Signs Point to Defensive Growth in Cubs’ Outfield

The Chicago Cubs have received a great deal of praise over the past calendar year for their defense, and it’s with good reason that they’re constantly lauded for what they achieve with the leather. This is especially true of the infield. When you’re talking about a group that includes Gold Glover Anthony Rizzo, a player who has vastly outplayed his defensive potential in Kris Bryant, future Gold Glover Addison Russell, and a pair of versatile defensive weapons in Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist, anything other than an elite level would be a surprise.

But that excellence with the glove could translate to the outfield in a way that we really haven’t seen before.

Obviously Jason Heyward’s presence is a sign of defensive prominence in itself. But the addition of Albert Almora in center on a permanent basis, as well as the continued development of Kyle Schwarber as an outfielder, could allow the Cubs’ trio of outfielders to join in on the elite buzz.

FanGraphs has a number of defensive metrics that we’ll utilize here, while defining them in the simplest terms possible. Revised Zone Rating (RZR) essentially measures how many balls hit in a defender’s zone were converted into outs. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) indicates just that, with the figure representing how many runs above or below the positional average a player is represented by the number of runs he prevented or surrendered. We’ll throw Range Runs (RngR) in here just for fun, measuring the effectiveness of a player getting to balls hit to his vicinity. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) provides a point of view that encapsulates the entire defensive performance, relative to other players at that position. Obviously there’s a certain level of caution to be taken into account with defensive metrics, as is really the case with anything, but it’ll at least allow us to paint each of the Cubs’ outfielders with a broad enough brush to get the point across here.

Here’s how Heyward performed against his outfield counterparts in the National League:

  • RZR: .958 (1st)
  • DRS: 18 (1st)
  • RngR: 17.9 (1st)
  • UZR: 20.4 (1st)

(Defensive Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs)

As if we needed tangible evidence that Jason Heyward is one of the best defenders in baseball, but there it is anyway. Where the improvements for this team will come into play are in the spots where an elite defender didn’t already reside.

Defensive metrics never favored Dexter Fowler. While he certainly improved defensively during his time in Chicago, something that was well-documented as being a result of his change in positioning in center, the metrics still didn’t look overwhelming:

  • RZR: .929 (7th)
  • DRS: 1 (16th)
  • RngR: 2.0 (13th)
  • UZR: 1.0 (15th)

(Defensive Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs)

A couple of things about this. First, this is out of 29 qualifying NL outfielders. Second, none of this is meant to disparage Dexter Fowler in any way. He was a more than capable defender in his two years in Chicago. Obviously those numbers are going to pale in comparison to what Heyward posts. But the point here is that while those numbers are solid enough, they have a chance to improve significantly in 2017 as Albert Almora takes over in centerfield.

The assumption/hope/plea is that Almora will be the No. 1 guy in center, with Jon Jay serving as a fourth outfielder at all three spots, and maybe taking Almora’s post for the occasional start against certain right-handed pitching. Assuming this is the case (and Almora does enough with the bat to keep himself in the lineup), each of those defensive metrics posted by Dexter Fowler could be in line to shoot up with Albert Almora at the helm in center.

Comparing Almora’s defensive metrics to Fowler’s would be a fruitless endeavor at this point because, as with any statistic, they take a certain amount of innings to reach a stabilization point. According to FanGraphs, his RZR and RngR came in just below Fowler (like by tenths), but he exceeded him in DRS, with three. His UZR per 150 games (since the sample sizes differ so greatly and Almora didn’t appear in enough games to make UZR as reliable) came in at 23.7. Fowler’s UZR/150 was 1.0. AA also has an arm to be envied by the likes of Fowler.

While he won’t serve in a leadoff capacity or subsequently provide the type of offensive spark that Fowler did in his pair of seasons in Chicago, Almora will likely represent a vast defensive upgrade. He’s showcased his range and his arm, as well as his overall instincts in a limited capacity at the big league level. He’ll be an extraordinary case to observe study as a defender in 2017, but without question represents an upgrade at the position.

Then there’s the true wild card of the bunch in Kyle Schwarber. In about 310 innings in the outfield in 2015, FanGraphs had Schwarber going for -3 in DRS, a .939 RZR, and a -2.0 UZR per 150 games. None of that screams elite defender, but Schwarber may have the capacity to shake whatever label he’s established for himself as a liability in the outfield.

Obviously he isn’t going to be able to showcase the range  Almora or Heyward have. He has underrated athleticism and likely had underrated range before the injury, but we’ll have to wait and see if he’s affected at all from his continued recovery.  But the range of each should be able to benefit him just by virtue of alignment. And Almora’s ability to get to balls to his right should limit Schwarber from having to demonstrate too much range, thus likely aiding him from a defensive metric standpoint. Schwarber can track down balls and field at an average level, at least. It’s just a matter of lacking instincts and continuing to develop an ability to read certain balls off the bat, but look for him to surprise a lot of people with his ability to provide steady play in the outfield in 2017.

When it comes to outfield defense, the primary concern is obviously the starting three. And, as of right now, Schwarber, Almora, Heyward figure to be just that. But there’s Jon Jay to consider as well. It’s also likely imperative to factor in a couple of other potential options in the outfield: Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant.

Jay is probably exactly what you’d expect from a fourth outfielder, in that he’s decidedly average. He has -1 DRS for his career, a -0.9 UZR, and a .915 RZR. His season in San Diego did him no favors, as his metrics from 2016 are…bad. But as an average defender, even with a below average arm, he should be able to provide a steady presence in small samples without detracting from the Cubs’ defensive ability as a collective group.

The comparison between Zobrist, Bryant, and Schwarber is an interesting one, as Zobrist and Bryant did a lot of filling in out in left because of the latter’s injury. If he can continue his development, Schwarber might actually represent an upgrade, as far as metrics are concerned, over Zobrist’s 286 innings in left. His RZR came in at .879 and he posted a UZR/150 of -4.0. Obviously sample size and all, but still worth noting. An unfair comparison may be Bryant, though, where Schwarber fails to compare. Bryant’s the superior athlete with more range and a better arm, though, so it’s not terribly surprising that his time in the outfield featured a DRS of 5, a UZR/150 of 18.8, and a .947 RZR. The reason for noting these two, especially is that should some sort of injury or performance implosion take place, the Cubs have versatile options that they could plug in. Bryant would actually be an asset in the outfield, while Zobrist can provide average defense in the corners. Their presence overall, though, feeds into the idea of the Cubs improving their outfield defense, collectively.

The Cubs, as a team, ranked first overall in outfield UZR in 2016 (40.5) and third overall in DRS (30). None of this is to indicate that the Cubs were not a good defensive team in the outfield this year. Jason Heyward by himself would likely put you in the top half of the league in those categories anyway. The point here is to illustrate simply that they could be even better and continue to grow in that regard.

As strong a defensive club as the Cubs were in 2016 as a group, they have the potential to be even better. That applies to the infield, sure, but it’s especially true out closer to the ivy. This is an aspect of the team worth monitoring quite closely as the 2017 season gets underway.

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports

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1 comment on “Signs Point to Defensive Growth in Cubs’ Outfield”

Power, contact, on base pct also likely to improve this year as a club. It all comes down to pitching…

Good article, thx

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