Chicago Cubs: Producing with runners in scoring position a challenge

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

For the Chicago Cubs, scoring with runners in scoring position (RISP) has been a challenge in 2018. If they don’t right the ship, it could cost them a playoff berth.

As Chicago Cubs fans everywhere wring their hands over a less-than-stellar start to the 2018 season, many wonder what exactly is going wrong. Some feel the starting pitching is not yet delivering on their considerable promise. Others feel that the team suffers from a superiority complex and isn’t taking their opponents serious enough.

A few misguided folks even go as far as to say the team simply is overrated. Then there’s a key injury or two (most notably to All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo) and of course the reality that the weather has been downright ugly to date has to factor in as well.

While it is possible that some combination of each of these may be the culprit, there really is a simple, single, data-driven analytic that tells the story best: performance with runners in scoring position.

Batting with RISP

Looking back at the 2017 season and focusing on RISP statistics, one will immediately see that the eventual World Series Champion, the Houston Astros, led the way with a .294 RISP average. Not far behind was one of the NL’s best teams, the Washington Nationals (.290). After those top two, the top 15 in this category is littered with playoff teams, but also contains a surprising amount of also-rans.

2017 Team Leaders, Batting Average with RISP

The conclusion here has to be that RISP batting average alone isn’t a telling stat.

Pitching with RISP

Expanding the analysis further, perhaps it is less about how teams do with runners in scoring position and more about how their opponents do with runners in scoring position.

To that end, reviewing the top 15 teams in batting average against with runners in scoring position, you’ll find a few more playoff teams than was seen in the previous list. The Dodgers led the pack in this category holding opponents to a miniscule .215 BA in RISP situations, with the AL runner-up Yankees second. But again, looking at the full list, there’s enough non-playoff teams to make one wonder if this truly is as telling as one would think.

2017 Team Leaders, Batting Average Against with RISP

While this top 15 list does feature nine of the ten playoff teams, seeing the likes of the Rays, Pirates and White Sox among the leaders discredits this as a trustworthy predictor of team success.

So Does RISP Matter?

As we’ve seen, statistics – particularly those relating to performance in RISP situations – are indicators for success but not necessarily reliable predictors. There is, however, one RISP-related analytical consideration that has proven to be remarkably accurate.

In 2017, these were the top ten teams in run differential with runners in scoring position (runs scored with RISP minus runs allowed with RISP):

If you’re paying attention, you will immediately recognize that these ten teams represent the ten playoff teams from 2017. Clearly, at least last season, consideration of the volume of runs scored and allowed with RISP was clearly something that mattered a great deal. In fact, since the additional wild card teams were added to the playoffs in 2012, only two teams have finished within the top five in this category and not made the playoffs.

RISP in 2018

As this season continues to roll along, it may be informative to reflect on which teams are excelling and which are struggling in terms of scoring – and stopping – runs with RISP. Through April 13, here are the top five and bottom five in MLB:

Top Five

Bottom Five

The top five have a combined record of 53-14. The bottom five are a combined 18-51.

The math is simple, the Chicago Cubs (who entered Saturday’s play at +3 in this category for 2018) must do a better job of scoring with RISP and holding others from scoring in these situations. They must improve upon their .189 batting average if they want to score more runs.

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Warmer weather should make for more favorable hitting conditions. The return of a healthy Rizzo will help. The team must approach the Reds of the league the same way they approach the Brewers. But above all else, and regardless of how or against whom, they MUST start to deliver with runners in scoring position if they want to avoid that dreaded “overrated” tag in 2018.