The Cubs put on a defensive clinic at Wrigley Field on Wednesday afternoon and I want to spend some time celebrating some of the more outstanding moments. First, however, I’d like to talk a bit about defense, how it’s measured, and the Cubs defense in 2018. As many of you know, I’m a sucker for data. If you aren’t looking for numbers, I promise I won’t be offended if you skip to the cool screenshots part of this post.
A look at defensive metrics
One of the defining characteristics of the 2016 World Series Champion Cubs was a historically good defense. This isn’t hyperbole. By a bunch of different metrics the 2016 Cubs were one of the best defensive teams in history. In fact, some of the numbers that were used to back up that claim are the type of numbers we normally look to to indicate a team is getting lucky, except the 2016 Cubs maintained them over a year. These are things like a team ERA that was substantially better than its FIP, or the lowest season-long BABIP relative to the rest of the league in MLB history.
Yet, for one season, in 2016, all of them came together for one of the best defensive performances ever... and then came crashing back to earth in 2017.
Cue a bunch of articles like this one wondering if the Cubs’ 2016 defense was just luck.
Lately the Cubs defense seems to have woken up again. I wanted to see if it was more than just my eye test. To confirm my suspicions I compared metrics over the last 2½ years. Here are the numbers for 2016, 2017 and 2018 (to date).
Cubs team defensive stats 2016-18
A few of these stats may need more explanation, so I’ll start with the pitching stats. ERA and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) are probably the most familiar. In a nutshell, ERA is the actual earned run average of a pitcher and FIP is what a fan should expect if factors like defense were removed. A lot of time a difference there is used to indicate luck, in the case of the 2016 Cubs it indicated an exceptional year of defense. Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is also often a metric that indicates luck, although an extended streak of it, like the Cubs in 2016, could indicate something else.
ERA- looks at how good a pitcher (or in this case, team of pitchers) is performing relative to league average. The precise average team would have an ERA- of 100. Each percent lower than 100 means a team is that much better than league average. In other words, in 2016 he Cubs’ pitching staff was 25 percent better than average...so far in 2018 the Cubs’ pitching staff is 22 percent better than league average.
Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) are cumulative, so you should think of these numbers in the context of fewer innings played. There is obviously no guarantee that a team would double their DRS/UZR if they doubled their innings, but it’s useful to look at the number in terms of innings played.
DEF is a value stat that is based on UZR, while it does have a cumulative element, that is adjusted by position and park effects (ie, the stat attempts to account for shortstop being a more difficult position than first base, and some outfields being more difficult than others). So it is cumulative, but more in the way that WAR is cumulative than in the way RBIs would be cumulative.
Finally, all defensive metrics are much more volatile than their offensive counterparts. This is mainly due to the number and variance of opportunities that happen in a single game (i.e., Kyle Schwarber might be guaranteed four plate appearances over the course of a game, but he may only get a chance to gun down a runner at second every fourth or fifth game). UZR/150 scales UZR to a 150 game basis for comparison purposes.
It’s still early, and the 2018 Cubs could obviously regress back to their 2017 averages, but a lot of those numbers look more like the 2016 Cubs to me. Frankly, the team that took on the Dodgers on Wednesday looked more like the 2016 club, too. So here they are, Wednesday’s web gems in chronological order:
JHey and Willson say no
One of the best parts of this play is that the Dodgers didn’t test Schwarber’s arm on the play before. Chris Taylor went from first to third on a double to left and stopped rather than give Kyle a chance to throw home. I can’t blame them, Kyle has been making a name for himself throwing runners out these days. First, let’s look at the entire play [VIDEO]:
Chris Taylor is not a slow runner. He doesn’t steal a ton of bases, but Statcast ranks him in the 87.8th percentile in the league in running. He was ready to tag on this fly ball to right.
Jason Heyward knows there is a play at the plate and is set up under this ball with plenty of time to set and throw a rope to home. He does not disappoint.
However, in order for this play to work, it’s not enough for JHey to catch the ball perfectly and throw a rope. Willson Contreras also needs to be set up perfectly. And he is, he’s even given the runner a lane (although that didn’t prevent a bloody nose):
The craziest part of this play is actually how not close it is.
Taylor is basically out by two Willsons there. Here’s a slightly different view of the tag.
Kris Bryant sparkles
Jon Lester was gritty in his seven innings of shutout baseball, but he was not great. The Dodgers were hitting the ball hard all day and he only recorded one strikeout on the afternoon. But sometimes gritty is more than enough, particularly if you have an MVP at third base.
In the fourth inning Matt Kemp scorched a ground ball up the line and Bryant saved extra bases on this play [VIDEO]:
Let’s take a closer look. Kemp is having a really good year at the plate, slashing .322/.358/.551 and he scalds this ball down the line towards KB.
I’m not going to lie, when I saw this play I thought there was an okay chance KB would knock it down but that it was probably an infield hit. I thought there was a non-zero chance it was headed for the left field corner.
KB gets a glove on this ball, but his momentum is taking him the wrong way to make a play here, you can get a better view of this from where he pops up before firing the ball to Anthony Rizzo:
Again, the most amazing thing about this play is how not close it was. The throw is slightly offline and Rizzo has to do a half split, but Kemp isn’t close to safe on this play.
If Javier Baez (more on him in a second) wasn’t on this team Albert Almora Jr. would be the Cubs’ human highlight reel. Alas, Javy is on the team, so Almora is going to have to settle for a different nickname.
In the seventh inning with Lester at 110 pitches, he flashed his glove again for a spectacular catch to rob Yasiel Puig. Puig hit a shallow line drive into center field that looked like a sure hit, but Almora got a perfect read on it and laid out to rob Puig [VIDEO]:
Puig had already hit a hard hit liner caught by Almora in the second inning, and it looked like this ball was going to drop to put the leadoff man for the Dodgers on in the top of the seventh:
This is a low liner to center and Almora has a long way to go:
Almora has some range though, and as he gets closer to this ball he leaves his feet:
Check out a better angle, Almora really lays out for this one:
That’s Almora! He just keeps making outstanding plays. Of course he holds the ball as he hits the ground:
Cubs fans were loving it, but Puig...not so much.
Javier Baez does ridiculous things so often I think sometimes we take his magic for granted. In the eighth inning he recorded another unassisted double play (yes, he’s done that before this year) in classic el Mago fashion [VIDEO]:
This unassisted double play might be my favorite, though, because it involves both a Javy snag and a slide competition with Enrique Hernandez. First let’s set the scene. Anthony Bass came in to relieve Jon Lester and found himself in trouble. He gave up a double to Hernandez and then fell behind in the count 2-0 to Justin Turner:
Turner scalds a line drive right to Javy. Notice how far Kiké is off the bag for this play. In fact, notice that he’s maybe as far away from the bag as Javy.
I mean, let’s be clear, Javy catching the liner seemed automatic, the question is what would happen next?
Both are heading back to second and the race is on.
They slide at basically the same time. Kiké is lower than Baez. This is literally going to be a who can slide better and faster contest. I love it.
Like honestly, they are equidistant to the bag. And yet, el Mago:
I don’t know how something that looked like a tie half a second ago wound up not particularly close. I guess, Javy Things?
Could this game end on anything other than a defensive gem? Of course it couldn’t. It tells you something about this game that this play didn’t even wind up with an MLB highlight video, so we’ll have to settle for screenshots.
This is going to be another hot shot to KB, except he has to go towards second this time:
Of course this was the final play of this game:
In football they say that defense wins championships. The Cubs have already won a World Series on the back of historically good defense. In early 2018 and for a few hours on Wednesday there were flashes of that again at Wrigley.