It’s been a struggle for the Cubs in their 2nd full year of the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer Era. Frustration grows and we seek answers as to how to improve next year. There’s a great difference of opinion in that respect. Some think the Cubs need more power, some think more OBP, some think starting pitching, while others say the bullpen needs help. Some, of course, think a managerial change will do the trick and still others may choose all of the above.
One thing I didn’t mention here is defense. There are a lot of ways to measure defense these days. It is becoming more sophisticated than just errors or fielding percentage. Range is now better accounted for and it’ s compared relative to other defenders at the same positions. Today’s defensive metrics take everything into account and tries to assign defensive value.
The metric we’re going to use in this piece is UZR/150. It isn’t a perfect statistic, but that is pretty much reality when it comes to measuring defense. It does encompass all aspects of fielding, however, and it is widely used. We’ve also used it here before so that makes it more familiar to those who are regular readers here.
If we were to go down position by position, we’ll see that the Cubs are strong all around the diamond, particularly up the middle. Consider that 0 is about a league average defender give or take a couple.
Catcher: Welingon Castillo
The one position that doesn’t use UZR is catcher, but we know that Welington Castillo is among the top defenders at the position and even a dark horse Gold Glove candidate, though it’s difficult to fathom anyone unseating Yadier Molina right now. We’ve used runs saved to describe his defense in the past and Castillo ranks at the top there, largely because of his uncanny ability to block balls in the dirt. We can also use dWAR, which is an overall value used by Baseball Reference. Here Castillo rates a 2.6. By comparison, the Cubs next best defender at any position is Darwin Barney, who is at 1.2 and rated 3.6 in his historic Gold Glove season. Perhaps a better way to illustrate how good that number is is that Molina’s dWAR is 2.1, a half-win lower than Castillo.\
1B: Anthony Rizzo 9.3 UZR/150
Rizzo has an outstanding UZR/150 and is himself a Gold Glove candidate. His bat may have regressed but Rizzo continues to ascend toward elite level defender status at 1B. That rating is first in the NL, easily outdistancing runner up Adrian Gonzalez (7.1). Rizzo is 3rd in all of baseball, ranking behind only Mike Napoli and Mark Trumbo.
2B: Darwin Barney 15.6 UZR/150
Barney is just off his Gold Glove winning season pace but still checks in with an oustanding 15.6 rating, which is easily the best in all of baseball. Dustin Pedroia is next at 13 and is closest NL competitor is Brandon Phillips at 8.0. Statistically he should win his 2nd Gold Glove and while this season isn’t as historically good as last, it is still at the elite level. Barney rarely makes mistakes, whether they be mental or physical (4 errors) and his previous award gives him more cred among the voters this year.
SS: Starlin Castro -4.1 UZR/150
Castro rates below average and accounting for margin of error, is the Cubs only below average defender per this particular metric. But it is only slightly below average. What’s been more encouraging for Castro this year is greater consistency. Last year he seemed to make the spectacular play but boot too many easy ones. This year he has been a bit more steady and has made less mental and physical errors — especially since April. I wouldn’t stretch to call Castro’s defense a plus at the position, but I wouldn’t call it a liability either. He’ll have to combine that consistency with the greater range he showed last season and if he doesn’t, he may well face a challenge from star prospect Javier Baez for the right to play SS.
3B: Luis Valbuena (18.2) and Donnie Murphy (-16.6)
Again these are both small sample sizes but we know that Valbuena can pick it at 3B. His 18.2 rating at 3B is actually right around his career rate (21.6). The 18.2 number would rank 4th in all of baseball had he accumulated enough innings and would rank 2nd in the NL behind only Nolan Arenado of Colorado. Manny Machado and Evan Longoria also rank ahead of him overall. That’s not bad company as those are three of the games top young stars at the position. Of course, Valbuena doesn’t hit as well as any of them, but we’re talking defense here today. Donnie Murphy is a different story and while he is a steady defender at 3B, below average range drags his overall rating down. There is also Mike Olt to consider here for 2014, who many would project as an above average defender at 3B.
LF: Bryan Bogusevic (20.2) and Junior Lake (38.3)
Both players rate as well above average though both are less than a full season’s worth of data, make that sketchy. Bogusevic, however, has a career 17.2 rating in the OF overall, a sample size that is roughly the equivalent of one full season. Lake, meanwhile, has been better in LF than CF (-6.2). There’s also the sense that Lake is just learning the position but has the tools and athleticism to be an above average defender with some fine tuning.
CF: Ryan Sweeney 11.5 (3.6 career)
Again it’s a small sample size but Sweeney so far has shown himself to be a good defender in CF. He doesn’t have elite speed but he takes efficient routes and gets better jumps in CF than he does in the corner. While this sample size is small, Sweeney’s career rate in the OF is above average.
RF: Nate Schierholtz -1.7 (6.0 career)
Schierholtz rates as around average this year in RF but his career numbers suggest he’s better than that. RF is the toughest outfield position to play at Wrigley and perhaps we can chalk this up to a slight adjustment period, but we can say with little argument that Schierholtz is an average to above average defensive RF’er with a strong arm. He actually rates as the 6th best RF’er in the NL per UZR despite the slight negative rating.
The Cubs rank 2nd in team UZR/150 (5.6) in the NL behind only the Arizona Diamondbacks. It’s also interesting to note when we talk about the rest of the top 12 in all of baseball. Those teams are, in order: Royals, Orioles, Rangers, Rays, Giants, Reds, Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, Braves. Other than the Cubs, only the Giants are below .500 and only the Diamondbacks and Giants are out of playoff contention.
This isn’t all that new. The Cubs ranked 6th in UZR/150 last year as well (and again, 2nd in the NL), so this is an area the Cubs addressed immediately. Many think it’s the quickest, most efficient way to improve a team.
The Cubs do need to build up their pitching and offense, but their pitching shows some promise and, if nothing else, the Cubs have built a defense that is playoff worthy. It at least gives them a foundation to build on at the MLB level. The trick now is to upgrade the offense while trying, as much as possible, not to downgrade what has become one of the better defenses in baseball.
Filed under: Uncategorized