Defense wins championships: Joe Maddon sees Gold Glove potential all over Wrigley Field

Defense wins championships: Joe Maddon sees Gold Glove potential all over Wrigley Field

When Joe Maddon looks out from his spot in the home dugout, the Cubs manager sees five potential Gold Glove winners all around Wrigley Field, a defensive makeover that has become part of the identity for a team with World Series ambitions.

“That’s legit,” Maddon said before Wednesday night’s crisp 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, “without trying to oversell our guys.”

All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo is already playing at that level and has the eye-popping offensive numbers to help win that popularity contest: “For sure,” Maddon said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Jason Heyward has already won three Gold Gloves and is living up to his defensive reputation — while underperforming offensively — in the first season of a $184 million contract: “Right field is spectacular,” Maddon said.

All-Star shortstop Addison Russell “should be,” Maddon said, given his range, explosiveness and steady up-the-middle presence during his second year in the big leagues.

“I think if (Willson) Contreras played enough, he’d have that opportunity to be considered, too,” Maddon said, praising the rookie catcher with a rocket arm who has gone 5-for-14 in throwing out runners (while veteran Miguel Montero is only 2-for-50 in those situations).

Javier Baez makes highlight-reel plays all over the infield: “If Javy played every day, he would,” Maddon said, agreeing with the idea that there should be Gold Glove recognition for super-utility players.

“I’d love that,” Maddon said. “I love the Super-U everything. That should be a position on the All-Star team. There should actually be somebody voted as that guy. I’ve thought that since 2009 with (Ben) Zobrist. The fact that we have so many guys that have played varied positions well — that’s got to start happening in other places (with) other organizations.

“It’s so beneficial game in progress, the things that you can do, whether it’s the pinch-hit, accelerate your defense, make it stronger for the last play of the game. We’re able to do all these different things because of the athleticism and the adaptability. Of course, Javy really sets that up.”

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Meaning an All-Star third baseman (Kris Bryant) or an All-Star second baseman (Zobrist) can move to the outfield and the Cubs don’t feel like they are sacrificing anything defensively or playing anyone out of position.

“We’re almost spoiled everywhere,” winning pitcher Jason Hammel said after shutting down the Angels for seven innings. “The guys go out there, and they play nine hard innings for us and they take hits away. As long as we’re in the zone, throwing strikes, putting the ball in play, guys are going to make plays.”

The Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency, according to Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs also measures this group as the leaders in Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Above Average.

“Addison is just playing with so much confidence now that you’re actually seeing how good he can be,” Maddon said. “‘KB’ no longer pats the ball. Dexter (Fowler’s) just playing deeper and now is considered a better center fielder.

“I think just through natural progression maturity-wise, some guys have just gotten better because they’re good. We’re making the routine play routinely, and we’ve made some pretty spectacular plays almost all around the field.”

Along with current coaches Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello, ex-manager Dale Sveum helped design the game-planning system that once relied heavily on defensive shifts. Maddon had also been an early proponent of shifting as Mike Scioscia’s data-friendly bench coach with the Angels and the small-market manager for a Tampa Bay Rays franchise trying to compete with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

“We don’t shift, obviously, nearly as much,” Maddon said. “But, again, I think that’s a product of the league and the teams in the division that we’re playing against, not necessarily that we don’t want to.”

The Cubs don’t need to get by with gadget plays and smoke and mirrors.

“They’re young, athletic,” Maddon said. “They work. They care. Our coaches do a great job in the prep. We keep everything simple. You’ve heard me say that a thousand times. I really think a big part of our success is the simplicity with which we do things out there. There’s nothing complicated, I promise you.

“So if everybody likes us in the metrics, whatever, that’s great. I just think from an old-school perspective — technically — I really like the way we mechanically are moving. The feet have gotten better. The arm strokes have gotten shorter. Addison’s arm has gotten stronger. I’m seeing all these different things this year.”

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

When Kyle Schwarber met new Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis: 'I don't suck'

MESA, Ariz. — The first thing Kyle Schwarber told his new hitting coach?

"His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.'"

The Cubs hired Chili Davis as the team's new hitting coach for myriad reasons. He's got a great track record from years working with the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, and that .274/.360/.451 slash line during an illustrious 19-year big league career certainly helps.

But Davis' main immediate task in his new gig will be to help several of the Cubs' key hitters prove Schwarber's assessment correct.

Schwarber had a much-publicized tough go of things in 2017. After he set the world on fire with his rookie campaign in 2015 and returned from what was supposed to be a season-ending knee injury in time to be one of the Cubs' World Series heroes in 2016, he hit just .211 last season, getting sent down to Triple-A Iowa for a stint in the middle of the season. Schwarber still hit 30 home runs, but his 2017 campaign was seen as a failure by a lot of people.

Enter Davis, who now counts Schwarber as one of his most important pupils.

"He's a worker," Davis said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. "Schwarbs, he knows he's a good player. His first statement to me is, 'I don't suck.' He said last year was just a fluke year. He said, 'I've never failed in my life.' And he said, 'I'm going to get back to the player that I was.'

"I think he may have — and this is my thought, he didn't say this to me — I think it may have been, he had a big World Series, hit some homers, and I think he tried to focus on being more of a home run type guy as opposed to being a good hitter.

"His focus has changed. I had nothing to do with that, he came in here with that focus that he wants to be a good hitter first and let whatever happens happen. And he's worked on that. The main thing with Kyle is going to be is just maintaining focus."

The physically transformed Schwarber mentioned last week that he's established a good relationship with Davis, in no small part because Schwarber can relate to what Davis went through when he was a player. And to hear Davis tell it, it sounds like he's describing Schwarber's first three years as a big leaguer to a T.

"Telling him my story was important because it was similar," Davis said. "I was a catcher, got to big league camp, and I was thrown in the outfield. And I hated the outfield. ... But I took on the challenge. I made the adjustment, I had a nice first year, then my second year I started spiraling. I started spiraling down, and I remember one of my coaches saying, 'I'm going to have to throw you a parachute just so you can land softly.' I got sent down to Triple-A at the All-Star break for 15 days.

"When I got sent down, I was disappointed, but I was also really happy. I needed to get away from the big league pressure and kind of find myself again. I went home and refocused myself and thought to myself, 'I'm going to come back as Chili.' Because I tried to change, something changed about me the second year.

"And when I did that, I came back the next year and someone tried to change me and I said, 'Pump the breaks a little bit, let me fail my way, and then I'll come to you if I'm failing.' And they understood that, and I had a nice year, a big year and my career took off.

"I'm telling him, 'Hey, let last year go. It happened, it's in the past. Keep working hard, maintain your focus, and you'll be fine.'"

Getting Schwarber right isn't Davis' only task, of course. Despite the Cubs being one of the highest-scoring teams in baseball last season, they had plenty of guys go through subpar seasons. Jason Heyward still has yet to find his offensive game since coming to Chicago as a high-priced free agent. Ben Zobrist was bothered by a wrist injury last season and put up the worst numbers of his career. Addison Russell had trouble staying healthy, as well, and saw his numbers dip from what they were during the World Series season in 2016.

So Davis has plenty of charges to work with. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"They work," Davis said. "They come here to work. I had a group of guys in Boston that were the same last year, and it makes my job easier. They want to get better, they come out every day, they show up, they want to work. They're excited, and I'm excited to be around them.

And what have the Cubs found out about Davis? Just about everyone answers that question the same way: He likes to talk.

"I'm not going to stop talking," he said. "If I stop talking, something's wrong."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Andre Dawson talks about his Cubs reunion

Carmen DeFalco (ESPN 1000) and Jordan Bernfield join Kap on the panel. Anthony Rizzo returns to the Cubs after an emotional weekend home while Tom Ricketts expects another World Series parade. Plus Hall of Famer Andre Dawson joins Kap to talk about his Cubs reunion and how the current crop unsigned free agents compares to his experiences with collusion.