Imagine you’re in charge of a health intervention, and you have the choice of two programs to implement over a population of 600 people. If you implement Program A, there’s a 100 percent chance that you’ll save 200 lives, but a zero percent chance that you’ll save the other 400. If you implement Program B, on the other hand, there’s a one-third chance that you’ll save all 600 lives, and a two-thirds chance that you’ll save no lives. Which option would you choose?
Well, the expected outcome for both plans is saving 200 lives (that’s 200 * 1.00 = 600 * 0.33), so you’d expect that folks would be indifferent between the two options. They’re not. The vast majority of people posed this question—conceptualized by economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky—chose Program A, which offered them certainty of outcome.
Now let me ask you a different question. You’re a health administrator again, and you again have the choice of two programs. If you implement Program A, 400 people will die. If you implement Program B, there’s a one-third chance that no one will die, and a two-thirds chance that 600 will die. Now which do you choose?
Those of you who are used to thinking mathematically—or those of you that’ve taken a course in behavioral economics—will recognize that the two scenarios are in fact identical (in the second case, the math is 400 * 1.00 = 600 * 0.67). But the first scenario is framed in terms of lives saved, while the second is framed in terms of lives lost. Turns out, most people will choose Program B if the question is framed as lives lost, and Program A if the question is framed as lives saved. Fact is, most people don’t like to feel as if they’re killing other people.
This is what economists call loss aversion: people hate losses more than they like gains. (Which would stir stronger emotions in you—someone stealing $10 from your pocket, or putting $10 there without your knowledge?) Years of behavioral research have shown that it’s a real thing people feel, and policymakers have to adjust their strategies accordingly. But in baseball, loss aversion is turned on its head. When teams go looking for runs, they more often than not seek players who can return them gains (in the form of strong offensive performance) rather than players who can prevent losses (by virtue of their performance on defense).
Yet another way baseball is wonderfully idiosyncratic.
But the point isn’t that baseball should avoid losses in favor of gains, or gains in favor of losses. The point is that preferring either doesn’t make much sense. A run is a run no matter how it’s achieved—what’s important is not the total number of runs a team scores, but the total relative to the opponent’s total (and distributed evenly over 162 games, but that’s another story). And a team can burnish their relative run total equally by taking away runs their opponents might otherwise have scored, or by scoring them themselves.
This offseason, the Cubs will try to tilt the run ledger in their favor by improving four key areas of weakness for the 2015 club: their control of the running game, their contact hitting, their outfield defense, and their pitching depth. I covered these target areas at 30,000 feet last week, and my colleagues Carlos Portocarrero (the running game) and Sahadev Sharma (contact hitting) have since broken down two of the four in amazing detail. Today, I’m going to try to do the same with respect to the Cubs and outfield defense.
Let’s start with this: The Cubs weren’t actually all that bad in the outfield in 2015. As a defensive unit, their UZR/150—a flawed stat, to be sure, but still meaningful—was 4.5 runs above the average, which was actually the best mark in the National League (though behind Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Texas overall). And their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE) was 2.41. That’s also fourth in the majors, although it’s worth noting that PADE isn’t divisible between the outfield and the infield, so it may be over-representing the Cubs’ outfield performance a little bit. Despite that, though, it’s totally fair to say this: the Cubs weren’t terrible in the outfield in 2015. They may not have been the best in the majors (that feels like a slap in the face to the Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh defensive alignments) but they weren’t awful either.
And that sort of makes sense, because no Cub with more than 150 outfield innings in 2015, save one, was all that bad out there*:
The large difference in magnitude between FRAA and UZR with respect to Denorfia and Coghlan can mostly be explained by differences in how the statistics are calculated (see the links in the table), but it’s not worth going into that now: focus instead on the direction each statistic suggests for each player. For the most part, the defensive statistics saw Coghlan and Denorfia as plus defenders in 2015, Schwarber and Soler as bad ones, and Fowler as somewhere right in the middle. For what it’s worth, that’s consistent with what my eyes saw as well.
So if the Cubs were solid but unspectacular in the outfield in 2015 (generating, from those five players, a net 6.5 runs above average by UZR), where exactly might the front office try to add to improve their outfield defense? One clue might be this: the performance of all those players with fewer than 150 outfield innings in 2015:
That September/October mark—put up right after the Cubs acquired Berry and Jackson—is quite something. An important caveat, again: PADE includes defensive contributions from every player on the roster, and so we can’t rely on it to tell the story of the outfield, alone. (Indeed, the big dip in July and August can be partially explained by the absence of Miguel Montero from July 11 to August 8; at 15.3, he had the ninth-highest FRAA in the game in 2015—for any player. There’s also Addison Russell’s play at shortstop to account for and, of course, having Javy Baez on the bench.) But there’s no way the Cubs get to an 8.14 PADE in September/October (by far the highest monthly score for any team in 2015) without their outfield clicking defensively as well. And that’s in large part due to defensive contributions by Berry and Jackson. If you were looking for a case to bring Jackson back on a short-term deal, this might be it. In general, reworking the backup portion of the outfield for 2016 might be worth two or three runs on net. That’s not meaningless, and I’m certain the Cubs will target it heavily this offseason.
How about those top five players, then? Schwarber will likely be back in left field, and he’ll be working on his defense all offseason. And although Denorfia is a free agent, and could depart by virtue of a reasonable market for his services, Coghlan will likely be back (though with a raise through arbitration), and both would improve the team’s continuity as well as ensuring that the backup outfield options are sound defensively. That leaves Fowler and Soler as the major question marks. I’ve been pretty clear in the past that I think the Cubs can improve their short and long-term standings by letting Fowler walk—after giving him a qualifying offer, of course—and by trading Soler for young pitching. I stand by that position now, and will add their performance in the outfield as just another bullet point in that case.
Imagine Soler is moved for pitching, Fowler and Denorfia walk, and the Cubs are able to acquire an elite outfield defender and retain Jackson all at once. The bulk of the innings in the outfield would then be taken by some combination of Elite Defender A, Jackson, Coghlan, Schwarber, Bryant, and Baez (more on the latter two later). When aligned properly—with the right elite player acquired—this could instantly improve the defense by a significant margin, possibly by tens of runs, which would mean multiple wins for the North Siders (assuming a going rate of nine runs per win).
Of course, that’s probably the best-case scenario for the Cubs with respect to their outfield defense. They may not be able to acquire said elite defender, and the right deal may not come around to justify moving Soler. But other, less rosy, scenarios aren’t too bad either. Signing a stopgap in center—Denard Span comes to mind immediately—along with bringing Jackson back in the fold, would shore up the middle while center-field prospects like Albert Almora, Jr. and Donnie Dewees continue to develop. There’s five or six runs to be gained here through player personnel changes even without adding an elite glove.
And there might be runs to be gained without any personnel changes at all.
“I think we could generally improve our outfield defense a little bit, and that’s something that happens not just through the personnel that we may add, but also through coaching and repetitions and emphasis in certain areas,” Epstein said when meeting with the media after the season had wrapped up. “Young players do get better defensively with work, and we plan to work.”
It’s hard to put a number on the value of work and positioning, but it’s also hard to imagine that Soler and Schwarber won’t both put in a great deal of time this winter into improving their performance defensively, or that the Cubs won’t have hired the best available in the business to give them coaching. And Schwarber and Soler won’t be alone next year—they might be joined in the outfield by a few other young guns.
“I think we’re going to continue to put a priority on versatility, and having interchangeable parts, and having redundancy with our position-player group,” said Epstein, when asked about the possibility of Baez and Bryant seeing time in center field in 2016. “Frankly, I think it’s one of the strengths of the organization, you know, that we have a lot of impact depth with our position players, and that those guys can play multiple positions. And that allows you to withstand a key injury or two, or a season in which there’s underperformance from one or two players, so that’s something that we’d like to preserve if we can; it’s a strength.”
Sure, Bryant’s performance in the outfield wasn’t great in 2015 (-2.4 FRAA), but he’s another hard worker, and he’ll have far less on his mind next season than he did in 2015. Look for him and Baez—if he’s not traded this winter—to get some looks in center field during Spring Training next year.
If you’ve gotten to this point in the article, your head’s probably spinning a little bit. That makes sense. The Cubs have more options in the outfield than they do in any other part of the roster, save perhaps the bullpen (which is somewhat less important than the outfield, in terms of run prevention). And so it’s not just in your head: there are a lot of contingencies to be considered and weighed here. Fowler, for all he brought to the team, was never likely to be more than a stopgap (à la Juan Pierre, 2006), and he’ll almost certainly hand that role over to another player in 2016. That decision might be the key to the Cubs’ offseason.
“A lot depends on what does happen in center field,” said Epstein last week. “We have so many nice versatile, young position players that I don’t see a crying need to add in any one position. But at the same time there are skillsets we’d like to add, certain contributions that we’d like to integrate into the mix if possible, so that we can become a little bit more well-rounded as a team.”
Well-rounded. That’s the key term. I love watching Soler hit long bombs to Waveland, and I love seeing him work an at-bat even more. He could be a superstar. But he isn’t a superstar yet, and his defensive performance in 2015 left a great deal to be desired. The Cubs will work with him on his defense this offseason, and there’s a very solid chance he’ll be back in Chicago next year, and better in the outfield than he was last year. But if the Cubs are serious about improving their outfield defense—and every indication so far is that they are—there’s no better way to do it than to replace Soler with even an average performer in right.
It all comes back to runs, and how you choose to get them. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and the rest of the Cubs’ front office staff aren’t behavioral economists. But they do understand the value of a run, and they know there’s no single best way to add more of them. They’re looking for runs in general, and one particular way they’ve chosen to get them is through outfield defense. That’s good news for defensively sound role players like Jackson, bad news for offensive-first players like Soler (and, to a much lesser degree, Schwarber, who’s better than Soler with both bat and glove), and great news for Jason Heyward (who was in a good position anyway). But it’s best of all for Cubs fans, because there might be no cheaper way to improve the 2016 team than to spend heavily on defense, which is still wildly undervalued by the market.
*Permanent caveat: defensive metrics are complicated, and often inconsistent with one another (although they’re fast-improving).
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports.