Ed. note: WARR baseball writer Kevin Luchansky writes about the Cubs and the White Sox weekly for WARR.com.
Also, check out Kevin’s daily baseball betting picks on NorthSideWire.
Just a week ago, the anemic Cubs offense was getting little from their middle of the order batters. Though their improvement in the win-loss department was nil (now 4-10 overall), there were certainly a few big names that answered the bell in week two.
The biggest turnaround in improvement came from Starlin Castro. In week one of the season, Castro looked like his 2013 self — a season he would soon rather forget, one in which he only produced a .285/.284/.347 slash line and totaled zero wins above replacement level players.
In just 23 at-bats this past week, Castro collected seven hits, scored twice, drove in two, and — perhaps most importantly — struck out just three times. After last season’s strikeout rate of nearly 19% of his at-bats, seeing that number trickle down this season will go a long way in Castro’s professional development. Since he is now playing in what will be his fourth full MLB season, it’s easy to forget that Castro is just 24 years old and is just scratching the surface of his potential.
Since Castro possesses the hitting tools to hit for power, I’d love to see more of his hits falling for extra bases, though I can’t discredit the improvement he’s made so far — of his seven hits last week, six were singles and none left the yard. Still, if Casto can keep his strikeout percentage low and continues to make solid contact, the extra base hits will eventually fall.
Schierholtz Showing Promise
On the extra bases front, outfielder Nate Schierholtz and his bat woke up in week two as well. In 25 at-bats, Schierholtz strung together three doubles, drove in two and stole a base, bringing his season batting average to a respectable .250. The doubles are a welcome sign for a team that ranks 28th in the league in total bases.
That’s a great sign for the Cubs, as I think Schierholtz will be their most valuable commodity around the trade deadline this season. One thing Cubs hitting coach Bill Mueller needs to address with Nate is his patience and approach at the plate. His walk rate and strike out percentage (2% and 22%, respectively) are both quite alarming.
Add to the previous fact that Schierholtz’ batting average on balls in play is higher than his career average — meaning more balls that he has put into play have fallen for hits than usual — and his batting average is sure to dip below his current mark. One way to quickly address this issue and insure he stays on the right side of the .250 mark is certainly to see more pitches per plate appearance, which all starts with patience.
Putting Rizzo to Work
Not to be outdone by the aforementioned middle of the order guys, Anthony Rizzo has quietly compiled solid stats in this young season. Brought into this order to provide a source of power, Rizzo has just two home runs in 2014, but his swing looks greatly improved and he has already shown an ability to hit to the opposite field. This has already proven to be advantageous for him, as many teams are shifting defensively with Rizzo at the plate, which opens up a gap in left-center for Rizzo to exploit.
While I fully expect his home run total to climb, it’s in the Cubs’ and Rizzo’s best interest for him to become a more complete hitter, and it seems he is taking steps in that direction. An on-base percentage slightly over .400, a strike out percentage just two-thirds that of last year’s number and a slugging mark nearly 100 points higher than last year attest to that improved swing. Sure, it is a small sample size, but I can’t help mentioning how Rizzo has been passing the eye test this year. His approach is noticeably different and he looks much more comfortable in the batter’s box.
Jackson Servin’ Em Up
On the bump, pitching concerns are still prevalent for the Cubs, most noticeably with recent free agent acquisition Edwin Jackson. In his second year of a four-year, $52 million dollar deal, Jackson has picked up right where he left off in the 2013 season — and that’s not a good thing at all.
Opponent batters are hitting a staggering .303 against Jackson, which includes a batting average on balls in play of nearly .400. Not helping his cause, and contributing to an ERA of over 6 runs, is his inability to find the plate. Jackson is walking more than six batters per nine innings, a number that is more than twice the league average and registers as an “Awful” on Fangraph’s league scale.
In Jackson’s strongest seasons (2011-12), his walk rates per nine innings were hovering between 2.7 and 3.3, so he has shown good control before, but for a pitcher that allows a normally high BABIP, his control will certainly have to improve drastically if he plans to keep runs off the board.
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