In 2016, the Cubs had an all-time defense. As they made the run to the World Series title that season, they led all of baseball with 107 defensive runs saved (DRS). The next highest team, the Astros, saved 77 runs that year.
Three years later, when the Cubs failed to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, the DRS output had dropped down to 29, which ranked 11th in baseball. And last season, the Cubs recorded just four DRS as a team, which was down to 21st in baseball. Clearly, there’s a correlation between that defensive statistic and the team’s success.
“I think so much of what we think of as good pitching is run prevention,” Cubs team president Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention earlier this month. “All that matters is runs allowed.”
Reliable defense, and the run prevention that goes with it, is becoming increasingly important. The good news is that Hoyer and his front office have prioritized that part of the game this offseason.
Through free agency, they added four Gold Glove Award winners (Eric Hosmer, Cody Bellinger, Tucker Barnhart and Dansby Swanson) to go with reigning Gold Glover Ian Happ, who won the award for his defense in left field last year. There are likely future Gold Glove winners on the roster too; Nico Hoerner accounted for 10 DRS on his own in 2022 and was a Gold Glove finalist at second base in 2020, and Seiya Suzuki won multiple Gold Gloves in Japan before joining the Cubs.
“It makes our run prevention and pitching numbers better,” Hoyer said of the bevy of defensive talent he’s added this winter. “That’s been a focus of the offseason, for sure.”
Again, quality defense is becoming more and more of a priority for teams, so on paper at least, the Cubs are effectively working to get back to the head of the pack. And a focus on defense becomes even more important with new rule changes set to go into effect at the start of the 2023 season — most notably, the end of the defensive shift.
It hasn’t been that long since the shift began; many active players can recall what it was like before left-handed hitters were tormented by the sight of shortstops standing right behind second base or a third baseman in shallow right field. But in a small number of years, the defensive shift altered the aesthetics of baseball so significantly that, as quickly as it came, the shift is gone.
This will impact the Cubs on both sides of the ball. At the plate, left-handed hitters who have struggled over the last half dozen years might start finding a few more hits. That includes players like Bellinger and Hosmer, for instance. Both players have been top-tier hitters in the past, and restricting the shift could theoretically help them rediscover at least some of that.
“I think a lot of lefties are really looking forward to that,” Hosmer said at Cubs Convention. “It just kind of seems like there are going to be more hits out there for guys. There’s no worse feeling than hitting the ball hard up the middle and seeing a shortstop standing right there.
“If there’s anything that promotes offense, this is definitely it, and I’m all about promoting offense.”
The Cubs scored 657 runs in 2022, which put them in the bottom third of the league. That’s over 100 fewer than they scored in 2016. Coupling more run scoring with improved defense is an easy recipe for more winning.
One of the players most impacted on defense by this change is Hoerner. He will move to second base with Swanson taking over at short, and not being able to shift on defense will place greater demand on Hoerner.
“The game is emphasizing athleticism as much as we’ve had for a long time,” he said, “and getting to play second base without three people on that side of the field, it’s going to make for some harder plays, and there’s going to be a lot of value at that position.”
Hoerner and Swanson combined for 19 DRS in 2022, so they should give the Cubs an elite up-the-middle defensive duo. Hosmer can help provide a defensive upgrade at first base. The need for athleticism is something that is top of mind for everyone in baseball going into the season, and that came up regularly during Cubs Convention, both from players and the front office.
“You have to have real athleticism, and I think we have that in the middle,” Hoyer said. “We’ll turn a lot of double plays, we’ll make a lot of plays, and certainly I think there will be teams out there that are disadvantaged with that.”
Losing the shift will also yield a product on the field that is more appealing to watch. The shift changed the way a lot of hitters approached their at-bats and changed the results many hitters got, whether they adjusted their approach or not. The players recognize that a game centered on the three true outcomes (home runs, strikeouts and walk) is boring to watch. Even for them.
“What I’m most excited for, as a baseball guy, it just brings athleticism back into the game,” Bellinger said. “I think it’s good for the game.”
“I think it’s going to be an exciting brand of baseball,” Happ said. “There’s going to be hiccups, and it’s not going to be pretty for the first spring training games and maybe not for the first month of the season, but I think we’re going to look back and say, ‘This is a better baseball experience.’”
Better aesthetics will be nice, but the real test of the success of this offseason will be whether or not the Cubs win. They have a pitching staff that will put a lot of balls in play. They ranked in the top half of the league in ground ball rate last year, and now they should have the defense behind them to fully take advantage.
Defense held a prominent place in the formula that made the 2016 team so successful, and the current Cubs all know that.
“It’s something that those teams in ‘15, ‘16 and ‘17, they were built on that,” Happ said. “The guys banged, there were some weapons there, but playing great defense was so much fun with that group, and I think you’re going to see a lot of that this year.”
Nearly all of the guys who played on those teams are gone, but among the new faces, there are a few World Series rings to go around. Hosmer won with the Royals in 2015, Bellinger with the Dodgers in 2020 and Swanson with the Braves in 2021. They understand what it takes to win titles at this level, and they know that defense plays as big a part as anything else.
“You just know when you play those meaningful games, late in the season and in October, you can’t give away free outs and you can’t give away 90 feet,” Hosmer said. “And when you see the guys we have on the defensive side, it’s just not going to happen here.”