Upgrading the Run Defense: A Team Effort

A few years ago, I decided to prank my wife for her birthday. She’d been complaining about how bad her camera was (a previous gift from yours truly—and most definitely not a prank) and she wanted something that took better pictures.

Which meant—hint, hint—a new camera.

So her birthday rolled around and she opens her card to find a “gift card” that I had designed and printed out at work the day before. It read: “Good for 10 FREE GIMP Training Sessions.” GIMP is an open-source (read: free) piece of software that pretty much does what Photoshop does. It lets you manipulate images and play with them to make them look better (or to put your friend’s head on a monkey’s body, if that’s your thing).

Here was my birthday present to my wife: instead of buying her a new camera (what she wanted), I gave her a piece of paper I printed out (at work, for free) that promised her I would sit next to her for hours on end and teach her how to use a free piece of software to take her existing, crappy pictures, and tweak them to look marginally better.

She actually took it quite well. She said something like “Oh…great.” You could tell it caught her off guard, but she also wasn’t visibly upset about it. I let the awkwardness hang in the air for a bit before I whipped out a box and said, “PSYCH! Here’s your real birthday gift!”

It was a brand-new camera. I’m cheap, but I’m not stupid.

I’m telling you this story because I fear some of you that read Rian Watt’s great piece on Epstein’s plans for the offseason may go through the same range of emotions my wife did about how the Cubs will address their ability to control opposing teams’ running games. Epstein mentioned this as one of the four areas for improvement heading into 2016.

I firmly believe the team will improve, but fans aren’t going to get the sexy, “new-camera” solution. If Epstein says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it. But the Cubs aren’t going to go out and acquire a bunch of new players to help address this particular weakness. Instead, they’re going to get better by going the “GIMP-gift-card” route: they’re going to work at it. They’ll talk about it, focus on it, do more drills, and they’re going to create some plays to keep the other team’s baserunners in check.

But the end result should be the same as the prank on my wife—we will all get what we want: a better team. Let’s dig into what controlling the running game means, who has an impact on this particular facet of the game, and what the Cubs are going to do this offseason to improve on it.


Controlling the running game is a team effort—it isn’t something you fix by simply acquiring this or that player. You could go and acquire pitchers with amazing pick-off moves and catchers with the best pop times and all that would do is leave you with a mediocre battery that no ones wants to run on. Let’s not forget that the priority is to keep runners from ever getting on base. It’s like camping with a blanket that’s too small: you pull it up to cover your cold face and then your toes pop out of their warm cocoon. The point is you can’t have it all: you need to decide what’s more important and focus on that.

And the Cubs have already done that. They have four-fifths of their rotation generally set going into 2016 and their two catchers were acquired before the season with an emphasis on framing, so no major changes there. And while they’re definitely going to address their rotation by adding a new starter (and perhaps two), that alone isn’t going to have a drastic impact on this part of the game.

Whose fault is it if you can’t control the running game? Like I said before, it’s a team effort. The pitcher, the catcher, and the infielders all play a role. At its core, when the other team feels too comfortable on the bases, then you have a problem. And it starts with the guy holding the ball standing on the hill. How much attention can pitchers pay to the baserunner without negatively affecting their job of getting the guy at the plate out?

Let’s take a look at a fun stat called Take Off Rate Above Average. It basically tells us how comfortable a baserunner is against the pitcher and how likely he is to “take off” on said pitcher. Positive numbers are bad and negative numbers are good. Here are the combined numbers for this year’s playoff teams, including starters with at least 10 starts during the regular season:

Cubs 26
Pirates 17
Rangers -1
Dodgers -1
Astros -3
Yankees -5
Royals -11
Mets -12
Blue Jays -16
Cardinals -25

Now, this just tells you how comfortable baserunners are with stealing against a pitcher, it doesn’t tell you how successful they are at swiping the bag. But if you look at how many steals each of these teams allowed, you’ll see a correlation with their TRAA. The Pirates and Cubs led the league in steals allowed with 144 and 137, respectively. The table makes it pretty obvious that this is an issue that must be addressed: there’s a reason Epstein mentioned it. It was an problem all season and the Mets did a great job of not only identifying the issue, but exploiting it.

The Pirates have already improved on this number since A.J. Burnett is retiring, so his +12 comes off the board. For the Cubs, Jon Lester is the main culprit. He clocks in as the second-worst pitcher in TRAA at +16 (Tyson Ross, who the Cubs were rumored to be interested in at the trade deadline, leads the pack—look for the Cubs to NOT trade for him unless they plan for Rizzo to start tying runners’ laces together when they’re not looking). The unique thing about the Cubs is that their other three starters (Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks, and Jake Arrieta) all have scores on the wrong side of zero—none of the other teams in that table have that problem. Wada and Haren were both negative (good), but they’re both gone. David Price, by the way, has the 5th-best rating in baseball… I’m just saying.

Why are runners so comfortable? To delve into that, let’s take a look at the Yoenis Cespedes steal against the Cubs in the NLCS:

That’s really bad. If a pitcher isn’t even looking over at the runner, then the catcher has absolutely no chance at throwing anybody guy out. If Trevor Cahill is going to the plate without even glancing over at second base, that’s a problem and someone needs to say something. It’s Starlin Castro’s job to scream out if Cespedes is getting too big of a lead—and not just on this play but on every single play of every single game. Castro (or whoever is covering the runner) needs to do something to make that runner uncomfortable. Miguel Montero needs to call time and go out there and tell Cahill, “Hey, at least look over there a couple times.” I know a lot of this happens in the dugout after an inning is over, but this is the playoffs: you call time out and you tell Cahill what’s up.


Cespedes at the moment he breaks for third.

So who do you blame on a play like this, or any other play where the runners are running willy-nilly on the base paths? If you’re the kind of person who has to point the finger at somebody, there’s only one place to point: the manager. The good news is this: getting players to hustle and buy into his philosophy is Joe Maddon’s specialty. We saw it with Respect 90 and I’m sure we’ll see some variation of it in Spring Training.

So how is Joe Maddon going to make the Cubs better at making opposing base runners more uncomfortable? Sure, there will be some “boring” drills where they practice pickoff plays, timing plays, and other “keep-them-on-their-toes” type of drills. But the beauty of this problem is that most of it is philosophical, not physical. And—again—that’s right up Maddon’s wheelhouse.

The pitchers will be encouraged to vary how long they hold the ball before going home, to throw over more often (you too, Lester!), and to develop a decent slide step. Catchers need to use their unique point of view on the field to keep an eye on what runners are doing and if any of them are getting out of line. Infielders will be encouraged to become pests—annoying the crap out of base runners by bouncing around the bag and showing them a set play or two so no one is taking off as early as Cespedes did in the NLCS.

They will work to make the other team uncomfortable.

Here’s another reason to be optimistic about Maddon turning this particular aspect of the team’s defense around: he managed a guy that was so good at picking off runners, he’s got his own pickoff highlight reel in James Shields. It has some lightning-fast moves that nobody is going to develop regardless of how much they practice or drill, and that’s to be expected.

But there’s one move in that video that stands out above all others. Pay attention, because it happens very quickly:

This is a designed play. Shields starts his windup and the second baseman breaks for the bag. The catcher may or may not be signaling with his glove for Shields to whip around and throw, and when he does they’ve got that player dead to rights. Shields is in on it, his catcher knows it’s coming, and the second baseman is ready. Teamwork: it’s a thing of beauty. And if anyone can get it out of their guys, it’s Maddon.

Stay tuned for Spring Training 2016. We’re about to go from Respect 90 to Teamwork 360.

Lead photo courtesy of Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

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