It came as no surprise that Cubs' President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein and General Manager Jed Hoyer put an emphasis on walks and on-base percentage when they were hired in fall of 2011.
In 2011, the Chicago Cubs ranked 29th in walks (425) and 20th in OBP (.314) and the year after the front office change, they finished 27th in base-on-balls (447) and 29th in OBP (.302). This year the North Siders rank 27th in free passes and 26th in OBP (.301).
Has anything really changed ?……...The answer is in the minors.
The MLB club wasn't the only ones having trouble reaching base in the Cubs system back in 2011. At Class A Peoria in the Midwest League, the Chiefs were last in walks. So were the Iowa Cubs in the AAA Pacific Coast League. In the AA Southern League, the Smokies led the league in hitting but were last in walks and fourth in OBP. The Daytona Cubs in the 12-team Florida State League were 9th in walks and 8th in OBP.
Last season with the ‘Cubs Way' in place, the minors showed some progress. At Peoria, the Chiefs drew 134 more walks than the season before and raised their team OBP from .319 to .325. despite a decrease in batting average. Daytona had more walks and went from 8th to 4th in OBP. At AA Tennessee, the Smokies team batting average dropped 21 points but they still finished fourth in OBP and went from last to third in walks, drawing 108 more. Like the MLB level, not much changed at Iowa as they finished 13th in both walks and OBP.
The trend is continuing in 2013, even at Iowa, where the I-Cubs have been issued 114 free passes, 7th in the PCL, and are 10th in OPB. Class A Kane County leads the Midwest League in on-base percentage at .365 and are 3rd in walks with 120. Daytona is second in walks (112) and OPB (.353) in the FSL, and despite hitting .239, Tennessee is 6th in OBP (.321) and have drawn 112 walks, fourth best in the Southern League.
Players at the lower levels are among the league leaders in both categories while upper level prospect have shown improvement.
At Kane County, third baseman Jeimer Candelario leads the Cougars with 22 walks, fourth in the MWL. Rock Shoulders has drawn 15 free passes and is tied with teammate Bijan Rademacher (.429) for 10th place in OBP. Power hitter Dan Vogelbach has 14 walks to go along with OBP of .371.
Daytona CF Zeke DeVoss leads the FSL with 23 walks and is 11th in OBP despite hitting just .214. DeVoss, a 2011 draft pick, led the MWL in walks in 2012. John Andreoli has also been tough to keep off base (.438), 4th best in the league and he's third in BB with 19. Andreoli led the FSL in walks last season. Stephen Bruno, currently on the DL, has a OBP of .436 in 19 games.
Tennessee has five different players in double-figures in walks with Jae-Hoon Ha and Rafael Lopez with 13 each. Matt Szczur, a fifth-round pick in 2010, is one of those players increasing his walks. In 2011 his walk rate was 5.4% and the following year he increased it to 11.2%, walking 61 times. He has 13 walks in 123 plate appearances in AA this year. Second baseman Ronald Torreyes, acquired in the Sean Marshall trade, leads Tennessee with a .425 OBP.
Like Szczur, AAA second baseman Logan Watkins has improved his walk rate and is currently tied for the PCL lead with 26 this season, hitting leadoff for the I-Cubs. Watkins had a OBP of .423, 40 points higher than last season and a jump of nearly 70 from two years ago. One of the Cubs free agent pick-ups, Brian Bogusevic, fits the bill of getting on base as the left-handed hitting outfielder is 2nd in PCL with a OBP of .491 while hitting .402.
At the major league level the top three Cub hitters leading the team in walks were all brought in by Hoyer and Epstein —Anthony Rizzo (13 BB), Luis Valbuena (13) and David DeJesus (11). They are also the top three in OBP among regular starters.
Epstein explained this spring the Cubs were teaching plate discipline and they don't want to take away a hitter's aggressiveness. He said they teach not being aggressive on "pitcher's pitches" and how to us their aggressiveness when they are ahead in the count. Epstein called it "selective aggressiveness."
And while it may be hard to teach old dogs new tricks, it looks like the pups are catching on to the ‘Cubs Way'.