When the bats aren’t hitting and the pitchers aren’t dominating, it’s very easy to see what the issues are and how they translate to the win column.
When the defense isn’t defense-ing, that’s a much thornier issue to really dive into. Part of that is relationship between pitching and defense (when the pitching is doing well, it can make the defense’s job much easier, and vice versa), and part of it is the continually evolving – but still lagging – defensive metrics. It’s not easy after a month and a half of play to point to statistics and say, “See, here’s where the defense is struggling.” Heck, it’s often unwise to point to any defensive metrics this early and even state with certitude that a defense is struggling.
To that end, I respect the effort at FiveThirtyEight* to try to discern, at this stage, if and what problems are plaguing the Cubs’ defense, which had been (literally) historically good last year. I would encourage you to check it out, but I would also caution you that defensive metrics are notoriously noise-filled, and subject to wild swings in the short-term.
That said, I don’t think anyone would argue that the Cubs have not looked less effective defensively this year than last year, and in some rare situations like this, your eyes might be as good a judge as the numbers. There was always going to be some come-down from last year’s extreme. But as FiveThirtyEight notes, Cubs players are rating worse than they did last year nearly across the board (the only two rating better right now are Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist, each of whom – based on the eye test – I could argue are having defensive issues, too).
(For what it’s worth, at a team level, the Cubs’ defense rates slightly above average league wide by most of the advanced metrics, and near the bottom of the league in less useful measures like fielding percentage.)
So, then, FiveThirtyEight runs through possible explanations for widespread deterioration, from less effective shifting (doesn’t appear to be that), to harder contact by the pitchers (might have some impact), to simple regression from having crazy good luck last year (definitely some impact).
At bottom, I don’t want to land on anything too firm just yet, because, again, defensive contributions are so difficult to nail down with confidence in small samples (look no further than Albert Almora’s current -16.2 UZR/150 if you want evidence that a month and a half of advanced defensive metrics can miss the mark by a mile).
I did, however, want to tee these issues up in at least some kind of statistical way so that we can monitor throughout the season.
Things to consider: the Cubs’ outfield has a very different look, even as there are talented players out there, they are adjusting to different spots and a different mix of players. Plus, Kyle Schwarber always figured to be far worse defensively than the guys who spent the most time out that way last year (example: Kris Bryant was sneaky excellent in a whole lot of left field innings). Further, they’ve now been without Jason Heyward for over a week now, which has further strained the way other positions have been managed (plus, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant have missed several games as well).
I could definitely see things settling down on this front, and the Cubs re-emerging as one of the top defensive teams in baseball. The talent is there, and, given the Cubs’ overall youth, you simply wouldn’t expect so many guys to actually regress defensively all at the same time. There are aspects of the Cubs’ recent performance that do give me longer term concerns (starting pitching and young bats needing a lot of adjustment time being the big two), but defense is not really one of them. I think this team will be very good defensively when it’s all said and done.
*(Extremely un-fun easter egg in that one? Look at the bottom for the discussion on plate discipline, and the least disciplined hitter in baseball right now by their measurements. Spoiler: it’s Javy Baez.)