As we have often noted, there are different ways to win in baseball. The Royals almost stole a ring with spectacular defense that robbed more than their share of would-be hits.
The Cubs, on the other hand, prefer understated and simple. Or as Joe Maddon put it,
“No chrome attached.”
Nobody ever doubted Starlin Castro’s ability to make the spectacular play. Per Inside Edge fielding, when it comes to making difficult plays, ones that are made between 10% and 40% of the time, Castro was tied for 9th in all of baseball. When it comes to routine plays? Well, that has been a different story. When it comes to plays that are made 90-100% of the time, Castro ranked dead last among qualified shortstops.
And that, more than anything led to the Cubs switch on defense.
“I’ve always said, for me, defense should really lack chrome. Good defense should be boring.”
Maddon has described Addison Russell as boring.
“What he does is right. What he does is the way I’d teach it. He is simple…In some ways, he’s very boring out there.”
As a 21 year old rookie learning a new position, Russell has made some errors at 2B and we could argue that he has struggled with the routine play as well, but the situation is more complex with him. The lack of experience is undoubtedly a contributing factor there. Russell, however, has also made the more difficult plays. He ranks 3rd overall in that range of plays that are made 60-90% of the time. If he can tighten up the defense on those routine plays and transitions smoothly back to SS, and so far there is every reason to believe he will, he is going to be as good as any of his peers at making the routine plays as well as those somewhat more difficult plays that the average defender should make.
And it should be even better, he can make the most difficult plays too, ranking 7th in that 10-40% range among 2B. The Cubs are obviously hoping that once he settles into his “natural position”, he’ll give them the best of both worlds — the routine and the occasionally spectacular.
Some scouts will tell you that Javier Baez possesses the best tools of all at SS. He certainly has the best arm and like Castro, he has a flair for the spectacular. But also like Castro, he will make more errors than you would like. He has 13 in 30 games at Iowa this year and in 5 minor league seasons at SS– which really covers 2 seasons worth of games at 320 — Baez has 93 errors.
I think it’s safe to say that Maddon is going to stick with Russell for a while at SS, at least until the very steady, fundamentally sound Gleyber Torres is ready. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
The infielder Maddon may be most ready to utilize is another fundamentally sound player in Tommy LaStella.
“I’m really eager for him to get back up. Right now we’re doing OK. He’s a really good offensive player. Depth is a wonderful thing. And it’s going to be necessary at some point.”
And while Maddon is obviously more eager to get his OBP oriented offense as an additional weapon off the bench, LaStella fits the profile of boring on defense too.
And as for Chris Coghlan? He has handled only 8 chances, all routine, and he has handled them all. If he can do that, the Cubs will probably live with it as long as they limit the exposure overall and he continues to produce on offense. I would expect a platoon with Castro with Castro playing against LHP and coming in in the late innings as we saw in the last game. Castro, you’ll recall, made a spectacular play on a pop-up, but he also made the routine chance as well. It’s the latter that will keep him coming off the bench consistently late in games.
Kyle Schwarber at catcher
As much as the Cubs have been impressed with Schwarber’s progress, he will face the same fate as Castro as far as playing a different position down the stretch.
Though it has not been the horror show some have made it out to be, the defense has been below average overall. The framing has been solid, though he does continue to struggle with hard breaking stuff down in the zone, and the arm has been a bit below average when it comes to cutting down baserunners — but that is not what is going to cost him reps down the stretch. Again, what will keep him out for now is relative inconsistency when it comes to making the routine play.
It’s the 3 errors, passed ball, and 7 wild pitches that will keep him as the 3rd catcher down the stretch. The Cubs will probably revisit his viability as a regular or semi-regular catcher next season, but now is not the time to develop players during the MLB season. Not this year. Maybe not for the foreseeable future. Schwarber will have to hone his skills in the offseason.
As for his play in LF, Schwarber has made the plays he is supposed to make. He is faster than he looks and surprisingly athletic out there. He isn’t going to remind anyone of Alex Gordon any time soon, but guess what?
He has made every routine play out there so far (8 out of 8 chances on 90-100%). Given that he, like Coghlan, are really in the lineup for their plate skills, the Cubs will take that kind of boring all season long.
Dexter Fowler playing his part
In general, CF’ers make the routine plays with a high degree of consistency. No CF has made less than 98% of them and Fowler has made 99.2% of them, not perfect, but certainly nothing to make you hold your breath on every fly ball. When it comes to the more difficult but very make-able plays (that 60-90% range), Fowler has made 88.9% of them. That is good for 12th in all of baseball — and good enough for what Maddon wants right now. While he is by no means a Gold Glover, Fowler has been a pleasant surprise in CF. He makes the plays all CFers are supposed to make and a great percentage of those that any solid defender should make.
As an aside, and I mention it in part because the combo of boring defense while adding value on offense will become something of a theme from here on out.
Fowler has had his ups and downs this season, but he has played one role better than anyone else in baseball — and that is getting on base to lead off an inning.
#Cubs Dexter Fowler leads baseball with 24 BB leading off an inning. No other player has even 20.
— Ace of MLB Stats (@AceballStats) August 12, 2015
Fowler may be an imperfect player, but he knows his role well. The combination of solid defense and OBP skills have made him an asset overall in terms of what the team needed this year.
Kris Bryant good, but still a work in progress
The Cubs heralded rookie is a work in progress in the field but Bryant has been better than anyone expected.
From a scouting perspective, managers recently ranked him as the 3rd best defensive 3B in the NL. That is debatable, of course, but I think we can all say his athleticism at 3B has been better than advertised.
But what about the routine play?
Well, Bryant has made 13 errors, which is 7th most in all of baseball, but also the same as NL Gold Glover Nolan Arenado and fewer than AL Gold Glover Manny Machado.
Where Bryant has made more errors than anyone is in the field (9). He is near the bottom in the 90-100% range, but 11th best in that 60-90% range, so we know he is more than just a statue out there — he can make plays too. Well, at least to a point. He is dead last in the most difficult plays (10-40% range). But the Cubs aren’t going to be concerned with that if he can just shore up his consistency on the routine play and continue to be solid in that second tier of difficulty. We’ll show you why later.
But for now, the feeling here is that Bryant will tighten up that defense on routine plays as he gains experience at 3B. Right now he is an asset overall. When it comes to run value added on defense, Bryant ranks 8th in baseball and 2nd in the NL. His UZR/150 ranks 5th in the NL. The Cubs will take that knowing there is room for improvement and that he will provide great offense at the position.
Soler has look rather shaky at times in RF but you may be surprised to learn that, at least according to Inside Edge, he is one of only 6 RFers in all of baseball that have made 100% of the routine plays out there.
Where he ranks in the bottom half is in that 60-90% range. Soler will catch what any RFer should catch, but when it comes to making the more challenging plays that your average RFer usually makes, Soler is making less than 2/3 of them (the top 10 in this category are all 75% or higher), but given the relatively small number of plays, the Cubs can live with that until the late innings of a close game — especially if he continues to hit as he has lately (.299 with a .371 OBP in the 2nd half) — and even better still if that power comes along, which it should if he continues to hit the ball as hard as he has of late.
The importance of making the routine play and the difference between premium and non-premium positions
So, we threw all these numbers at you just to give you a feel for the routine vs. players that have varying degrees of difficulty, but as Maddon says, he likes boring and routine,
Well, let’s expand on Jorge Soler to illustrate. He makes 100% of the routine plays, but those plays that are relatively more difficult, that range of plays that are routinely made by average RF defenders — just how many total plays are we talking about?
For Soler, that number is 11. He has made 63.6% of them, meaning there were 4 plays that an average defender often makes that he doesn’t make. That’s 4 plays over the course of a season
Let’s compare that, for example, with noted superb RF defender Jason Heyward. Heyward had 12 chances in that range and made 11 of them. He is obviously better at it, but that is essentially a difference of 3 plays over the course of a season on plays most players should make.
Even more to the point, both defenders made 2 plays in the 40-50% range. So now we have a difference of just 3 total plays made on what your fringe average defender should make.
Do you see what I am getting at here?
Okay, but that is a corner OFer — that’s why those positions and 1B are where you can “hide” a defender to some degree. Yes, Heyward is much, much better in the field, but the results of that defensive prowess may make less difference than we might think when taken over a larger sample size — at least at that particular position.
So what about SS?
At SS, Castro had 331 routine chances. He made 94% of them. Now we have 22 missed plays that should be made by almost any SS in baseball. By contrast, Andrelton Simmons converted on 99.7% of routine chances, meaning he has missed just one routine play this season.
That’s a difference of 21 plays on routine plays alone, but we’re still not taking this as far as the Soler comparison. If we add the plays in that 60-90%, Castro did not make 17 of those plays where Simmons did not make 3 of those plays in that range. That is a difference of 14 plays and when we add those chances in to the routine plays, that makes a total difference of 35 missed plays in that 60-100% range.
It adds up and shows why SS is such a premium position in baseball and why it was important to move Castro off of the position and give that to a player whom the Cubs expect plays in that 60-100% consistently. Russell probably won’t make the plays in the 10-40% range the way Simmons can (who does?), but those plays are relatively few and far between. Simmons adds value there where others don’t — but perhaps not as much as you think. He’ll steal a run here and there, but the vast majority of plays are made in that 60-100% range of difficulty. As great as Simmons is, there were only 12 plays he made below that 60% range, not because he isn’t good at it, simply because there aren’t nearly as many chances to make those plays.
And with defensive shifting becoming so prominent and essentially being designed to increase the number of routine plays make, that 60-100% range becomes that much more important.
It may also be why the Cubs stress hitting so much in their amateur evaluation. We’ve mentioned on a number of occasions that the Cubs feel they can coach up defense when compared to the amateur level and that gives them a market inefficiency when it comes to acquiring players who have the potential to add tremendous value on offense. This line of thinking surely ties in. The Cubs don’t need to turn these guys into Gold Glovers. They just need to turn them into players who consistently make plays that any average defender should make.
If they can take a good hitter and develop that player on defense where he makes plays in that 60-100% range consistently, then they eliminate most of the missed defensive plays that subtract from a players overall value — and then more than compensate for that by having a player that provides a significantly greater surplus in terms of offensive value. The Cubs intention here is simply to come out ahead on that ledger sheet.
And right now, that is looking like an excellent strategy.
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