Sunday night’s marathon game at Wrigley Field offered fans a bevy of interesting, weird, and quirky things to see. The single-game strikeout record fell. The Cubs tied the game in the ninth against Aroldis Chapman. Aaron Hicks lost a Javier Baez home run in the twilit Chicago sky, throwing up his arms in surrender. Oh, and this happened:
Kyle Schwarber is not known for his defensive prowess. Quite the opposite in fact: many think he’s a downright liability in left, and his ugly performance in the 2015 NLCS did him no favors in that regard. This observer might think a bit differently—I’m inclined to believe he’s merely below average, from watching him—but he will never be a good defender out there. Schwarber’s lackluster play in left might not make a dent on the Cubs’ overall performance so far: poor starts by Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo, combined with touch and go starting pitching and a taxed bullpen have landed the Cubs around .500. But Schwarber’s defense is emblematic of the Cubs’ defensive performance this season, which has slipped from the historic heights that it reached in 2016.
This year, in team defensive efficiency, the Cubs rank 16th, with a staunchly average .711. Last season, the club towered over the competition with a .745 mark, and a historic 6.38 mark in the park-adjusted version of the stat (on a different scale, of course). They got there by being good at, well, everything: they were the best in both groundball efficiency and flyball efficiency, and they even topped the league on line drives. Infield and outfield performed very well, and the eye test supported the metrics.
The Cubs have converted groundballs into outs at a similar rate to last season, currently ranking second behind the Reds with a .790 mark, compared to last year’s .801. The infield, which boasts an improvement with the starts Javier Baez has gained at second over Ben Zobrist, remains stellar, with two or three Gold Glove contenders and the solid Kris Bryant at third.
The outfield, though, looks quite different. The biggest personnel change coming into 2017 was the departure of Dexter Fowler and the installation of Albert Almora, Jr., and Jon Jay in center field. Almora is a Gold Glove-worthy defender, and Jay is generally adequate, if not good. They’ve replaced Fowler, an above-average outfielder, admirably. But Schwarber is back in left after missing a season due to injury, and Ben Zobrist has been receiving starts in the outfield when Baez plays second base. Bryant, who received the third-most outfield starts last year, has found few starts beyond third base until Jason Heyward’s recent injury. Matt Szczur is gone due to questionable roster management. Heyward’s stellar glove remains, but there’s no doubt this is more than a cosmetic change in the green pastures of the Wrigley outfield.
These changes have resulted in a significant dip in performance on flyballs: last year’s league-leading .941 mark has plummeted to .832, better than only the Brewers’ abysmal outfield. It’s safe to assume that Almora and Heyward have remained outstanding, and so the innings played by Schwarber, Zobrist, and Jay are the ones tanking the Cubs’ number. Defensive metrics are not useful after one month of the season, and their usefulness is even difficult to ascertain when looking at multiple years of data, so I won’t relay them here, but it’s safe to say that this combination of outfielders is defensively inferior to the stable of outfielders the Cubs harbored last year.
A dip in the rate at which the Cubs convert flyballs into outs is a negative development in a vacuum, but with the pitchers’ performance this season, it takes on added importance. Looking at the four starters’ batted ball rates in 2017 compared to last season, we begin to understand why the Cubs’ defense has looked poor.
|GB% (2016)||GB% (2017)||FB% (2016)||FB% (2017)|
While three of the Cubs’ starters have experienced little change in their flyball rates and have bumped up their groundball rates, Jake Arrieta’s flyball rate has spiked. Many have spilt words on Arrieta’s weird and ineffective season, but his high rate of flyballs, combined with the outfield’s lackluster defense, has produced poor results for the struggling ace. (As an aside, it doesn’t help Arrieta that his home run per flyball rate has ballooned to 14 percent). Overall, the club has experienced a small increase in flyballs, from 2016’s 19.8 percent to 21.4 this year, and a two-point decrease in grounders.
The past two teams to win the World Series, the Cubs and the Royals, built steady outfield defenses that made all the routine plays. The Mariners, in a bid to improve their club in an enigmatic AL West, attempted a similar outfield rebuild. This offseason, the Cubs stood pat. They added Jay, but planned to give Schwarber and Almora the lion’s share of the outfield time left by the departing Fowler and Jorge Soler. It’s a complex calculus—Heyward and Almora’s bats are question marks, Schwarber’s defense is developing—but, with Schwarber slumping early, the offensive and defensive production of the outfield has taken a hit.
Did the front office see this coming and resolve that the bats would take care of the difference? Or did they simply believe that the regression to the mean was inevitable and saw few ways to improve a roster that was mostly set? It’s hard for me to believe that this front office would resign themselves to the latter, so I assume that this quality of defense was not what they expected. Unfortunately for the Cubs, it’s what they’ll have to live with: barring drastic shifts that install Jeimer Candelario at third base long-term and Bryant in left, or move Zobrist to a part-time role, this outfield defense is here to stay, and the pitchers will have to adjust. That will be more palatable when the host of quiet bats start to wake from their April slumbers, but, as of right now, the outfield defense is holding the Cubs back. Their .500 record is a confluence of many factors, but poor defense is enough to drive even the sanest of Cubs fans (and probably John Lackey) mad.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports