The Cubs showed a dramatic improvement defensively this season.
We’ve talked about the offensive shortcomings of this year’s Chicago Cubs team too many times to count in the weeks following an abrupt postseason exit. Given the fact this late-season faltering has happened thrice, it’s understandable that this is pretty much all we’re talking about.
Chicago fell well short of its final goal: winning another championship – but that’s not to say there weren’t bright spots this year. The Cubs won their third NL Central crown in the last five years and finished the year as the only Major League team without a player testing positive for COVID-19. But the team’s defensive improvements stand above all these noteworthy accomplishments.
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David Ross‘ club tied for the National League lead with a .986 fielding percentage, ranked sixth in UZR and fourth among NL clubs in defensive runs saved. There was scarcely a weak spot anywhere on the diamond defensively, evidenced by the Cubs’ MLB-best seven Gold Glove finalists.
Chicago boasts two of the three finalists on the mound in Kyle Hendricks and Alec Mills. We’ve known how strong Hendricks is with the leather for some time – and he pairs his glove work with an excellent pickoff move, one of the best in the game among right-handers.
Behind the dish, Willson Contreras improved his work by almost every metric. He’s always had a cannon for an arm, but this year he paired that with a vastly stronger framing game, helping Cubs pitchers steal plenty of strikes. That’s always been considered the weak point in his game, so it was nice to see him to a major step forward in that department.
Although he struggled mightily offensively (63 wRC+) Nico Hoerner joined his teammates with a stellar defensive campaign. I suspect we’ll see the Cubs take their foot off the gas a bit with him in 2021 given he only has 89 career minor league games under his belt, and hopefully some more development at the plate will help him become the all-around presence this team needs.
Speaking of a guy who couldn’t figure it out at the plate, former NL MVP runner-up Javier Baez has his eyes on the first Gold Glove of his career. He’s been an elite shortstop for years now, making superhuman plays almost nightly, and he ranked second in the Senior Circuit in Outs Above Average. Hopefully, he can bring home some hardware to add a bright spot to an otherwise disappointing 2020 campaign.
Rounding out the team’s standout defensive players are perennial Gold Glove front-runners Anthony Rizzo and Jason Heyward. These two are like clockwork in their excellence on the field, so it’s really no surprise to see them included here. What did stand out, though, is Heyward breaking out offensively, evidenced by his 129 OPS+.
What I’m getting at here is simple: we knew (and still know) this roster is flawed. There are major holes that teams exploited, especially late in the season. But Ross focused on the fundamentals in his first year at the helm and the results speak for themselves – especially defensively.