By Bruce Levine--
CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Cubs' great success of the first one-third of the season has been based on outstanding pitching and the top run production in the National League.
Despite having only the eighth-highest team batting average, the Cubs are second in the league in runs scored and first in on-base percentage. The age-old question is being put to the test more than ever: Can you have a productive player in your lineup without the feel-good high batting average to go hand and hand with his status?
A prime example would be first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has been in a batting average rut. The team's top player went into a 3-for-36 tailspin on the last road trip that also merged into the start of this 10-game homestand. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has flip-flopped Rizzo to the cleanup spot while putting Kris Bryant in the three hole.
The NL's All-Star voting leader, Rizzo continues to be productive despite a .239 batting average.
"I can live with a lower average as long as we are winning and I am having good at-bats," Rizzo said. "Of course you want to hit for a higher average, and I expect to. Some is out of your control."
When Rizzo talks about that, he's referring to the extreme defensive shifts that teams have gone to against him the last few seasons. The shifts to one side -- especially against left-handed power hitters -- have taken away the natural holes between the first and second baseman, plus up the middle behind second base.
"That was the old norm for hitters," Maddon said. "Guys now like Rizzo and their numbers have been heavily impacted by shifts. I think batting averages have go down a bit based on data defensively, as well as data a pitcher can use. That type of information was not as abundant in years past.
"The decline in offense is directly related to the data and video and being able to align the defense the way you want to. Beyond that, the pitchers and specialization of pitchers who are still throwing 95 mph in the seventh inning and beyond, you have all these factors working against the hitter."
Rizzo and his teammates lead the league in walks and pitches seen. These numbers alone suggest that any would-be starting pitcher facing the Cubs is subject to becoming both physically and mentally worn down by this patient approach.
"Everybody is different -- certain guys' batting average is a part of their game," infielder Tommy La Stella said. "Some guys, it is not the main ingredient. They can be effective as a more on-base or power-effective hitter, without a very high batting average. By the time you get to this level, it's whatever you do well that you bring to the table."
Cubs catcher Miguel Montero has struggled with making contact since coming off of the disabled list, recovering from a bad back. He's hitting .210 but still is maintaining an on-base percentage of respect at a .343 mark.
"I have had good years in batting average, I have had bad years in average," Montero said. "Sometimes, it's hard to look at the board and see your batting average. At this point, I have been there before. I really don't care right now what I am hitting. I still can help the team win by having good at-bats and taking my walks. As long as I keep getting deep into counts, that itself is a productive at-bat. You get to see a lot of pitches for your teammates to see."
In the first inning on Friday, Rizzo hit a ball up the middle that would have scored Bryant without the shift being in place.
Should hitters change their approach to beat the shift? Maddon, for one, doesn't adhere to that theory.
"There are all these factors working against the hitter," Maddon said. "I think to look at batting average as this be-all thing is really something that can't be.
"What ever Riz is hitting right now, add easily 30 points to that without the shift."
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.
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