Olt makes history, and not in a good way

Lost in the shuffle during the Cubs’ 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Blue Jays on Wednesday was a bit of Cubs history. Something that, in the 139 years that this franchise has played baseball, has never happened before (and hopefully will never happen again).

Since nobody else will point out this historical nugget, here goes: When Mike Olt took a called third strike in the third inning on Wednesday night, he became the 1300th strikeout victim on the Cubs team this year. A dozen years ago, the Cubs’ fire-balling pitching staff was striking out the opposition at the rate of 1300 per season, but now the tables have turned in a big way.

Before this season, the Cubs’ low-water mark for strikeouts was 1269, set during the 2002 season that cost Andy MacPhail, Don Baylor, and Bruce Kimm their jobs. The strikeouts fell off for a few years in the Dusty Baker/Lou Piniella years, but edged back up over 1200 in the 2011 season, and have remained there ever since. The numbers during the Epstein/Hoyer era have been 1235 in 2012, 1230 in 2013, and 1311 (and counting) for this season.

With Javier Baez striking out at a dizzying pace, it’s no surprise that the record has fallen this way. But there’s something unsettling about the disparities that are being put up across the team this year. No player on the team has more walks than strikeouts, and the only player to have as many of one as the other is Dan Straily, a pitcher who has split his two plate appearances between walks and strikeouts.

If Straily strikes out again this season without drawing another walk, it will be the second season in a row where every Cub with at least one strikeout has more strikeouts than walks. This would also mark the third time in four seasons this has happened, aver well over a century without this happening at all.

I can hear the defenders of the youth movement already: These are rookies, they’ll learn how to hit, and baseball stats from 100 years ago don’t apply to the game anymore. People who need to go back and assign WAR to Ty Cobb’s career will somehow draw the line at criticizing the profligate strikeouts of today’s game. So be it. But the other side of the coin is equally troubling, and tells me that the “Cubs Way” will have a hard time translating to success on the field.

As of Thursday morning, with 16 games left to play in the season, the Cubs have drawn just 383 walks on the season. The last time they failed to draw 400 walks in a season was the horrible team from 2006, which was Dusty Baker’s last season in Chicago. And before that, in a non-strike shortened season, you’d have to go all the way back to 1934 to find a Cubs team with under 400 walks. And as any student of the game’s past knows, the Cubs played just 154 games in a season back then.

So not only are the Cubs swinging and missing more than ever before, they’re also failing to draw the bases on balls needed to extend innings and tax their opposing pitchers’ arms. Drew Hutchison’s outing against the Cubs on Monday was typical of this season: 10 Cubs batters struck out, while only one walked. That type of imbalance cannot continue if the Cubs hope to compete for titles some day.

Is the solution to replace the Cubs’ hitting coach? I don’t know, but drawing one walk for every three strikeouts is a losing game. Jorge Soler and the rest of the prospects might have world-beating skills at the plate, but pitchers are going to have their way with this team until they can move the needle on the strikeouts down, and move the needle on walks up. Only then will the Cubs Way be a path worth getting excited about.

R. Lincoln Harris is a guest contributor for Wrigleyville Nation. He also writes for BlueBattingHelmet.Wordpress.com, ChicagoSideSports.com, ThroughTheFenceBaseball.com, and FiveWideSports.com. Thanks R. Lincoln for the contribution!

Photo: Ump Garrett Patterson punchout / Joel Dinda / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped