We all made assumptions about the Cubs this year. And it’s far too early to say any of them are going to turn out to be wrong. A quarter of a baseball season is hardly enough to judge. But we’re all sitting here, with nothing much to do, and I’d rather be writing something than doing anything truly useful. And you’d rather read something about the Cubs than work. So let’s get into what we would have thought the safest assumption about the Cubs was, and that’s their defense.
The Cubs had a historically good one last year. You already know this. It may have been the best of all-time, even if our tools to measure defense still lean toward the elementary side of the spectrum. But even there, we can see just how ridiculously good it was. The Cubs had an overall defensive efficiency of 74.5%. Right now, the White Sox lead baseball in that category with 73.8%. In 2015 it was Toronto with a 72.1% mark. The year before that, it was the A’s with 72.8%.
Being 1.5-2% higher than anyone before might not sound like a lot, but consider this is thousands of balls in play we’re talking about. We know the Cubs lead the league in unearned runs this year, and there are tons of way to spin that, but at its base is that the Cubs aren’t making plays and runners are getting on and then scoring.
Things clearly have not been as clean this year. The Cubs rank 21st in MLB with a 70.2% defensive efficiency. That’s quite the drop-off. So how did we get here, without our beautiful wife? And by “beautiful wife,” I mean “beautiful defense,” obvi.
A lot of the fingers have been pointed at the outfield defense. I don’t think it’s that simple. Dexter Fowler was a decent defensive outfielder last season. And the one before that. He gets more shine off of it than he might deserve because he came from Houston and Colorado, mammoth centerfields that he simply couldn’t patrol all that well. He did fine when not asked to do as much in the closer dimensions of Wrigley and the NL Central, where only Pittsburgh has what you’d call a large center field. Quantifying it, Fowler was worth 2.8 defensive runs last year. To give you an idea of just how ordinary a number that is, Jason Heyward was worth 4.2 defensive runs in center in just 171 innings there. The Cubs aren’t missing Willie Wilson circa ’85 out there. In fact, Albert Almora, Jr. was worth the same defensive runs as Fowler last year.
At least that’s how it seems. But both Jon Jay and Albert Almora have been outwardly bad so far this year. Which is weird, especially for Almora. He’s been negative 2.1 defensive runs so far in 2017, and Jay -0.9. So it’s not that Fowler was that good. It’s that his replacements have been that bad. So yeah, they’re missing something, but also something you’d expect to correct sharpish.
But does anyone expect that to continue, especially in Almora’s case? Is this just a slump? I never really thought about defense having slumps, but it just might because we know Almora is a great defensive player.
Even Heyward hasn’t been as effective in right this year. Last year he was worth 11.1 defensive runs in right. A quarter of the way through season, he’s at 1.6. His injury hasn’t helped of course. We know left field is something of a mess, but A) It’s left field, and B) It was Jorge Soler being attacked by bees out there at this time last year and Schwarber isn’t much of a drop from that.
But the maladies spread to the infield as well. Addison Russell was worth 21.4 defensive runs last year. A quarter of the way through this season, that number is 2.4. That obviously doesn’t project to anything near his total last year. At second, Baez has actually been a negative defensive player so far. Zobrist has actually been better, if you can believe it. While the eye-test would suggest Bryant has been better, the numbers say he hasn’t been. He’s been -1.2 defensive runs this year after being 6.8 last year. His UZR/150 sucks too.
So the question then becomes, is defense something like batting average with runners in scoring position? Something that can just spike for a whole season for really no reason at all? Let’s be honest here, we only think Javy Baez is a great defensive player based on one season. We wouldn’t call anyone a great offensive player based off one season. We have no sample size near that for Almora. Did we jump the gun?
Or is it just luck? Were all the hard hit balls last year hit right at someone or near enough to make a play and this year they’re just in the holes and gaps? We know the pitchers are giving up more hard contact than last year. Maybe it’s all feeding into each other. Maybe the pitching made the defense better last year more than we thought. Or maybe it all corrects. One thing is for sure, the Cubs clearly just aren’t catching as much.
Lead photo courtesy David Banks—USA Today Sports