High-Contact Hitters; The Cubs Are Doing a Thing

Nico Hoerner and Matt Duffy were key parts of the Cubs short-lived offensive renaissance in May with their high-contact line-drive swings. Both players have little power, but also rarely swing and miss. Recently, the Cubs traded for Nick Madrigal, who might be the most extreme example of this type of hitter, and also drafted (#56 overall, Cubs' 2nd) James Triantos, whom Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs called a "hit tool prodigy" and marveled at his ball-in-play-to-whiff ratio as an amateur.

For several decades, MLB has been gravitating toward Three True Outcomes (TTO) offense (walks, homers, and strikeouts), dating back to Billy Beane's OBP market inefficiency in "Moneyball." The Cubs recently-traded 2016 World Series core was an example of this philosophy. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber walk, strike out, and homer at high rates without maintaining high batting averages. Javy Baez doesn't walk, and Anthony Rizzo keeps comparatively low strikeout rates for a slugger, but they also still fit the overall profile.

Here's a theory; competitive advantages and strategies go in cycles, and we're about to see MLB swing back toward valuing contact and batting average over or alongside power, with the Cubs ahead of the curve. The Cubs' offensive struggles down the stretch in 2018, 2019, and 2020 are one example of the limitations of the OBP-and-power lineup. While it works well against lower-quality pitching in the aggregate during the regular season, better pitchers can exploit it in the playoffs, as Cubs fans know all too well. As Beane famously said, "My [stuff] doesn't work in the playoffs." Across MLB, the "launch angle revolution" for hitters and pitchers' attempts to counter it with increased velocity and fastballs up in the zone have been well-documented. Perhaps the pendulum is about to swing back in the other direction.

An analogy from another sport; smart NBA teams shoot lots of 3-pointers and lay-ups and avoid mid-range shots (long 2-pointers). Mathematically, it makes sense and is a great regular-season strategy. Yet, in the playoffs against better defenses which take away the 3-pointer, games are often decided by players like Chris Paul or Khris Middleton who thrive in the mid-range. A poor regular-season strategy (like Nick Madrigal and Nico Hoerner hitting a lot of singles) becomes an essential part of a postseason offense.

The most important double in Cubs' history was slashed down the line to the opposite field by a guy with low power, a tiny strike-out rate, and a level swing. Without Ben Zobrist in 2016, the most recent World Series banner in Wrigley Field would still be from 1908. Here's hoping the Cubs' next round of high-contact hitters get some similar opportunities.

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