The 2016 Chicago Cubs won the World Series due to a variety of factors, but their defense was something they could truly hang their hat on. Their historically good defense led the league, by a large margin, with a .731 Defensive Efficiency Rating, according to MLB.com, and a .745 Defensive Efficiency, according to our Baseball Prospectus metrics. FanGraphs tagged that same group with a UZR of 47.1, which was 15 points higher than the next closet squad. Any way you slice it, they were an elite defensive group.
The 2017 season didn’t feature the same type of defensive prowess. While the Cubs didn’t fall entirely off the defensive map, they weren’t nearly as effective in the field as they were during their championship year. MLB’s DER had them at .700 (8th), Baseball Prospectus had them at .715 (6th), and FanGraphs had them at 24.5 in the UZR department (4th). They obviously still ranked among the game’s best, but the numbers themselves showed quite a bit of regression from the previous season.
This year, however, we’re seeing the Cubs return to one of their essential elements from the championship year, as they’ve performed at an elite level in the field. MLB’s DER has them at .722, which leads the league. Baseball Prospectus has them back up at .739, which is also tops in baseball. FanGraphs has them at 16.6 in UZR, which trails only Cleveland. That number itself, however, typically needs a full season to grade out properly, so we’ll likely see it rise as the season wears on.
In a general sense, the Cubs are as stout a defensive team as you’ll find in all of baseball right now. They’re elite in multiple defensive efficiency metrics, they’re third in Defensive Runs Saved (with 33), and they have a number of players at the top of their respective positions in Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA). Anthony Rizzo leads the first base position with a 6.6 mark. Addison Russell is sixth at shortstop, with a FRAA of 3.1. Albert Almora (1.1) is 15th among those in center field, while Jason Heyward is sixth among right fielders (3.9). Even Kyle Schwarber has a positive number, at 0.8, which puts him 24th among 65 players who have logged innings in left this year.
The interesting omissions are Kris Bryant and Javier Báez. Bryant’s defensive metrics have him as just about average at third this year, but Báez is sort of in a category all his own. He makes stellar play after play in the field, whether at short or at second base, but his tendency for occasional erraticism makes his metrics look poor, rather than a representation of his actual value. We know Javy is a wizard in the field because we watch him everyday. So, on paper, he isn’t going to get the outcome that the likes of Rizzo or Russell have had in the field this year. But it’s also difficult to quantify exactly what he does in the field.
Willson Contreras is in a similar situation. We know his arm is a weapon behind the plate, but his framing still has some developing to do. Additionally, catchers are sort of in a defensive category all their own, so it’s difficult to align his performance behind the dish with that of the other Cubs in the field. Regardless of that situation, the benefits of having the Cubs return to a level approaching that of 2016 (even if they’ll never quite reach those historic levels) cannot be overstated.
The Cubs’ pitching staff puts the ball on the ground more than anyone else in baseball, with a groundball rate of almost 49%. They keep the ball in the ballpark, with one of the lowest HR/FB ratios in baseball. Trends like that require top notch defense. The Cubs are providing that, especially on the infield. Rizzo and Russell performing at a level at or near the top of their respective positions is a tremendous asset. Even the likes of Bryant and Ben Zobrist providing average defense is to the benefit of the pitching staff. Javy’s range, combined with the steady gloves of Almora and Heyward (and, yes, even Schwarber), will go far in benefiting this pitching staff as they continue to work out the kinks.
Earlier in the year, the Cubs were not a particularly impressive defensive group. They were somewhat sloppy and made some poor decisions with the baseball in the field. There was almost a level of complacency. Now, they’ve very visibly got that figured out. It’s translated into success on the stat sheet, and in the standings. Even with the loss on Sunday, this recent run of success has them vying for first place, and their defense is a tremendous reason as to why that’s the case.
Lead photo courtesy Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports