One of baseball’s little oddities is that the Cubs are hitting far below their norms with runners in scoring position yet lead National League teams in RBI in plate appearances with RISP.
Through Sunday, the Cubs had 243 RBI in RISP situations, with the Braves second at 232. Eight of 15 NL teams had fewer
The key has been getting runners into scoring position in the first place. The Cubs’ NL-leading .340 on-base percentage and .758 OPS topped the Braves’ .328 and .749. Cubs hitters had come to the plate with 931 RISP, with the Braves next at 825.
Nevertheless, the Cubs were hitting only .235 with a .693 OPS with RISP. The norm is to hit about the same with RISP as overall. The NL batting average/OPS averages are .244/.716 overall and .246/.735 with RISP. In 2017, the Cubs’ .255/.775 overall was mirrored by their .253/.787 with RISP. In 2016, it was .256/.772 overall and .252/.771 with RISP.
Naturally, the RISP shortfall raises eyebrows every time the Cubs lose a close or low-scoring game, such as their 1-0 loss last week in Milwaukee. The Cubs’ 6-11 record in one-run games was a big reason they entered play Monday a half-game behind the Brewers, who were 16-8 in one-run games.
RISP isn’t the whole story, by any means. The Brewers hadn’t been particularly good with runners on, either. They were hitting .249/.732 overall but .235/.716 with RISP.
One factor for the Cubs is that they had gotten fewer runners into scoring position in close games. Cubs hitters have had 9.2 at-bats per game with RISP overall but only 7.6 such at-bats per one-run game. It hurt that they had no hits with RISP in the 1-0 loss to the Brewers, but it also hurt that they had only four at-bats with RISP.
In the Cubs’ 11 one-run losses, they had gone 9-for-85 with RISP, a .106 batting average.
Batting average with RISP isn’t a particularly good predictor of future batting average with RISP. It’s built on small sample sizes and rises and falls in patterns that look a lot like chance.
When Ian Happ doubled home Anthony Rizzo to give the Cubs a 4-3 lead in what became a 6-3 victory Saturday in St. Louis, it raised his batting average with RISP from .167 to .194. The difference between that and his .232 overall average is less than two hits. If one more batted ball with RISP had dropped in, his batting average with RISP would be .225.
On a team level, batting average on balls in play plays a role. The Cubs have a .311 BABiP overall, but it’s only .292 with RISP.
If the Cubs continue to hit 23 points below their overall average when they advance runners to scoring position, that’s trouble. But past results tell us the most likely outcome is that their batting average with RISP will rise closer to their overall average.
So far, the Cubs have been able to counter the difficulties by getting more men on base than the rest of the NL.