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This 1-4 Cubs stretch has been painful, but in all likelihood it’s just bad luck

What a look at BABIP can tell us about the last five games

A ball is hit just beyond the reach of Albert Almora Jr. on Memorial Day
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs are 1-4 over their last five games and they’ve been frustrating losses. Consider a few of the following pieces of information dating back to the start of the last series with the Reds:

  • The Cubs have been outhit by their opponents 63-44.
  • The Cubs have struck out 58 times compared to 34 Ks for their opponents.
  • In the last five games the Cubs have scored at least five runs four times - and lost three of those games.

It’s a particularly frustrating brand of baseball, but there are some elements that distinguish this stretch from their one and four start. Most importantly they have managed to hold down first in the N.L. Central during a not great stretch of baseball, but also of interest:

  • The Cubs walked 35 batters in five games to start the season and only 18 in the last five games.
  • The Cubs made eight errors during the first five games and a much more normal four errors over the last five game stretch.

In other words, to start the season the team looked bad. They were playing ugly baseball, making errors and putting far too many runners on base via mistakes. In the last five games, well, I know this will be a wholly unsatisfying answer to some, but they’ve just been remarkably unlucky.

I talk about Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) a lot in my statistical analysis pieces. I like BABIP because it’s a good barometer for how much luck is involved in a player or team’s performance. Over a long season there will be periods where a player is getting a lot of hits on weak contact just because they were lucky enough to fall in a gap, while another player may be making great contact that always results in an out. BABIP gives us some insight into which players or teams are getting lucky (looking at you with you .414 BABIP, Javy Báez, although in his case, that might just be magic) and which are not (oh, hello, Jason Heyward and that .252 BABIP after a hot start).

So last night after a painful fourth inning watching every ball fall for the Astros, again. I started looking around to see if there was an easy way to find team and opponent BABIP during a discrete time period. The closest I got was Fangraphs’ ability to do a “last seven days” split by team, but that didn’t actually get at what I wanted. What I wanted to know was in these last five games where the Cubs have been hitting well and not making an extraordinary number of mistakes, was this really just bad luck? I wasn’t the only one, there were a couple of BCB readers (skmd and acubbieintexas, to name a few) who were asking the same question, so I just decided to do the math myself:

As promised in last night’s game thread, I updated that math this morning. Over this very disappointing stretch of Cubs baseball the Cubs’ BABIP is .277, slightly unlucky, but not too far off the team average which is usually right around .300. However, their opponents’ BABIP over that same stretch is .382, which indicates exactly what we’ve all seen with our own eyes: every ball is dropping in the worst possible spot. Obviously some are hard hit and would be hits anyway (it seemed like Kyle Schwarber was particularly busy in left field last night), but those little flares dropping in front of Albert Almora Jr.? Luck.

I’m not entirely sure who on the Cubs upset Lady BABIP over the last five games, but since I doubt there is a Cubs’ shrine to Jobu in the visitor’s clubhouse we are probably just going to have to wait this one out. The good news is that over the course of a long season, these are exactly the type of trends that take care of themselves and after a pretty brutal five game stretch I imagine this one will right itself quickly.