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posted: 4/14/2010 12:01 AM

Numbers indicate better days ahead for Cubs, Sox

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When major-league teams still have opening-day bunting draped over their ballparks' rafters, it's too soon to start drawing season-long conclusions from statistics.

But will that stop us from using small sample sizes to analyze the Cubs and the White Sox? Of course not.

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While both teams are off to mediocre starts, there are messages inside the numbers that suggest better results should be on the way.

Let's start with a look at the Cubs' everyday lineup, which had been poor before its breakout performance in Monday's home opener.

A lot of eyes are on Geovany Soto after his dreadful 2009 season, and his early-season showing (2 singles in 15 at-bats) hasn't alleviated any concerns.

Unless, of course, we examine his at-bats more closely. Of the 10 times he has put the ball into play, he owns three line drives.

While nobody maintains a 30 percent line-drive rate over a season, Soto's biggest problem in 2009 was his drop in line-drive rate. He roped line drives on more than 21.1 percent of his batted balls in 2007-08, but just 18.1 percent of the time in 2009.

If he's back to the old Soto when it comes to hitting liners - remember it's a small sample - the average soon will rise as liners become hits far more often than grounders or flyballs.

Other Cubs who should get rolling sooner than later? Third baseman Aramis Ramirez and center fielder Marlon Byrd.

Both rank among the worst 15 major-leaguers in BABIP (Batting Averages on Balls In Play). Ramirez sits at .133, while Byrd rests at .158.

Considering major-leaguers posted a .299 BABIP last season - a number that doesn't fluctuate by more than a few points from year to year - Ramirez and Byrd should rise toward the mean before long.

Ozzie-ball alert

Among the reasons White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen advocated roster changes in the off-season was that he wanted his batters not to strike out so often.

While the White Sox didn't exactly strike out a ton in 2009 (they tied for the seventh-fewest strikeouts per at-bat in the majors with an 18.7 percentage), they've become the bigs' least-whiffy team in the early going.

Going into Tuesday's game at Toronto, the Sox struck out just 12.7 percent of the time. That's an amazing rate that won't hold up over the year but holds promise nonetheless.

While the Sox have been putting the ball in play, they haven't benefited much from doing so. The Sox are last in the majors in BABIP (.218), and no one else is close.

Ozzie's biggest offender here is new leadoff man Juan Pierre, who owns a .138 BABIP in part because he ripped just 4 liners in the first 25 at-bats in which he put the ball in play.

Since Pierre has proved to be neither a threat to hit a home run (1 since 2006) nor to take a walk (1 every 18 plate appearances during his career), he needs a high line-drive rate in order to have a chance at a high BABIP.

When that doesn't happen, Pierre's average fielding skills and weak arm conspire to make him unworthy of regular playing time.

Bullpen perspective

This might come as a shock to Cubs fans, but Lou Piniella's team didn't have the worst bullpen ERA in baseball through Monday's games.

Thanks to incredible efforts by Sean Marshall and Carlos Marmol - who have fanned 16 of the 29 batters they've faced while posting 0.00 ERAs - the Cubs are just 27th in baseball with their 6.30 bullpen ERA.

But here's the better news for Cubs fans: According to a complex formula known as expected Fielding Independent Pitching (which attempts to normalize team defense and a pitcher's home run rate), the bullpen's true ERA should be more like 3.87, and that ranks among the top third of major-league teams.

Again, all of these thoughts and recommendations are based on small sample sizes.

But if many of these numbers stay in the same ballpark as the season unfolds, the Cubs and the Sox both have the structure to be contenders.

Numbers to live by?

Lindsey Willhite offers some more intriguing numbers for Cubs and White Sox players:

Whiff Kings: Every year from 2001 to 2008, the Cubs pitching staff led the major leagues in strikeouts.

In 2009, the Tim Lincecum-led San Francisco Giants took away the Cubs' title.

The Cubs could be on their way to regaining their crown. Through Monday's games, they led the majors with 9 strikeouts per 9 innings. The White Sox ranked seventh with 7.96 Ks per 9 IP.

Whiff Kings, Part II: Maybe there's something about Cubs games that triggers a lot of strikeouts - or the umpires borrow the late Eric Gregg's legendary strike zone.

Through Monday's games, the Cubs' batters shared the major-league lead with Atlanta by striking out in 25.4 percent of their at-bats.

Third baseman Aramis Ramirez is the biggest offender. During his career, he has whiffed on just 15.3 percent of his at-bats. But in his first 27 at-bats this year, he already owns 11 strikeouts. That's an alarming 40 percent rate that, at the minimum, will be chopped in half by the all-star break.

The new South Siders: Entering Tuesday's game at Toronto, the White Sox' four off-season acquisitions (Juan Pierre, Mark Teahen, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel) owned a combined .200 batting average with 3 homers, 8 runs and 7 RBI.

There's a good reason for the lousy average: They combined for just nine line drives in 60 at-bats (15 percent) when they put the ball in play.

Last year the average major-league team posted a 19 percent line-drive rate. This is important because three-fourths of line drives tend to fall in for hits.

Source: Fangraphs.com

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