Why you should care
Because baseball defense can be as exciting to watch as an offensive barrage.
Tears were already streaming down the cheeks of Chicago Cubs fans when a high chopper bounced toward Cubs shortstop Addison Russell in the top of the ninth inning on Saturday night. A runner barreled toward second baseman Javier Baez, who quickly pivoted around the bag and fired the ball to Anthony Rizzo at first. Even Russell wasn’t expecting his teammate to turn this difficult double play. As the ball rocketed out of Baez’s hand, thousands of Cubs fans who had gathered on the corner of Waveland and Sheridan just over Wrigley Field’s center field scoreboard held their breath … and then erupted in a roar. The long wait was finally over.
The Chicago Cubs didn’t make their first trip to the World Series since 1945 on the back of a single superstar. Their core isn’t stellar pitching, although the Cubs lead Major League Baseball in earned run average. Nor is it a bullpen that has become baseball’s most fearsome since the acquisition of flamethrower Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees. And success isn’t the result of a potent, well-rounded offense.
Instead, the backbone of the Cubbies is the most frequently overlooked baseball skill, the one that has undergone a league-wide renaissance because of the new National League champs: defense. They arguably have the best one in history. What’s more, their dexterity may mark a philosophical shift in how MLB teams are constructed in the future. “Their elite defensive skill is not because they can put nine Gold Glove guys out there,” says Rian Watt, a writer for Baseball Prospectus and editor-in-chief of BP Wrigleyville. “It’s because they have 13 guys who can adjust into a nearly infinite amount of permutations.”
The Cubs have a lot of players who are great athletes but also have a great defensive baseball IQ.
Jon Morosi, baseball analyst
As the game changes, defense is the biggest thing on the block, and notwithstanding this year’s home-run surge, offense has declined over the past six years. So far this decade, the league-wide batting average is roughly 10 points lower than the average in the previous decade. With runs becoming more valuable, teams are more invested than ever in defenders who can save one run every two or three weeks. Another indicator of the evolving mentality: It’s not even called defense anymore. Instead, the buzzword is “run prevention.” This concept incorporates the fundamentals — fielding ground balls, throwing out runners, chasing down liners — and intensive scouting so a manager can shade an outfielder this way or that for a particular hitter or shift the infield into different configurations, while ensuring the pitcher is accurate enough to pitch into the shift instead of away from it. It’s multidimensional defense.
So, how did the Cubs’ defense get so good? Their roster, which includes exactly one Gold Glove winner (right fielder Jason Heyward), doesn’t tell the whole story. Instead, Cubs general manager Theo Epstein has taken a holistic approach, focusing on youth, athleticism and, most importantly, versatility. Those qualities allow manager Joe Maddon to pinball players all over the field in myriad combinations of defensive lineups that don’t sacrifice hitting. It’s a Moneyball approach to identifying and attacking market inefficiencies: As the rest of baseball was drafting pitchers and paying big money for free-agent power hitters, Epstein loaded up on young, slugging position players, many of whom were between good and great on defense, and turned to the free-agent and trade markets for pitching.
Other teams are also breaking the big-bat-no-defense mold that ruled baseball back when Barry Bonds and other sluggers were hitting 60 or 70 bombs a season. Last year the Kansas City Royals won the World Series by getting on base — they finished 24th in baseball in home runs but fifth in steals — and playing lockdown defense. The exciting young Houston Astros also are in the Cubs’ mold: Outfielder George Springer and second baseman José Altuve are among the best defensively at their positions, and shortstop Carlos Correa has soft hands, quick feet and a cannon arm.
The Cubs’ versatility can be correlated to the team’s youth: The average age of the seven regular playoff starters is a mere 26.8 years old. The average age of the entire roster of position players is the fifth youngest in baseball, while the average age of their pitchers is second oldest. Kris Bryant plays third base, left field or right field. Addison Russell can play both middle infield positions; Willson Contreras can catch or play left field. One national baseball analyst, Jon Morosi of MLB Network and Fox Sports, tells OZY that some day young defensive wizard Javier Baez could win a Gold Glove at either middle infield position — or even center field. “The Cubs have a lot of players who are great athletes but also have a great defensive baseball IQ,” Morosi says. Players need “the coordination and mental acuity to read spin differently depending which side of the field they’re playing on. Some of that you can teach and nurture; some of it you can’t.”
There are newer and more exciting ways to quantify this resurgent emphasis on defense, like route efficiency, which measures how direct a route a fielder takes to a batted ball, but the Cubs have one statistic that’s opening eyes around the league: 6.36. That’s the team’s PADE (park-adjusted defensive efficiency), which indicates how much better (or worse) a team is at turning a ball in play into an out than the average team. The Cubs were 6.36 percent better than average this year. That’s not just the best in the league; it’s the best, by a significant margin, since 1950, which is as far back as the number geeks have crunched the data.
Will other teams follow the Cubs’ lead and load up on young, athletic, versatile defenders? The success of the Cubs, the Royals and the Astros certainly indicates changing priorities. But Watt, the Baseball Prospectus writer, says copycatting can go too far. “The message of the Cubs should be that they were doing what worked best for them when they started to rebuild in 2012,” Watt says. “The message for other teams should be, don’t copy the Cubs; find your strategy for what you do best.”