Grading Cubs Defense Overall and By Position

I never bought the “Best Defense Ever” tag put on the 2016 Chicago Cubs. How quickly the media forgot even the 2015 champion Royals, who featured a Gold Glove winner or finalist at six of eight positions. But the Cubs’ defense in that World Series season was indeed an elite weapon. It helped minimize pitch counts, lengthened starts, prevented runs, and pressured opponents.

The Cubs aren’t in that same category this season, but their defense is still good. One can find complex defensive metrics to support almost any position, but I personally consider the Cubs defense best in the NL Central. Plus, with the proverbially “tightening,” it can perhaps join Arizona and Washington as the league’s best.

Chicago Cubs

As a handy benchmark, I give the 2016 Cubs defense an A-. This year, I rate the Cubs as borderline B/B+. I went with a B to give them room to improve short of that 2016 gold standard. This also reflects extra weight given to up-the-middle positions (catcher, SS, 2B and CF).

My grades also rely as much on good old eyeballing and a healthy appreciation of fundamentals as on stats. Given the many aberrations still inherent in most defensive metrics, it’s really the best option (see Kyle Schwarber’s UZR/150).

Here goes:

Catcher – The team’s biggest defensive drop from 2016 has happened here. The 2016 team featured two superb pitch framers in Miguel Montero and David Ross, with Willson Contreras as the regular-season apprentice in the wings. Ross was also a good pitch blocker and had the same arm strength as Contreras but was more accurate.

Contreras’s greatest defensive strengths are his arm strength and agility, both frequently displayed on his pick-off throws. No one pounces on balls near the plate quicker than Contreras.

On the flip side, he’s inconsistent in most other realms: blocking, framing and arm accuracy. Thus he led all major league catchers last year in errors. In fact, only his DL visit last season kept him from leading the Cubs in errors, which would have been a rarity in baseball history. Though his 2017 dWAR (1.4) ranked him as the third-best catcher in the NL, he averaged an error or passed ball every 4.5 games. This was the fourth-highest rate among the 21 catchers to start at least 81 games last year.
Chicago CubsNever expect dramatic in-season improvement in fundamentals. However, if Contreras can reign in his gambler nature on throws when not in ideal throwing position, he could reduce his errors.

Defensive Grade: C+

Shortstop – Addison Russell is off to a Gold Glove-contending start at shortstop. Though capable of highlight-reel plays, he generally exemplifies the “boring defense” Joe Maddon extols. On plays that cause Javy Baez to happily dive and sprawl, Russell stays on his feet and glides along thanks to his excellent fundamentals. Plus, he seldom makes mental mistakes (though he had a glaring one in the recent Giants series holding a ball too long on a Pablo Sandoval grounder).

Another mark of his consistency: Every time an announcer thrills over how fast Baez turns a double play, watch the replay to see how accurately Russell made the first throw. By comparison, Baez’s double-play throws aren’t as accurate. This is one reason Maddon calls Baez a “good shortstop,” but never blinks sticking with Russell as the infield anchor.

Defensive Grade: A- (Addison Russell) / B (Javier Baez)

Second base – We all know Javy is great on the hard plays. He lives for them. He’s a great tagger, has great range, and a plus-plus arm for the position. While his shortstop play suffers from concentration on routine play, the challenge of learning the nuances of second base at first caused him to increase his focus on every play. So much so his fielding percentage last year peaked at a quality .983.

In 2016, the combination of Baez’s flash and athleticism (especially in the first two playoff rounds) and Ben Zobrist’s solid consistency combined for an A- second-base rating. This year, Baez’s familiarity with the position has led to some old sloppiness on routine plays. His fielding percentage this year is down into the .960’s, the same as his career average at shortstop.

Defensive Grade: B

Third base – Kris Bryant is a good example of how some defensive metrics cannot be trusted. According to the ever-suspect dWAR stat, Kris Bryant has provided far more defensive value to the Cubs over the past three years (1.8) than Anthony Rizzo (0.1). This of course is absurd, even after considering the weighted importance of different positions.

To his credit, Bryant’s third base play has improved, including charging balls and to his right. But last year, he also led all major league third basemen in errors, despite playing 11 games at other positions and not having elite range. His accuracy on double play throws needs “tightening,” and if he could catch more grounders in the palm (and not web), this could streamline ball transfer and reduce throwing errors.

His footwork to his right still needs work as well. The ideal position for backhanding balls is slightly in front of the body, preferably in front of a crossed-over left leg.Chicago Cubs

As an example, see the Red Bull promotional photo to the right. On backhand plays, he tends to backtrack a little and snag the ball deep near his right leg. This creates odd glove angles, requires extra head movement, and often an extra half step before throwing.

But perhaps Bryant can be forgiven in the photo as the ball was literally on fire.

Defensive Grade: B-

First base – Rizzo no longer generates those crazy web gems on foul balls just out of play. This is probably good from an injury-risk perspective, but his accepted defensive excellence rests on his impressively aggressive bunt play and scoop ability. I’ve taken a tick off his grade this year for some increased mental lapses, but he certainly pays his weight in hauling in a lot more of Contreras’s throws than the average first bagger would.

Correctable opportunities for Rizzo include reading throws better before committing his lower half. This results in strange dives at throws that replays show are reasonably on-target and that sometimes pull his foot off the base. He also unnecessarily crosses over into foul territory too often. This increases potential for injury and catchable balls hitting the runner. I’d prefer his just coming off the bag when necessary and swipe tagging.

Defensive Grade: B+

Right Field – When Jason Heyward’s in there, he remains the gold standard (although Atlanta’s Nick Markakis will give him a run for his Gold Glove money this year). His grade dropped a notch this year to reflect an odd rise in sun-induced missed fly balls and his decline in playing time from 2016 that removes his glove from the field. When Zobrist is in right, he is steady but the drop in range and closing speed is significant.

Defensive Grade: B+

Center Field – Once Dexter Fowler accepted the advice to play two steps deeper, his defensive numbers improved noticeably in 2016. That said, Albert Amora Jr. is better and perhaps the Cubs’ most fundamentally sound defender at his position. Though Ian Happ is faster on the clock, Almora shows how superior technique, agility, and great jumps can give you superior range. He doesn’t have Lorenzo Cain’s arm for assists. Otherwise he’d merit a full A.

Defensive Grade: A-

Left Field – Schwarber has surprised me this year. Balls over his head are still adventurous, and I cringe whenever he sprints too close to a wall. But his hustle and arm rank him second in NL outfield assists (5) this year. He’s worked hard to elevate his defense.

Defensive Grade: B

The others:

  • Zobrist’s versatility remains a major asset. I’d ranked his consistently “boring” second-base defense a B+. His outfield work is solid, though his range is less than ideal.
  • As a full-time player, Happ is athletic and fast, but not much better than average with any glove he carries. On another team, he could grow into a competent Daniel Murphy/Jeff Kent offense-first second baseman.
  • Tommy La Stella receives an incomplete, as we seldom get to see him in the field. Here’s hoping he’s drilling hard with the glove and improving his arm accuracy, as this will be key if and when he gets his break to start.
  • Neither Victor Caratini nor Chris Gimenez are above average, but it really doesn’t matter. When the Cubs had a better defensive back-up last year (Alex Avila), he got just one at-bat in 10 post-season games. Cross your fingers Contreras is healthy come playoff time.
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