Cubs

How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

How Cubs have transformed their defensive identity

ST. LOUIS – The San Francisco Giants used a pitching-and-defense formula to win World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The St. Louis Cardinals have their own Way to reinforce fundamentals and teach generations of prospects how to play the game. It’s been a good seven weeks, but the Cubs want to be known as that type of franchise on an annual basis. 

While looking at the metrics – and using the eye test more than 25 percent through the schedule – it becomes clear that the 2016 Cubs are built on a much stronger defensive foundation than last season’s 97-win team.

“Rock solid,” manager Joe Maddon said.

Here’s how the Cubs lead the majors in defensive efficiency and have the best record in baseball (31-14): Just look back at a pivot point during Wednesday’s 9-8 win over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Third baseman Tommy La Stella bailed out Jake Arrieta with two outs and the bases loaded in the fifth inning, making a diving stop to his right and the throw to second base.

Another lasting image from this road trip will be ex-Cardinal Jason Heyward crashing into AT&T Park’s right-center field wall to make a highlight-reel catch, walking off the field with a bruised right side and returning to the lineup four nights later in St. Louis. 

The Cubs gave Heyward the biggest contract in franchise history, investing eight years and $184 million in a three-time Gold Glove winner who’s not a middle-of-the-order hitter.

Instead of Starlin Castro pressing to prove he could still play shortstop and taking some of his offensive frustrations onto the field, the Cubs are now getting a full season of Addison Russell.

Instead of Russell making his big-league debut and trying to learn a new position on the fly, the Cubs have second baseman Ben Zobrist, who will turn 35 on Thursday and is still playing at an All-Star level.

There’s so much talent that Maddon can call Javier Baez one of the National League’s best defensive infielders and still not find an everyday spot in the lineup for him.

“This guy’s literally been a human highlight reel in single games, making four or five plays,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said. “But that’s the kind of ability that these guys have as young players. That’s the exciting (part). And it’s kind of the dangerous thing for the rest of the league: ‘Goddamn, these guys are so young.’”

When Baez (age 23) bumps All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant (age 24) to left field, the Cubs can align three defenders with the athleticism to play center, including Dexter Fowler and Heyward, who got paid because of his youth (26) and the data crunch that has rated him as one of the most valuable players in the game.

“Whether it’s WAR or runs saved or whatever the other stats are, I have no idea what they are,” Heyward said. “(It’s) paying attention to who’s hitting and where they hit the ball, who’s pitching and how they’re attacking guys. Play the count. Play the scoreboard. Play the game.

“That stuff does matter. It does win games. It does cut down innings. It does set up your pitchers.”

That’s the cascading effect for a rotation trying to stay fresh for a deep playoff run and a bullpen in danger of getting overexposed. There’s the emotional lift when double-play balls aren’t wasted and the momentum shift when Heyward makes a diving catch or throws out a runner at home plate.

What looks like an extra-base hit suddenly disappears, a high-anxiety moment becoming a low-stress situation. It helps explain why the Cubs began Wednesday with the lowest rotation ERA (2.51) in the majors and 31 quality starts through 44 games.

“Strikeouts are cool and everything,” said Arrieta, who threw almost 250 innings last year, combining his Cy Young Award season with three playoff starts. “But when you got guys like we have in the field, use ‘em. If I can get one- and two-pitch outs, that’s what I’m going to try and do. I want to put up as many zeroes as possible.

“Get the strikeouts when you need ‘em. Guys in scoring position with less than two outs – I’ll get ‘em then. But if I got guys like that behind me, I’m going to use ‘em. Let them put it in play.”

Signing Fowler in late February created insurance against injuries (Kyle Schwarber) and allowed Heyward to move back to his more natural position in right field. Playing next to Heyward has also helped Fowler put up a 4.6 Ultimate Zone Rating, a major improvement from last year (-1.7) and his 2014 season with the Houston Astros (-21.8).

“Defensively, I think it’s just an adjustment of depth,” Maddon said. “He’s getting rave reviews, not because he’s any different. Not because his routes are different. Not because his angles are better. Nothing (like that). It’s just because he’s deeper. That’s it. That’s what it really comes down to.

“A lot of the metrics that are involved in defense and zone ratings and things (like that) would be the ball that gets over his head and turns into an extra-base hit. So he was considered not as good basically because he played so shallow. So just by playing deeper – without changing any part of your skill set – you’re considered better. It’s pretty incredible.”

Fowler waited out the free-agent market so long primarily because of the draft-pick compensation attached to the qualifying offer he declined. But he also didn’t have a great defensive reputation after spending years roaming Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies. The geeks should also get credit for that subtle positioning shift.

“It’s something that came to light when I was in Tampa Bay,” Maddon said. “I was always of the opinion I liked a shallow outfielder in center just to take away a lot of cheap stuff. And I thought if a guy made a bad pitch, it’s almost like he’s earned the right for the ball to be hit over the outfielder’s head.

“But as it turned out, just going through the numbers, apparently you save more runs by being a little bit softer on defense in center field by getting deeper.”

The Cubs now have strength up the middle and so many options for a manager who loves versatile players and believes in run prevention.

“‘Zo’ and ‘KB’ and Javy permit us to do so many different things right now,” Maddon said, “because wherever you put them, I don’t feel like we’re losing anything at all.

“I really don’t like to start a game with a team on the field where I thought the defense was substandard. That really bothers me a lot. And we don’t do that. We start a game with people’s names in different positions. But you still feel like you have an above-average defense.” 

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

hendricks-schwein-1018.jpg
NBC Sports Chicago

Kyle Hendricks takes in a Blackhawks game with... Bastian Schweinsteiger?

A Cubs pitcher taking in a Blackhawks game in a suite is nothing special, but doing so with a World Cup winner is... different.

Kyle Hendricks was spotted by the cameras of Thursday's Blackhawks-Coyotes broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago. The guy he was standing next to was none other than Chicago Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, a World Cup with Germany and Champions League winner with Bayern Munich.

Hendricks is known for being reserved on the mound and in his interviews with the media. Meanwhile, Schweinsteiger was filmed yelling "Bear Down" in the hallway of Toyota Park after a Fire practice earlier in the day.

There's no telling what inspired Schweinsteiger to do this, but he has definitely embraced Chicago sports teams since joining the Fire in March of 2017.

Makes you wonder what Hendricks and Schweinsteiger were talking about. Best places to get brats in Chicago?

Ben Zobrist provides a hilarious glimpse into how he's spending a free October

Ben Zobrist provides a hilarious glimpse into how he's spending a free October

Ben Zobrist won't win the Comeback Player of the Year award this winter, but maybe he can take home a Grammy for Best New Artist?

The Cubs veteran infielder/outfielder posted a hilarious video on his Instagram Wednesday night showcasing how he's been spending October after the Cubs were unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs after on the third day of the month.

It's a fantastic music video of Zobrist lip-syncing to Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait" while he nearly knocks the TV off the wall of his home by swinging the bat indoors pretending to hit off Clayton Kershaw and frolicking around a field that looks shockingly similar to Hershel's farm from the second season of "The Walking Dead":

View this post on Instagram

It always takes me a few weeks to process the season and begin the offseason. Here are my thoughts.....along with a unique way of making light of the postseason that should have been......... (special thanks to @dimtillard for help with Video) Maybe you feel the way I do. It was a very quick and abrupt ending to a good season for us. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But let’s not forget all the good that happened. This game and this team gives us something to pass the time, to express our love and passion, to feel the joy of the wins and the pains of the losses, and it calls us to unity when we so easily can be divided about so many other things. Each game is a microcosm of life. The game itself is not Life, but it helps us deal with life in a way. I’m thankful for even the painful losses at the end. The game can be a great teacher. I felt privileged to play with this team and play for our fans all year. We were stretched and we grew in new ways as individuals and as a group and that is always a good thing. We strive to win championships, but more often the process is the goal. We will be stronger because of all that we went through this year. What will I do now? I will travel and watch my wife crush her book tour. I will be in and out of Chi-town. I just got back home to Franklin, TN. I will find joy in raising and watching my kids grow and continue becoming their own person. I will rest and begin preparing for next season. I will work hard in mind, body, and spirit. I will help other players with @patriotforward and @showandgo. I will focus on personal growth and charitable endeavors and become a better man, teammate, friend, and player. To Baseball and Fans: For the next 5 months until I play next year.... I will wait for you....

A post shared by Ben Zobrist (@benzobrist18) on

Zobrist also posted a lengthy caption on his perspective on the Cubs' disappointing end to the season:

It always takes me a few weeks to process the season and begin the offseason. Here are my thoughts.....along with a unique way of making light of the postseason that should have been......... (special thanks to @dimtillard for help with Video) 
Maybe you feel the way I do. It was a very quick and abrupt ending to a good season for us. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But let’s not forget all the good that happened. This game and this team gives us something to pass the time, to express our love and passion, to feel the joy of the wins and the pains of the losses, and it calls us to unity when we so easily can be divided about so many other things. Each game is a microcosm of life. The game itself is not
Life, but it helps us deal with life in a way. I’m thankful for even the painful losses at the end. The game can be a great teacher. 
I felt privileged to play with this team and play for our fans all year. We were stretched and we grew in new ways as individuals and as a group and that is always a good thing. We strive to win championships, but more often the process is the goal. We will be stronger because of all that we went through this year. 
What will I do now? I will travel and watch my wife crush her book tour. I will be in and out of Chi-town. I just got back home to Franklin, TN. I will find joy in raising and watching my kids grow and continue becoming their own person. I will rest and begin preparing for next season. I will work hard in mind, body, and spirit. I will help other players with @patriotforward and @showandgo. I will focus on personal growth and charitable endeavors and become a better man, teammate, friend, and player. 
To Baseball and Fans: For the next 5 months until I play next year....
I will wait for you....

Come for the Zobrist lip sync, but stay for the 37-year-old using a bat as a guitar while wearing a sleeveless shirt and rocking an old-timey top hat.

A year ago, Zobrist completely reshaped his offseason workout plan after three straight years of playing deep into October. It appears he's added another new trick to his winter workout — hopping over fences even though there is a clear opening just a foot away.

Hey, whatever works...