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.” 

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

The Cubs are ahead of the game in MLB's brand new world

"BINGO!"

Joe Maddon couldn't contain his glee as he was told there is actual scientific evidence that proves the Launch Angle Revolution has not had any impact on the uptick in homers over the last couple seasons.

The reason MLB players were hitting the ball into the bleachers more than ever before in 2017 was because of the way baseballs are made now, reducing the wind resistence and causing balls to carry more.

But all these players changing their swing path to get more lift on the ball? Not a thing for the group as a whole (h/t MLB.com):


But in analyzing Statcast™ data from the measurement tool's 2015 inception through 2017, the committee found no evidence that batter behavior, en masse, has been a contributing factor toward the homer surge. In fact, exit velocities decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, spray angles from the time studied were stable and a small increase in launch angles was attributable primarily to, as the study refers to them, "players with lesser home run talents."

Basically, the long-ball surge was global, affecting players from all spectrums of homer-hitting ability and irrespective of their approach.

"Going into this, I thought that was going to be the magic bullet, the smoking gun," Nathan said. "But it wasn't."


Hence the "BINGO!" cry from Maddon, who has been very vocal in the fight against the Launch Angle Revolution this season.

The end result is the study will eventually lead to baseballs being returned to normal levels and a more uniform way of storing the balls moving forward. Thus, homers figure to eventually return to normal levels, too, and everybody who was caught up in the Launch Angle Revolution may be left behind.

It's the changing landscape of baseball and we've already seen the after-effects this year: April was the first month in MLB history where there were more strikeouts than basehits.

Why? Because strikeouts are a natural byproduct of the Launch Angle Revolution as players are swinging up on the ball more and sacrificing contact for power and lift.

That, coupled with an increase in velocity and higher usage of relievers, has led to more strikeouts.

It makes perfect sense — it's tougher for a player to try to catch up to 98+ mph at the top of the strike zone with an uppercut swing.

"It's one of those things that sounds good, but it doesn't help you," Maddon said of launch angle. "There's certain things that people really want to promote and talk about, but it doesn't matter. When a hitter's in the box, when you're trying to stare down 96 or a slider on the edge, the last thing you're thinking about is launch angle.

"Now when it comes to practice, you could not necessarily work on angles — your body works a certain way. Like I've said before, there's guys that might've been oppressively bad or they just had groundballs by rolling over the ball all the time So of course you may want to alter that to get that smothering kind of a swing out of him.

"But if you're trying to catch up to velocity, if you're trying to lay back and I could keep going on and on. It sounds good."

The idea of hitting the ball hard in the air has been around for decades in baseball, pretty much ever since Babe Ruth on some level. It just wasn't able to be quantified or accessed by the public as easily until Statcast came around and made it all mainstream.

The Cubs, however, have been anti-launch-angle to a degree this season. They let go of hitting coach John Mallee (who liked players to hit the ball in the air and pull it) and replaced him with Chili Davis (who teaches the full-field, line-drive approach).

The effects haven't yet yielded results in terms of consistently plating runs or having a better performance in the situational hitting column, but the contact rate is, in fact, up.

Here is the list of Cubs hitters who currently boast a career best mark in strikeout rate:

Kris Bryant
Javy Baez
Willson Contreras
Addison Russell
Jason Heyward
Kyle Schwarber

Even Ben Zobrist is very close to his career mark and Anthony Rizzo is right at his career line.

Some of that jump in contact rate can be attributed to natural development and maturation of young hitters, but the Cubs are buying into the new way of doing things and it's paying off.

It's also probably the way the game is going to shift, with an emphasis on contact going to become more important the less balls are flying out of the yard.

The Cubs have seen firsthand how to beat the best pitching in the postseason and they know that cutting down on strikeouts and "moving the baseball" (as Maddon likes to put it) can help manufacture runs in low-scoring, tight affairs in October.

Now science is supporting those theories and Major League Baseball teams will have to adjust. 

The Cubs, however, are at least a step ahead of the game.

It's a long game — the offensive strides will take time to fully take effect even for the Cubs, who are at least a full offseason and two months ahead of the curve in terms of bucking the Launch Angle Revolution.

Maddon concedes that launch angle is a cool stat to see on the video board after homers, but other than that, he doesn't see much of a use for it, pointing to Kyle Schwarber's laser-line-drive homers having the same effect as Kris Bryant's moonshots.

However, Maddon does believe there's a place for launch angle and exit velocity in the game, though mostly for front offices trying to acquire players (think "Moneyball").

"As a teaching tool, you either come equipped with or without," Maddon said. "It's like you buy a new car, you either got this or you don't. Sometimes you can add some things occasionally, but for the most part, this is what you are.

"I like inside the ball, top half of the ball, inner half of the ball, stay long throughout the ball, utilize the whole field. I still think that's the tried and true approach and I'm not stuck in the mud on this by any means.

"The harder pitchers throw the baseball, the more laying back is going to be less effective."

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

Theo Epstein brushes aside rumors: 'There's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs'

No, the Cubs are not currently talking to the Baltimore Orioles about bringing Manny Machado to the North Side of Chicago.

So says Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations who met with the media at Wrigley Field ahead of Friday's series opener with the San Francisco Giants.

Epstein vehemently shot down the notion of trade talks and specified the major diffence between trade rumors and trade talks, while refusing to comment on Machado in particular.

"I'm not addressing any specific rumor or any player with another team," Epstein said. "I would never talk about that in a million years. The simple way to put it is there's been a lot of trade rumors involving the Cubs and there's essentially zero trade talks involving the Cubs.

"There's a real disparity between the noise and the reality and unfortunately, sometimes that puts a player or two that we have in a real tough circumstance. And that's my job to clarify there's nothing going on right now.

"We have more than enough ability to win the division, win the World Series and we really need to focus on our roster and getting the most out of our ability and finding some consistency. Constant focus outside the organization doesn't do us any good, especially when it's not based in reality right now."

The Cubs have presented a united front publicly in support of Addison Russell, whose name has been the one bandied about most as a potential leading piece in any move for Machado.

After all, the Cubs have won a World Series and never finished worse than an NLCS berth with Russell as their shortstop and he's only 24 with positive signs of progression offensively.

Trading away 3.5 years of control of Russell for 3-4 months of Machado is the type of bold, go-for-it move the Cubs did in 2016 when their championship drought was well over 100 years.

Now, the championship drought is only one season old and the window of contention is expected to remain open until through at least the 2021 season.

Epstein likes to point out that every season is sacred, but at what cost? The Cubs front office is still very much focused on the future beyond 2018.

"Everybody's talking about making trades in May — the first part of the season is trying to figure out who you are," Epstein said. "What are the strengths of the club? What are the weaknesses of the club? What's the character of the club? What position is the club gonna be in as we get deeper in the season? What's our short-term outlook? What's our long-term outlook? What's the chemistry in the clubhouse?

"All those things. It's a process to get there and figure it out. If you rush to those kinds of judgments, you can oftentimes make things worse. I think it's important to figure out exactly who you are and give guys a chance to play and find their level and see how all the pieces fit together before you make your adjustments."

So there's no chance we could see the Cubs once again jump the market and make an early deal like they did last year for Jose Quintana or five years ago for Jake Arrieta? Will they definitely wait another five weeks until July to make a move?

"It's just the natural order of things," Epstein said. "We wouldn't be opposed to doing something, but that's not the case right now. It's not happening."