Anyone who has watched even just a handful of Cubs games over the past couple of years knows that Patrick Wisdom hits home runs.
The 31-year-old third baseman led the team in long balls in 2021, hitting 28, and again in 2022, when he hit 25. This year, he’s already got three in 10 appearances, bringing some much needed power to a line-up that has the lowest barrel percentage (3.8%) in the majors in the early going.
Wisdom is something of a baseball outlier. The very definition of the term ‘late bloomer’, he had just 43 big league appearances under his belt when he was added to the Cubs roster in May 2021. Fuelled by failed stints in St. Louis and Texas, the then 29-year-old went on a tear, hitting eight homers in a 13-game span while also receiving NL Player of the Week honours on 7 June.
As Jed Hoyer in turn tore up the Cubs core, Wisdom kept hitting dingers, breaking the team’s rookie home run record (26) set by Kris Bryant in 2015.
That season he finished 17th out of 232 eligible hitters in barrel percentage (93rd percentile), 38th overall in exit velocity (83rd percentile) and 20th overall in hardhit percentage (92nd percentile) according to Savant, illustrating just what a home run threat he can be. On the flipside, he also ranked 229th out of 232 eligible hitters in strikeout percentage, 231st in whiff percentage and 145th in chase percentage.
And yet his 117 wRC+ and 40.8 K % promoted the Devan Fink of FanGraphs to observe: “There have been just six qualified seasons in the live ball era (excluding 2020) with a strikeout rate north of 35%, and only three of them — 2017 Joey Gallo (36.8 K%, 119 wRC+), 2013 Chris Carter (36.2 K%, 112 wRC+) and Gallo again in ’18 (35.9 K%, 108 wRC+) — featured above-average offensive production, a clear demonstration of survivorship bias at work.”
As Fink went on to write, “If you strike out that often, you must also (a) walk frequently and (b) hit for huge power in order to make it work.” Wisdom certainly had the power but he also logged a walk percentage that put him in the 43rd percentile of all eligible hitters that year – 104th overall, papering over some of the cracks.
In the absence of Bryant, Wisdom became the Cubs everyday first baseman in 2022, appearing in 134 games – 28 more than he did in 2021. This resulted in significant drop offs in nearly all the categories listed above as well as a decrease in slugging (which fell from .518 to .426) and WRC+ (117 to 104). And yet to compensate Wisdom managed to decrease his strikeout percentage (which fell from 40.8 to 34.3) while increasing his walk percentage (which leapt from 8.5 to 9.9).
Behind his slump lay a sudden inability to generate runs off four seamers (which resulted in a run value of 0, down from 5 in 2021), sliders and cutters (both -6, down from 3 the previous year) – pitches he saw 64.1% of the time in 2022 despite having handled all three well in 2021 – as well as a continued struggle with curveballs (-4, down from -1 in 2021). He did hit sinkers and changeups fairly consistently (resulting in run values of 6 and 7 respectively), although he only saw these pitches 22.3% of the time.
He also struggled against righties in 2021, recording a .191/ .285/.380 slash line with a .665 OPS against them compared to the .250/ .336/.557 slash line with a .892 OPS he put up against lefties.
Although it’s too early to draw any conclusions, Wisdom is already handling the slider, cutter and curveball better in 2023 than he did last year, although worryingly his struggles with the four seamer have worsened.
Through his first nine appearances, he’s faced 68 (40% of the total pitches he’s seen), resulting in a wOBA of .100 (down from .307 last year), a whiff percentage of 40 (up from 37.4% last year) and a strikeout percentage of 57.1 (up from 40.1% last year). Meanwhile his xSLG has dropped off a cliff when it comes to this particular pitch type (.035 this year compared to .405 last), although his hard hit percentage has remained consistent (50%).
This gives us a sense of why the Cubs are currently carrying three third basemen on their active roster – namely because Wisdom doesn’t quite have the profile to be an everyday player. The holes in his swing – he really struggles with pitches up in the zone – coupled with an inability to hit hard throwing righties might have seen him demoted or worse on lots of other teams by now. And yet his barrel percentage currently sits at 19 (up from 14.2% last year), his hardhit percentage (46.7%) is currently 27th best in all of baseball and he is, according to Baseball Reference, projected to hit 24 home runs this year.
Given where the Cubs currently are in their rebuild, and their collective hitting profile – fourth fewest homers (10), third highest ground ball percentage (49.5%) and lowest fly ball percentage (20%) – Wisdom’s power remains a much-needed commodity on the North Side, for the time being at least.
Sean Guest is Bat Flips & Nerds’ Chicago Cubs correspondent. You can follow Sean on Twitter @SW_Guest