This is Day 13 of a Cubsmas Advent Calendar. You can read the explanation for the project and Day One here.
When the Cubs signed Dansby Swanson to a seven-year, $177 million deal last offseason they were essentially upgrading their middle infield defense. The signing moved former shortstop Nico Hoerner to second base and put an elite defender at second base. Most importantly, it gave the Cubs two of the top 15 fielders in MLB by Outs Above Average up the middle heading into 2023:
That duo did not disappoint in 2023, with both Swanson and Nico again combining for 25 Outs Above Average, with Dansby moving into the MLB lead and Nico moving into the top 10:
Let’s take a look at some of Dansby Swanson’s defensive highlights from 2023 [VIDEO].
While a couple of other teams have multiple guys in the top 15, no other team has such a lockdown middle of the infield. For the Cubs, this is particularly valuable because they have a starting rotation full of guys who pitch to contact. Having elite defenders behind those starters ensures the weak contact generated by pitchers like Justin Steele and Kyle Hendricks turns into outs rather than hits. Let’s watch Nico steal some hits [VIDEO].
This run suppression contributed to the Cubs allowing only 723 runs over the course of the 2023 season. A far cry from the MLB-leading and division-winning Milwaukee Brewers at 647 runs allowed, but good for sixth in the National League behind the Brewers, Padres, Dodgers, Phillies and Braves.
In addition to Swanson and Hoerner bringing home Gold Gloves for the Cubs middle infield, Ian Happ brought home his second Gold Glove in a row for his work in left field. His 12 outfield assists in 2023 were good for a tie for third most in baseball behind Rockies outfielder Nolan Jones (who had a stunning 19 outfield assists from multiple positions) and the Nationals’ right fielder Lane Thomas (who had 18 outfield assists last season). Happ’s most memorable assist was this double play to deliver a Cubs victory against the Brewers on July 4 [VIDEO]:
However, the elite defense at some positions really highlighted the glaring holes at other positions. The Cubs made 50 fielding errors during 2023, tied for the seventh-most in baseball with the Braves and the Phillies. They were middling in terms of the number of total double plays made, ranking 17th with 319, just slightly ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks and four short of the 16th ranked team, the Detroit Tigers.
While Nick Madrigal only made four errors in 560⅓ innings at third base (good for a tie for second-fewest among all third basemen with at least 500 innings at the position) he also only turned nine double plays from third. That has him tied for 24th out of 27 qualified third basemen in terms of the number of double plays at third.
Additionally, no team in baseball had more errors made at first base than the Chicago Cubs, who registered 14 of them during the course of the 2023 season — 12 of which were fielding errors (also a league high).
If the Cubs are going to continue to rely on starters who pitch to contact, upgrading defensively at the corners should be a priority this offseason. Even if they choose to add a guy who has more swing and miss stuff, they’ll still need plays like this one from Dansby Swanson that send a Cubs vs. Brewers game to extra innings in September [VIDEO].