How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

How Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs are dealing with defensive shifts

Baseball and luck go together like peanut butter and jelly.

"Luck" is one of those terms that's thrown around baseball games constantly by analysts, reporters, coaches, even players.

Saturday's Cubs-Diamondbacks game was a perfect example.

With the bases loaded and the Cubs up one in the eighth inning, Arizona's Rickie Weeks hit a line drive...that just so happened to be right at Ben Zobrist. Instead of at least a game-tying hit, it was inning over and, eventually, game over. 

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was quick to point out after the game (and then again before Sunday's game) how "lucky" his team was to get out of that jam.

That inconsistent luck on balls in play is something that has become much more of a topic nowadays thanks to defensive shifts and advanced metrics.

Maddon thinks Anthony Rizzo — who has a .251 average — would actually be hitting 20-30 points higher if it wasn't for shifts.

"Rizz or heavy pull left-handed hitters, their numbers have been impacted by shifts," Maddon said. "I think batting averages have plummeted a bit based on data — defensively — as well as data that a pitcher could utilize.

"That kind of information was not as abundant in years past. I've talked about this where I think the decline in offense or batting average is really related to the proliferation of data in video and the ability to put guys where you want to."

Rizzo received an off-day Sunday, but he actually saw both sides of that luck firsthand in the first two games of the series against the Diamondbacks.

With Kris Bryant on second base in the first inning of Friday's ballgame, Rizzo hit a hard ground ball up the middle...right into the waiting glove of shortstop Nick Ahmed.

"When is the second baseman or shortstop playing there?" Maddon asked incredulously after the game. "He didn't do it in 19-odd-8, I know that. 

"That was an absolute base hit, RBI, everybody's happy. That's a tremendous illustration what we're talking about. That is scouting defense. All that stuff conspires against left-handed hitters like him."

Of course, just a few innings later, Rizzo stroked a line drive to center field and wound up with a double when Chris Owings misjudged the ball and broke in.

In Saturday's game, Rizzo picked up a base hit on a bloop that fell between three Diamondbacks defenders.

Those last two examples were the kinds of plays that have not gone Rizzo's way so far this season.

Entering play Sunday, his batting average on balls in play was .232, 46 points below his career .278 mark. 

Rizzo admitted he was shocked when he saw the ball "bounce" his way — so to speak — on Friday.

"Honestly, yes, because it just hasn't gone like that," he said. "It's baseball. They say it evens out, so you just keep hitting it hard.

"I always feel good at the plate. I always feel like I'm right there. You know, the one ball, fortunately the centerfielder didn't get a good read on there."

Rizzo also acknowledged how frustrating it can be to hit into the shift.

"You get taught to hit up the middle your whole life, so you hit the ball up the middle and there's a guy standing there," he said. "But what are you gonna do about it? Hit the ball hard. That's all you can do is keep hitting the ball hard."

Shifting has become an integral part of the game over the last half-decade. Instead of just shifting against the big, slow power hitters like Adam Dunn or David Ortiz, teams can now conceivably shift against any hitter with all the information at their disposal.

In his rant on shifting, Maddon confirmed what we already know: Hitting hasn't yet caught up to the trend. Beyond bunting into the shift, there is nothing that has emerged as a tool to aid hitters battling defensive shifts.

It's a big reason why a .400 season or 56-game hitting streak seem so impossible right now. Sure, pitching and strikeouts are up all around baseball, but the case can easily be made that batting average is down as much because of shifting (and pitching into the shift) as anything.

Think about Crash Davis' speech at the end of "Bull Durham" about how the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is one extra "groundball with eyes" or "dying quail" per week throughout the course of the season.

With shifts, those groundballs don't find their way through the infield as much.

"When you hit the ball well and you're hitting into shifts, then all of a sudden hits — from the time you're in Little League to teen ball to high school to college — hits are now outs," Maddon said. "There's a confidence component to that also.

"You lose some confidence in what you're doing even though you're doing the exact same thing that used to be successful."

Maddon talked at length about how hitting against — and bunting against — the shift aren't easy things to do. 

For one, bunting only really works in some situations. You don't want to take the bat out of a power hitter's hands with two outs and nobody on just to reach first base safely.

The same can be said for hitting into a shift. Guys like Rizzo and Jason Heyward would sacrifice some power if they constantly tried to hit the ball the other way. 

Plus, they're being pitched into the shift, so it's not as simple as taking the ball the other way.

Maddon feels hitters should learn to adjust to shifts early-on, especially with how hard it is to make adjustments at the big-league level.

"I think it's important that you teach these guys at least to bunt," Maddon said. "We do it a little bit. But to truly get away from shift-able players, it's got to be nurtured at the minor-league level to teach these guys to stay inside the ball, hit the ball the other way and still be able to power it somewhat.

"...The objective is to get more runs on a nightly basis as opposed to more hits. Oftentimes, if you get more hits, it's probably going to end up with more runs, but I don't want to dispute that.

"I don't want our guys going out there purely driven by base hits. Sometimes, the better option is to not make an out."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items


Cubs Talk Podcast: Manny Machado’s value and other Cubs offseason wish list items

Did Manny Machado’s value take a hit at all after he openly admitted hustling isn’t his “cup of tea”? Our Cubs team (David Kaplan, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jeff Nelson) debate that, plus the potential fit of Machado or Bryce Harper for the 2019 Cubs and beyond.

The crew also runs down the top items on the Cubs’ offseason wish list – ranging from bullpen help to infield depth to a set leadoff hitter – in what may be the most impactful winter in Theo Epstein’s tenure in Chicago.

Listen to the podcast here or via the embedded player below:

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

The most underrated storyline of the Cubs offseason

There are plenty of intriguing Cubs storylines to monitor this offseason from their potential pursuit of the big free agents to any other changes that may come to the coaching staff or roster after a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign.

But there's one question simmering under the radar in Cubs circles when it comes to this winter: How will the team solve the shortstop conundrum?

Just a few years ago, the Cubs had "too many" shortstops. Now, there are several different factors at play here that makes it a convoluted mess.

First: What will the Cubs do with Addison Russell? The embattled shortstop is in the midst of a suspension for domestic violence that will keep him off an MLB diamond for at least the first month of 2019.

Has Russell already played his last game with the Cubs? Will they trade him or send him packing in any other fashion this winter?

Theo Epstein mentioned several times he felt the organization needs to show support to the victim in the matter (Russell's ex-wife, Melisa) but also support for Russell. Does that mean they would keep him a part of the team at least through the early part of 2019?

Either way, Russell's days in Chicago are numbered and his play on the field took another big step back in 2018 as he fought through a hand injury and experienced a major dip in power. With his performance on the field and the off-field issues, it will be hard to justify a contract worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in his second year of arbitration (prorated, with a month's worth of pay taken out for the suspension).

Even if Russell is on the roster in 2019, Javy Baez is unquestionably the shortstop for at least the first month while Russell is on suspension. 

But what about beyond Baez if the Cubs want to give him a breather or disaster strikes and he's forced to miss time with an injury?

At the moment, there's nothing but question marks on the current Cubs shortstop depth chart throughout the entire organization and they're certainly going to need other options at the most important defensive position (outside of pitcher/catcher). 

There's David Bote, who subbed in for Baez at short once in September when Baez needed a break and Russell was on the disabled list. But while Bote's defense at third base and second base has opened eyes around the Cubs, he has only played 45 games at short across seven minor-league seasons, including 15 games in 2018. There's also the offensive question marks with the rookie, who hit just .176 with a .559 OPS and 40 strikeouts in 108 at-bats after that epic ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12.

The Cubs' other current shortstop options include Mike Freeman (a 31-year-old career minor-leaguer), Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 in 2019 and has played all of 13 innings at shortstop since 2014), Ryan Court (a 30-year-old career minor leaguer) and Chesny Young (a 26-year-old minor-leaguer who has posted a .616 OPS in 201 Triple-A games).

Maybe Joe Maddon would actually deploy Kris Bryant at shortstop in case of emergency like a Baez injury ("necessity is the mother of invention," as Maddon loves to say), but that seems a lot more like a fun talking point than a legit option at this current juncture.

So even if Russell sticks around, there's no way the Cubs can go into the first month of the season with just Baez and Bote as the only shortstop options on a team that with World Series or bust expectations.

The Cubs will need to acquire some shortstop depth this winter in some capacity, whether it's adding to the Triple-A Iowa roster or getting a veteran who can also back up other positions. Right now, the free agent pool of potential shortstops is pretty slim beyond Manny Machado.

Epstein always says he and his front office look to try to mitigate risk and analyze where things could go wrong to sink the Cubs' season and through that lense, shortstop is suddenly right up there behind adding more bullpen help this winter.