It’s largely undeniable that the two most important, and most interesting, parts of the baseball pie are pitching and hitting. Defense is obviously quite important, and it makes for some of the best highlights in the sports world, but it just ain’t up there with the big two. Baserunning falls even further down the scale.
But baseball is a game won or lost at the margins. On any given day, it is possible to lose because of a ball you didn’t get to. An extra base you didn’t take. A cut-off man you didn’t hit.
So, while it isn’t particularly sexy, it’s good to know that the Chicago Cubs are devoting a fair bit of Spring Training to defense and baserunning.
The Chicago Cubs were one of the worst defensive teams in baseball last year by fielding percentage (in many ways, fielding percentage is one of the least informative defensive measures, but the Cubs didn’t look particularly good last year no matter how you evaluated them defensively), and it doesn’t take a great deal of evaluation to know it has to improve this year if the Cubs hope to remain competitive.
“The defense has got to get better,” manager Dale Sveum said. “Your pitchers, whether it’s positioning, whether it’s the routine plays, understanding how important double plays are, all those things [are important].
“It’s not just errors that come into play, either. It’s the awareness of what’s going on, who is on the mound, where to play, the score of the game, depth when they’re two outs .… These are all the things we’re talking about getting ironed out to where we can nullify a lot of hits that they got last year. Defense is everything.”
And, so, the coaching staff is making defensive instruction a priority so far in camp. Second baseman Darwin Barney agrees that the emphasis is visible from the players’ side.
“That’s something they’re really stressing is that we’ve gotta get better defensively,” Barney said. “We have to get better at the little things. One of the things they are stressing is running the bases and defense. It’s on everybody’s mind. We want to get better and now everyone’s working hard.”
Moreover, on the defensive side, Sveum has taken a particular interest in the Cubs’ most important player, one who could use as much coaching as he can get: Starlin Castro. From Cubs.com:
“There are certain reasons why he makes throwing errors,” Sveum said Sunday. “One is because he picks up his target too late. … He has a tendency to get a ground ball and look over his shoulder and then it causes his shoulder to turn and then it has to open up and that’s why you see the ball go down or they fly high.
“If he keeps everything straight and focuses on the first baseman, it’s a much easier play. A lot of young guys tend to do something like that or they pick up the runner when they’re running down the base, and it just causes problems.”
Sveum has given Castro pointers every day, and every day it’s another lesson.
“One fundamental that a lot of young players have is just not gaining ground when the ball is hit,” Sveum said. “I call it ‘squatting’ — you see a ball hit so you stand in the same spot and let the ball get to you. It’s not charging the ball, it’s not the dreaded term, ‘Don’t let the ball play you,’ because only God knows when it’s going to take a bad hop.
“It’s just a matter of understanding when you gain ground on ground balls, you’re going to throw the ball five yards less, your feet are going to be moving,” Sveum said. “It’s a work in progress.”
Castro, just shy of his 22nd birthday, is at an age where most future ML regular shortstops are kicking up dirt in the minors. As recently, and succinctly, put by BN’er, he out-hit his defensive development. There is still plenty of time – and visible upside – for Castro to develop into an above average defensive shortstop. This year, we’ll settle for average.
On the baserunning side of the fundamentals equation, Sveum says he doesn’t want to see the Cubs repeatedly holding out hope for the three-run homer:
“You’re not going to see stupid things done all the time just to do them,” Sveum said. “You’re going to do them with calculated guesses and a lot of different looks. … You put guys in situations where they can succeed in situational hitting.”
The Cubs have no burners outside of Tony Campana, who is not a regular. Sveum said he believes some of the Cubs can “sneak steal when pitchers aren’t paying attention” or when a pitcher has a slow delivery time to the plate.
“We are going to get guys moving in certain situations and put pressure on teams that way,” Sveum said. “It’s just not going to be a station-to-station team.”
That first statement by Sveum is perhaps the most important. Many of the “things” you can do on the basepaths – stealing, hit and run, being aggressive – don’t actually benefit your team in the aggregate, unless you’re exceedingly good at them. Doing “things” in the right situations is a way to swing the odds in your favor, even if you aren’t particularly good at them – and, given the Cubs’ overall lack of speed, I’d say they could use all the improved odds they can get.
Defense and baserunning. Chicago Cubs 2012. Get excited.