The Cubs are running more, but is it helping them win games?
"“It’s important to have guys in motion.”"
The words of David Ross himself there, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune on May 12. And these Chicago Cubs have indeed been running. They are fifth in the majors stolen bases and fourth in triples. They have the seventh-best success rate in extra bases taken. They’re sixth in sending runners from first to third. They’ve steadily climbed the stolen base rankings since 2019.
Give Ross and the Cubs credit; they are making heroic efforts to bring speed back into a game that has become plodding. Last season the Kansas City Royals led this galactic quadrant in stolen bases with 124. Your World Series-winning Royals had about the same amount (128) in 1985; but that total was only good enough for tenth place. The Cardinals led the majors that year with 314 swipes.
Sometimes bad things happen for good reasons. Analytics have led most franchises to extract more value from their players (and front offices) than at any time in baseball history, most notably by husbanding the currency of the game, outs, with Scrooge-like obsessiveness. The disappearance of multi-purpose stadiums facilitated the happy demise of Astroturf, which preyed mercilessly on players’ legs and backs. These trends (along with other factors) contributed to an unfortunate result: three true outcomes baseball, as hitters and pitchers both focus overwhelmingly on power while fewer hits are skidding through infields no longer made of green concrete.
Baseball in the 1980s was inefficient and harmful to the players, but boy was it fun. As Theo Epstein in his latest incarnation attempts to bring back some of that old-timey excitement, he can look to his former team as it seeks, in the current constricted context, to make running great again.
But is all that cardio actually helping the Cubs win games? The evidence is mixed. Despite those impressive running statistics listed above, the Cubs are just 20th in the majors in runs scored per game. They’re 16th in wRC+, a stat that largely ignores running. One might think that if running was propelling the Cubs to better outcomes, it would boost their run scoring relative to their wRC+, but there’s no sign of that.
The Cubs are stealing at just about the league average rate of 75 percent, which is either good or not good. Some say 80 percent is the break-even success rate, a rate that very few players have achieved over their entire careers. Fangraphs rates Chicago’s stolen base efforts as middling, but likes the non-steal aspects of the Cubs’ running game.
Cubs: They’re going to keep running whether you like it or not
Regardless of what the stats say, the Cubs are likely to keep on running. Many of their best runners (Nico Hoerner, Christopher Morel, Patrick Wisdom, Ian Happ) will continue to be lineup fixtures. Willson Contreras is, from the non-stealing perspective, the most productive Cubs baserunner, but he’ll probably be tearing up basepaths in another city before the trade deadline. (I was going to say “in warmer climes,” but as I write this it’s ninety (90) degrees in Chicago at 10pm local time – if Willson ends up in a warmer clime he’ll be battling horned dudes wielding pitchforks.)
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This is a weak Cubs squad, and all the running in the world won’t turn them into a pennant contender. But the Ross brand of baseball is at least interesting to watch when the Cubs can keep the game close (admittedly an increasingly rare circumstance). Some of the good runners might stick around long enough to be in the next postseason run, when the marginal value of each win will be much higher than today, and running effectively will therefore be that much more important. Ross is running for the future; there isn’t much to run for now.