Like I said last night, no one is interested in turning discussions about what the Cubs need to do – culturally – moving forward into a back-and-forth between Joe Maddon and his ex-club. It’s more important to focus on the substance.
For example, if the Cubs did lack in preparation and togetherness and focus and all that stuff last year, it might manifest itself in certain types of struggles. For example, baserunning and defense? Two areas where the Cubs were elite in 2016, and then steadily kind of trailed off? The eye test said that they screwed up all the time on the bases (remember this?) and made sloppy errors, and the advanced metrics agreed: the Cubs were a below-average baserunning team by BsR last year, and were somewhere between average and pretty bad on the defensive side, depending on your metric of preference.
Can we say that the poor performance in these areas was the product of things a coaching staff could have managed better? No, not with any definitive certainty. The players still have to do the work and maintain the focus. But it doesn’t feel like a crazy leap to make the connection between best practices on the preparation front and guys being in an ideal position to makes slightly fewer mistakes out on the field, to take extra bases, to be truly engaged in a way that makes a little difference at the margins.
Put it this way: does anyone really believe, from a talent perspective, this was a bad defensive group last year? Or a bad baserunning group? I just don’t buy that it was purely a talent deficiency.
And neither does GM Jed Hoyer.
“A lot of the things we did in 2015-16 were done to make a group of players comfortable playing in front of a massive spotlight, big crowds,” Hoyer told the Tribune this week. “A lot of things that worked then we didn’t feel were still working because they might have gone too far. Maybe we needed to tighten some stuff up.
“Were we pleased with our defense and base running over the two years? No. I thought it was a massive failure the way we played defense and ran the bases. So I do feel the attention to detail was not there …. It wasn’t malicious on anyone’s part. I don’t think it was laziness on anyone’s part. I just think some of the things evolved into habits that we needed to break, in my opinion.”
Again, the data backs up that perspective, especially when you contrast the results with the talent. Perhaps the change in manager and coaching staff will provide an opportunity for the Cubs’ players to take a hard look at their preparation, and how they go about their routines. Sometimes the change, itself, helps:
This idea also makes me think a lot about an issue we saw last year with the Cubs, and that the front office started working into their commentary rotation:
The whole was less than the sum of the parts.
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) February 19, 2020
How much can improving this stuff make a difference in the end results? If the Cubs “tighten things up” and perform on on the field the way you’d expect from their talent? Do baserunning and defense really translate that much to wins?
Yes, actually (especially defense). Doing a little sabermetric math, if the Cubs were to improve to solidly above average in baserunning in 2020 (let’s say top five) over where they were last year, they would add about 15 “runs” to their team performance, which translates to about a win and a half difference in the final standings.
On defense, depending on your stat of choice, if the Cubs improved to being a top five defense in 2020, they could add about 80 “runs” to their team performance, which translates to about an eight win difference.
Wrap your head around that for a moment. If this same group had performed as a top five defense and top five baserunning team last year, they could have won upwards of 93 games instead of 84. That’s enormous. Now, of course, that’s in large part because I’m talking about an enormous leap in performance – from solidly below average to top five in both these categories – but the point here is just to give you the context. In 2016, the Cubs were number 3 in BsR and number 1 in DRS – and they’ve really fallen off in both categories since that incredible season.
Maybe the Cubs won’t get back to that level just because there is change in the clubhouse. But there is clearly room for improvement, and the front office seems to believe it’s very possible, even with largely the same group of players.