You may have seen the highlights, over and over again, of Albert Almora helping the Chicago Cubs to a victory with a clutch go-ahead double. What you may have missed here and there is the fact that defense was the name of the game, right up until the end:
— WorldSeriesDreaming (@WSDreaming_Cubs) June 15, 2016
It’s uncanny how the Cubs are able to move guys all over the place, part of the contingency plans I came up with this winter (and I’m sure the Cubs were 20 steps ahead of me anyway). Knowing that they were in a close game, Joe Maddon was able to move Javier Baez over to second base, improve his outfield with Albert Almora (who we know is good at defense), and Baez coincidentally got the last out of the game to seal the W. It’s an adage that should be obvious, but many teams have trouble putting it into practice. We’re lucky to have Theo Epstein at the helm to build the team the way we always envisioned a strong, competent front office to:
The strategy of pitching to contact works best when the pitching staff can throw quality strikes that will then be fielded cleanly by competent defenders when put into play.
And lo and behold, the Cubs are doing just that with world-class defenders at just about every position. They have at least two guys in the starting outfield who can play center field competently and on occasion, even a third center fielder manning left field. On the infield, they have shortstop capable guys at three of the four positions. The catchers are offensive liabilities only in a relative sense because the rest of the lineup is so good, but they call a good game and are decent at controlling the running game even if the pitchers aren’t the best at holding runners. FanGraphs recently looked at the ability of the Cubs to limit batting average on balls in play, or BABIP:
Lowest team BABIP allowed
- Cubs, .250
- Dodgers, .265
- Blue Jays, .279
- Nationals, .280
- Indians, .282
That’s the basis of this entire post. The Cubs have allowed a really low batting average on balls in play. Like, super low. Almost impossibly low. If the Dodgers were in first place at .265, they’d be an outlier, potentially an outlier worth writing a post about. The Cubs are an outlier from the outlier.
It’s still mid-June, so we will see what happens next, but aside from the weekend hiccups on defense, the Cubs have been extremely efficient on defense. If you think about it, .250 means that if the ball stays in the park, the Cubs are converting at least three-quarters of them into outs. Couple that with the fact that the pitchers don’t walk many batters (which means they don’t have to contend too often with baserunners), strike out a ton of guys, and limit the damage with the home run ball (something that I think will regress but whatever), and you have one of the greatest run prevention units in recent memory. The insane run differential isn’t just because of the Cubs’ obscenely good offense, but because the pitchers and defense are doing their share of the work as a unit.
Another thing that world-class defenders do for Joe Maddon is that he doesn’t have to shift quite as much. As you can see from the FanGraphs post:
Fewest defensive shifts
- Marlins, 236
- Cubs, 267
- Royals, 268
- Red Sox, 276
- Phillies, 284
Maddon has reversed course. Once the most shift-happy manager in baseball, Maddon’s Cubs have shifted fewer times than all but one team.
The article doesn’t have a concrete answer to this, but my amateur scouting eye suggests that because the defense is peppered with good glove, speedy and rangy defenders, Maddon can play them close to their natural positions and still have a very good chance at converting the out. Consider that even though Kris Bryant was starting in left field, he was still able to make this play:
And then late in the game, the Cubs actually UPGRADED the defense with Almora going to play left. Consider also that noted Cubs-killer and voodoo-practioner Daniel Murphy hit four balls on the screws and all of them found gloves. Some of that might be good fortune, but both Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward needed to range quite a bit to get to their plays.
With pretty much all five tools at elite status, it’s no wonder the Cubs already gobbled up 44 wins. As Miguel Montero likes to say, #WeAreGood.