The Chicago Cubs … Defensively Speaking

In order to compete in the NL Central, the Cubs will have to improve on their poor fundamentals and atrocious defense from last season.

The 2010 Chicago Cubs had arguably the worst defense in the Major Leagues. The Cubs tied with the Atlanta Braves for the third most errors in the league (126) … only one more error than the Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cubs led the majors last season in the one category that no team wants to lead the league in, unearned runs. The Cubs allowed 99 unearned runs last year, by far the worst in the majors. And to make matters worse, the Cubs were fourth from the bottom in opponent’s stolen base percentage. Teams stole a staggering 114 bases while the Cubs catching corps threw out only 31 runners attempting to swipe a bag.

How many times have we heard the phrase pitching and defense wins championships? Well that was the case for the San Francisco Giants. The Giants were fourth in the league in errors and had the best ERA in the big leagues. To further drive home the point about the importance of pitching and defense, the Giants scored only 12 more runs than the inconsistent Cubs offense did a year ago (the Giants ranked 16th in the league in runs scored, the Cubs were 17th).

The Chicago Cubs ranked 18th in UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating) with -0.5. Guess who was first? Yep, you guessed it right … the San Francisco Giants with 8.5.

The definition of UZR is the number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined. For additional details on UZR, click here.

The Cubs biggest culprits in terms of errors last year were Starlin Castro (27), Aramis Ramirez (16), Alfonso Soriano (7), Blake DeWitt (7), Jeff Baker (7), Tyler Colvin (6) and Randy Wells led the pitching staff with five credited miscues.

During the Cubs Convention, Mike Quade made a point to say that fundamentals would be stressed during Spring Training and throughout the season. I hope that does the trick and the players respond with a better brand of baseball … just doing “the little things”, like players setting their feet before making a throw could help cut down on the 56 throwing errors that the Cubs committed last year.

The two positions that need the most improvement this season … shortstop and third base. The left side of the Cubs infield accounted for 60 of the Cubs 126 errors. And to add to the poor defensive numbers on the left side, four other players accounted for 14 errors at third base … with Jeff Baker (7) leading the way.

Quade also stressed accountability, which would be great. But I’ll believe it when I see it. If Quade sits Aramis Ramirez for not hustling on the bases or a poor effort in the field, I would back him 100%. In my opinion, that is the message this team needs from their new manager.

I have to say there was one Cub that I was pleasantly surprised by last season. And while you may not agree with me, he did show improvement in the field.

Alfonso Soriano struggled mightily once again in the field at the beginning of the 2010 season. Soriano made his usual comedy of errors … botching routine fly balls, incredibly bad routes and playing singles into extra base hits. After Lou Piniella benched him for a couple of games and he eliminated that ridiculous hop, Soriano appeared to get better in the field … and reportedly he kept working on his defense throughout he season. While I would definitely agree with anyone that says Soriano is a poor defender, I am happy he got the message and showed improvement as the season progressed.

As for the left side of the infield, Starlin Castro has the range and the arm to be an excellent defender. I hope he can make big strides this year. For as inconsistent as Castro was last season, his defensive problems were not from a lack of effort.

Aramis Ramirez may show improvement from last season but Aramis has never been known for his glove. The Cubs need a better effort and a little more consistency from Ramirez in the field.

Now I’m not delusional. I don’t think the Cubs will lead the majors in defense. But if they could improve to, say, a middle of the pack defensive team, I would be pleasantly surprised and the results should be seen in the win column.

When I started putting together the best possible defensive lineup Mike Quade could run out, I had to stop because I realized that Darwin Barney can play only one position at a time. With that said and with Barney penciled in at second base, here it goes: Carlos Pena (1B), Darwin Barney (2B), Starlin Castro (SS), Blake DeWitt (3B), Kosuke Fukudome (RF), Marlon Byrd (CF), Fernando Perez (LF) and Koyie Hill (C). For those questioning the decision to put DeWitt in at third, check out his page on Baseball-Reference. As for Tyler Colvin, defensively he is the fourth best outfielder right now on the Cubs’ roster.

Is a player’s defense and the fundamentals of the game too often overlooked? What are your thoughts?

Chicago Cubs 2010 Defensive Stats from FanGraphs
Major League Baseball Fielding Stats – Sortable Team Stats for 2010

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  • Gary J

    Nicely done Patrick. I’m with you – we’ve got the pitching, but the fundamental lapses in defense have to stop. The unforced errors were infuriating. A routine grounder in the hole with plenty of time to catch a guy… getting rushed and either short hopping or sailing to the first row (groan).

    One thing positive though is that Castro is young and atheletic enough that it’s bound to improve. And a lot of the miscues were mental – so experience will help that.

    And practice. Solid productive practice. And the practice part sounds like something Quade won’t let become an after thought. He sounds like he’s planning on making these guys work on their game each day instead of just going through the motions. We’ll see.

    • Patrick_Schaefer

      Thanks Gary, it was very frustrating last year, I’m not holding my breath but hopefully we see great improvement.

  • Tony

    I know Castro made a lot of errors, but I also watched him make alot of plays that his predecessor would never of even gotten to, on his best days. The problem with young SS, is they make the highlight reel play, then follow it up, by botching the routine. That is fine in my opinion, because the routine plays are basic fundamentals, that can be fixed (ie. setting ones feet before throwing). Castro is the least of our worries on defense…

    Soriano, did look like he was trying, but unless he can hit 30+ HRs (which I highly doubt he will ever see again), then his offense is not enough to make up for his bad defense. He is a DH in the NL, which means he plays LF or 1B, and I don’t want to see him at 1B (as Paul once said, we would never get an out, since he would hop to catch the ball…that one still makes me laugh).

    ARam – This one is all effort! We know that when he first came over from the Pirates, that his defense was an issue. But we watched as he put in the effort and became a good defender, and was even being talked about (mostly Chicago), that he was in the conversation for a Gold Glove. Now it looks like he is using the actual Gold Glove to field, to go along with Gold Shoes, with as slow as hit feet have looked. If ARam wants to play, we know he can be a force in the lineup, and can give us, above average defense. I wonder if he is gun shy, for the all out effort, since that is how he hurt his shoulder.

    Catchers – Soto is not a defensive catcher, and Hill (for all of the hype of being a defensive catcher) is really not one either. We need to improve this aspect of the team.

    The defense has to improve for this team to get competitive. For that to happen, they need to make decisions on a few of our vets futures with the team.

    • paulcatanese

      Tony,good assesment,I could not argue on one point you made.I would say this tho, they MUST make the routine plays.I would hope practice will make perfect,but it is hard to transfer that practice to game situations.As you say Castro really has the best chance to make that happen because of age. Aram,I just dont know,your analogy to the gold glove is perfect. On the down side for Aram it looks as though he is not even handling the routine and appears not to really attempt the highlight plays. I regress,you already said that. By the way saw the papers this AM, how rough is that weather,I do not envy anyone there,what a mess. All of you that live in Chicago,stay safe.

    • Patrick_Schaefer

      I Like Castro a lot but you can’t just throw out 27 errors, and Theriot wasn’t bad defensively at shortstop, he just has a noodle for an arm. I know Castro can make plays that others can’t but when he makes a great diving stop and then air mails the throw into the stands it doesn’t help the team it makes it worse. I was just pointing out the facts. The Cubs played horrible defense and he committed the most errors. I think Castro will improve defensively, He has the tools to be an awesome defender as I pointed out. But as I was saying to compete we need better defense from everyone and especially Castro, since he is at one of the biggest defensive positions in the game and a .950 fielding percentage just isn’t going to cut it. Everyone from A Ram to Baker to Castro to Pena, all need to be held accountable. All I was saying about Soriano is that he made most of the routine flyballs last year, which sadly is a vast improvement.

      • studio179

        I Agree. You can’t just throw out 27 errors and think half or more will disappear just because Castro is young and upcoming. It takes work. I like to remain optimistic. Every manager that comes in here claims fundamentals will be stressed and a major part of the team effort. Well, I believe Quade will do a good job, but I am on a ‘wait and see’ this time. I hope fundamentals are stressed and players are held accountable…veterans, too.

  • jw

    Loved this post…

    Soriano is worse than the numbers indicate because the numbers do not include the many balls he should get to but doesn’t try for because one he doesn’t have the instincts two he is frightened of the wall and injury or three doesn’t want to have more errors. That being said you can overcome that in left field if you can hit 35 HR’s and get 90 plus RBI’s. (I don’t think so) Can be managed with late inning substitution.

    Conversely Castro’s numbers are not as bad because he gets to more chances.

    Third base is the most worrisome because the Cubs don’t have a defensive player there that can come in when the games are on the line. Shakey defense is one more thing for the pitcher to worry about. Loved the comment about waiting to see if Quade will bench Ramirez for lack of hustle

  • Oliver Dehart

    New G.M next year
    3rd place at best this year. Quade can not perform miracles.

    • jw

      I thought it was intresting that Levine in his recent chat made a point of saying that if things don’t work out this year it could be Hendry’s last year and 30 new baseball people would be coming in. I don’t think Bruce (unlike Phil Rogers) pulled that out of thin air…he must be hearing something imo.

  • The Maven

    Once again, a very thoughtful piece. However, I have to disagree with you on your outfield assessment. As JW pointed out, numbers don’t always tell the whole story in outfield play.

    One of the “hidden” numbers is how many runs score due to an outfielder’s inability to throw runners out. There isn’t an adequate statistic that shows not only an outfielder’s assist rate, but also, how much their throwing is a deterrent to opposing runners. It’s hard to calculate, because you can look at the number of runners an outfielder throws out at the plate, but that wouldn’t take into account the runners getting into scoring position and later scoring.

    With the statistics available, Alfonson Soriano is the best outfielder the Cubs have at throwing out runners, followed by Tyler Colvin and Koske Fukudome. Marlon Byrd? He has less than half of the assists of Soriano, and his assist percentage is nearly half of Colvin’s.

    The eyeball test is also something used on outfielders. Soriano is considered a bad outfieleder statistically, but he also looks awkward in the field, and may not pursue as many fly balls as he could. However the looks are deceiving with Byrd. While there is no arguing his determination and hustle, as fans, we see the back of Byrd’s jersey far to often on defense. This means that frequently, Byrd is out of position to deter runners.

    As for Fernando Perez, Cubs fans have seen this before. His major and minor league numbers show he has great range, but doesn’t throw people out. Cubs fans can remember Joey Gathright and Juan Pierre, and know the liberties taken on their inability to throw runners out. Perez would be a similar type of outfielder. If you take into account minor league numbers, Brad Snyder is a better defensive outfielder than Perez.

    • paulcatanese

      I agree with your assesement of te outfield. I have always said that Fukudome is the best defensive outfielder the Cubs have. He looks very at ease in RF,takes good routes and is always in position to throw the ball.One reason the stats may not back him up in throwing runners out is they dont attempt the extra base on him,respecting his arm. Totally agree on Clvin and his route to the ball,needs to improve their. I also have said that Byrd is not the outfielder that people think he is and you are right, the hustle cannot be denied but the results can.

    • BillyFinT

      So you and Paul inspired me to take a look at FanGraphs’ WAR graph, I’m comparing Fuk to Swisher and Choo.:

      In another word, I’m wondering how much value is old Kohsuke compared to the rest*? That chart is just an example, a limited sample of successful right fielder I can think of right now. Well, we can consider this, with a little further research of his numbers, which reveal two things.

      *WAR = Win Above Replacement. Take it with a grain of salt if you want; it actually considers defense for outfielders, contributing about 14% of the value:

      1. On an past average of his overall productivity, Fukudome hasn’t aged that much. I don’t know if it’s because of his limited action later in the season that held back his wear and tear, but he sure is still OK.

      2. Fukudome has lost some of his range, which is what UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating is mainly about, and UZR is what Fangraphs used for their WAR calculation.

      Fukudome was -6.4, yup, a negative six point four in UZR–made fair for all players by re-showing the numbers for 150 games (UZR/150). That -6.4 ranks Kohsuke 14th out of 19 fielders who had 800+ innings at right in 2010.

      That is horrible, compared to himself, considering the fact that Fukudome only started 87 games at right field and served the Cubs 816 and two-third of innings. His UZR was 0.4 and 5.3 in ’09 and ’08, respectively, and Kohsuke started 129 and 126 games at right with more than 1,160 innings each year back then.

      Assuming that UZR is more accurate in summarizing a player’s range (maybe not so much about his ability to strangle runners, as Maven puts well), then I’m afraid his age is finally catching up with him. If Kohsuke determines to stay in the Big, he will possibly need to consider moving to first or DH, where his lack of power might not suit.

      But who knows? Perhaps he will find his power back, like when he was younger and before his wrist injury, then right afterwards the Cubs handed a hefty 4 years contract.

      • paulcatanese

        I dont know what you said but it looks good and I will bow to it.But I still like Fuko’s defense over the rest of the present Cub outfielders. The others I will take your word for it. And Fuko does cut his hair,that gives an extra half step out there.

        • BillyFinT

          Hi, Paul, I guess I must agree. Kohsuke looks very sound fundamentally. But I’m also starting to doubt if he’s aging and losing his range.

          The defensive summary in stat, or UZR, is really not complicate if we leave the math out. I guess you can look at Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) as a summary of a player’s overall range.

          Here’s a Washington Post article that explains how UZR is calculated; it considers the whole baseball field with different “zones,” where the fielder was, and how the fielder reaches the ball, as compared to his peers in the same zones*:

          *This article on Yahoo might be an easier read. You can just skip to the middle of the page and read what UZR is good for and what’s not:

          That’s how the word “zone” came into the system, and this defensive system is part of a player valuation system called WAR. I believe Aaron and ripsnorter used both the UZR and the WAR before (sparingly), that’s why I thought it’s nice to bring them up, and think again how we look at the defensive side of a player.

          • paulcatanese

            Thanks,I read both articles,they are good and make sense if a person is in to all of that. I would hate to be a player though and base my success on what a computer and charts say. There has to be an intangable here somwhere, health,conditioning,weather. But it is very interesting and a completely different way to look at a game and the way things are progressing in the stat world it will only become more of the Bible of sports.I guess I just like to go and watch a game an make up my own mind whether or not a player took the right route,his hustle,etc. All the stats(in my mind) take a lot of the game away for me. I like to be able to curse and be upset on what I feel went wrong at the moment. But it was good.

    • Gary J

      Part of the reason Soriano looks awkward in the OF is that he’d never really been an OF until 2006 with Washington. Up to then he’s always played the infield and it’s a different skill set. On the infield you don’t generally need to worry about routes to the ball – it’s more reaction. Plus in the OF there’s getting a jump on the ball depending on how the batter swings and the angle of the bat and pitch location and trajectory and etc etc etc… those “instincts” for outfielders are developed through years of observation starting in little league and carrying over.

      That said though – he seriously should be better at it by now LOL

      • Tony

        He was a bad 2B, now he is a bad OF. He never took the defensive part of the game seriously, until it is now to late, to ever get even average at it.

    • Patrick_Schaefer

      Soriano and Colvin both have strong arms, but that isn’t the only thing they have in common they both don’t read the ball of the bat well and take bad routes to the ball, and outs that Byrd or Fukudome would get by taking better routes to the ball fall in for base hits, that’s my eyeball test I saw it many times last year. I like Colvin and I think he has a chance to be a good offensive outfielder, he may get better on defense,and I hope he does but right now he isn’t a very good fielder. Outfield assists only show a fielders arm strength and accuracy, which are important, but catching the ball while still in the air is more important. Range is important too that is why I put Perez on the list. I’m not saying I would play Perez or Fukudome over Colvin, because we need Colvin’s bat, I was only saying that this lineup would be the best Defensive lineup.

      • The Maven

        In order to get outfield assists, you not only have to have arm strength and accuracy, you need to have the ability to have you body in position to throw. Both Colvin and Fukudome have this ability, as do minor leaguers Brad Snyder and Brett Jackson. Your body isn’t in good position to throw when you’re on your stomach or your back is to home plate. You’ll see a lot of that from Marlon Byrd. I feel that this, and not his arm strength, is the reason his assist total is so low.

        As far as Perez is concerned, he may have good range, but the Cubs’ only hope to stop the running game while he is in the field is to hope opposing coaches tear a rotator cuff while waving their runners around.

  • paulcatanese

    Patrick,very well done,makes it interesting with another slant on the Cubs.Opens up all new posts on something that has bugged everyone. Did not know there were that many total errors at third base.Good article.

    • Patrick_Schaefer

      Thank You!

  • Aaron

    Well Done Jimbo….let’s sign an oft-injured veteran like Reed Johnson, instead of a 25 year old that’s been healthy his whole career pretty much, and hits lefties to the tune of .320 in his career:

    But, hey, things are changing, right? The Cubs are putting much more emphasis on going young, and growing their own talent, right? LOL….what a joke!

    • Gary J

      …and who has been a head case (or at least a grandstanding ego maniac) his whole career and for all his raw talent has worn out his welcome on three separate clubs before turning 25. Got released by the Pirates for $1M salary in 2011 because they couldn’t find a trade partner even at that price. Oh and 8 total homers in 623 ABs the last two years.

      Heck he even instigated a brawl in winter ball.

      I’m not saying Reed Johnson is any prize… he’s not and I honestly don’t expect him to make the squad anyway. I’m just saying that Milledge isn’t either.

      • Aaron

        Yeah, I know….such a big issue, right, being dealt so many times…Wait….wasn’t Soriano dealt to 3 different teams within the span of 2 years, and the Cubs were his 4th team? LOL….How about Milton Bradley? That didn’t sway Jimbo there. How about Garza? Twins didn’t want him, then Rays got rid of him. Wasn’t he supposed to be a promising 27 year old? How about Carlos Pena. He had 3 teams in 3 years with the Tigers, Red Sox, and Rays…actually 4, because the Yankees had him in the minors. He was still young at the time (27).

        Oh, and the brawl….man, that’s a horrible thing, isn’t it? You know what….I bet that’s why Derrek Lee stayed on the market so long this year before signing with the O’s…It was because he charged the mound against Chris Young the other year…that had to have been it.

        LOL…c’mon man….Milledge is NOT a bad guy. A bad guy is Bradley, who doesn’t give great effort, is a horrible teammate, acts like he doesn’t even enjoy the game, and gets in trouble both with umpires AND off-field incidents.

        Milledge enjoys the game, seems to constantly be smiling, and the incident in winter ball, he was doing basically the same thing Cubs players do when they reach second base, or do something good, where they’re pointing to the dugout. He was just giving love to his team, and the opponent took offense.

        A number of years ago, I think he homered in his first MLB at bat or first game or something like that, and the Mets fans went absolutely crazy. They curtain-called him, then he high fived fans going back out to the field. It rubbed some veteran teammates the wrong way, though the other team didn’t make a big deal out of it if I recall. Dude just loves having fun. Does he go overboard? Nope. Is he a showboat? I don’t think so. It’s not like he’s doing stuff like that all the time. If you call him a showboat, then Soriano, ARAM, Zambrano, and Marmol must be absolutely outrageous with their displays on the field.

        Milledge is a good guy, he’s just 25 years old (turns 26 in April), and he still has a lot of potential. Ironically, everyone is so hyped about Colvin, but he was 24 years old (turned 25 in September). That was Colvin’s 1st season. Milledge already has 5 friggin’ seasons on him, and he’s the same age.

        This is why I hate signings/trades for the likes of Reed Johnson, Fernando Perez, etc., instead of the likes of Milledge, Franceour, Cabrera, etc. ,because we’re missing out on a lot of good young talent, where if they didn’t pan out, they’d actually cost less than veterans almost 100% of the time (Milledge signed for $500k if he makes the team….do you realize how good of a deal that really is?!??)

        Whatever….let’s keep doing what we’re doing right? Because it’s not broke or anything…this whole turning to veterans for every hole on the team has really worked wonders for us, hasn’t it?

        • Ripsnorter1

          Lastings Milledge nothing. I heard Jim Clueless is looking into resigning Adrian Garrett. Power OF bat that can also play C, too. Here’s his stats:

          Truthfully, Milledge would be better than Reed Johnson. Last year I wanted the Cubs to sign Johnny Gomes, but they let him go back to the Reds and hit 18 HR and drive in 86 runs for them. We could have had him for real cheap. But Jim Clueless didn’t want him.

          • paulcatanese

            Rip,DANG it, you got me again,I looked it up. I’m not going to trust you anymore.Garrett,good one.

          • Patrick_Schaefer

            He got me to I checked to see who Garret was too.

  • Scott Pringle

    Colvin is by far better at the plate then Kosuke is and I would keep him in right to go along with his bat.

    • Patrick_Schaefer

      I agree Colvin should play over Kosuke for his bat and his upside, and I hope and feel he will get better defensively.

    • paulcatanese

      Scott,what should happen but will not is Colvin in left and Fuko in right at least until Jackson gets to the Cubs,then all bets are off.

      • The Maven

        Statistically, left field was Colvin’s best position last season.

        • Tony

          Colvin is best suited for LF. I had this discussion awhile back, how Colvin will be in LF, B Jackson in RF, with Szczur in CF, with the JH’s 2014 OF talk to Szczur.

  • Dominic Perry

    Pitching and defense does win championships, and when you consider all the errors from the left side of the infield, it only adds in the loss column. Teams like St. Louis then thinks, all they have to do is put the ball down on the left side then laugh about it. I’m tired of the Cubs being the joke of the league. It would be nice to root for a Cub team that actually knows how to play defense. I look at the Phillies when they won the World Series a couple of years ago, and wow, they knew how to play defense.
    D man

  • Wgnewyork

    Your best possible defensive lineup further illustrates how Hendry has built the Cubs like a fantasy rotisserie league team. Until Hendry is gone, success on the field will be a fluke. How many times do we have to witness a team like Minnesota, with a limited payroll illustrate the blueprint for developing talent and not follow suit?

  • jeff gray

    aramis ramirez is terrible in the field & at the plate seems like he always hits better with out men on base. so does m bird they are not clean up hits