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What does Statcast's new set of defensive metrics tell us about the Cubs' outfield?

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USA Today

What does Statcast's new set of defensive metrics tell us about the Cubs' outfield?

It's an exciting day to be a baseball fan On The Web. 

The wizards over in MLB's Statcast division published a brand new set of shiny numbers today, focused on measuring the best outfielder 'jumps'. There's a lot that goes into the numbers, and you can read all about it on their website. It's fascinating

The annotated version goes like this: Statcast breaks down jumps -- what they define as the first 3 seconds of any play on a fly ball -- into three categories: reaction, burst, and route. Reaction is the amount of feet covered, in any direction, during the first 1.5 seconds of any play. Burst is the amount of space covered in the 2nd 1.5 seconds of said play. And route is the overall distance covered over the first 3 seconds. Think of it as how well an outfielder reads the ball off the bat, how well they get into their full stride, and how efficient the two, when put together, are to the overall route. 

The three different classifications offer a boatload of nitty-gritty data, but they also go a long way in validating/invalidating the eye test. For every bad jump or poor route we think we see, now there's data to cross-reference. How does this data play against the perceptions around the Cubs' outfield? Going left to right, let's take a look: 

Kyle Schwarber 

Obviously, a lot of (dark) blue stands out. Schwarber's deficiencies in left have been well-documented, so diving deep into that today feels like beating a dead horse. Defense isn't his calling card, but if he's solved the Cubs' multi-year search for a productive leadoff hitter, who really cares. What's encouraging about Schwarber's year so far is the noticeable improvement in route running; he's reacting faster, and putting up better stats despite a sprint speed that's almost half a foot per second slower. Considering that Schwarber ended last season with the 14th-worst Reaction and the 7th-worst burst, the fact that he's hovering around league average in mid-June is an inarguable improvement. 

Albert Almora Jr. 

 

Albert Almora's set might be the most fun to dive into, mainly because it's odd to see blue on his chart. There's no denying that Almora is one of baseball's best defensive outfielders - his average jump is almost a foot and a half longer than the league average, which puts him among the top-10 outfielders in a category that also features Jackie Bradley Jr., Cody Bellinger, and Kevin Kiermaier. 

What's specifically interesting about Almora's defense is that the numbers suggest he's a poor route runner. While that seems damning on the surface, there doesn't seem to be much of a correlation between elite route taking and having a good overall jump. In fact, of the top-10 worst route runners of 2019, exactly half still grade out with above average jumps. In short: Almora's incredible speed and reaction time make up for some of the more questionable route choices, something he talked about back in May. 

“I think most [routes] are pretty instinctual to me,” he said. “I kind of sell out when it’s a little runner. Sometimes I dive and don’t get to it because in my mind I’m programmed to where, if it’s hit to me, I’ve got to catch it.”

Jason Heyward

Heyward's table, both the good and the bad, isn't too surprising. I don't think anyone would disagree with the assertions that 1. Heyward is one of the great defensive outfielders of his generation and 2. For his standards, it's been a rough year in the field. His reaction, burst, and route-taking have all been the worst he's recorded since Statcast started keeping track of these things. He's still plenty-capable as a defender, and is worth 1 Out Above Average going into Monday night's game. But for those who put stock in these numbers (and Heyward has made it clear in the past that he does not), the trends don't look great. 

MLB Power Rankings: The final week is here

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USA Today

MLB Power Rankings: The final week is here

We've only got a few of these left! This is the penultimate Power Rankings for the 2019 season, and like HBO, it's our most exciting yet. Changes at 14-15! A 2-spot fall for a playoff contender? The Tigers are still bad!

Just here for the slideshow? Happy to see this stupid joke format go away after next week? 

CLICK HERE FOR THE MLB POWER RANKINGS

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

Craig Kimbrel sounds off on Thursday's loss: 'I'm pretty disappointed in myself'

All it took was one swing from Matt Carpenter on Thursday to tarnish Craig Kimbrel’s return from the injured list while simultaneously denting the Cubs’ playoff hopes.

With the Cubs and Cardinals tied 10th inning, Carpenter hit an absolute no-doubt home run deep into left center field, giving St. Louis a 5-4 lead that they never relinquished.

“[The pitch] just ran back over the plate, and he drops the barrel at the bottom of the zone really well and put a good swing on it,” Kimbrel said postgame.

The Cubs activated Kimbrel Thursday following a two-week stint on the injured list. And, really, outside of the Carpenter at-bat, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.

Carpenter’s home run was sandwiched between two strikeouts — one with a fastball, one with a knuckle curveball. Still, Thursday’s loss is a gut-punch for the Cubs, as it drops them to four games back of the Cardinals in the NL Central and a game back of the Brewers for the second Wild Card spot.

It also doesn’t help that the Cubs erased a three-run ninth inning deficit, which allowed them to get into extra innings in the first place.

“It’s frustrating,” Kimbrel said. “I’ve been doing everything I can to get back out there and our team battled til the very end. We needed that, and [I’m] pretty disappointed in myself to go out there and give up a home run like that.”

Some may wonder why Kimbrel was pressed into action the same day of his activation. The answer to that is simple: If not now, then when? With nine games left in the regular season, Kimbrel needs to be pitching.

“Physically, I felt great,” Kimbrel said postgame. “The ball's coming out of my hand good. I just made a bad pitch.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon echoed a similar sentiment about Kimbrel’s condition on Thursday.

“I was very encouraged from what I saw yesterday," Maddon said pre-game. “I thought he looked pretty normal, and again, when you talk to the guy conversationally, it’s very upbeat."

If Kimbrel sat out Thursday’s game, many would call out Maddon for not using his $43 million arm. Plus, the longer the closer sits, the greater chance there is of him getting rusty.

“If we can get on the field, we’re gonna do everything we can to get out there and help this team win and try and put us in a position to get into the playoffs,” Kimbrel said. “We’re getting down here 'til the end. We still got a lot of games.”

Nine regular season games remain for the Cubs in 2019. Kimbrel summed up the latest, as big as any yet, as well as one can.

“Tonight was a big game for us,” he said. “We really needed it. [The] season’s not over, we still got a lot of games left. But it definitely would’ve helped. I wish I would’ve pitched a little better.”

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