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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.

  • rbreeze

    Hi Brett:  Its the little things that matter.  Does anyone have defensive stats on the Cubs over the last 20 or 25 years?  I wonder which teams were the best fielding Cubs teams and what their W/L record was.

     

    • DocWimsey

      You can get these data going back a few years from Fangraphs.  Now, keep in mind that estimated runs prevented by defense is somewhat subjective: the range factors are based on guys tallying balls hit to particular spots of the field and how quickly the ball got to the ground, and how far away the fielder was when the ball was hit.

      Also, you should look at the correlation between winning & fielding in general, not just the Cubs.  Last year, the correlation was very weak: 3 of the 8 playoff teams had fielding that cost them runs relative to league-average.  In 2010, 2 of the 8 playoff teams had fielding that cost them runs relative to league-average.  Conversely, a lot of sub-0.500 teams had fielding that was better than league average.

      So, although the correlation is there, it is nothing like the correlation between net HR or net walks.

  • Dan

    It’s good to read a positive article every once in a while. But… don’t get too excited Brett. It’s going to be an ugly season and by ugly I mean a below .500 team. Get excited about the future!

  • Hastin

    I was flipping the channels and MLB network had the top 100 plays from last year. I only saw from 40ish to about 15ish, but not one of them were from the Cubbies. That tells alot there, so getting better defensively is a must. Now, I didn’t see the top 10 so, maybe they were all of the Cubs?! Yeah right. Anyway, lets go “Heading in the right direction” 2012 Cubbies!!!

  • NL_Cubs

    For the impassioned fan of baseball, it’s all about the observable and at times, very subtle tiers of strategy taking place on the field and in the dugout. The game within the game, within the game.  This is a very intriguing and captivating aspect of baseball that can go unnoticed and unappreciated by the uninitiated.

  • SirCub

    Geek cat is geeked.

  • Karen P

    It is sooooo nice to see that the new Cubs Way is being taken seriously. It’s one thing to talk the talk, but seeing Sveum enforce walking the walk (thus far at least) is encouraging. Obviously when a new coaching staff comes in, everything seems a bit brighter with a little bit of extra sparkle, but based on the 2011 success of the Brewer’s, I think Sveum puts the Cubs in a good headspace to get this thing turned around. Fingers crossed it pays off down the road!

  • DocWimsey

    Hey, the Padres (probably) generated more runs on the bases than any other team last year, and their fielding run prevention (probably) was 5th or 6th best last year, ahead of at least 5 of the playoff teams!  And they lost only 8 more games than you would expect given their run differential!

  • RWakild

    Although I was a fan of Ryne Sandberg getting the manager job, Sveum is saying all the correct things. Soon we will see if he enforces what he says.

  • cubmig

    According to Sveum, the baseball theology is there. Now all that’s needed is getting the practice to match the theology.

  • ty

    Impressed by Sveum picking up Castro jerking his head over his right shoulder–every time on groundballs hit directly at him-Trammel worked with a lot but this was never corrected.

  • ty

    Leaving Vegas home today to return to Mesa for big day at Scotsdale-Giants facility off Hayden Bvld. Intend to find Dick Tidrow and engage him in conversation on his un-precedented popularity on Bleacher Nation. Attempted to go there Sat. but a desert whirlwind came up suddenly and covered car with dirt.

    • TWC

      Car covered with dirt?  “Dirt”?  As in Dick Tidrow’s nickname?  Ty, my friend, looks like Dick Tidrow found you first.

  • die hard

    Here is the formula for winning based on defense and pitching, a lineup to emulate—the 1959 go go White Sox

    Opening Day lineup
    Luis Aparicio, ss
    Nellie Fox, 2b
    Jim Landis, cf
    Sherm Lollar, c
    Norm Cash, 1b
    Al Smith, rf
    Johnny Callison, lf
    Bubba Phillips, 3b
    Billy Pierce, p

    • DocWimsey

      To this formula, you have to add major injuries to the competition (here, the Yankees, Indians and Tigers) that derail the entire seasons.  That’s pretty improbable: and probably the big reason why nobody has duplicated this in over  50 years!

      • die hard

        theres more than one lightening bug out there to catch and put in a jar. It can and will happen again, maybe– and why not– here?

        • DocWimsey

          By that logic, lottery tickets are as good a retirement plan as sound investments and a good pension…..

  • tex134

    Why would anyone mention the White Sox on this site – shame on you !

    • die hard

      haha…as I recall, in 1959 everyone in Chicago was a White Sox fan even though Ernie was having a MVP year in front of an average of 12000 fans per game.

  • die hard

    Found this site:
    http://espn.go.com/mlb/stats/parkfactor/_

    Park Factor compares the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road. A rate higher than 1.000 favors the hitter. Below 1.000 favors the pitcher.

    0.987 is run scored ratio for Wrigley….so appears to favor pitcher which could mean a go go White Sox type of team will have more success at Wrigley.

    1.409 is the highest and belongs to Rangers park by comparison

    Thought you may find interesting and I am sure Theo knows this and hes building team accordingly.

  • daveyrosello

    I’ve often argued a Cubs team built like the 70s-80s Cardinals would have a ton of success at Wrigley Field. Defense, gap hitters, tons of speed, contact men with high BB/K ratios. It worked well for those Cardinal teams, and no surprise, they always seemed to play well when they visited Wrigley. Mix in a pitching staff with high GB/FB ratios, and there’s your formula for success at Wrigley.

    Forget the HR-hitting offense, high K-rate pitching staff model, it hasn’t worked and the Cubs have been trying to force-feed that model to success for nearly 30 years now.

    Unfortunately, one obvious internal candidate that fits the new model to a tee was traded away last year (Hak-Ju Lee). Sigh.

  • ogyu

    So, the Cubs aren’t going to do stupid things just to do them, they’re going to do stupid things with calculated guesses and a lot of different looks. Ooookay…

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