By Manny Randhawa
When Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called free agent Ben Zobrist last winter, he made it a point to discuss a specific aspect of Zobrist's game that he wanted to bring to the North Side of Chicago.
"To provide a veteran example of having quality at-bats, taking your walks when you should," Zobrist told Sports on Earth Saturday.
Even with a club that was tied for second in the Majors with a 9.1 percent walk rate in 2015, Epstein wasn't satisfied. And as September nears, a high-flying Cubs offense is proving why its front-office architects wanted to push that figure higher.
But the Cubs are tied for fifth in the National League with a .258 team batting average this season -- hardly indicative of an offensive juggernaut averaging 5.1 runs per game, second in the league only to the Rockies.
In nearly 32 percent of their plate appearances, the Cubs aren't putting the ball in play. In fact, Chicago ranks 28th in the Majors in the percentage of pitches they put in play, at 16.8. When they do so, they rank in the upper third of the NL for highest soft contact percentage, at 19.4 percent per Fangraphs. And they're in the bottom half of the league (9th) in hard contact, at 31.2 percent.
So how are the Cubs scoring five runs a game?
They're learning to become more like Zobrist.
"It's almost like he swings at every strike that he wants to, and takes every ball that he wants to," said Kris Bryant, who has bolstered his candidacy for the NL Most Valuable Player award by hitting .441, with four home runs and 12 RBIs over his last eight games. "It's unbelievable watching that, and I can learn a lot from him."
The Cubs are walking in 10.4 percent of their plate appearances so far this season. If they were to finish the season at that rate, it would be the highest in baseball since 2010, when the Rays walked 10.7 percent of the time. There's a connection there: Cubs manager Joe Maddon helmed that Rays team, as well as the Tampa Bay clubs that led the Majors in walk rate two of the next three seasons.
A key piece on those Rays teams? Zobrist.
"It was definitely a point of emphasis coming into this season," said Zobrist, who leads the Cubs with a 14.4 percent walk rate. "We knew that last year this team didn't do a good job of that -- we were striking out too much, not putting the ball in play enough, not walking as much as we should have. And I think with some of these guys just maturing as hitters, we're seeing them start walking more. Adding guys like myself and Jason Heyward to the lineup, who tend to take our walks and put the ball in play more, I think that helps that as well."
Heyward is in the midst of the worst offensive season of his career. The former All-Star, whom the Cubs signed to an eight-year, $184 million contract this offseason, entered Monday's game at San Diego batting .225/.304/.313 with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 458 plate appearances. He was benched following last Wednesday's game vs. Milwaukee, with Maddon giving him a mental break for a few days before reinserting him back into the lineup Monday.
With Heyward slumping, no player on the roster currently batting .300 or better and a strikeout total that's still higher than they'd like, the Cubs are nevertheless terrorizing opposing pitching. The walk rate is a big part of that -- Zobrist, Bryant, Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all have walk rates above 10 percent, and both Russell and Jorge Soler have upped their walk rates by more than two percent over last year -- but there's more to it.
The Cubs' .281 batting average when leading off an inning is 23 points higher than their overall season average. That's second in baseball only to the Pirates' .288. Chicago's batting average leading off an inning in 2015 was .246.
"I think there is a different approach (when we're leading off an inning)," Bryant said. "I think that's kind of why we've had a lot of success this year. You're telling me all these numbers, and I find myself during the game seeing a lot of the leadoff guys on base, and those numbers validate everything that I'm seeing."
Bryant's batting average leading off a frame is 38 points higher than his overall season average, at .337. Zobrist's is 55 points higher, at .333. Fowler leads the club, batting .340 in leadoff situations -- his overall batting average this season is .279.
"Once a person gets on, a person gets a hit, they go two bags from first to third, it kinda gets you amped up," said Russell. "It just keeps going, and we know that when anyone gets on at any point of the game, there's a good chance we'll push that run across."
The Cubs have hit 158 home runs this season, tied with Colorado for fourth in the NL. But they're also tied with the Rockies for the league lead when it comes to roundtrippers with men on base, with 69 (the Rockies hit their 69th on Sunday at Chicago's expense). The more plate appearances with men on base, the higher the probability of balls leaving the park resulting in more than one run.
Another area in which the Cubs excel is avoiding the double play. Entering play Monday, Chicago had been in 1,006 scenarios this season in which a ground ball could have resulted in a double play, the most in the Majors. And the result was a ground-ball double play in just 8.3 percent of those situations, lowest in the Majors.
With the Cubs averaging nearly a run more per game this season than they did in 2015, when they reached the National League Championship Series, the scary prospect for the rest of the league is this: If Heyward, who homered in his return to the lineup Monday, gets going and Zobrist heats up again like he did in May (.406 batting average), the Cubs could start scoring at an even higher clip as they blitz their way toward their best record in over a century.
Whatever happens this October -- whether a 108-year World Series title drought ends at long last, or becomes a 109-year drought -- the youth at the core of the Cubs' lineup is only getting better in all facets.
And they can thank a certain patient veteran for that.
Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com and a contributor to Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @MannyRsports.