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The Cubs Defense Over the Last Three Years Has Been Stupid Good

Analysis and Commentary

Earlier this morning, I was messing around on the FanGraphs team leaderboards when I noticed that the Cubs defense has been pretty darn special over the past few years, at least by a couple advanced metrics.


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I mean, I knew they had been good – it’s sorta hard not to be with the likes of Jason Heyward, Addison Russell, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras, Albert Almora, and Anthony Rizzo (relative to first baseman) in the fold – but I didn’t know they were *this much* better than the rest of the league:

Defensive Runs Saved, if you’re unaware, is a statistic that rates individual defensive players – incorporating a number of different defensive components – in terms of runs above or below average (0). You can read all about how it’s calculated and how it should be used at the FanGraphs library.


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For a quick reference, though, here’s how FanGraphs sees different DRS on an individual level:

Gold Glove Caliber: +15
Great: +10
Above Average: +5
Average: 0
Below Average: -5
Poor: -10
Awful: -15

So with the Cubs back in mind … their 122 DRS over the past three seasons is pretty insane right? To be quite sure, their 2015 (10 DRS, 11th) and 2017 seasons (30 DRS, 5th) don’t hold a candle to 2016 (82 DRS, 1st), but that’s a *really* excellent stretch overall. So I wanted to take a look at some of the biggest individual contributors to see who’s been making the biggest impact – I’m betting there are a few more surprises than you would’ve guessed.

Cubs DRS Leaderboard 2015-2017 (innings):

  1. Addison Russell (SS): +44 (2542.1)
  2. Jason Heyward (RF): +32 (1948.2)
  3. Anthony Rizzo (1B): +30 (4108.1)
  4. Javier Baez (2B): +16 (946.1)
  5. David Ross (C): +13 (851.0)
  6. Addison Russell (2B): +9 (746.0)
  7. Jake Arrieta (P): +9 (594.2)
  8. Kyle Hendricks (P): +9 (509.2)
  9. Willson Contreras (C): +8 (1211.0)
  10. Kris Bryant (3B): +8 (3279.0)

IMPORTANT NOTES: DRS is a position-relative statistic, which is why Anthony Rizzo shows up so high on the list. Also, it’s important to remember that FanGraphs separates the players by positions, which is why there are two Addison Russells up there.


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For example, Javy Baez added another 8 DRS between SS and 3B over the last three seasons, Jason Heyward added another 4 DRS in center field, and Kris Bryant added another 8 DRS in left field, center field, right field, and first base. Most teams don’t move their players around as much as the Cubs do, which is why Cubs players don’t always show up at the top of the MLB leaderboards at their respective positions, but the team, as a whole, does.

But the Cubs haven’t just shined in DRS over the past few years, their Ultimate Zone Rating – a similar advanced defensive metric that includes a positional adjustment – has been top of the class, too:

Like DRS, UZR is measured in runs where 0 is average and follows the same +/- 5 pattern as the DRS chart above. You can read all about it at the FanGraphs library.


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As you can see in the tweet above, the Cubs’ collective UZR over the past three seasons is far and away above any other team in baseball, and is nearly TWICE as strong as the team that ranks fifth best – that’s league of their own type stuff. Unlike DRS, though, the Cubs’ 2015 (23.4 UZR, 4th) and 2017 seasons (22.8 UZR, 4th) do a bit better job of holding a candle to 2016 (73 UZR, 1st).

So who was doing most of the heavy lifting here? Many of the same names.

Cubs UZR Leaderboard 2015-2017 (innings):

  1. Addison Russell (SS): +25.9 (2542.1)
  2. Jason Heyward (RF): +22.8 (1948.2)
  3. Chris Coghlan (LF): +13.5 (923.2)
  4. Anthony Rizzo (1B): +13.1 (4108.1)
  5. Kris Bryant (3B): +10.6 (3279.0)
  6. Addison Russell (2B): +7.3 (746.0)
  7. Kris Bryant (LF): 6.8 (407.1)
  8. Javier Baez (2B): +6.2 (946.1)
  9. Chris Denorfia (LF): +5.5 (217.0)
  10. Javier Baez (3B): 4.9 (477.2)

Once again, remember: guys like Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Javy Baez and others have added so much defensive value in multiple positions. So their totals above are just a small part of the picture. What’s very clear, though, is that Russell and Heyward are probably the Cubs best two defenders and in a tier of their own, followed closely by Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant, whose defensive value varies greatly and depends upon positional relativity. All five of those guys, however, would be (or already are in some cases) among the leagues top defenders at their positions if they stuck in one spot all season long.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

And, sure, it’s easy to say that the Cubs 2016 season stands out, but remember the Cubs didn’t have Jason Heyward or Willson Contreras in 2015, and Javy Baez missed almost all of that season. And in 2017, Russell (110 games played) and Heyward (126) missed a ton of games for various reasons, too. So the fact that the Cubs still ranked among the league’s best defense over this three-year stretch is a testament to the surrounding group of players, and, perhaps, the front office’s preferences, in general.

And as more time gets dedicated to Javy Baez at second base, Albert Almora in center field, and Willson Contreras behind the plate, and with the rest of the crew returning, 2018 figures to be another strong year defensively for the Chicago Cubs. If they keep this up, they might comprise one of the strongest defensive five-year units of all-time.


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Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami is a Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @Michael_Cerami.