There’s No Little Blue Pill For a Limp Bat

Certain members of the Cubs just can’t seem to get it up….

Their stats, I mean. We’re still talking about baseball here so get your minds out of the gutter.

Considering Cubs are on a painful 8 game losing skid, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist/baseball genius to realize that the core of your lineup is having problems at the dish. This is ignoring the bullpen/rotation struggles and sudden influx of injuries that the Cubs have been plagued with all season (which is an entire other column waiting to happen)

We all knew this was coming, and there’s no denying that we were going to rue the day that we had to take a good hard look at our beloved baseball team and say “Yeah…. it’s not gonna happen this year”. The pain has sunk in.

I for one am not worried in the slightest. Yes, our team is a little lackluster this year and will likely continue to be that way for a few years to come, but there’s a ton of upside to this sucking. The higher draft picks in 2013 will be nice and will allow for some young bold talent to slot in to the Cubs’ farm system. That’s great.

But the main factor to the Cubs blowing chunks in 2012 is allowing some of our young prospects to be exposed to the majors in a relatively low pressure situation. For instance, if a team is at .500 in July, they may still be in the playoff hunt and are less likely to gamble by dressing young prospects. If wins and losses don’t matter, its ok to let the kids go out there and learn from their mistakes.

If it wasn’t for previous years of struggle for the Cubs’ guys like Bryan LaHair would still be in AAA Iowa making a career out of playing in the minors. Lucky for us, LaHair found some wiggle room in the Cubs’ lineup and blew everyone away at spring training, thus earning him his spot on first base.

And every Cubs fan knows that LaHair has been absolutely beastly this season and his numbers reflected it. His BAPIP was a godly 1.500-ish at one point this season – which is completely unsustainable at any baseball level. It was easy to get caught up in the “broo-ha-ha” of LaHair being the Cubs savior and him freeing us from the confines of failure and shame.

But you have to look at a few other factors when looking at LaHair’s numbers – most specifically, the number of games played. LaHair hasn’t had much exposure to the big leagues so his MLB career numbers are going to be skewed on the high side when he comes out swinging like a Babe Ruth/Lou Gehrig hybrid. We all kind of put LaHair up on a throne – a throne he earned none the less, but a throne that “we the people” are quick to take away as well.

Along with the Cubs slump comes the slump of Bryan LaHair. Considering he was the most productive Cub at the plate, its easy to make that correlation. I’d even argue that his “slump” is more of a “normalization” as there was no way that any human being was going to maintain those stats for any prolonged period of time. It was just too tall a task.

But why the sudden change?

LaHair is 2-23 in his last at bats with a homer and 3 walks. For all you sabermetricians out there, it means a dismal .087 AVG and SLG .260.

May 15, 2012; St. Louis, MO. USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair (6) hits a solo home run in the sixth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

There’s a couple factors at play here.

  • LaHair is now a pretty well established hitter with enough time in the majors that opposing pitchers can learn his quirks and capitalize on them. He’s had 127 AB so far this season, so there’s more than enough video on him as well. Part of being a big league slugger is constantly adjusting your swing so that you stay fresh in the eyes of pitchers. If you don’t adapt, the opposition will eat you alive.
  • The pressure from all the  Anthony Rizzo call up talk may be getting inside his head. Rizzo would certainly be the one to bump LaHair off first base, and it’s a lot of pressure to keep producing when there’s a young gun underneath you just praying you get hurt or start sucking.
  • LaHair seems to be getting a little too aggressive at the plate and his bat speed is coming up.  His stance is slightly more closed now as well. Part of what made LaHair such a good hitter was his ability to find power anywhere in the strike zone. He’s since fallen into this “swing hard at everything” mentality and its hurting him.

His numbers seem to prove the third option as true. He’s been having trouble working the count at the plate lately and when you start swinging harder and faster, it shows that you’re trying to “rush” your hits. Rushing your hits also leads to a lot more strike outs (13 SO in his last 10 games). With his SO% so high in the last 10 games, it was inevitable that his AVG and other stats would take a fall. It will eventually improve but with a 65% contact rate and a .408 BABIP, his average is likely to keep tumbling, though not as dramaticly as these past 5 games (.339 to .315).

Dale Sveum seems to agree with me (cause we’re buddy-buddy you know?!)

Cal Ripken used to have a different stance every week, Don Mattingly, you go on and on. You just want to see some effort for change whether it’s mechanics or the effort to take more pitches and not feel like the only way you have a chance is to hit the first pitch and if you don’t the at-bat is over.

LaHair has found himself down 0-2 and 1-2 at the plate more in the past 10 games than almost the entirety of the season. He was very good at sitting back and waiting for his pitch in the early goings, but now it seems to have faded.

Lets look into his numbers more. I like to use on base+slugging as a strong definition of a hitters prowess at the plate. LaHair’s OPS is highest in fastball situations (3-1, 2-0 counts etc) and is typically (and sometimes significantly) over 1.000 is most categories. However, in an 0-2 count, his OPS slips to .700 – showing he either gets aggressive to compensate for going down 2 strikes or just doesn’t hit well if its not a fast ball (0-2 traditionally not being a fastball situation)

LaHair also seems to be subject to impulse pressure and this is shown by his 1.151 OPS when the bases are empty. As soon as there’s a man on? It slides to .876. With men on scoring position? It falls even lower to .745 OPS.

That’s a very telling set of numbers.

Want more? Every Cubs player understands the rivalry between the Cardinals and the Cubs. LaHair’s OPS vs St. Louis is a massive 1.606, showing that when he’s motivated and up for a game, he performs.

All this leads to mental toughness. I’m no sports psychologist, but LaHair may be the type of person to get upset with himself when things don’t go well and that usually tends to bring on worse play in the long run. The numbers seem to back up this theory and the sudden change in his swing.

This is not to say that LaHair is single handedly responsible for the Cubs offensive woes. There are plenty of other factors too – like the 8 errors Starlin Castro has committed in his last few games (despite the fact that advanced defense metrics show that he’s been very solid this season. But no one likes columns about defensive metrics, so I’ll save that one for later). But the bottom line is that something needs to click for the Cubs to start winning baseball games again.

The fact of the matter is the Cubs are simply coming down from their streaky play early in the season. It was a treat to watch, but all good things must come to and end.

The upside is that the Cubs play against some similarly weak teams coming up (Houston, San Diego and Pittsburgh) and could end this skid.

Manager Dale Sveum says it best:

I might think about changing things at the top of the order. It’s not that anybody is doing anything wrong but just to change something because we aren’t producing any runs that way. We need some production,and the bottom line is two months into the season, we have to start producing or we’re going to have to start making some changes.”

Change is going to end this slump. Change on a player to player level and change on a team level will have a great impact.

Change is coming soon.

Topics: 2012, Bryan LaHair, Chicago Cubs, Slump, Starlin Castro

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