There are just under 100 games left in the Cubs’ season, and the differences between this year’s team and last year’s team have become more obvious as the remaining number of games dwindles. One evolving aspect that is more difficult to see, however, is the way in which the 2017 Cubs are “versatile” or not. Much was made of the World Series-winning Cubs’ ability to move players around the field to get the best offensive and defensive matchups and alignments, but there has been little hay made by the content machine this season on the subject.
Remarkably little personnel changed this offseason for the Cubs, of course. Dexter Fowler and Jorge Soler departed; Wade Davis and Jon Jay came on board. Ian Happ has debuted, and Kyle Schwarber is healthy. But the configuration of that personnel is quite different: the rotation of outfielders and catchers has changed dramatically, Javier Baez has claimed more playing time as he has matured, and Ben Zobrist has lost some defensive lustre. I made a quick and dirty representation of how the positions seeing the most rotation this year have changed from last year. The following table shows the percentage of starts by the primary starter at each position:
|% starts, 2017||% starts, 2016||Change|
The Cubs are no longer carrying three catchers, and so Willson Contreras has snagged the majority of the starts behind the plate. Miguel Montero, who got 40 percent of last year’s starts, has performed very well in a backup role this year, hitting .300/.367/.488—good for a career-best .304 TAv. As a result, Contreras has seen the outfield for only two innings, and first base and third base for six innings total. Addison Russell has received more off days this season, and Kris Bryant has anchored himself at third with Schwarber and Jason Heyward filling up the outfield corners.
The most noticeable differences are at second base and all three outfield spots. The lack of an everyday center fielder on the roster has forced Heyward into center more often this year, and with Schwarber in left, there are fewer spots available for Bryant, Zobrist, and Happ to garner outfield starts. I wrote only a month ago about the Cubs’ poor outfield defense, and the team remains in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They’re still the third-worst team in converting flyballs into outs, a metric in which they led the league last season. I think it’s worth considering what the Cubs’ optimal defensive alignment is, and what concessions they should make on defense to put out a strong offensive lineup as well.
The two best outfielders on the team, by far, are Jason Heyward and Albert Almora. While Almora has underperformed with the glove a bit this year, Heyward remains exceptional in right, and he has handled center with aplomb. The third best outfielder on the team is probably Kris Bryant—yes, I know, he doesn’t have a lot of major-league experience there, but he is fast, carries a strong arm, and has shown an ability to read balls pretty well. This is more than can be said for both Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ, and certainly better than the lackluster Schwarber. The best outfield alignment would likely be Bryant-Almora-Heyward, but there is little possibility of that happening. Not once has Joe Maddon rolled with that trio in the outfield.
That’s because an alignment like that limits the Cubs’ offensive firepower by excluding Schwarber. However, Maddon has been wont to sit Schwarber more often as the slugger finds his stroke—why not choose to put Bryant in left, Baez at third, and Zobrist at second? The infield defense gets knocked down a peg, as Baez isn’t as good of a third baseman as he is a second baseman, but overall the offense and defense suffer little. Maddon is likely loathe to play Bryant in left and Baez at third. Take a look at the position players who are most likely to play multiple positions, and their starts as a percentage of total starts at each spot (i.e. Zobrist has started 44 percent of total available second base starts).
Maddon has been slow to move anyone but Zobrist around the diamond, and Baez has only seen starts at second base and shortstop, with the latter a product of Russell’s poor hitting and brief absence. Bryant, remarkably, has started 90 percent of the games at third compared to 62 percent last year. Almost all of Zobrist’s outfield starts have come in right because of Schwarber’s presence. Four players have started in center—Almora, Happ, Jay, and Heyward—and each has received at least ten starts of the Cubs’ 64 games. The result of the new personnel configuration has stiffened playing time at third base and left field, while center field remains a quagmire.
Any alignment needs to weigh these players’ offensive and defensive strengths. Happ has garnered center field starts not because he is an outstanding defender—he’s quite average, and possibly below average in the difficult position of center—but because Maddon believed in his bat while Almora and Schwarber struggled. Zobrist is no longer a plus defender at multiple positions, as he was in his youth. It’s difficult to shoehorn those players into the lineup when center field is the position being cobbled together: you’re guaranteed to sacrifice defense there unless you don’t care about Almora’s bat.
Schwarber’s poor start was probably not something that the Cubs hedged for this offseason. If they had, they might have gone for a different outfielder instead of Jon Jay on the free agent market. Luckily, they probably have some solutions with Jay, as long as the front office and Maddon are willing to get a bit more creative with lineups.
On as many days as possible with Almora out of the lineup, Heyward should play center. This leaves the corners open to any two of Schwarber, Happ, and Zobrist, and second base open to either Zobrist or Baez. If Schwarber sits, those players can fill both corners and second base; Bryant could move to left for a Bryant-Heyward-Happ trio on some days when facing a left-hander. If Maddon is hesitant to play Heyward often in center (he shouldn’t be, but his grudges are his grudges), that forces Jay, Almora, or Happ into the lineup. It also forces one of Baez, Happ, Schwarber, or Zobrist out. It’s not a simple case of too many players for too few positions—rather, it’s a case of not using the players in their optimal fashion, defensively or offensively. Maddon plays matchups and likes to get players mental rest, but his inflexibility with his outfield has proven troublesome.
Maddon appears more likely to build around matchups, rest, and hot streaks than he is to use those three things to merely adjust a regular, daily lineup. His method generally works, but, in order for the Cubs to deploy their best combination of bats and leather, Maddon might need to go by a few more hard and fast rules. Almora out? Heyward in center. Tough lefty on the mound? Bryant in left. Happ should not see center except in dire circumstances, and outfield defense should be prioritized when the Cubs have a flyball pitcher on the mound. The Cubs have a difficult path ahead to winning the NL Central and making a dent in the playoffs again. They’ll need to wake their slumbering bats, so putting them in the best position to succeed doesn’t hurt.
Lead photo courtesy Brad Penner—USA Today Sports