas except 2015. as you can see below:

Cubs and Rangers hard hit rate by year

Team 2015 2016 2017 2018
Team 2015 2016 2017 2018
Cubs 30.2 30.8 31.2 31.7
Rangers 29.4 31.4 33.6 37.3
Percentage of balls hit hard by year Fangraphs

Hitting the ball hard doesn’t guarantee more offensive output, but it could help the Cubs recover their home run stroke and SLG numbers. I think most Cubs fans will agree that there seemed to be an inordinate number of warning track fly balls at key moments for Cubs hitters this year.

Takeaways

Anthony Iapoce is already familiar with many of the Cubs’ key offensive players and should be up to speed very quickly on their capabilities and approaches at the plate. During his time with the Rangers his teams demonstrated consistent power and harder contact than the Cubs. That extra boost of power and output is exactly what the Cubs lost in the second half last year and they are hoping Iapoce has the formula to bring it back. He’ll be the third hitting coach in the last four years, with any luck his approach will make him the last new hitting coach for a while.