BASEBALL BY THE NUMBERS: Cubs walking their way to runs

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Chicago Cubs’ Ben Zobrist runs the bases after hitting a three-run home run against the Washington Nationals during the fifth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 6, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/David Banks) ORG XMIT: CXC116

By John Grochowski

The Cubs’ four-game sweep of the Nationals that ended Sunday featured this unusual tidbit: The Nationals drew more walks (22) than the Cubs (18).

That was largely because the Cubs pitched around Bryce Harper, whose 13 walks in the series included a record-tying six – three intentional – Sunday.

Still, being out-walked is a novelty for the Cubs, who led the majors with 156 bases on balls through Sunday. Meanwhile, their pitchers’ 88 walks were the fourth-fewest in the National League.

Bases on balls have been an important component of the Cubs’ offense, which entered play Monday leading the majors with 6.13 runs per game. The Cubs’ .263 batting average through Sunday ranked eighth in the majors and was closer to the .250 major-league average than to the Pirates’ major-league-leading .284.

But even though the Cubs were 21 points behind the Pirates in batting average, they were scoring a run-plus per game more than the Pirates’ 5.03. A large portion of that is because walks bring the Cubs’ on-base percentage up to .368, which tops the Pirates’ .364.

On-base percentage correlates more strongly to runs than batting average alone. In 2006, the Hardball Times website published a study using data collected from 2000 to 2004. Batting average was shown to have a .843 correlation to runs.

That’s pretty strong. A perfect correlation, with batting average and runs rising and falling in lockstep, would be 1. But batting average alone misses walks, extra-base hits and other factors that go into scoring. Just by including walks and hit-by-pitches to calculate on-base percentage, the correlation rises to .910.

Adjust for extra bases by adding on-base percentage to slugging percentage to get OPS, and there’s a correlation leap to .958. To do better than that, you need more sophisticated stats such as Bill James’ runs created or Jim Furtado’s extrapolated runs reduced, both at .964.

The Cubs have been holding their own in the slugging end with a .441 slugging percentage that ranks fourth in the NL. Paired with their league-leading on-base percentage, that adds up to an .809 OPS, one point behind the league-leading Cardinals’ .810.

The OPS has been enhanced by walks, and the Cubs would walk 842 times on their current pace. That would break the major-league record of 835 set by the 1949 Red Sox. Even with a good deal of leveling off, they could challenge the NL record of 732 set by the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ben Zobrist (23 walks through Sunday), Anthony Rizzo (22) and Dexter Fowler (21) have been the leaders. Addison Russell entered play Monday with 17 walks, representing 14.3 percent of his 119 plate appearances. Russell has taken a leap forward from 2015, when his 42 walks were 8 percent of his 523 plate appearances.

A year ago, when the Cubs jumped to 567 walks from 442 in 2014, their approach was labeled ‘‘selective aggression.’’ They weren’t looking for walks; they were being patient about looking for a pitch to hit, and walks were a beneficial byproduct. This seasob, that byproduct is providing an even bigger boost.

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