Cubs' defense ranks among best in decades

Cubs' defense ranks among best in decades

LOS ANGELES -- The Cubs' march toward 103 regular-season wins and into this National League Championship Series against the Dodgers has been the product of a remarkably well-built and balanced roster. That seems best evidenced by the team's plus-282 run differential, a figure topped only once (1907) in franchise history.

The franchise surpassed 800 runs scored for only the fourth time since 1938. Its pitching staff was baseball's best. And then there's the defense, which, by some measurements, was the best this game has seen in years.

NLCS Game 3: Tonight at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m. CT on FS1

Digging into Statcast™ data and more advanced defensive statistics paint a more complete picture of just how superb the Cubs' fielding has been -- and perhaps what it may need to be through the rest of this postseason run should Chicago continue to get limited production from several core position players.

Game Date Matchup Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 15 CHC 8, LAD 4 video
Gm 2 Oct. 16 LAD 1, CHC 0 video
Gm 3 Oct. 18 LAD 6, CHC 0 video
Gm 4 Oct. 19 CHC 10, LAD 2 video
Gm 5 Oct. 20 CHC 8, LAD 4 video
Gm 6 Oct. 22 CHC 5, LAD 0 video

In its most simplistic definition, the task of a defense is to convert balls in play into outs. The Defensive Efficiency Ratio calculates how frequently that's done, and the Cubs topped the Majors with a figure of .745. That was more than three percentage points better than second-ranked Toronto, and it represented the best DER value since the 1982 Padres.

Calculating the DER while also accounting for the park-adjustment factor puts the Cubs all alone. Under those parameters, there hasn't been a defensive unit as good as this 2016 Cubs team since at least 1950.

"I think that our youth has helped some of that," veteran starter John Lackey surmised. "We have got probably more range than most teams because of the youth, and the guys that have a little more energy, can go side to side, that sort of thing. ... And obviously, the talent level."

It all played into how the Cubs finished with a Major League-most 82 Defensive Runs Saved in 2016. And really, the competition wasn't even close. The next highest DRS total belonged to the Astros, who finished with 51.

Chicago also boasted the NL's DRS leader at four individual positions -- first base (Anthony Rizzo, 11), second base (Javier Baez, 11), shortstop (Addison Russell, 19) and right field (Jason Heyward, 14). That defensive core should be together for some time, too, as all are 27 years old or younger.

"That's, I think, kind of a scary part for the rest of our league," starter Jon Lester said. "For the next however many years, before these guys get to free agency and all this other stuff, we have got a really young team that is just continuing to get better at the plate and defensively. [It] just seemed like every start they got better."

Statcast: Baez's sizzling throw

It's no coincidence that the Cubs featured both baseball's best defense and its stingiest pitching staff (3.15 ERA). The cause-and-effect related to that goes both ways, as the defense and pitching combined to be an elite run prevention unit.

Of course, a defense that can get to more balls and make more plays will reduce the stress on its pitchers. But the Cubs' pitching staff, according to Statcast™ data, also put its defense in great position to succeed by allowing the fewest amount of "barrels" in baseball.

A barrel is defined as a well-struck ball where the combination of exit velocity and launch angle leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage. The Cubs' league-low total number of barrels resulted in their defense being asked to catch fewer of those high-value balls than any other.

And though it may seem counter-intuitive, the Cubs have actually put together an elite defensive unit while employing the fewest number of full shifts. That ranking, though, is in part incomplete, as it does not account for the more minor positional adjustments that the Cubs make with regularity.

Statcast: Almora Jr.'s defense

"We still move a lot," manager Joe Maddon noted. "We just maybe don't move to the other side of the bag where it gets notated. I also believe that the range of our kids, our guys out there, athleticism on defense and the pitchers, it really -- they have to work in concert where the pitcher elicits weaker contact, which makes your defense bigger. If your pitching staff doesn't elicit weak contact, your defense becomes smaller. I think that all is a part of the equation."

But while the Cubs may not be shifting as drastically as other teams, they have made a key adjustment when it comes to outfield positioning. This spring, it was brought to Maddon's attention by "our guys, our nerds" (to use his words) that center fielder Dexter Fowler could benefit from starting a few steps further back in the outfield. Fowler agreed.

According to Statcast™, Fowler increased his average distance from home plate by 17 feet (from 304 to 321), and that adjustment has had a noticeable impact. After registering a -12 DRS with the Cubs in 2015, Fowler turned that into a positive figure in his second year with the team.

"They said I was a bad outfielder, and I kind of took offense to that," said Fowler, referring to outside opinion. "Moving back to where everybody else is playing [the position], it took some getting used to. But I think I'm doing all right."

Jenifer Langosch has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2007. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.