Despite one of their best series of the season in St. Louis over the weekend, the Cubs have not been a very successful baseball team in 2022. Their 28-45 record translates to an anemic .384 win percentage which is the fifth lowest winning percentage in MLB this season — only Oakland, Washington, Kansas City and Cincinnati are currently worse.
There are a lot of possible explanations for the Cubs’ struggles so far this season, and to be clear, all of them probably play some part in the disappointing first three months of the season. The Cubs have been riddled by injuries, key players have underperformed when they’ve been healthy enough to be on the field, and one of the factors that has certainly contributed to a lot of the Cubs struggles this season is their woeful fielding.
The Cubs were last in the playoffs in 2020, and it is not an accident that they also were exceptional defensively that season. The 2020 Gold Glove awards were unique, due to the shortened season they were determined exclusively by sabermetrics as opposed to including coach and manager input. In 2020 seven Cubs were nominated for exceptional defensive play, with Javier Báez and Anthony Rizzo taking home the hardware.
The 2022 Cubs will not garner any such accolades.
Defense is more difficult to quantify than offense for a number of reasons, but primary among them is sample size. A hitter who is in the lineup consistently will come to the plate three to five times in the course of a normal game. Over the course of a few weeks or months they will accumulate a pretty predictable number of batted ball events or plate appearances that will tell us a lot about their approach at the plate, like how often they hit the ball hard, or whether they swing at pitches outside of the zone frequently. Defenders fielding chances are much more sporadic. Some games may see lots of fielding opportunities, while others see only a couple.
Beyond that, there is a lot of human judgment in fielding that doesn’t really show up as significantly in other metrics. The difference between a hit and an error, for example, is almost entirely a scorers’ call. Two different score keepers for different teams can and will make those calls differently. It makes just tallying up fielding percentage to determine the best defenses problematic.
For purposes of this piece, therefore, I decided to look at team defensive runs saved (DRS). Don’t get me wrong, DRS isn’t a perfect stat either, but the goal of a baseball defense is run prevention and DRS is a solid metric for determining how you are doing off of that baseline. As The Fielding Bible explains:
A fielder’s Defensive Runs Saved (Runs Saved, for short) indicates how many runs a player saved or cost his team in the field compared to others at his position. There are nine components we use to total a player’s Runs Saved:
-Range & Positioning Runs Saved (All Non-Catchers)
-Catcher Adjusted Earned Runs Saved (Catchers)- Strike Zone Runs Saved (Catchers)
-Catcher Stolen Base Runs Saved (Catchers)
-Pitcher Stolen Base Runs Saved (Pitchers)
-Outfielder Arm Runs Saved (Outfielders)
-Bunt Runs Saved (Corner Infielders, Catchers, Pitchers)
-Double Play Runs Saved (Middle Infielders and Corner Infielders)
-Good Plays/Misplays Runs Saved (All Fielders)
In order to translate each component to Runs Saved, we consulted the “24-States Run Matrix”. We compared the expected number of runs allowed before and after each play and calculated the average change in run expectancy for each event. We then apply these average run values to convert to Runs Saved.
So, how do the 2022 Cubs stack up according to Defensive Runs Saved? Pretty terribly, thanks for asking:
Defensive Runs Saved By Team
|1||New York Yankees||51|
|7||Boston Red Sox||31|
|8||Los Angeles Dodgers||27|
|9||San Diego Padres||25|
|10||Toronto Blue Jays||24|
|11||St Louis Cardinals||23|
|12||Los Angeles Angels||16|
|15||Tampa Bay Rays||10|
|19||New York Mets||4|
|23||Chicago White Sox||-7|
|25||Kansas City Royals||-12|
|28||San Francisco Giants||-24|
The Cubs are fourth from the bottom as a team in terms of Defensive Runs Saved, with only the Phillies, Nationals and Giants performing worse. More importantly, the Cubs are in significantly negative territory here, giving away 19 more runs than average. That probably works out to at least a few wins for a team that has an 8-15 record in one run games so far this season.
It’s not all doom and gloom, some players have performed admirably as these individual leader boards show, but there are blinking red lights here as well:
2022 Cubs DRS Leaders (40+ Innings)
I would like to take back every warning I had about Nico Hoerner’s ability to be an everyday MLB shortstop. He’s been the best defensive player for the Cubs this season and has proven he’s capable of being the captain of the infield. Ian Happ has also been a solid defender in LF with four defensive runs saved.
After that, well, it’s not great, Bob.
Almost every other positive contributor defensively has been a defensive replacement or role player who frankly, hasn’t been that great at the plate (I’m mostly looking at Andrelton Simmons and his OPS of .400 with a wRC+ of 11 here). However, even some players who have excelled defensively in the past have struggled in the field for the Cubs this year, like five-time Gold Glove winner, Jason Heyward, who has a -4 DRS so far this season.
One huge caveat with this data — these numbers can fluctuate season to season and over the course of a season. For example, Patrick Wisdom was a +4 DRS defender across 759⅓ innings in 2021 and Willson Contreras was a +8 DRS catcher across 937⅔ innings in 2021. Both are struggling defensively in 2022, but that isn’t inevitable.
That said, one of the biggest weaknesses for the 2022 Chicago Cubs has been their defense. This team doesn’t look primed for a playoff run any time soon, but small improvements on defense could get them a lot closer to .500 as opposed to a team flirting with one of the worst records in franchise history.