Working the count: How the Cubs have put together a relentless lineup
Kris Bryant fouled off 5 pitches, took 3 balls and swung at another without making contact. On the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Bryant flew out to Brewers left fielder Christian Yelich for the first Cub out of the 2020 season.
That’s just the type of at-bat David Ross imagined could happen when he named Bryant his leadoff hitter way back in February.
“I would hate to be on the other side and look at that big boy step in the box to lead things off and what he can do, his mindset in the box, the way he grinds at-bats,” Ross said in February. “I like professional at-bats and to start it off and set the tone for this group and what we’re gonna do, KB is a great option.”
In that first at-bat of the season, Bryant set the tenor for what the Cubs’ potent offense would be like in 2020: pesky.
Through 11 games, the Cubs lead Major League Baseball in pitches per plate appearance, seeing an average of 4.17 pitches. The result has been a strong offense that wears down opposing starters and forces teams to go deep into their bullpen. And it all starts with Bryant at the top.
In 37 plate appearances entering Wednesday night’s game against the Royals, Bryant has seen 155 pitches, or roughly 4.19 pitches per plate appearance. That’s set the tempo for the Cubs offense.
“When he’s in a good place, he’s seeing a lot of pitches at the top of the order, that sets the tone,” Ross said last week. “I just want him to be himself. There’s no difference to that role than him hitting in the two-hole, where he’s been.”
That tone was set on Opening Day. The Cubs forced Brewers ace Brandon Woodruff to throw 85 pitches in 5 innings of work, forcing the Brewers to go to their bullpen for the remainder of the game. It was a trend that has continued. Here’s how the Cubs have stacked up against starters this season:
Game 1 vs. MIL – Brandon Woodruff – 85 pitches in 5 IP; 54 pitches in the first 3 innings
Game 2 vs. MIL – Corbin Burnes – 75 pitches in 3.1 IP
Game 3 vs. MIL – Freddy Peralta — 66 pitches in 3 IP
Game 4 vs. CIN – Wade Miley – 57 pitches in 1.2 IP
Game 5 vs. CIN – Tyler Mahle – 69 pitches in 4 IP
Game 6 vs. CIN – Sonny Gray – 92 pitches in 6.2 IP
Game 7 vs. PIT – Trevor Williams – 91 pitches in 4.2 IP
Game 8 vs. PIT – Mitch Keller – 49 pitches in 2.2 IP (left due to injury)
Game 9 vs. PIT – Steven Brault – 35 pitches in 3 IP (used as opener)
Game 10 vs. KC — Danny Duffy – 103 pitches in 6 IP
Game 11 vs. KC — Brady Singer – 93 pitches in 5 IP
There were two blips in that stretch: against Gray, where they mustered just 1 hit against the Reds’ ace. That still worked to some extent for the Cubs, as they forced him out of the game in the 7th and scored 5 runs on the Reds bullpen. The second game where they weren’t as effective against a starter was Sunday’s finale against the Pirates, where Brault didn’t allow a single baserunner in his three innings as an opener. The Cubs went on to win the game in extra innings.
And in addition to working starters, they’ve made opposing bullpens work, too. The Cubs have taken over 160 pitches in a game 6 times this season, giving the lineup plenty of looks at a pitcher.
“I think they take a different approach every night; they do their homework,” Ross said. “We’ve got a great hitting staff here between Nate Halm, Terrmel Sledge and Anthony Iapoce. I think we’re in a really good place.
“These guys know the hitters; they have good feedback and each night we form a game plan against that particular pitcher and these guys are bought into what these guys are telling them and go out there and have that approach. That’s as simple as it can be said. I think these guys are bought in. It’s a credit to the players.”
While much of the opposing pitchers will have circled the top of the Cubs order – Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Báez provide a potent 1-2-3 punch – the bottom of the order has been the one to feast on the high pitch counts.
The 7-through-9 hitters in the Cubs lineup were slashing .278/.373/.491 with 5 home runs and 19 RBIs entering Wednesday’s game.
“That’s what happens when you start from pitch 1 and grind at-bats and try to see pitches and are on the attack as far as your approach,” Ross said. “Good things happen towards the back end. We’ve talked a lot about the bottom of the lineup doing so well. That’s a product of the top of the lineup grinding and making it tough on the opposing pitcher.”
That’s given guys at the bottom of the order a little mojo. They know if they continue on the pace they’re on, when the top of the order really finds its groove, the Cubs will be tough to stop offensively.
“I like this lineup a lot because it competes 1-through-9,” Jason Kipnis, who has a 1.571 OPS in 4 starts in the 8-spot in the lineup, said. “If we could still win games with the contribution we’ve been getting from the bottom of the order, I think you’ve seen the bottom of the order step up early on. All that is is buying those big boys time at the top of the order. Once they get goin’, that’s when the real fun is gonna start. I think we’ve preached that this whole time is championship at-bats, making a tough out, not giving at-bats away. When you constantly reiterate that and focus on that, you’re gonna have guys in the right mindset up at the plate and it’s showing so far.”