Small Ways the Cubs Can Improve in 2018: Defense

Previously, I have looked at where the Cubs might improve for 2018 in terms of their pitching and plate discipline, and for the last piece of this mini-puzzle, it's time to focus on defense. The Cubs were historically good in 2016, so some retreat this season in their defensive performance was inevitable, but they were still very good with the rawhide.

In general, I should acknowledge that defensive metrics are finicky and very hard to draw firm conclusions from, unless you are working with at least a few years worth of data. When it comes to whole-team performance, it can almost always feel little like false comparison because the roster changes just enough each season, no matter how much the core remains the same.

But we do have some sense for where the Cubs were defensively last season, imperfect as the measures might be, and that can point us to how they can improve going forward.

First, a basic look at where they have been as a team in the last three seasons:

DRS DEF UZR/150
2015 -19 30 3.5
2016 101 115.5 9.8
2017 36 37.9 3.8

Here it's helpful to remember that DRS is Defensive Runs Saved, and a great player will get about a +10 here, DEF is Defensive Runs Above Average, and an individual player is considered excellent when he gets a +20, and UZR/150 is one of the older defensive metrics, but it is helpful for working with small sample sizes.

So the obvious takeaway is that the Cubs took a very big leap forward in 2016 and then regressed back to numbers much closer to what they had done in 2015 this past year. This can be a little confusing and surprising, given that the Cubs fielded mostly the same team in all three seasons. Players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have posted roughly the same DRS numbers in all three of the aforementioned seasons, but big changes can come from small things. For instance, Dexter Fowler alone accounted for a 13 point swing from 2015 to 2016 just by adjusting his defensive positioning in center field.

Expecting the Cubs to consistently perform on defense like they did in 2016 isn't particularly reasonable, but it is not outlandish to think that they could do better than they did last season.

Some of this comes from optimizing the use of players like Rizzo and Bryant, who are known quantities on defense by now, along with Addison Russell, who has been a well above average shortstop for three seasons, posting DRS scores of +10, +19, and +15 in his major league career.

And it also might mean more of Javy Baez at second base. His no-look tags and finger wags at Yasiel Puig notwithstanding, he bloomed into a pretty steady second baseman in 2017, going from being simply average at the position in 2015 and 2016 to a +5 DRS this past year. He's arguably better at second than he is at shortstop, so the Cubs would benefit most from getting as many innings as possible with Rizzo, Baez, Russell, and Bryant across the infield.

The outfield is less certain, save for Jason Heyward in right field. By coming to the Cubs in 2016, he added 18 defensive runs saved as an outfielder, with 14 of those coming in right field. His improvements at the plate from 2016 to 2017 were modest, but there is no questioning that Heyward brings significant value on defense. In center, the loss of Fowler was significant. Ian Happ proved to be the most valuable in terms of DRS, rating at a +3, so the Cubs might have reason to start him over Albert Almora, Jr. And in left, of course, there's the problem of Kyle Schwarber. He had a -9 DRS in 2017, and this was a significant drop from the unit of Bryant, Chris Coghlan, and Matt Szczur that the Cubs used in that position in the previous season. I have shared Joe Maddon's thoughts on Schwarber's work ethic at improving his defense before, and if you haven't read Jesse Rogers' piece from about a week ago, I'd recommend setting aside some time now. Schwarbs is working his tail off to be a better outfielder, and if Joe Maddon is going to be able to pencil him into the lineup consistently, the Cubs need Schwarber's offseason work to pay off.

Behind the plate, Willson Contreras has really been a revelation. In 2015, David Ross was their best defender, but he was backing up Miguel Montero, who lagged behind defensively. The following year, Montero got worse and Ross got better and Contreras debuted, but in 2017, Contreras gave a full taste of what he is capable of. After being a +1 in DRS in 2016, Willson improved to +7 last season.

The key for the Cubs in 2018 probably lies in consistency in their infield, Kyle Schwarber actually improving, and Willson Contreras fully taking the reins behind the plate. This does mean that finding playing time for Happ, Ben Zobrist, or Almora might be more difficult, but if the Cubs are serious about getting better on defense in 2018, they will either need to bet on Schwarber improving with his glove or trade him, and they will also have to decide what they have in Happ and Albert Almora. Both are heavy with potential, but neither have wowed on defense just yet. One of the two needs to start in center field, and right now Happ appears to be the better choice, especially on defense.

The Cubs of 2018, at least defensively, will probably be more like the 2017 and 2015 iterations, and as we have seen, that can work just fine. But if they want to do better than that, this might mean some consistency in the lineup and sacrificing some of the playing time of their complementary pieces.

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  • You have to get 27 outs to win a game in 9 innings. Too often in the first half of the season the Cubs were giving the opposition 30-32 in wins and losses. There were a lot of gaffes and mental mistakes. Nothing to a team is more demoralizing than poor defense which leads to runs. I­t­ hurts pitchers with additional pitches per inning and also causes them to be more fine going for weaker contact or K’s.

    Great Defense can also crush the spirit of the other team when anything put in play seems like an out.

    Regardless of who plays where, i think the Cubs will get off to a better start in ‘18 and will lead to more wins.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    So, I realize I sound like a broken record but I think pitching ties in with everything. I've talked about being down early in a game effects the offense by hitters pressing, swinging for the fences, etc. but I think it's germaine to defense as well. If you're behind the natural tendency is to tense up and be afraid to make a mistake. I think all of us can relate to that be it in competition or just in our daily live. If you're afraid of messing up the likelihood that you do increases. I guess my point is that if our pitchers can avoid putting us in deficit situations early it will allow the defense, again much like the hitters, to play more relaxed and play like they can.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I­t­ goes both ways for sure. Some of the early deficits are result of poor D. And some were just pitchers getting hit.

    I can tell you when I pitched in the minors our SS committed 97 errors and our 3B committed 43 errors in 137 games. Their boots or throw aways of routine grounders impacted the way I pitched. When you should be out of an inning, I­t­ is frustrating and maddening to have to throw another 10-12 pitches to get out of innings. The entire Cubs D in the first half was lackluster at best as everyone had poor plays at points. And the pitching was less than stellar too.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Yeah I mean the larger lesson is that it's all symbiotic. When defense is bad the pitcher presses, when the pitcher is bad the defense presses and when the team is down early the offense tries to fix it with one swing of the bat. My feeling is that if they can solve the first and second inning woes this is going to be a much better team. I think another TOR is necessary for that but so is a greater focus on defense and plate discipline. This team has the necessary tools to do all of that.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I know one thing we both share in common in the love of pitchers with a high K/9. I like the idea of less balls in play. I know you have echoed that as well.

    And your last sentence is spot on—we know this team can do I­t­.

  • Great article Jared. All you guys have forgotten more about baseball than I've ever known and while I agree that defensive metrics are "iffy" at best, I am confused by something. Over the past three years, all I've heard is that Almora is "Gold Glove caliber" in center field. I don't recall any major gaffes or "non-plays" but do remember some outstanding catches and throws. Is it his range that rates him so low or his route to the ball (which how do they measure that) that his defensive metrics are not as advertised? I hope that he really blossoms this year and takes hold of center field and moves past being a defensive replacement for Schwarber in the 7th or 8th inning. Merry Christmas to all the Denizens out there. May God bless you all. Thanks.

  • In reply to BobMiller146:

    Very good question, and one I don't have a definitive answer for, other than what you and Jared both allude to: defensive metrics are "iffy". Maybe someone who has broken down film can offer a better response.

    On the question of measuring route efficiency, the easiest way to explain it is by tracing the player from a set position at the moment of contact to where the ball is ultimately caught. The straighter the line, the better the "read" of the ball.

    I try to look on the bright side. Putting aside the validity of measuring young players by current defensive metrics, I view the equation of Happ's defensive abilities in CF to those of Almora Jr's as more of a nod to Happ than a knock on Almora Jr.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Yep. Two things to take away here: Happ is better than perhaps we thought and it's not that Almora is bad, and that measuring defense is pretty tricky.

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    In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    Once again, the stats surprise us. Based on the old unreliable eye test, I would have bet Almora was significantly stronger in center than Happ. Happy to be enlightened by you.

  • In reply to Brad Lyerla:

    I'm hesitant to say anything definitive about Happ's defense based on these numbers though. I'll be curious to see how much they change with another full year under his belt.

  • In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    I just don’t feel comfortable using the numbers. Fangraphs in their glossary even admits flaws in the data. Most of the DRS and UZR/150 is a revolving 3 year run.

    When looking at Russell—he was a HOF caliber SS on D in ‘15 with crazy ratings in DRS, UZR/150, and his dWAR. He regressed to the mean in ‘16 and this year settled in as a vey good SS, but no Ozzie Smith. As the sample size grew, his numbers came more in line with the “eye test” which says very good SS who has good hands and converts the routine play. Not crazy range and not a ton of spectacular plays. More like Larry Bowa versus Shawon Dunston—definitely a championship caliber Defensive SS.

    Maybe the SSS has been kind to Happ and not so kind to Almora? I still trust the reports of Almora from U17 USA teams thru his minor league days that he is an exceptional CF.

  • In reply to Brad Lyerla:

    Just cuz he says it don't make it so. My goodness.

  • In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    It would be interesting to know more about what makes up the stat. I would think it has to do at least in part with the percentage of balls hit to one's position that lead to outs.
    In terms of other possible components of the stat, I wonder if it might be misleading - some of the best cancer doctors may have some of the worst mortality rates since the patients who are in the worst condition tend to want to go to them. Likewise, IF they look at the percentage of played balls that are converted to outs, that could hurt someone with better range.
    Lastly, I'd say I think the team has perhaps the best insight into this, so although I don't know the numbers, I'd look into who they put in more as a late-inning defensive replacement (as a percentage of the games not started).

  • Does pitching play a role in it? If pitchers are walking more guys which puts more opportunities for them.
    The percentage of hard hit balls very from year to year ?
    The fact the Lester and arietta are bad in holding runners on make a difference?

  • In reply to WaitTilNextYear:

    This is an interesting question. Fielders are repositioned when runners are on base and what they do with a ball hit their way changes, too. Is this reflected in the defensive stats?

  • I find it hard to believe that Happ plays a better centerfield than Almora. Almora gets clean jumps on the ball and efficient paths making a catch. I don’t understand how defenesive metrics are created. Does sample size have anything to do with this? Am I totally blind and can’t see Happ is a better center fielder?

  • In reply to Senator Blutarski:

    It is surprising to see the numbers indicate that, I agree. I plan on exploring it in greater depth at some point, but based on things like DRS and UZR/150, Happ is better. The problem is, we are dealing with super small sample sizes, so over a longer period of time, it's harder to tell if that would continue to hold true.

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    I normally don't get into arguments when people talk about defensive metrics, but anyone who believes Happ is the superior player to Almora simply doesn't get what playing center is about.
    Happ maybe was rated higher, but the eye test tells me he is not close, he is a better hitter ,but I don't think that is relevant when it comes to the defense.
    Happ many times looked very unsure on plays he made last year, eventually that will come back to bite the defense, even tho he made the plays.
    I think these defensive metrics were made from a very small sample size of Happ playing center when the cubs were trying to get his bat in the line-up, not from a legitimate range of games, way too early to make these kind of assumptions.

  • In reply to tater:

    In hindsight, I would have qualified the statements about Happ and Almora a little more clearly (it was late and the Dogfish Head World Wide Stout was kicking in), but it's not necessarily that Happ is definitively better than Almora, and the only real takeaway should be that he is simply better than we might have thought.

  • In reply to Jared Wyllys:

    It's all good, Jared. As far as gaffes go, this is minor. Your day won't be nearly as bad as Barstool Carls'.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    That was just amazing. To get called out by the player himself is really something.

  • Happ has a ton of upside. Switch hitter with power, speed, and versatility. Plays all outfield spots and second base. These types do not grow on trees. Almora too, has many of the same traits and even more so In the outfield. He is not as fast as Ian and hits from the right side with limited success against tough right side pitchers. There is good chance hat they will be sharing playing time again this year.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    Absolutely agree about Happ's unique combinations. Like others, I was surprised to learn that, according to the statistical metrics, he was better than expected in CF. Do we have metrics for his play in LF/RF? They'd be based on a much smaller sample than CF, but based on his rookie season, he could be the kinda guy that you start looking for ways to keep him in the lineup. I do seem to recall that the few times he hit leadoff he acquitted himself well.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I can think of far worse combinations playing CF for the Cubs in 2018 than some combination of Almora/Happ/Heyward.

    Assuming that all 3 start next season on the roster - there's lots of ways that Maddon can mix, match and deploy them.

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    In reply to 44slug:

    I also liked what I saw in the very sss of Happ at 3B. He handled what was hit to him, and showed a strong arm.

  • I'm an eye test kind of guy when it comes to defense. I think the players who avoid errors and stay focused on routine plays score best on defensive metrics. So I will have to rate Almora higher in center. He makes the creative instinctive plays more than Happ.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I think most of us if not all that come here have played ball somewhere in our lives so to me anyhow the eye test actually means more than stats......watching Happ and Almora......Almora is the better outfielder....just is and probably always will be. Happ is still tentative in his outfield movement which could be more related to his rookie season, being perhaps more nervous and more afraid to make a mistake, etc. Gotta say this though.....he was the best story on the team for 2017, he came up still raw and really produced. No one ever thinks whether he belongs now or not......he’s not going back to Triple A.

  • Great article, Jared. It'll be fascinating to see how Schwarber does in left field. He's certainly not a natural out there, but I'd never bet against him.

  • In reply to October:

    Schwarber doesn't have to be fantastic out there in LF - just better than he's been to this point - as long as he's hitting and getting on base like he did the second part of the season last year.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Yep. Schwarzer overall has been just below average in LF statistically . If he can become average and hits like he can he may just get one of those MVP trophies he seeks one day.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Not-so-bold prediction: After the final outs of the 2018 season, a common theme from Cubs fans will be "I am SO glad we didn't trade Schwarber last year."

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    All depends on who would have been received in the trade

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Agreed. Would like to see him get the batting average up over the 0.250-0.260 mark, and cut back on the K's a few percentage points, and become an 'average' LF defender,... I mean, the guy hit 30 HRs last year and scored 67 runs in a season where he (overall) batted 0.211 and struck out 150 times in less than 500 plate appearances.

    That's a lot of good, sprinkled with some obvious bad,... and if he can eliminate some of the bad,.... well.

    I think we see him get >500 plate appearances, hit 35+HR, and irritate the crap out of opposing pitchers.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    He slashed .255/.338/.565 after coming back from Iowa. I expect him to improve on that. Maybe .270/.350/.600 or thereabouts. The K rate has to get down under 30%, maybe eventually 25%. He was slightly below average on LF defense in 2017 so I agree average is a good goal.

  • In reply to TC154:

    In the ESPN article outlining Schwarber’s workout routine one of his goals is to become a “gold glove LF” — i wouldn’t put I­t­ past him to have a good year in LF. His throwing is already a plus. He needs to clean his routes and footwork to make the routine plays and add some really good ones over the course of a season.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    I didn't read the article, but there may be a leadership aspect, too. Schwarber's dedication and hard work are a great example to others on the team.

  • In reply to rbrucato:

    Schwarber is never going to be a gold glove outfielder

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Didn’t say he would. Just said in the article he is working his tail off and a goal of his is to be a gold glove OF.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    You got to set your goals somewhere though,... and it would not shock me to see him improve greatly over the Winter.

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    Have you read the article? I don't know that he'll be a Gold-Glover or an MVP, but how can you read this and doubt him?

  • In reply to WaitUntilNextYear:

    I don't think so either, but he doesn't have to be. Average or slightly above would be fine. He's been slightly below average so far.

  • In reply to October:

    Thank you! I think we're in for some significant strides in a positive direction.

  • I wonder if we won't see a lot more of Happ and Almora starting in CF and RF on days vs. LH pitching?

  • I know you can't disregard a large sample in evaluating a season's worth of data, but as rbrucato polnted out, much of this damaging defensive data was accumulated during a sloppy first half of the season. As much as we can't specifically pinpoint the causes of the "World Series Hangover", we cannot deny them. I, and many others, noted during the early parts of 2017 that the defense was lazy and sloppy. We can't take away those early 2017 efforts, but we can avoid them in 2018.

    I am looking forward to the impact Will Venable and Brian Butterfield have on the defense. I know some among us don't believe in the impact coaching can have, but I do, especially with such a young team. The Cubs organization has proven to be masters at constantly improving and adding to the existing structure. The upgrades of these coaching positions should not be overlooked.

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    I think the coaching will have almost no impact. Why did the defense decline between 16 and 17? It wasn't the coaching

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    The fact that there are so many new coaches on the staff would indicate that the FO thinks coaching matters, too.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    It matters, but there only so much a coach can do. Improvements are only as good as the players willingness and skills will allow.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I don't think Theo considers "willingness" an option. I know I don't. A player who can't be coached can't be kept.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Well that could be a little harsh. Some players are resistant to chance what works for them. Arrieta is an example of pitcher,that coaches tried to change in Baltimore and the Cubs told him to do what works. I do see your point though.

  • I wonder how much pure speed has to do with the outfield defensive metrics? I remember seeing (I think on Cubs Insider) that not only was Happ the fastest Cub, but one of the faster CFs in the game while Almora was about 4th fastest on the Cubs, yet one of the slower CFs in the game. Just keeping things simple...if one CF can get to a batted ball faster than another I would think that would be reflected in the metrics somehow. It would be interesting to see if the highest defensive rated CFs were also among the fastest CFs. There are of course a lot of variables here that make this more complicated than just pure speed, like reaction time, route taken, batted ball hang time, initial defensive alignment, batted ball movement, wind effect, etc...but I can't help but think the faster player in the outfield would be rated higher all things being equal.

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    In reply to Gingerbread Man:

    Yeah, I think Happ's speed makes up for his lack of polish, that's why he doesn't always look smooth even when he makes the play. Almora is polished at everything he does on the field, but his overall talent isn't as high. Almora is the better defender, but Happ definitely has the better upside.

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    I don’t think so. Almora can see where the ball is going as soon as it’s hit. He has the best route running of our Cubs, including JHey—although he doesn’t have to run as far. I think he had Javy like skills out there which we’ll appreciate if he is playing every day. Happ might be faster but AA is the much better outfielder.

  • This question has probably already been asked, and quite possibly answered, but does the fact that the Cubs reduced their shifting of the infield in 2017 affect any or all of the rating scores. I have no idea how any of the three are calculated.

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    I wrote here about an hour ago but it's in the vortex so I'll try again and be brief. Albert is a terrific CF and even if he doesn't have Happ's speed he has much better ball recognition and his route efficiency is very high. He's been a CF his whole life and Happ hasn't, he doesn't have the experience or the "feel" that Albert has.
    Once AA plays everyday I think we'll see GG defense from him and I don't ever see that in Happ.

  • I always questioned these defensive stats. I know now they are misleading and useless. The only way to rate defensive ability is by the eye test. I think that the Happ vs Almora comparison proves that.

  • In reply to 2016 Cubs:

    They’re not useless. Use the stats and your eyes, then you get the answer. Like everything else they’re a tool.

  • Merry Christmas everybody :)

  • Hot stove is going to be interesting going forward. Cubs could go with what they have if cost dictates diminishing returns. I think that they could still be in the hunt with the current pitching staff. The only huge hole is a veteran backup catcher and Caratini might take issue with that analysis.

  • In reply to 44slug:

    I agree with you. I would like to sign one of the backup catchers we had at the end of last year and have Caratini at AAA and come up in case there is an injury.

  • In reply to John57:

    I like those backups too. Their ability to step in after Contreras pulled his hamstring allowed the Cubs to continue the push for the post season. Both handled the staff and contributed on offense. They just fit right in.

  • When is appropriate to start looking at the potential FAs after the 19 season? Just wondering, with a new replacement revenue stream. Article maybe?

  • In reply to SFToby:

    As fans or as an organization? As a fan, I want to see what we're competing with in 2018. The FO has to take a longer view. I thoroughly enjoy trying to figure out both.

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