Cubs

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

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USA TODAY

Wrigley Field's outfield demands a lot, but the Cubs are answering the call

There’s no one reason that you could point to that explains why the Cubs have gone 27-12 since their horrid first road trip. You could point to Javy Baéz’s continuous star turn, or the rotation exceeding even the loftiest expectations so far. You could point to Kris Bryant’s healthy shoulder, or Brandon Kintzler’s sinker -- like plenty of people have -- and you’d be right. What’s gone under-discussed, at least in the eyes of some, is just how good the Cubs’ outfield defense has been.

“Who doesn’t love defense?” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said earlier in the week. “This group here, when everyone’s on the field and the really good defenders are out there, it’s as tight as I’ve had. The difference being I think is that the outfield defense has gotten better in the last couple years here.”

The numbers back it up. MLB keeps a statistic called Outs Above Average (OAA) that tries to convey just how good an outfielder is vs. replacement level. For the Cubs, Albert Almora is doing much of the heavy lifting, as the center fielder is worth 4 OOA -- good for 4th best in baseball -- on his own. Jason Heyward is holding is own with 2 OOA so far, and Kyle Schwarber continues to struggle (-2 OOA). As a team, here’s how many Outs Above Average the Cubs have been worth since they started keeping track in 2016:

2016: 22 (2nd)
2017: - 7 (20th)
2018: 0 (14th)
2019, so far: 4 (6th)

“I think we’ve got a lot of great athletes on our team,” Almora said. “We’re playmakers and I think we have a great coaching staff that puts us in the right spots.”

Another useful metric that Statcast keeps track of is called Directional OOA. Basically, MLB designates six directions (front right/middle/left and back right/middle/left) and gauges which direction certain teams and fielders are best at running. Almora, at least this year, has been strongest running in and left:

That was on display yet again on Friday, when Almora broke in and left to rob Derek Dietrich in the second inning:

When asked, Almora admitted that he was surprised to learn that, instead thinking that he was better in and to the right. He’s not wrong, either: in each of the previous three seasons, Almora’s finished with the most OOA coming in and to the right.

“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.”

Heyward, on the other hand, has been stronger to his right his year:

“I just think it’s about your position” Heyward added. “You can say someone is really good at one thing, but if they don’t get as many plays to this way, or that way, you don’t really know.

One interesting wrinkle about the Cubs’ outfield is that neither Schwarber, Almora or Heyward have been worth an Out Above Average going straight backwards, and generally haven’t been great going backwards in any direction. One explanation? Between an unforgiving brick wall and the outward-jetting net that sits on top of it, robbing homers basically isn’t possible at Wrigley. Knowing that drastically changes the read on fly balls.

“You know you’re not going to go back as hard,” Heyward said. “If someone hits the ball over your head, most likely it’s going to be a double if it’s off the wall. There’s definitely differences between here and and the next place.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: Swept by the Cardinals (and playoff dreams dashed)

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki and Kelly Crull discuss the Cardinals sweep, Yu Darvish taking the loss so hard, and what to look for over the final six games of the year.

01:00 - Reaction to being swept by the Cards

03:30 - Darvish taking the loss really hard

05:30 - This is the Yu Darvish Cubs fans thought they were getting when he signed with the Cubs

07:00 - Almora's miscue in the 9th inning of the loss

08:00 - It feels like the end of an era

12:00 - Is this the end of an era for the Cubs?

16:00 - Surprised Rizzo was available on the field for the entire Cardinals series?

20:00 - There is no one thing you can look to that didn't work this season

22:00 - What do you want to see over the final six games?

25:00 - Seeing a cornerstone being helped off the field for a second Sunday in a row

29:00 - How much will we see the injured guys on the field?

Listen here or in the embedded player below. 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

Nico Hoerner leaving great impression on Cubs: 'We believe in him'

A little more than two weeks ago, Nico Hoerner was sitting on his couch back in his hometown of Oakland. With Double-A Tennessee’s season over, the 22-year-old was preparing to head down to the Arizona Fall League for the second-straight year.

Now, Hoerner is the Cubs starting shortstop, starting for a Cubs team that’s pushing for a fifth-straight postseason berth while Javier Báez rehabs his fractured left thumb.

Talk about a heck of a month.

“It’s been special to be a part of a team that’s trying to win right now and being around a lot of guys that have played at this level really successfully for a long time,” Hoerner said Sunday. [I’ve] learned a lot.”

When the Cubs called Hoerner up, no one expected him to produce on a Báez-like level. This is meant more as a compliment to Báez than anything, as he brings game-changing elements to the Cubs at the plate, on the bases and defensively.

And yet, considering that Hoerner only has 89 career minor league games to his name, what he’s done in the big leagues is more than impressive. Including his three plate appearances on Sunday, Hoerner holds a .286/.322/.482 slash line, recording hits in 11 of his first 14 games and making plenty of hard contact.

“As a hitter, there’s always things you can work on to be more consistent,” he said. “But overall, I’ve been pretty happy with my ability to be present, compete as best as I can, and I feel like I’ve been pretty consistent with my preparation.”

Hoerner has also started at shortstop in every one of those contests, showing off impressive range and hands while making no errors. It might just be two weeks, but his play has impressed both Joe Maddon and Báez already.

“You cannot have possibly asked for more than you’ve got out of Nico,” Maddon said on Sunday. “And the thing is, he’s gonna keep getting better. This guy is a gym rat when it comes to baseball.

“He loves doing this and he does it really, really well. He’s a solid, really good baseball player and he’s gonna keep getting better. I really believe that.”

“Unbelievable,” Báez said Saturday about Hoerner’s performance thus far. “It’s not easy to just come up and play, even if it’s in September. We believe in him and he’s done a great job for the team and for our pitchers.”

Although Báez’s injury certainly played a factor, the Cubs called up Hoerner because Addison Russell took a pitch off the face on Sept. 8, going into concussion protocol as a result.

With no true shortstops on their roster, Hoerner was the Cubs’ best bet to man the position in the meantime. But while Báez is limited to pinch-hitting and running right now, Russell has been cleared to play.

Even with Russell – a former All-Star shortstop – back in the fold, though, Maddon is having a hard time going away from Hoerner as his everyday shortstop.

“With Addy, we did not know when Addy would be available, and he is right now,” Maddon said. “Addy is available, but I just really can’t walk away from what Nico is doing.”

Báez is attempting to return to the Cubs starting lineup during their upcoming series against the Pirates. This would move Hoerner off of shortstop, though he and the Cubs are confident in his ability to play other positions.

Of the 75 games he played in Double-A this season Hoerner made 17 appearances at second base and 11 in center field.

“I can help in a wide range of ways,” he said. “The need right now has been at shortstop, but when it comes to the future, who knows what will happen. [I’m] down to go anywhere on the field.”

“It could be second, it could be to give somebody a day off in another position,” Maddon said. “He’s adept at a lot of different spots, and that was the original conversation I had when he got here with the front office guys. They said, ‘Listen, he can play everywhere.’”

2020 is still far away, and the Cubs are still in contention for a postseason spot this season. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, especially considering how (in a small sample size) Hoerner is proving he could be a fixture on the Cubs for years to come.

No matter what, though, Hoerner’s career is looking like a bright one.

“His bat to ball skills are so good and he’s always had that,” Maddon said. “I don’t see that as dissipating, I don’t. And the way he processes the day, that shouldn’t be altered either. With good health, he should be fine.”

“I know I can help this team and I can do that in a wide range of ways,” Hoerner said. [I’m going to] continue to develop and give myself the best chance I can.”

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