Cubs’ defense has been far cry from what it was last season
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A quarter of the baseball season will have passed in a few days, and the Cubs have an 18-19 record born of mediocrity in all phases.
The Cubs have scored 172 runs and allowed 170, so within a game or so of the .500 mark is right where they belong.
Defensive lapses have been part of that mediocrity, just as spectacular defense was part of the reason the Cubs won last season.
The 2017 Cubs have not been particularly good at turning balls in play into outs. The major-league average for opponents’ batting average on balls in play is .293; the Cubs are at .300.
The numbers look worse when errors are factored in to get defensive efficiency. The Cubs’ DefEff is .680, which means they’ve turned 68 percent of balls in play into outs. The major-league average is .693, with the Reds leading at .726.
Contrast that to 2016, when the Cubs’ .728 DefEff was 40 points better than the major-league average and 25 points better than the runner-up Blue Jays.
The Cubs committed 101 errors last season, six more than the major-league average, but that was more than offset by their range and other defensive factors. They’ve committed 30 errors in 37 games this season, a pace that would lead to 131 errors.
That feeds into the difference between oBABiP and DefEff. If 10 balls are put into play and the defense turns six into outs, makes one error allowing a runner to reach base and has three go for hits, the opponents have three hits in 10 at-bats and a .300 BABiP. The defense, however, has turned 10 balls in play into only six outs for a .600 DefEff.
When the Cubs led the majors with 107 defensive runs saved last season, they were above the zero point that defines the major-league average at every position. With only 12 runs saved this season, they’re in negative territory at third base (minus-2), left field (minus-4) and center field (minus-2).
Kyle Schwarber is at minus-5 in left, where Jon Jay is plus-1. Jay hasn’t been as efficient in center, where he is minus-3. Ben Zobrist, in limited play in right field, also is at minus-3.
The defensive bright spots have been Addison Russell, who is plus-8 to rank first in the majors at shortstop, and Jason Heyward, who is plus-7 to rank first in right and plus-1 in his occasional moves to center.
It’s early enough that close-to-zero numbers, such as Jay’s plus-1 in left and Kris Bryant’s minus-1 at third, barely are worth mentioning. And a great deal of the Cubs’ blah start can be blamed on an offense that hasn’t hit its stride (Bryant’s .949 is the only OPS above .735 among those with at least 100 plate appearances). Add in Jake Arrieta’s 5.44 ERA on a staff that has allowed 1.24 home runs per game after yielding 1.01 last season, and you have trouble.
But the defense frequently was a reason the Cubs got out of trouble last season. That hasn’t been the case this season.
Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.