At Cubs Convention this year Nico Hoerner made a comment that he was looking forward running a lot again this season and for the first two weeks of the season it really looked like that was coming to pass. Hoerner had nine stolen bases through April 17, good for the MLB lead at one point — but since then, he’s only added one stolen base on two attempts.
It’s not just Nico, the Cubs as a team appear to have shifted their running philosophy mid-stream as we were all discussing in Monday night’s game thread and it’s worth taking a closer look at why. The Cubs are currently tied for the seventh most stolen bags in the majors at 26, but if you break those out by two-week periods it’s easy to see that 22 of those bags came before the last two weeks — since then? The Cubs have only stolen four bases as a team. There could be a lot of possible explanations for this change so today I wanted to take a closer look at the team’s overall running philosophy.
The offense is better than expected
One possible explanation for the shift in the Cubs running philosophy is that they offense is just flat out better than expected. The case for this would be that the Cubs early ambition on the basepaths was rooted in early season concerns that they’d struggle to get runners into scoring position so they were running a lot to increase scoring opportunities. Then, this happened, take a look at MLB offenses through May 1:
Teams by wRC+ as of May 1
Okay, so let’s all just stipulate that whatever is going on in Tampa Bay right now is utterly out of control. The Cubs find themselves in some incredibly good company as offensive stats go so far in 2023. They are first overall in the National League by wRC+, wOBA, Batting Average, On Base Percentage, and Slugging. To put this slightly differently, why risk running into outs when you have the most potent offense in the National League? Just let those runners hang out and advance as the next man up rakes.
If this theory is correct we are likely to see the Cubs continue to run less as long as their offense stays hot. If you listened to the latest Cuppa Cubbie Blue you know that coming into this week’s series in Washington, D.C. there were zero “cold” hitters on the Cubs (for the podcast we define hot hitters as a wRC+ of over or equal to 110 in the last two weeks and “cold” hitters as a wRC+ of 85 or under during the same sample size):
Running is catcher dependent
The other highly probable explanation for the difference in the Cubs running strategy is that it’s catcher dependent. If this were true, we’d expect them to run more against certain teams with certain catchers in the game. To evaluate this I looked at every opposing catcher who the Cubs have faced this year and then tallied the number of stolen base attempts, successful steals and caught stealing combined with two stats from Statcast. First, I looked at the new “Caught Stealing Above Average” metric that combines a lot of catcher metrics to get an idea of who is better/worse at controlling the running game. However, since that stat was unveiled in the middle of the season it seemed like some other stat was probably used to determine a “run/don’t run” line, so for a proxy there I went with the more simplistic pop-time metric that simply looks at how long it takes a catcher to make a throw. And, well, this is interesting:
Cubs running by opposing catcher
Now, the pop-time and CSA metrics don’t work well in very small sample sizes (ie, the size of the current season) so I ran those number since the start of 2021 to get more representative samples. That means there are more than a few opposing Cubs catchers who don’t qualify for data on those metrics — although I think that lack of data also tells a story, since the Cubs actually seem pretty conservative about making running decisions with catchers they don’t know very much about.
The Cubs are WAY more likely to run on catchers with a pop-time over 2.00 seconds. Think of it like a “go/no-go” line. Some guys (Nico Hoerner & Cody Bellinger, for example) appear to get the green light more than others and in more situations. Pop-time was actually way more predictive for this section than CSA, although they are related to each other and I wouldn’t be stunned if the Cubs have some stat similar to CSA that heavily weights pop-time to inform these decisions.
A stunning 42 percent of the Cubs steals so far this season came at the expense of Austin Barnes, who admittedly caught Noah Syndergaard, a pitcher notoriously slow to the plate, for one of those games.
There could be many factors influencing the Cubs’ early running decisions and while they may be being more conservative now that their offense is humming among the best offenses in the league, it seems more likely that they are targetting certain catchers with notoriously slow pop-times for the majority of their steals. There are 28 qualified catchers with a pop-time of 2.00 seconds or greater in the major leagues since 2021. I’d look for the Cubs to run more when facing those catchers and for the stolen base attempts to correlate with slower catcher pop-times going forward.