FanGraphs has released the initial, (very) early set of Ultimate Zone Ratings (UZRs) for 2015, and the (admittedly small sample) defensive metric yields some unexpected results so far for the 2015 Chicago Cubs.
In case you forgot, UZR is the all-encompassing, defensive statistic used by FanGraphs to attach a run value on the defense of a particular player. If you are unfamiliar with the components or use of UZR, you can read more about it here. Suffice it to say, UZR takes four categories into account (outfield arm, double play, range and errors) to create a single overall defensive score. It’s important to note that these scores are especially unreliable in a small sample (FanGraphs identifies one to three years for the sample to become significant), but I felt it was good to get the stat on your radar and to highlight some interesting, early takes.
Now that you’ve been primed, feel free to check out the early defensive numbers for the Cubs. The most interesting stories are coming from the outfield, where the team leaders in UZR so far are (gasp) Dexter Fowler (2.0) and Chris Coghlan (1.2). This is relatively surprising news given the oft-discussed defensive shortcomings of those two players (Fowler by the metrics, Coghlan by the eye test).
At the other end of the Cubs defensive spectrum, we’re once again in the outfield, and we find the equally surprising, but for different reasons, Jorge Soler (-1.4). To my eye, Soler has looked pretty good in right field, but my eye is much more subjective than these stats are, even in a small sample. [Brett: I’m surprised that the metrics are so strongly negative on Soler this early, but, at times, his routes have looked a little off to me when going back on the ball, and obviously there were some early-season bobbles. But the arm is killer and he’s looked good enough coming in on the ball. #NotAScout]
Fowler has had an historically poor history of center field defense, at least according to his defensive metrics. Last year, for example, Fowler was dead last in the MLB with a UZR of -21.8. Nonetheless, there have been reasons to believe that his defensive positioning, unusual amount of time in spacious ballparks (Coors Field and Minute Maid Park), and generally unreliable defensive metrics overplayed the problem. Indeed, some third party observers have always described Fowler as an average or better defensive center fielder. It’s still way too early to call his defense in center “improved,” but perhaps the change of scenery and new coaching will unlock something for Fowler going forward.
Coghlan, on the other hand, is a guy whose UZR in 2014 (-1.0) indicated that he was just below average, but whose defense (according to the eye test) is typically held as far worse. Like Fowler, it is far too early to say that Coghlan has made any sort of adjustment that will change his defense for the better, but he is a guy who has dealt with injuries and inconsistent playing time throughout his career. It is not outlandish to conclude, then, that more consistent health and playing time could lead to something of a defensive emergence.
Conversely, Jorge Soler is a guy whose defense has generally been praised in 2015, but whose UZR tells a much different story. According to FanGraphs, Jorge Soler’s UZR (-1.4) is second to last on the Cubs, so far, just ahead of Arismendy Alcantara. My guess is that his rocket arm and performance at the plate – at least before the last five days or so – has prevented us from objectively reviewing his defense in right field. However, just like we can’t conclude that Coghlan and Fowler have turned the page, we can’t condemn Soler as a butcher in right field. But it’s something to watch.
There are plenty of more interesting things to take away from the Cubs’ 2015 UZRs – and there will be throughout the year – so take a look at the Cubs’ leaderboard and report anything you find interesting. Remember, though, this stat takes an especially long time to normalize – more so than most statistics – so interpret at your own risk!