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updated: 5/10/2013 7:55 AM

With runners on, Cubs hitters hit bottom

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  • Like most of his teammates, Starlin Castro has struggled at the plate with runners in scoring position, and the are last in the majors in that hitting category.

      Like most of his teammates, Starlin Castro has struggled at the plate with runners in scoring position, and the are last in the majors in that hitting category.
    Associated Press

  • Video: Cubs vs. Cardinals

 
 

One of my favorite baseball debates is whether the natural-born "clutch hitter" exists.

Someday we'll get into that here or on our Daily Herald blog, Chicago's Inside Pitch. My short answer is that although clutch hitting exists, clutch hitters do not, unless you believe that a batter can guide the ball after he hits it.

In other words, let's say a runner comes up with runners on second and third with two outs. He crushes the ball only to see the shortstop make a leaping catch to save what would have been a 2-RBI double to the gap. Is that unlucky hitter any less "clutch" than the guy who gets jammed in that situation and dunks a lucky double into right field?

We can have a full-blown debate later, but today we will talk about the Cubs' lack of hitting with runners in scoring position.

In Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. That left them at 48-for-262 for the season. That .183 batting average with RISP is the lowest in the major leagues.

During both days of the two-game series, Cubs manager Dale Sveum lamented his team's lack of production with runners in scoring position while marveling at the Cardinals' success in that area. The Cards were 3-for-5 with RISP Wednesday, bringing them to .330 for the season (87-for-264).

"We couldn't get the ball up in the zone in those situations," Sveum said. "We were swinging at balls below the zone, and that was the difference. They (the Cardinals) got the ball up and put good swings on the ball in those situations, and we were swinging at balls below or knees in those situations where we just needed a flyball."

So the Cubs' failure with runners in scoring position has nothing to do with being "clutch." It has everything to do with their approaches at the plate. It's a problem the Cubs have whether runners are on base or not.

The Cubs rank 12th in the National League in on-base percentage (. 301), but they rank fifth in slugging percentage (. 409). But one thing holding this offense back is the inability or unwillingness to take walks. The Cubs rank 14th in the NL in walks drawn, at 85. By contrast, and as we blogged the other day, the Oakland Athletics lead the American League in walks drawn, with 156.

On the Cubs, catcher Welington Castillo has 1 walk and 29 strikeouts. That's pretty hard to do. Starlin Castro has an on-base percentage of only .293, with 5 walks and 25 strikeouts. Alfonso Soriano has 5 walks and 24 strikeouts.

Another interesting contrast is the Cubs' left-handed batters and right-handers. Luis Valbuena, the surprise offensive player Cubs so far, leads the team in walks, with 16. He also has a .387 OBP. Next in walks is fellow left-handed hitter Anthony Rizzo (13). David DeJesus, who consistently has the best plate appearances on the team, has 11 walks.

If you look at pitches per plate appearance, Valbuena ranked fourth in the NL entering Thursday (4.28). DeJesus was eighth (4.20). Lefty Nate Schierholtz was 21st (4.05), and Rizzo was 37th (3.91). The right-handed Cubs batter who has seen the most pitches per plate appearance is Castro, who ranked 41st, at 3.87. Next, at 62nd, is Soriano (3.69).

So the Cubs' hitting problems are based on approach, most of them ingrained.

This flies in the face of everything the new management team believes and stresses. Team president Theo Epstein and his crew are going to have to draft and develop players who have better approaches, and they're going to have to go out and acquire them, as they did with DeJesus, Rizzo and Schierholtz.

It's going to take time.

Making a statement:

The Cubs' handling of the Ian Stewart situation was the first real indication of how this organization will deal with a player it's unhappy with.

Stewart did not start again Thursday for Class AAA Iowa, one day after the Cubs took him off the 40-man roster by outrighting him after he cleared waivers.

General manager Jed Hoyer expressed his disappointment earlier this week that Stewart took the full 72 hours allowed to report to Iowa after the Cubs optioned him there. What seemed to rankle the Cubs was Stewart already was with Iowa on a rehab assignment, and he needed at-bats.

In addition to taking Stewart off the 40-man, they're giving playing time at third to Josh Vitters. So Epstein and Hoyer essentially have told Stewart that if he wants to collect his $2 million, he can do it as a Triple-A player on the bench.

In retrospect, I'm sure the Cubs now would not have re-signed Stewart after they didn't tender him a contract last December. A year before that, Epstein and Hoyer trade outfielder Tyler Colvin and infielder D.J. LeMahieu to the Rockies for Stewart.

The trade is a bad one, but the Cubs are catching a break because Colvin and LeMahieu also are at Triple-A a at Colorado Springs. Colvin entered Thursday's game, against Iowa, with a line of .290/.336/.490 with 4 homers, 6 walks and 26 strikeouts. LeMahieu hit his first homer Thursday, and he entered the day at .376/.411/.496.

It's a good bet both Colvin and LeMahieu make it back to the majors before Stewart does. And if Stewart does come back, it most likely will not be with the Cubs.

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