The Chicago Cubs are a team with a lot of baggage. Since acquiring Theo Epstein from the Red Sox in 2011 as President of Baseball Operations, the team’s farm system has developed prospect after prospect in an effort to build a team capable of ending the Curse of the Billy Goat.
With the longest championship drought in the history of major American sports, the Cubs have one streak they are desperate to see end. The addition of young bats like Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler, and Javier Baez and the emergence of stars like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo may help the team succeed in their championship efforts before long.
However, the team also has a streak they are likely quite proud to maintain. Not since Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game on September 9, 1965 has the team been the victim of a no-hitter. As of May 8, that is 7,853 consecutive games, the longest such streak in baseball history. This season will potentially see the 50th birthday of the streak, and there’s even a popular Twitter account tracking its daily status.
As little as Chicago fans may want to hear it, the chase to terminate one long streak may leave this more cherished run vulnerable to an ending as well.
The above chart includes the ten teams with the worst 2015 contact percentages. The Cubs are the worst by a 1.7 percent margin and are also the worst in both zone contact percentage and outside contact percentage. They are then unsurprisingly the owners of the league-worst swinging strike and strikeout rates as well as a top ten walk rate. All of this culminates in a 34.7% walk plus strikeout rate, which is the highest percentage of non-contact plate appearances in baseball. Earning a hit mandates contact, so making the least amount of it has to be a significant disadvantage.
With an average combined age of 27 years old, they are also the youngest team in the sport. As demonstrated by Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris, as a young player ages, he begins to improve both strikeout and walk rates until peaking from ages 26-30.
The inverse of that, however, is that the large group of young Cubs’ players are all at the most strikeout-prevalent periods of their careers. With Bryant, Russell, Soler, Castro, and Rizzo all before or just before this peak, the next season or two will likely see the Cubs work to hit their groove in terms of plate discipline. In particular, the addition of Javier Baez to the majors, with a 41.0 percent strikeout rate in his 2014 debut (and 27.0 percent rate in AAA), should slightly heighten this concern.
In an era with increasingly high velocity and strikeout numbers from opposing starting pitchers, the Cubs also have a disadvantage with regard to their opponents in avoiding a no-hitter.
Even amongst starting pitchers (the sample for the above chart), plate appearances ending without a ball in play are at their highest rates in recent history. The worst part for Chicago is not that they have moderately poor contact rates across the board; it is that they are particularly bad against a certain kind of pitcher.
To this (early) point in 2015, the present incarnation of the Cubs is worse than the league average when facing high strikeout and walk pitchers (classified as Power Pitchers by Baseball-Reference).
On the Cubs’ side in preserving their streak is that the players on the team are fairly strong hitters with some present power. The contact they DO make is typically strong, and the number of minor league shortstops playing all over the field results in a fair amount of speed to generate infield singles (their 8.6 percent infield hit rate is among the top 5 in the league).
This piece should not be misinterpreted as implying that the Cubs’ young hitters are a bad team – they might have more talent than almost any other organization. These players are going to win a lot of games together; it just seems that if a good team were to experience an off day of this magnitude, the team would be one like this.
A complete hitter in the middle of the lineup like Anthony Rizzo helps prevent such an off day for the very reason he’s in that position – he’s very good at making hard contact and despite his power profile doesn’t strikeout as often as his teammates.
Since 2007, there have been multiple no-hitters every season with a total of 31 (an average of 3.875 per year). With a league strike out rate (20.0 percent) on par with last year’s record 20.4 percent, it shouldn't be surprising if there are a couple no-hitters this season.
Obviously, it is never likely that any one team will fall victim to a no-hitter, just as it is never likely that one single pitcher will throw one. In both cases, pick the field if possible. However, if one had to make a guess knowing one was coming, the Cubs are one of the more likely teams to experience one.
If Baez is recalled to the majors, and Rizzo is given a day off against a power pitcher, that's one potential recipe for a rough day for the Cubs. If Jon Lester is pitching that same day (meaning David Ross is catching)? That's a fairly right-handed heavy lineup susceptible to a good right-hander.
The team's power-hitting young core may make their no-hit streak more threatened by the errant power throwing starting pitcher, but really, that’s ok. Epstein and company have collected talent with the best opportunity in decades to end sports’ longest championship drought. If that talent leads to an occasional worse-than-usual performance, it’s likely a sacrifice Cubs fans would be willing to make.
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All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and ESPN.
Spencer Bingol is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.