The Giants have Johnny Cueto, Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija lined up to try to stop the Cubs in the National League Division Series.
The Cubs have Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jake Arrieta – and Javy Baez, Addison Russell, Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo.
As much as starting pitching has set the tone for the Cubs’ 103-win success this season, a group of fielders that rival the best in franchise history might be just as big a factor in the best team and rotation ERAs in the majors – and just as big a factor in whether October goes as planned for the World Series favorites.
“We all compete with each other, and it’s making us all better,” said shortstop Russell, who ranks second only to the Giants’ Brandon Crawford at his position in several key defensive metrics. “We take pride in our defense for sure.”
In fact, the front office said improving the fielding was a priority heading into the winter last year, especially in the outfield, and that’s a big reason the Cubs considered Gold Glove right fielder Heyward valuable enough to engage in a nine-figure bidding war for him.
Fangraphs.com rates the Cubs’ defense tops in the majors by a wide margin, with 82 defensive runs saved. And the Cubs have three bona fide Gold Glove candidates in Russell, Heyward and first baseman Rizzo.
The best infielder on the team, Baez, doesn’t even have a starting spot – used as a fielding weapon at third and second, depending on where manager Joe Maddon thinks most balls will be hit in a game. Pitcher Jake Arrieta calls Baez the best athlete on the team.
Which isn’t a knock on either third baseman Kris Bryant or second baseman Ben Zobrist, both of whom say Baez is better at their positions. In fact, according to Fangraphs, Baez leads all National League second baseman with 11 defensive runs saved despite just 38 games started there. He has four more at short (21 starts) and one more at third (37).
“He’s certainly Gold Glove worthy, but he plays all over,” said Bryant, who has improved noticeably at his position in his own right – and also is a better-than-average corner outfielder. “There should be a utility man Gold Glove because he definitely deserves it.”
The transformation of the Cubs in the field from Opening Day in 2015 to now might be the biggest difference in this team over the past 18 months. Baez, Bryant and Russell all opened last season in the minors. Not only was Heyward added, but center fielder Dexter Fowler improved that position by playing deeper this year.
“A big part of our success is the simplicity with which we do things out there,” Maddon said. “If everybody likes us in the metrics or whatever, that’s great. I just think from an old-school perspective, I really like the way we mechanically are moving; the feet have gotten better; the arm strokes have gotten shorter; Addison’s arm’s gotten stronger. I’m seeing all these different things this year.”
And more could be on the way.
By next April Heyward might not even be the best outfielder on the team, if rookie center fielder Albert Almora Jr. earns the job after an impressive debut summer. And catcher Willson Contreras has elite physical skills behind the plate as he eyes potential playoff starts as a rookie and a possible starting job next spring.