Cubs Projected to Have Slightly Above Average Defense, but Big Outfield Questions

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Cubs Projected to Have Slightly Above Average Defense, but Big Outfield Questions

Chicago Cubs

dexter fowler outfieldOn Monday, the full set of 2016 ZiPS projections went live on FanGraphs. So, first and foremost, you’re going to want to check those out. Taken together with the other projection systems, there’s plenty of new information to take in, compare and understand.

After the release of the full projections, August Fagerstrom zeroed in on the projected individual defensive performances for next season, in order to preview the best and worst team defenses for 2016.

As it turns out, the Cubs are projected to finish in the middle of the pack in 2016, ending the season with the 13th best collective team defense. Slightly above average.

In order to rank each team, Fagerstrom combined the data provided by both the ZiPS and Steamer projection systems, to create one unified fielding (Fld) figure. If you recall, both ZiPS and Steamer take more than just numbers into account, so scouting reports and fan polling was a part of the calculus, here. The final number isn’t exactly Ultimate Zone Rating or Defensive Runs Saved, but, as Fagerstrom puts it, it’s the same idea on the same scale.

Before we dive directly into the Cubs, let’s check out some of the competition.

Leading the list, of course, is the Kansas City Royals (44), by a very wide margin. The reigning World Series champions are followed by the Toronto Blue Jays (27) and Baltimore Orioles (23). Bringing up the rear are the Oakland Athletics (-12), Chicago White Sox (-22) and – as you might expect – the San Diego Padres (-23).

Like I said, the Cubs (10) finished thirteenth overall, which is second best in the NL Central behind the Reds (22), but well ahead of the Pirates (6), Cardinals (2) and Brewers (-9). In fact, the Cardinals were among the three “most downgraded” teams from 2015 to 2016, in no small part due to the loss of Jason Heyward.

But onto the Cubs, let’s see how their positional scores shook out. You’re going to notice that everything looks just about where you’d expect, with one position really sticking out:

  • C: 2
  • 1B: 7
  • 2B: -2
  • SS: 4
  • 3B: 2
  • LF: -4
  • CF: -8
  • RF: 8

To be perfectly honest, given the fact that three of the Cubs’ four primary outfielders are Jorge Soler, Kyle Schwarber and Dexter Fowler, the Cubs are pretty lucky to finish as high as they did. While I think Schwarber and Soler can be far better than they were in their busy rookie seasons, and that Fowler’s defense in center is underrated, there’s no question that the trio is collectively below average. And, let’s be even more honest, they probably would have finished even lower had Fowler not returned to take over CF, while pushing Heyward to right – where he is a gold glove caliber outfielder.

That said, are we really buying the -8 projection for center field – worst among all MLB CFs – listed above?

Before the 2015 season, we were all plenty aware of Dexter Fowler’s reputed flaws in centerfield. Before the season, I wrote about it, Brett wrote about it, and it was widely discussed and debated. But, once the season started, that whole conversation sort of melted away. Sure, the Cubs were doing well and there were plenty of exciting things to talk about, but “bad defense in center field” would certainly have merited a discussion in an otherwise competitive season.

But it didn’t. And that’s because Fowler’s defense was to our eyes, well, mostly fine.

The reason I say “mostly fine” of course, is because, while he was far from a Gold Glover in center, his defense felt mostly average – a non-factor, either way. Story after story and report after report told us to brace for the worst, but Fowler’s defense was far better than “worst center fielder ever,” and the numbers actually support that.

For the Astros in 2014, Fowler finished with a -20 DRS and -36.2 UZR/150. For the Cubs in 2015, both numbers jumped to -12 DRS and -1.9 UZR/150 (nineteenth and thirteenth overall among qualified center fielders, respectively). But, perhaps more importantly, he just looked fine out there. Defensive statistics aren’t exactly iron-clad yet, but when improvement in the numbers is confirmed by our eyes, you can start to believe in the trend.

So, is Dexter Fowler really that bad? And will the center field tandem of Fowler and Heyward (because, remember, he’ll see time there, too) really produce the worst defensive center field in baseball this year? The projections say yes, but my gut says no. Fowler is likely a good deal better in center than the metrics give him credit for, and Heyward will be a more than capable back up. But remember, no matter how bad the overall outfield defense looks right now, it was potentially going to be far worse.

It’s a fun day to be a Cubs fan when an above-average, but not top-tier team defense ranking can be something of a disappointment, isn’t it?

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami