“If we catch the ball and pitch the ball like we did last spring and this year, we shall ‘D-Peat.” — Joe Maddon
While talking about his team’s historically great defense in 2016 at the Cubs Convention earlier this month, we were blessed with the latest Maddon-ism: “D-Peat”. It is clever not only because of its double meaning, but also because of the extremely obvious way it explains what Maddon thinks the team needs to do in order to win another World Series.
By compiling a league-best 69.0 team DEF rating in 2016 (according to FanGraphs), the Cubs were far and away the best defensive unit in baseball last season, crushing the second-place Giants at 53.7. While a team can still be very good without having the best defense in the game (for example: in 2015 the 97-win Cubs were 9th with a 17.4 team DEF rating), it certainly helps when it comes to limiting the damage caused by your pitchers.
In 2016 it was obvious that the defense supplemented every starting pitcher’s performance. While not the sole reason, the defense did play a big part in helping Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks become Cy Young finalists, along with boosting the statistics of Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, and John Lackey.
Using cFIP as the barometer, none of the Cubs starting five were elite last season. Where 95-105 is average, and <70 is “superb”, the best of the bunch was Lester with a cFIP of 90. Hendricks comes in second with a 92 followed by Jake Arrieta at 94, John Lackey with a 98 and Jason Hammel with a below-average 110.
These guys also posted numbers slightly out of sync with their eventual ERA because the defense behind them limited the damage in virtually every single game.
For all five starters to have a lower ERA than FIP is rare even for the defensively great teams of the past couple of seasons. In 2015, the Royals were the league’s best defensive unit with a 56.9 DEF and Yordano Ventura (4.08/3.57) and Johnny Cueto (4.76/4.06 over 13 starts) weren’t saved by the stellar leatherwork. The second-best defense of the Giants in 2016 had Matt Moore and Jake Peavy post higher ERA numbers than FIP as well.
For the Cubs to get this kind of production out of their rotation a second year in a row, the defense is definitely going to have to bring their A-game because natural and aged regression in the pitching should be expected.
Removing Lester’s post trade-deadline performance with Oakland in 2014, last year was his career-best in ERA at age 32. He’s also losing his personal safety blanket in David Ross, the impact of which will be hard to predict, but will be something to keep an eye on.
Hendricks obviously doesn’t have as large of a sample size, but like Arrieta’s 1.77 ERA in 2015, a 2.13 ERA is going to be insanely hard to replicate. Luck alone could swing his numbers closer to 2.50 even if he’s pitching at the same level with the same defense.
Arrieta took a step back last season as he struggled with command, and he is one of the wild cards of this group (the other two are Mike Montgomery and newly acquired Brett Anderson). Will the Cy Young contender show up, or should we just accept a good but not great Arrieta moving forward?
At 38, John Lackey is teeing off on the 18th hole of his career, but he still has managed to average a 99 cFIP the last two seasons. But with three members of your rotation on the wrong side of 30, every additional season is going to be susceptible to further scrutiny, and Lackey is certainly no exception.
In 2015, The Boston Globe determined that from 1984-2014 a pitcher was at his peak during his age 26 season on average. Technically, this means that every Cubs starting pitcher is at risk of notable regression. While this group is clearly filled with guys who are on track to, or have managed, longer careers, it still goes to show how important the defense will be this year — performance can drop quickly when it comes to past-their-prime pitching.
The good news is that the Cubs defense could be even better this season. The centerfield platoon of Jon Jay (-2.7 Fielding Runs Above Average in 2016) and Albert Almora (-0.2 FRAA in 2016) is an upgrade over Dexter Fowler (-11.6 FRAA in 2016). Javier Baez should get more playing time at second after his dazzling display of defense throughout last year and during the playoffs. Kris Bryant has room to grow as well as he managed to improve from -2.5 FRAA in 2015 to a 1.7 in 2016.
As long as everyone is healthy, the Cubs best defensive lineup in 2017 should be better as a whole when compared to 2016. While “D-Peating” isn’t going to single-handedly push the Cubs into the playoffs, the pitching is going to be a big question mark for this group not only this year but moving beyond it as well. Any chance the Cubs have at masking, or just simply boosting the pitching performance with their defense will give them another push towards winning the division if it helps them win those games where their starting pitching isn’t on point.
Lead photo courtesy Geoff Burke — USA Today Sports