After 2015, the Chicago Cubs took home three major awards: Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon), Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant) and NL Cy Young (Jake Arietta). But I’ll admit that after those were locked in, I got greedy.
I wanted an MVP for Anthony Rizzo (it’s fair that he didn’t win it) and a Gold Glove or Fielding Bible Award for Addison Russell, too (I can argue that he should have won the latter).
I told you: greedy.
Having split time between second base and shortstop, Russell left 2015 without an award, but it’s certainly not because his defense was lacking. In fact, despite slashing just .242/.307/.389 and appearing in just 142 games, 21-year-old Addison Russell was able to accumulate 2.9 fWAR, mostly due to his phenomenal defense in the middle infield. In fact, his 2015 Def rating of 17.1 was tied for fourth best in baseball – behind just Brandon Crawford, Andrelton Simmons and Kevin Kiermaier.
Which is why no one flinches when Cubs manager Joe Maddon says there’s “no question” whether or not Addison Russell can be a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop.
But Russell isn’t the only one Maddon pegs to have excellent defense next season. In fact, Maddon went as far as to say that all of Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward have a chance at gold glove candidacy in 2016. And, at least anecdotally, it can make sense.
Kris Bryant far exceeded our expectations for the non-baseball-crushing side of his game in 2015. His base running was phenomenal, his instincts are top of the line and his defense – well his defense was well above what many had come to expect. In fact, his DRS (3), UZR (4.8) and Def (6.9) were ninth best among third baseman in the entire league (fifth in the NL). With another year under his belt, there’s no reason he couldn’t be part of the top defender conversation.
Anthony Rizzo has long seemed – at least, to this Cubs blogger – like he was undervalued on defense. Before I dive into the numbers, let me tell what my eyes have seen: It sure feels like he picks nearly everything, has a fantastic stretch, moves well, has good reaction times and can make the routine plays with ease (and some incredible plays, too). That said, he is rarely acknowledged for his work in the field. However, the defensive statistics do seem to agree – his DRS (10) is tied for second most in MLB, his UZR (3.4) is tied for ninth best and his Def (-8.9) is eleventh best in MLB (sixth best in the NL).
Ben Zobrist, as we know, is a defensive wizard, but in a very different way than say, Russell, for example. His defensive value has long come from his ability to play all across the diamond. In fact, throughout his career, the only positions Zobrist hasn’t played are catcher and pitcher. Unfortunately, with three catchers and four super utility pitchers on the 25-man roster, 2016 doesn’t figure to be the year he checks those off the list. Instead, if he wants to take home the hardware in 2016, he’ll have to do it from second base.
It could be an uphill climb. Last season, at 33 years old, Zobrist’s defensive metrics were relatively depressed. Injuries could have played a role, but there’s no question that his age could be getting to him, in one way or another. His second base DRS (-7) and UZR (-6.7), for a could examples, would have both been tied for 15th worst among qualified second basemen in MLB. His overall Def (-11.5) would have been last among qualified second baseman. That said, these poor defensive metrics come after years and years of being a hugely positive impact on defense all across the field (it’s rarely a good idea to take one year of defensive metrics to mean too much). In fact, with a healthy year in 2016, I tentatively expect Zobrist to bounce back in a very big way on defense.
In 2015 alone, his 22 defensive runs saved led all right fielders by 10 runs, his UZR (20.2) was also good for first by 6.4 points and his Def value last season (14.0) was best among right fielders and tied for tenth best in baseball among all positions (even with the positional adjustment!). So, you see, Jason Heyward is an excellent right fielder.
However, we know he’s making the switch to center field in 2016. I can’t count the number of times the question of how he will handle the switch has come up, but I can tell you I’ve never been concerned about the move. And, for what it’s worth, Maddon hasn’t either: “I don’t see why people have any trepidation about this whatsoever,” he told the Tribune. “I’ve seen this guy cover immense amount of ground …. He’s really good coming in at the ball.”
I think the concern comes from the broad take on the story: a player is switching from one of the easiest positions on the diamond (right field) to one of the most challenging spots on the diamond (center field). However, that fails to capture the bigger picture. Heyward wasn’t just some right fielder, stashed in a corner for his bat. He has consistently been one of the premier defensive players in the league – even after a positional adjustment. Also, many of the qualities that make him a good right fielder – quick jumps, excellent reads, overall baseball intelligence, will translate perfectly well to center. Throw in the fact that Wrigley Field’s center field isn’t particularly – or, should I say relatively – challenging and that he’s spent over 200 innings in center field, already, throughout his career, and I have no trouble seeing a perfectly smooth transition with plenty of upside.
None of this, by the way, is to even mention the fact that Jake Arrieta was a finalist for a Gold Glove in 2015, as well. He didn’t win (hey, you can’t win them all), but he, too, could be someone to keep an eye on in 2016.
In sum, the Chicago Cubs have several legitimate candidates to win a Gold Glove this year, and I can’t wait to see them try.