Cubs pitchers are changing how they attack hitters

(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

Based on admittedly early and very small samples, the Chicago Cubs appear to be significantly changing how they’re attacking hitters on the mound. Last season the Cubs led the charted universe in sinker usage, throwing the pitch over 27 percent of the time.

This year, that’s dropped to just 15 percent. Some of that drop comes from the departure of sinker-heavy pitchers such as Zach Davies and Jake Arrieta (who just turned in his badge). But the guys on the roster are moving away from the sinker as well.

So far six Cubs pitchers who threw sinkers in 2021 have also done so this year. All of them are sinking it less with the exception of Chris Martin. This includes, most notably, Marcus Stroman, who has been a sinker-first pitcher most of his career.

Because the slider is a trendy killer pitch, I expected the Cubs were turning those sinkers into sliders, but that’s not at all the case. Compared to 2021, the Cubs sinker usage has dropped about 12 percent. Their combined 4-seamer and cutter usage has gone up by just about the same amount. The Cubs are turning fastballs into … other fastballs. In fact, the Cubs are throwing sliders less often than last season, down from 14 to 11 percent. Most of those have turned into curves.

Of course, we’re working with not just a small sample but a skewed one, since nearly half of the Cubs’ games (as of this writing) have taken place at Coors Field. Maybe the Cubs have been temporarily avoiding sliders because of that thin mountain air. If so, no one told the Rockies, who are sixth in The Show in slider frequency. Yes, assuming the Rockies know what they’re doing is always a fraught enterprise, but they’ve actually pitched quite well this year: they’re sixth in ERA+.

The Cubs’ aversion to sliders is nothing new: from 2018-22 the Cubs ranked dead last in slider usage. However, their sinker avoidance is new: the Cubs are second in sinker frequency over the same period. They’ve employed the sinker around 15 percent of the time this season, almost exactly matching the current league average. So it seems that the Cubs are consciously changing their pitching approach, while simultaneously not increasing their slider reliance.

It’s possible the Cubs are concerned about injuries. Will Carroll, who has forgotten more about baseball injuries than I will ever know, has stated that throwing sliders does not by itself increase injury risk. But he wrote that back in 2014; a more recent scientific paper says yeah, maybe it does, at least under certain conditions. Sliders are often suspects in elbow injuries but that paper associates them with increased risk to the throwing shoulder.

The Cubs are turning to the curveball in their altered pitching approach

In any case, the Cubs’ offspeed weapon of choice this season has been the curve. The Cubs are fourth overall in curve usage this season at 13 percent, well over the current league average of 8.5 percent.

And curves are good! This year they’ve been even better than sliders. Here’s what the league is hitting against each pitch type, as measured by OPS, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

  • 4-seamer: .796
  • Cutter: .757
  • Sinker: .749
  • Change: .605
  • Slider: .564
  • Curve: .556

So far this season the Cubs are making their own way through the pitching maze, throwing cutters and curves more often than the league, and throwing sliders much less. It’s too early to tell whether this pattern will become established or something different will emerge as the innings and games begin to accumulate.

It’s also too early to tell whether it will work, but the early returns are modestly encouraging. Last season, the Cubs had an ERA+ of 88, which is bad. This year, their ERA+ sits at 105, which is “meh.” But meh is better than bad, and the Cubs are doing it with a makeshift rotation and an unsettled bullpen.

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Next. Used correctly, Jason Heyward is finding success. dark

Once the rotation and bullpen roles settle in (that sound you just heard was me knocking on wood) we’ll get a better idea of whether the Cubs’ new approach is consistently leading to better results.