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Levine: For Cubs Youngsters, There's Learning In Whiffing

By Bruce Levine-

(CBS) Are strikeouts always a negative statistic? For the Cubs' young hitters, a deeper look into the propensity to swing and miss must be analyzed.

Just looking at the volume of strikeouts the Cubs have, one could draw the conclusion that nothing good comes from an out that doesn't give a runner a chance to move around the bases.

Recent call-ups to Chicago such as Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara have shown some special baseball skills while adjusting to major league pitching, and they've also whiffed often. Baez has struck out 41 percent of the time, while Alcantara has struck out in 33 percent of his at-bats. Taken on the surface, those numbers scream of hitters not ready to compete at the big league level.

Former batting champion and possessor of a lifetime .380 on-base percentage, Bill Mueller is the Cubs' hitting coach. He's in charge of quality control when monitoring  the young players' at-bats. Normally, hitting instructors will have to explain to the upper management why the kids keep striking out. In Mueller's case, he must help his youthful hitters learn the difference between a quality at-bat that ends up with a strikeout and a below-average at-bat with the same result.

"The road to success is different for everybody," Mueller said. "Let's just say if you're an on-base guy and they attack you where you have not been exposed, then the tendency is to expand your strike zone. If you are a three- or four-hole hitter, that is another type of adjustment because you are in bigger situations. The emotion is higher and you can see how the younger guy in those roles could get a little locked up in the emotion."

The Cubs have been averaging 11 strikeouts per game over the last two weeks. That number coincides with the promotion of Baez and the adjustment the league made to Alcantara in his 170 plate appearances. That comes out to about two extra strikeouts per game than the Cubs' average of 8.87 whiffs in 2014.

"There are different types of aggression in strikeouts," Cubs manager Rickey Renteria said. "The chase strikeout is something you concern yourself with. It can show a lack of adjustment as to what the opposition is trying to do to you. Some of it may be anxiety, some is the natural aggressiveness a hitter has. The thought process is to figure out how you are going to attack and correct those strikeouts. At the same time, you want them to still have the aggressive styles they need to have."

Mueller has the job of nursing the young hitters through the failures without coming down on the player.

"This is what development is," Mueller said. "You put them to another level and then you let them play. You certainly don't jump on top of them for swinging and missing. You let them go through it, digest it and eventually see the adjustments they must make. With our information and their eventual experience, now you can build and they can assemble the pieces a lot easier."

The numbers of strikeouts are high all over baseball. The Royals have the lowest strikeout average per game with 5.94 swings and misses for outs, while the Cubs have the second-most strikeouts per game in 2014 at 8.87. Chicago is averaging almost 1.4 strikeouts more per game over over their final totals in 2012 and 2013.

Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.

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