Note: This blog post is from the fine folks at “The Planet of Baseball,” which you can find at theplanetofbaseball.com.
The Chicago Cubs’ infield is one of the most promising young cores in all of baseball, and it is a large reason that they made history in 2016 with 4 of their infielders making the All-Star team – as starters. Now this isn’t to say that starting in the all-star game instantly makes you the best in baseball, as we know that fan voting and many other factors (a hot start in 2016) can leave voters a bit biased. Still, it definitely shows that the Cubs have a very exciting young infield group and they stack up very well against other teams.
At first base they have Anthony Rizzo, a bona fide all-star and a perennial lock for 30 homers every year. Over at the hot corner is young superstar Kris Bryant, one of the most exciting players in the league today and a straight-out masher of the baseball. Up the middle, they feature Addison Russell and Javier Baez, two very well-rounded players that would be centerpieces on any other team. Russell is routinely considered one of the best young shortstops in the game alongside Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts, and Baez is one of the more exciting players to watch, as evidenced by his superb run in the playoffs last season. Not to mention Ben Zobrist who is currently on the disabled list, but is an integral part of this Cubs infield.
So what do the actual stats say? At face value it does appear that the Cubs infield is one of the very finest in baseball, but it is important to actually consider the objective stats to see if they can prove or disprove this theory. One of the most common measurements of a player’s productivity and contribution to the team is WAR, or wins above replacement. This compares a player’s contribution compared to the average contribution of a replacement (or average) player. Let’s take a look at how the Cubs infielders stack up against the rest of the field.
Anthony Rizzo has seemingly gotten better each year he’s been in the league, addressing weaknesses and deficiencies in his game and striving for continuous improvement. In his brief stint in the majors in 2012 he struck out a ton (over 30% of the time). In 2013, he hit .223 but did manage to knock out 23 homers, and the strikeout numbers and ISO (isolated slugging percentage) were both above league average. He really broke out in 2015 at the age of 25 as he finally learned how to hit lefties, and this big adjustment has led to him becoming one of the more premier power hitters in the game. His 2015 season featured a .278/.387/.512 line and career highs across most statistical categories.
Projections for him range from 4.5 to 5.5 WAR, which is in the elite category and among the highest for first basemen. He’s already accumulated a 2.2 WAR this year, so hitting the low end of that projection should be no problem for him. Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are the leaders in this category with 3.5, 2.9 and 2.6 WAR respectively at this point in 2017. Rizzo is not far behind and falls in the top 5 of this category.
Second base might be the Cubs’ weakest infield position. With Zobrist currently sidelined, Baez is the main guy here. He has struggled this year with a low contact rate after a stellar playoffs last year through the first two rounds, as he did have some issues with hitting in the World Series. He has posted just a 0.4 WAR so far this year. Zobrist, meanwhile, has a 0.6 WAR and is the better all around player. Neither of these Cubbies are among the league leaders, which has Jose Altuve leading the way with 3.1 WAR. Overall, the Cubs likely land in the top third of the league when comparing second basemen, as Zobrist is usually worth at least 2.0-2.5 WAR in a given year – keep in mind he posted a 4+ WAR last season.
It’s tough to see why Baez has floundered so far this year. He has had spells of frustration for fans to watch as their is so much immense upside to his game that largely remains untapped. His bat speed is among one of the very fastest in baseball and it is easy to compare his swing to Gary Sheffield or Vlad Guerrero in terms of sheer power and speed. He has shown improvement, as his contact rate has gone up in each of his major league seasons while his swinging strike percentage has gone down. His walk rate remained low and that will always be a mark of Baez – he will never become a truly patient hitter as he is just so aggressive at the plate.
While he has not been great with the bat, he still performed very well with the glove on the defensive side of the ball. His ability to apply tags is a thing to behold and he is one of the very best in the game, at all positions, in applying tags to runners. The things that don’t show up in the boxscore he does very well, it remains to be seen if his plus power and speed will carry over to measurable and objective stats.
Addison Russell was projected for a 3.5 WAR this season and he is currently at 0.7 WAR so far this season. This puts him in the top 20 at his position, but well behind position leaders Zack Cozart, Corey Seager and Xander Bogaerts (2.8, 2.6 and 2.6 WAR respectively). He has dealt with some shoulder issues this year, which may explain some of his struggles at the plate. His 2015 debut was simply average, but even being just average at the age of 21 was not easy feat. Where he really shines is on the defensive side of the ball, even though the bat remained a bit lackluster. His dWar (defensive wins above replacement) ranks seventh among all eligible shortstops so far this year, so clearly his glove has carried him this season.
Still, at 23 years old, Russell is doing some things that are unheard of from players of the same age. Last season he cut his strikeout rate by six percentage points and upped his walk rate, while bumping his contact rate slightly. His ISO rose by 30 points, and his hard hit rate and line drive rate both spiked last season. Whether or not this will translate to continued success in the majors is yet to be determined, as Addison does not have an extensive pedigree of being a plus hitter in the minors. If he can keep his ISO close to .200, he should be a force to be reckoned with at the position for many years.
Kris Bryant’s 2.3 WAR ranks fifth among third basemen, and he is being carried by his big bat. He’s projected for a WAR above 5 this season, and for good reason – he likely ranks just behind Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado overall at the hot corner, and he is younger than both. Once considered baseball’s top prospect, Bryant has burst onto the scene and has not stopped hitting. His rookie season was already top 5 at his position, and last season he once again provided a great statistical year. His walk rate remained steady near 11% and his strikeout totals came down, all signs of a great hitter showing improvement. The 39 home runs were not cheap shots, as demonstrated with his .262 ISO mark. Although his BABIP came down, he still hit for a high average, showing that he makes hard contact and was about league average in terms of luck. He’s also totaled 21 steals through the two years, a nice underrated part of his game.
Overall with 2 guys in the top 5 at their position and 2 other young pieces that could move up quickly as their bats develop, the Cubs have one of the strongest infields in baseball. The Houston Astros might challenge for that honor with Correa and Altuve, likely the best middle infield in baseball. Until they develop some better pieces at the corners, however, the Cubs have the upper hand.
About David Morgan
My name is David, I am an editor/co-founder of www.theplanetofbaseball.com. Being a software engineer by day and a baseball blogger by night, I also participated in the training activities of a youth baseball team at my hometown. I have passion with baseball, it pertains to my life from childhood until now and I love to share what is related to that passion with others. I believe in the support of other baseball bloggers like me to spread the passion.