Cubs’ defense remains a priority with rotation pitching to contact

The growth the Cubs made defensively last season has given their pitchers confidence that if the ball is hit, there’s a good chance it will be caught.

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John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Cubs’ rotation this season is going to be geared toward pitchability, not velocity.

The additions of Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies and Trevor Williams to go with Kyle Hendricks, Alec Mills and Adbert Alzolay show the Cubs’ commitment to that strategy in 2021.

So with a rotation that lives in the strike zone and works to contact, having a defense that can make plays behind it can make a world of difference.

The growth the Cubs made defensively last season has given their pitchers confidence that if the ball is hit, there’s a good chance it will be caught.

‘‘It’s something that I’m gonna get spoiled by,’’ Williams, who was signed from the Pirates, said of his new defense. ‘‘I’m looking forward to being spoiled by that, and I’m just looking forward to seeing what everybody can bring to the field every day. But it’s something that is exciting baseball to watch.’’

When David Ross was hired as the Cubs’ manager after the 2019 season, he wanted to emphasize a dedication to defense. And after a poor defensive season as a team in 2019, the Cubs took a major step forward.

They ranked sixth in the majors with 23 defensive runs saved in 2020 and committed only 30 errors, the second-lowest total in the National League. The Cubs had seven Gold Glove finalists in 2020, with shortstop Javy Baez and first baseman Anthony Rizzo winning the award. The Cubs also took home the team Gold Glove.

The defensive improvement didn’t come from Ross’ emphasis alone, of course. The players made a commitment to improve individually and as a group.

‘‘Play the game on both sides of the ball,’’ right fielder Jason Heyward said. ‘‘Get comfortable with each other, whether it’s outfield or infield. Just work hard every day on being the best we can on that and realizing how much of a lift that we can gain from just playing good defense.

‘‘We don’t love to look at numbers as players; we love to look at the wins and losses. But some guys felt like they didn’t have a [good] year offensively [in 2020], and that showed when it came to statistics. But we still did win our division — and a tough one, at that. I think playing defense and doing a lot of little things, getting a lot of things done on a daily basis with intent, got us where we can be as far as the division. But, of course, you want to take it further than that.’’

Cubs starters have talked this spring about their desire to help their defense by working quickly and limiting baserunners.

‘‘When you walk a guy and get the ball walking back to the mound, it’s not fun seeing your fielders just standing, not really giving them a chance to move around,’’ Mills said. ‘‘The longer they’re standing out there, the less chance they have to play.

‘‘I’m a guy that’s gonna make hitters put the ball in play. I’m not gonna generate a whole lot of strikeouts. So the more I keep [the fielders] moving and keep them engaged is better for me.

‘‘What they do out there is special. We won the Gold Glove award as a team, so I think that was an award that was definitely well-deserved. Around the infield, around the outfield, it’s just a lot of fun to watch.’’

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