Chicago Cubs rank as best in baseball at fielding ground balls
It's no secret that pitching and defense were the focus for the Chicago Cubs during the offseason. It's a very tough line to walk, but with the right pieces and just enough offense, the strategy can work. Hitting has been a pleasant surprise so far, but what might be lost amidst the team's early hot stretch is just how well things are going on the defensive side of the ball.
From the eye test alone, it's easy to see how the new additions have paid off in spades. Former Gold Glovers Cody Bellinger and Dansby Swanson have had a noticeable impact with some stellar defensive plays and Nico Hoerner's abilities have translated well in the shift back to second base. Statcast largely reflects their excellent skills with the glove with Hoerner and Swanson sitting in the 83rd and 90th percentile respectively in outs above average.
To further show how the Cubs are succeeding on defense, analytics group Sports Info Solutions took a look at how every MLB team fared at turning ground balls and bunts into outs. Sure enough, the team ranks at the top of the list thanks to their revamped infield.
Obviously, it's good to be good at handling grounders of any type, but the Cubs are set up in a way where they benefit extensively from the excellent defense on ground balls. Their two best pitchers - Justin Steele and Marcus Stroman - have ground ball rates well above the league average (58.1% for Steele, 60.3% for Stroman). The benefits of the defense are already showing in their fielding independent pitching. Stroman's 2.17 ERA is outperforming his FIP by 1.67 points while Steele's 1.44 ERA beats his FIP by 2.08 points. Again, it's early, but that's the difference between a good pitcher and an ace thanks in part to the guys making plays behind them.
Defense will give the Cubs an edge over other contenders
Did you also notice the pattern among the team rankings? The bottom five teams sport some of the worst records in the majors and the other members of the top five, including the division rival Brewers, are among the best performers so far this year. That's not to say a team that's great at turning grounders into outs is automatically going to be one of baseball's best, but it's certainly a trait of a good team to find ways to produce outs where others are not. It's enough to swing some competitive match-ups in the Cubs' favor as the season goes on especially considering their ground ball-heavy arms.
With how the team is constructed, fielding is crucial to the Cubs competing in 2023. Their ability to turn ground balls into outs at a league-best rate helps to paper over the lack of true ace by enhancing the skills of the starters they have. As long as the offense can keep a steady level of production and the pitching can continue to keep the ball down, that defensive edge will be what ultimately puts them a step above other teams in the National League.