The Modern History of Winning With Defense, Which We Sure Hope Is Pertinent For the 2023 Cubs
If you’re making a case for the 2023 Cubs — and really, what’s a better time to make it than Opening Day?! — it’s no secret what you’d stress: have you seen these guys play defense?
The Cubs have no singular ace, no loaded collection of arms at the back of the bullpen, and too few projected walks to hope for much above average on offense. There are ways to contort yourself to like parts of those elements of the team, but it’s a real stretch to think any will be THE guiding factor for an October run.
Instead, the strength of the team, one that Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins very clearly identified in free agency, is how it will convert balls in play into outs. With Dansby Swanson, Nico Hoerner, Cody Bellinger, Ian Happ, and the Gomes/Barnhart duo, the Cubs have a hope to be the best in baseball at something.
As baseball has evolved in the last 20 years, we always hear about the role that home runs and velocity play in winning. I’m not disputing those assertions. But the old standard line of “defense wins championships” has fallen a bit by the wayside, and I wanted to see if it was still true. So I did what any blogger with a decent premise for a post does in this situation: I ran a search over at FanGraphs.
I looked up all MLB teams from 2010-2022, ranked by the FanGraphs Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF) metric. And for the purposes of this post, we’re going to focus on the 60 teams that ranked the highest, ranging from +24.8 runs to +73.6 runs. (Why 60? Well, besides it implying the top five defenses from each season, and besides this being the even number that gets you to all teams you can round up and call +25-or-better, it also meant cutting it off with the hapless 2012 Cubs at #60, which I found funny) Let’s dive a bit into those 60 teams as a way to think about the 2023 Cubs.
So, Does Good Defense Actually Correlate With Winning?
I think it’s pretty clear the answer is yes, as you’d hope with a self-selected group of the very best. These 60 teams won an average of 87.3 games, with 41 teams winning the 85-or-more games that I think defines a season as (at least somewhat) successful. You’ll find good Cubs teams on here in 2016, 2018 and 2019, and you see some other World Series winners like the 2022 Astros, 2015 Royals and 2010 Giants.
It also occurred to me that there would be some examples in the search that just don’t fit the theory of the 2023 Cubs, teams that were either offensive juggernauts or total offensive disasters. So let’s toss out every team that had an OPS+ that was 10% more or less than league average (this is 10 teams on the high side, 8 teams on the low side). This gives us a 42-team sample of middle-of-the-road offenses, allowing us to better isolate the impact that defense has.
Of those 42 teams, the average win total ends up at 85.6 games. and 29 of the 42 won more than 85 games. Pretty similar, if a very slight drop-off, from the results in the first paragraph. Still, anecdotal evidence that the fielding-first formula works.
What was interesting to me, by the way, is how Jed Hoyer, Carter Hawkins and David Ross have some first-hand experience in seeing this type of ballclub work. If we ignore those Cubs seasons that Hoyer and Ross participated in, we also see Hoyer’s 2010 Padres — a 90-win team with that was +55.3 defensively — as a good example for how this might work. David Ross was on the 2012 Braves team that won 94 games despite a 90 OPS+, in part thanks to a defense that added 53.7 runs above average.
But maybe the most optimistic proxy for this Cubs team was the 2019 Cleveland Indians team that Carter Hawkins helped build. The team was slightly below-average on offense, had good pitching performances but nothing exemplary, really riding a +43 defense to a 93-win season.
When Doesn’t It Work?
We still have plenty of examples to think about when teams still fall on their face despite a good proficiency around the diamond (again, the 2012 Cubs show up in the search).
David Ross saw with the Red Sox in 2014 how this formula is no guarantee to success. Only David Ortiz and Cubs coach Mike Napoli were positive offensive players for that team, and the pitching depth fell off a cliff after some good performances at the top. We’ll always love that team as Cubs fans, as it saw Jon Lester traded midseason, opening the door for him to sign away from Boston in free agency.
One team that definitely jumps out to me as having had a season the Cubs could duplicate are the 2021 Mets. They had a good season from Marcus Stroman, a solid-if-unspectacular bullpen, and great half-seasons from Jacob Degrom and Brandon Nimmo. They were hanging around at the Trade Deadline in contention — close enough to trade Pete Crow-Armstrong for Javier Baez — but the formula didn’t hold up down the stretch. I’ll remember this anecdote if the team is hovering around the outside of the playoff race in July.
So Can These Cubs Be +25 Or Better?
Here’s the magic question, as before now, this piece presupposes that the Cubs will be one of these teams. And let me clear: it’s more likely they are not. This is rarified air we’re talking about, after all. And if we use the ZiPs Depth Chart forecast at FanGraphs, we see the Cubs are only projected at +4.5 runs above average defensively.
Now when you look at that link, remember the FanGraphs DEF number includes a positional adjustment that punishes positions like first base and left field (which is why Ian Happ showed up negative in that column even last year). Even still, ZiPS thinks that first base and right field will be defensive black holes for the Cubs, with Seiya Suzuki and the Mervis/Hosmer/Mancini trio all proving to be quite poor. If the Cubs are destined to reach that +25 mark that I think they’ll need to for high-end success to be possible, those are some of the players that need to surprise in the field (count Patrick Wisdom in that group, too).
I also think the Cubs are hopeful that their best players can outperform those projections. Dansby and Nico combined last year to be about 8 runs better than their projection, and Cody Bellinger isn’t likely to have a bunch of playing time at first base dragging down his all-in number. Yan Gomes and Tucker Barnhart must combine to be above their career averages.
While asking for the combination of all those factors seems like a stretch, I’ll grant you, the skillsets are there. It’s far more likely they get to the +25 mark than to be a dominant offense or a lights-out pitching staff, I’d argue. And I’m glad the recent history books suggest that a team with that design can still have a successful season in the end.