By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Joe Maddon entered the Wrigley Field media room wheezing. Still, he had a big smile on his face.
The Cubs’ skipper had just picked up his 800th career victory — a 6-5 comeback win on Thursday afternoon — and his team just completed a four-game sweep of the NL East-leading New York Mets. Keeping with the new tradition, the players turned on the smoke machine and celebrated.
When Maddon won his first game as a manager — a 7-1 California Angels victory over the Yankees on Aug. 21, 1996 — he celebrated with a shot of Jack. For this milestone, he let the players have their fun with the smoke machine.
After all, Maddon wants winning to be important for the Cubs. He hopes this young core can appreciate what victories feel like, then make it a culture. Four straight wins over the Mets certainly brought reason to smile.
“Today’s celebration was nice,” joked Anthony Rizzo in the clubhouse aftermath.
Entering Thursday’s slate of night games, the Cubs are 19-15 overall and five games back of the St. Louis Cardinals, a group carrying the best record in baseball. This sweep of the Mets brought plenty of good vibes and a sustainable buzz back to the Friendly Confines. While the Cubs’ early success can be measured in wins, their potential is found in the numbers.
It’s no secret that the Cubs are young. Rizzo and Starlin Castro are 25, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are 23 and Addison Russell is 21. Each member of this promising core boasts a sweet swing and raw power but have one important thing to improve.
The Cubs lead the majors in strikeout rate at an astounding 26.1 percent. This is simply an important piece of growth, namely for the three rookies. For all of that potential, plus some solid plate approaches (Bryant is tied with Rizzo with 20 walks, though in just 26 games), the Cubs have been guilty of swinging at plenty of bad pitches. Their 331 strikeouts lead the league.
Further illustrating this point, the Cubs have baseball’s third-best batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with a .323 mark that trails only the Marlins and Tigers, but they boast a team average of .249. This significant differential points to the fact that Chicago will see much stronger offensive production when this strikeout rate decreases, for they’re hitting the ball hard when connecting.
Sure, it seems simple enough — strikeouts are bad, contact is good, etc. — but such a dramatic differential in BABIP to average would be concerning for most teams. In the case of these Cubs, it’s part of the learning curve. This young group is learning how to approach each at-bat, and such struggles are only natural.
While the Cubs’ young core has such high potential, it’s still growing. Rizzo and Castro are established big leaguers who have fought through their struggles, but rookies Soler, Bryant and Russell are adjusting to pitching at this unfamiliar level.
Even with an alarming strikeout rate and statistically proven room for growth, the Cubs have found themselves four games over .500 and in the early hunt.
Development will continue to occur, and the Cubs can hope success continues to come. As good as this team has been, the numbers show what high potential exists.
Maddon can plan for more postgame celebrations.
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.