The Cubs’ Bad Habits Are Already Showing Up

The lovable losers will lose less in 2013, but not until they start taking care of the little things that crippled them last year.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

If you missed yesterday’s Cubs game, you missed part of what differentiates baseball, and in particular Cubs baseball, from other forms of sport: an undignified early-season slog through a cold mist played at a time that allows few to attend and in weather that kept everyone else away, for the benefit of all involved. Were this football, it would be tirelessly flogged over a sports-radio cycle. Baseball allows it the mercy of obscurity.

The Cubs allowed seven runs to the Giants, three of which were earned, and one of those came in on a bases-loaded walk. Had Starlin Castro, their hypertalented attention-deficit shortstop, not allowed a piddling two-out grounder through his legs in the fourth, the Cubs may have preserved their then-five run lead. But that led to an infield single that Anthony Rizzo managed to slow down just enough to give Brent Lillibridge, backing him up, no options—though pitcher Scott Feldman might not have beaten the batter to first anyway.

Then Feldman hit punchless shortstop Brandon Crawford (.653 OPS in 2012) to load the bases for tough out Pablo Sandoval, who promptly hit a bases-clearing double. (The portly Sandoval could have been gunned down at second, had the ball been fielded cleanly and had anyone been covering second, which was a lot to ask at that point, and not that it added to the damage.)

This brought the Giants within a run; they tied it the next inning when Hishanori Takahashi walked the Giants’ pitcher.

Even for the people who did manage to see it, perhaps in the warmth of a Wrigleyville bar, it will be forgotten if it hasn’t been already. But it does highlight some of the Cubs’ bad habits, which are persisting early on:

* In 2012, the Cubs combined a mediocre walk rate and strikeout rate to finish tied for 29th out of 30 teams in on-base percentage, just ahead of the historically awful Mariners (who finally moved their outfield fences in after a few years of abysmal offense) and tied with the drastically rebuilding Astros, who are no longer the NL Central’s reliable face-savers.

* So far this season they’ve got 29th all to themselves in OBP, just ahead of the Pirates (who are hitting .153 as a team) and just behind the Marlins, who are 1-8 and functionally a triple-A team.

* Their OBP is low because they’ve walked 16 times on the season, four more times than the Reds’ Joey Votto and less than half as many times as the 8-2 Athletics.

* The Cubs’ pitching has actually been… not bad. Fangraphs’ numbers give their staff 1.5 wins over replacement, compared to -0.5 for their hitters, third from the bottom. And the staff has the third-highest strikeout rate in baseball. But their walk rate, a bit over four per nine innings, is fourth-worst so far. Last year they were the worst in baseball.

And yesterday? The Giants struck out nine times, but walked six. One Cub, Luis Valbuena, walked once.

The Cubs will be better this year. Anthony Rizzo’s .158 average on balls in play will regress, so his .188 average will rise as well. (He’s also tied for sixth in RBIs while hitting below .200, which will happen when three of your six hits are home runs.) They’re a better team—but they’re still carrying over their quiet flaws over from 2012, small mistakes which add up, one upon another, into losses.

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