Last season, the Chicago Cubs won a team Gold Glove award (the first ever such award, actually), after an astounding seven players were nominated individually (Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills, Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Nico Hoerner, Javy Baez, Jason Heyward). Rizzo and Baez each won for work at their positions, continuing a long-line of Cubs defensive honors (Rizzo also won in 2019 and 2018, Jason Heyward won in 2017, Heyward and Rizzo won in 2016 (when the Cubs had one of the best overall defenses in the history of baseball)).
Needless to say, however frequently we or others acknowledge it, the Cubs have sported top-shelf defense throughout this competitive window, and it was a key component of their success.
The question now, as the Cubs evolve into whatever comes next, is whether that top-shelf defense will remain. Or even remains now. Anyone watching these games can see that something’s up – both collectively and individually (Jason Heyward looks stiff and slow in right field, Javy Báez already has more errors this season (9) than he did all of 2020 (8), Joc Pederson looked really rough early on in left, Willson Contreras’ framing seems just a little off, etc.).
And that’s why I was quick to click on Sahadev Sharma’s latest at The Athletic, your must-read of the day.
Really great look at the Cubs defense from @sahadevsharma – some bad luck, some injuries, some flukiness, some interesting points about the types of starters the Cubs have, and some legitimate badness.
Must-read today 👇https://t.co/hVanqEEvJM
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) May 13, 2021
Establishing the big picture, Sharma points out that the Cubs are “in the bottom third of the league in multiple advanced defensive metric categories including Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150) and Defensive Efficiency (DefEff).” Which all generally tracks with the eye-test, but the real meat of the article ties to the various explanations from David Ross followed up by the data dive from Sharma to see if his theories hold up. As you can imagine – and as I pointed out above – some of it holds up, some of it is just bad luck, and some of it is just pure bad performance.
For example, Ross mentions Javy Báez as a guy who hasn’t quite been himself lately, and that’s true. He’s been making errors, rushing throws, flubbing some easy grounders, etc. But he’s also been hurt (hamstring, back) and … are any of us really willing to suggest that he’s suddenly gone from one of the game’s greatest defenders to the worst version of himself? Nah. That’ll turn around if and as his health does
One thing that may not turn around, however, is the amount of time Cubs defenders have spent on the field while their starters are on the mound. Ross called it long innings, and upon a deeper dive, Sharma discovered that “The Cubs lead all of baseball with 4.46 batters faced per inning for their starting pitchers.”
This continues with comments on exit velocity, health, positioning, and more. But the thing that stood out to me the most was the unpredictable short-comings of guys like Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies, in particular, and how that connects with the defense.
Here’s Ross’s comment (emphasis mine): “And positioning-wise, we’ve seen guys uncharacteristically hitting the ball to sides of the field they don’t normally hit it to. Whether that’s a lack of velocity or stuff that we may have. Our defensive models are set up for our contact guys to execute pitches, and they weren’t the (best) versions of themselves early on.”
Ah. That can explain a lot, right?
At the start of the season, we were so focused on how the Cubs *fielders* might help out their pitching staff, we didn’t quite consider that it can work the other way, too. A smart team like the Cubs isn’t positioning their defense solely on gut instincts, or even just generic spray charts. They also know how their pitchers are going to attack certain hitters and how that attack is likely to result in a certain type (direction, angle, velocity, etc.) of batted ball.
As Sharma points out, this one is much more difficult to quantify, because we’ll never know what certain pitchers were trying to do with certain hitters, but when we consider that the Cubs two more contact-dependent starters, Hendricks and Davies, have been uncharacteristically … terrible until their two most recent starts, well that’s not much of a leap, right?
But that also makes me optimistic. We know both of those guys have begun to settle in, and that, alone, could help the defensive positioning make more of an impact. Throw in the expected healing/return of Nico Hoerner and Javy Báez (and hopefully Jason Heyward improves), and whenever Jake Marisnick returns, things could suddenly look different very quickly. Even Willson Contreras’ framing numbers could regress pretty naturally with better command from Davies and Hendricks.
All across the diamond, the Cubs are loaded with high defensive ceiling players. So while it hasn’t manifested itself yet this season – admittedly, in some scary ways – there is a light around the corner. This group probably won’t positively regress itself to “elite,” but it can certainly be better than it’s shown so far.
So be sure to check out Sahadev Sharma’s post. It’s a really great place to start.