In fact, one of the reasons the Kansas City Royals are the 2015 World Series champions is because they play superb defense.
The Royals finished first in Ultimate Zone Rating (50.9) and second in Defensive Runs Saved (56). Their 88 errors were tied for the 10th fewest, while their .986 fielding percentage was tied with five other teams as the sixth best in baseball.
The ability to read a batted ball of the bat and get to the spot where the ball is destined to land before it drops safely for a hit matters.
Being able to field a batted ball and throw accurately to a base in a timely manner matters.
The ability to do any or all of the above is a detriment to what the team strives to do on a daily basis.
Cubs rookie Kyle Schwarber undoubtedly already understood these things, but he still got a very public lesson on the matter at the close of this season. On the biggest stage, Schwarber made several high-profile mistakes in the outfield that played a role in the eventual demise of the Cubs in the NLCS.
There is much for Schwarber to work on with regards to his outfield defense when Spring Training rolls around. He is athletic enough to be able to work on a mechanical move like a drop stop and seems to have the kind of work ethic where being drilled to death with the ball-wall-ball drill won’t annoy him like it would other developing outfielders.
“There is no doubt it’s something you can coach,” said Mike Pinto, the Director of Baseball Operations and field manager of the Southern Illinois Miners, a Frontier League baseball team. “But you don’t learn that just going into the outfield where there’s a brick wall covered in ivy. You learn to do that with practice.”
Pinto is the Frontier League’s most successful manager, as his teams have racked up 513 wins and a .595 winning percentage since 2007. His teams have gone to the playoffs six times in nine years, and haven’t had a losing season under his watch. He has led a decorated life in and out of baseball, whether it is managing at the college or various minor league levels, scouting for the Royals, or working as a motivational speaker. He is as well-rounded as they come.
Considering the experience level of the players who come into his clubhouse, Pinto has a unique challenge when managing the Miners. The Frontier League has a quirky set of age eligibility rules. You can read them in full here, but among the most notable rules:
“Each club must carry a minimum of eleven (11) rookies (combination of R1 and R2 players) with no professional experience other than specified below and may carry a maximum of thirteen (13) players with unlimited professional experience.”
Eleven players (on a roster of 22 to 24 players) who are either in their first or second season in professional ball is a significant number of young, moldable pieces Pinto finds himself in charge of on an annual basis. All but two of the Miners’ position players were 27 or older, while their average age was 25.2 in 2015.
So, what can a team, a manager and a coaching staff do to help a player in the field?
“Bring him to camp early, “ Pinto said. “Do a mini-camp before big-league camp where he’s likely going to get drilled to death. Lots of teams do it.”
Players often show up early to camp and no player would have a better reason to do it in 2016 than Schwarber.
And if anyone needs a drill camp on outfield defense, it’s a player who is a catcher by trade, who handled a grand total of 65 chances in 588.2 innings as a left fielder at the minor and major league levels prior to the postseason. In 295.2 innings as a left fielder in the big leagues, Schwarber made only one error, but had a -3 DRS and -0.7 UZR.
Run prevention matters, and it matters all over the field. Infield. Outfield. At the corners. Up the middle. Behind the plate. Everywhere.
Fielders getting outs in support of their pitcher when it is out of his hands helps good teams win ball games. And it is up to the Cubs and Schwarber, himself, to work into a good place to be able to help the team defensively, on top of what he projects to do with the bat.
“Let’s face it, the whole playoff scenario put a magnifying glass over him and put him in a position where he could get exposed,” Pinto said. “There were some balls that fell that maybe a year from now he makes those catches.”
After his performance in the NLCS, the magnifying glass will be on Schwarber again when he takes to his position in the outfield. There, we will see what he has learned along the way.