The Kansas City Royals became trendsetters, after winning the American League pennant in 2014 and the World Series in 2015.
For some examples, look no further than the recent construction of bullpens and focus on baserunners causing havoc on the base paths.
But you know that old adage that defense wins championships? Well at the Hardball Times, Casey Boguslaw wrote about how the Royals applied it in 2015, one year before the Cubs adopted it – and, of course, both teams won the World Series.
More specifically, Boguslaw focused on the Royals’ (and Cubs’) outfield defense.
Kansas City went from winning 86 games in 2013 and 89 games in the pennant-winning year of 2014 to 95 games when the team won the World Series in 2015. During that three-year stretch, the Royals had an OPS+ and wRC+ of 89, 92 and 98, respectively. Kansas City’s FIP ranked also ranked between 14th and 16th during that three year stretch, while the team’s ERA somehow managed to wind up among the four best in baseball.
So how did the Royals make up for average offensive output and the sort of pitching numbers that strongly implied impending ERA regression? With elite outfield defense, of course.
You probably remember the names: Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon led the way, with help from Jarrod Dyson, Nori Aoki, David Lough, Alex Rios, and Paolo Orlando.
From 2013-15, Cain had the second best UZR (51.7) and Defensive Runs Saved (63) in baseball behind only Jason Heyward. Alex Gordon wasn’t too far behind, ranking fourth in UZR (40.4) and DRS (50).
Gordon made the third highest percentage of 10-40% plays (as charted by Inside Edge Fielding) while Cain ranked 11th. (That Heyward fellow ranked first in this category, too.) On 40-60% plays, both Cain (9th) and Gordon (28th) ranked among baseball’s 30 best outfielders. Gordon was the best at getting to 1-10% plays, while Gordon ranked 13th in that category. Heyward ranked only 15th in this particular category.
After seeing what the Royals did defensively in 2015 (and how the Cubs could be improved in that particular area), Theo Epstein signed Heyward to the largest contract in Cubs history. Offensively, Heyward suffered through the worst season of his career. But defensively, he provided the Cubs with the kind of impact defense that helped neutralize opposing offenses.
Of course, the Cubs were fortunate to add Dexter Fowler back into the mix for 2016, in what turned out to be his best defensive season. They also improved defensively with the unfortunate injury to Kyle Schwarber in April – which forced the Cubs into being more flexible with positioning, and better for it (again, speaking defensively).
It all added up to the Cubs posting baseball’s best outfield UZR (40.5) – which also turned out to be the sixth best of the last decade. They saw gains in making the 10-40% plays (33.3%, 9th in MLB) and 40-60% play (78.6%, 1st) after ranking 24th (21.9%) and fifth (60.0%) the year prior. Turning hits into outs at a 10 percentage-point clip or better is one way to suppress opposing offenses.
The challenge for the 2017 Cubs is to replicate that kind of defensive showing … but with Schwarber as a mainstay in left field, and without Fowler, who left for St. Louis.
While the Jon Jay-Albert Almora Jr. tandem will be hard-pressed to re-create Fowler’s offensive production from 2016, they could very well provide significant improvement defensively. Jay’s -8 DRS from 2012-16 won’t inspire much optimism, but his 4.0 UZR ranks fifth among the 12 center fielders who logged at least 4,000 defensive innings during that five-year span. Perhaps playing next to Heyward helps those numbers, too (remember how much range he showed in 2016), and bumps Jay’s play on 60-90% plays (75.9%, 9th of 12) – because he was average on 10-40% plays (30.0%, 6th of 12) and pretty good on 40-60% plays (69.2%, 2nd of 12).
Where Jay thrives defensively is making the routine plays, making 99.6% of 90-100% plays.
Almora Jr. doesn’t have much of a sample size, but does come with elite-defense-level scouting reports, and does have some highlight-reel catches in limited action (including one just three batters after his debut):
He doesn’t have much experience at the Major League level, but Almora Jr. played 193 defensive innings in center – making 98.2 percent of the 90-100% plays. And in the 237 defensive innings he played in total in the outfield, he actually made all of the 10-40%, 40-60% plays and 60-90% plays.
It’s impossible to extrapolate those numbers over a full season, but it’s worth noting for future reference.
Left field is where hard questions will be asked – and eventually answered. For starters, who is getting the bulk of the action?
Don’t expect Kyle Schwarber to play every inning of every game in left field. In 2016, 12 different players logged at least one defensive inning in left field – including pitchers Pedro Strop and Travis Wood. Jorge Soler (371 innings) played left the most often, but only played 13 complete games in left. That leaves Kris Bryant (353.1 innings) as the most experienced left fielder from the 2016 Cubs, as he was one of six who played at least 100 defensive innings at the position.
Because of the mixing and matching manager Joe Maddon will have to do on the infield with Javier Baez (who played 2.1 innings in left last year) and Ben Zobrist (127.2 innings), and possibly behind the plate (Willson Contreras played 180.2 innings in left), it wouldn’t be surprising to see some sort of timeshare situation in left field.
If the Cubs want to build another championship-caliber defense in 2017, they’ll have a lot of work to do – but also have plenty of pieces to work with.
For much more on the importance and impact of outfield defense, be sure to read Boguslaw’s piece at The Hardball Times.