Will David Ross have the Chicago Cubs shift even more in 2022?

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

If there’s any current manager who you can imagine wearing the pointy wizard’s hat with the stars all over it, it’s former Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon. This is the man who played Ben Zobrist at every position except usher, organized pajama party road trips and rolled though Binny’s on a Segway.

More importantly, this is the man who helped popularize the frequent use of defensive shifting back when he managed the Tampa Bay Don’t-You-Dare-Call-Them-Devil Rays. Toward the end of his Cubs tenure, though, Maddon tired of the shift. In his last two years at the helm (2018 and 2019) Maddon’s Cubs were 28th and 30th in MLB shift frequency.

David Ross took over in 2020. (Remember and reflect: Ross managed his first game of professional baseball at any level in the midst of a planet-wide societal meltdown.) Ross immediately upped the Cubs’ shifting frequency to 14th in the majors that year, and eighth the next. While a dramatic change in shifting frequency, it did not have an obvious effect on the Cubs’ defensive performance.

The team’s defensive rank under four different metrics (Defensive Efficiency, Defensive Runs Saved, the Fangraphs Def metric, and UZR/150) follows a clear pattern for the years 2018-21. While the rankings vary from metric to metric, they all agree that the Cubs team defense was very good in 2018 and 2020 (ranked no worse than eighth in any of the four metrics) and not as good in 2019 and 2021 (ranked as low as 20th). The increased use of shifting under Ross doesn’t seem to correlate with the fluctuations in overall team defensive performance. Maddon had one great defensive year in his last two seasons, and Ross had one in his first two.

One explanation for this fluctuating defensive performance actually lies in the outfield. The Cubs got a good defensive year (3.4 Def) from Albert Almora in his last season as a plus defender in 2018, and an average year (0.2 Def) from from Ian Happ in 2020. The odd number years were worse: -1.1 from Almora in 2019, and -1.6 from Happ in 2021. A key component of the Cubs’ return to postseason relevance will be patching the defensive hole in center. Brennen Davis’ glove may turn out to be as important to the Cubs as his bat. (Ominously, Fangraphs lists him as “RF” in its review of Cubs top prospects.)

Comparing the Cubs’ defensive performance to other teams didn’t yield conclusive results, so let’s look at how Chicago compared to themselves: did the Cubs perform better when they used the shift? Using BABIP data from Fangraphs, it’s possible to get an idea of how well the defense turned balls in play into outs. Here are the BABIPs against the Cubs from 2018-2021. The first number is against normal positioning, while the second is against the traditional shift:

  • 2018: .286/.293
  • 2019: .295/.316
  • 2020: .272/.276
  • 2021: .307/.284

In every season except 2021, the Cubs performed worse in the shift than in normal positioning. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Cubs should junk it.

Chicago Cubs: David Ross changed the team’s approach to shifting in 2021

The shift did seem to help (or at least correlate with greater success) in 2021. There are a lot of moving parts behind those 2021 numbers, including the general collapse of the pitching staff and the exiling of most of the 2016 core.  But another factor could be how Ross distributed his shifts. (For simplicity I’m referring to Ross as the sole decisionmaker, though he undoubtedly had substantial input from the front office and his coaching staff.)

In 2018 through 2020, the Cubs shifting tendencies against lefties and righties mirrored their overall approach. During Maddon’s last two years, he didn’t shift much against either (though always more against lefties than righties). Similarly, Ross in his first year upped shift usage against both lefties and righties, reflecting his greater overall emphasis on shifting.

Ross did something quite different in 2021. He shifted even more often against lefties (up from 51.6 percent in 2020 to 60.5 percent in 2021) while reducing shift usage against righties (down from 21.5 percent in 2020 to 13.9 percent in 2021). Whether this caused the relative improvement in shift performance is unclear, but it certainly correlates with that improvement. Note that the word “relative” is doing a lot of work in that last sentence – the Cubs were pretty bad last year no matter where they put their fielders.

The Cubs have a worm-burning staff: they were fourth last year in ground ball percentage (45.0). That number is likely to rise this year as Marcus Stroman replaces Zach Davies and Wade Miley replaces Trevake Willieta. Miley has a career grounder rate of 48.4 percent while Stroman’s is a groundhog-terrorizing 57.1 percent. Infield defense will matter more to the Cubs this coming season than to almost any other team in the majors.

So expect Ross to continue to experiment as long as the Cubs keep him around, assuming the shift isn’t banned. Last year’s approach of playing mostly normal against righties and mostly shifted against lefties would probably be a good place to start since this approach seemed to show some promise. Some early struggles would not be shocking, though. The assumed starting infield (Wisdom, Hoerner, Madrigal, and Schwindel from third to first) has played zero innings together, and obviously none of these guys are familiar with the incoming starters.

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