Four games into the season and the Cub that’s had a significant impact on the team’s performance has yet to suit up for a single one — and won’t for some time if at all this year. Monday nights 8-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves highlighted the absence of Addison Russell, who ranked 5th among shortstops in defensive runs saved in 2018 according to Fan Graphs while playing in 250 fewer innings than the leader.
The Cubs committed 6 errors in total, something that hasn’t happened by the franchise since 2006. This is significant for this Cubs team in particular which will rely on its defense as much any other contender this year.
With Yu Darvish the exception, the Cubs staff pitches to contact and invites hitters to put the ball in play. This method of pitching has yielded excellent results in recent seasons due to the Cubs team defense. According to baseball reference, the Cubs ranked 1st, 7th, and 7th from 2016-2018 respectfully in defensive efficiency.
I recently wrote a piece on Kyle Hendricks and his reliance on weak contact as opposed to high strikeout numbers of other aces.
I’ve been off social media for 9 years but came back to write about a historic team. Check out my first story on Kyle Hendricks as an ace of the Cubs. Would not be possible without my brother @Herring_NBA !!! https://t.co/KNHWLfVce0
— Marcus Wordlaw (@MarcusWordlaw) March 30, 2019
Without strikeout consistency, he needs the routine plays made and along with the occasional spectacular one. His stat line looked horrendous Monday night but consider the Cubs consist of good individual defenders trying to become a great defensive unit.
Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, and Jason Heyward are all great individual defenders based on their fielding, and position flexibility. Yet they are still trying to find continuity together with a new group of teammates. Baez is becoming acclimated to shortstop, yet still working on his timing, something he admitted to during spring training.
He also has a couple of new double play partners with Descalso and David Bote. In center field, Almora is dealing with a platoon with Kyle Schawarber and Mark Zagunis, the latter he has had very little experience playing beside. This doesn’t excuse a 6-error night, but taking a closer look at many of the errors and you will find Russell’s fingerprints all over the defense, or lack thereof.
In the bottom of the first inning, Braves centerfielder Ender Inciarte lifted a pop-fly to short left field. Baez playing shortstop sprinted back on the ball as left fielder Zagunis ran into foul ground, his steps a bit choppy as he approached the ball ultimately dropping it. One of Russell’s greatest skills as a defender is his ability to track short fly balls. He has made a number of spectacular catches in this fashion and perhaps this ball would have been out of his reach as it was for Baez, but if he were in the vicinity Zagunis would certainly have given way.
Later in the same inning with runners on 1st and 2nd, Atlanta’s rightfielder Nick Markakis bounced a soft ground ball to Rizzo who delivered a strong throw to Baez for the first of what would have been a two out double play had Baez not in his haste thrown the ball over Hendricks covering first. This scored another run and put the Cubs in a bind early on. Russell’s arm at short is not the strongest but very accurate given his fielding percentage in the past.
Russell’s absence struck once again in the bottom of the 5th inning. Dansby Swanson with the bases loaded hit a ground ball up the middle, which tipped off the outreached mit of Hendricks – re-directing the ball and changing David Bote’s pursuit of it at second.
After a bit of a stumble, with a contorted body, Bote fielded the ball off-balance. Swanson can run very well, and he really had no play but instead tried to throw behind the runner approaching 2nd. The ball was well off target and rolled throughout the infield as another Brave circled home on the fifth error of the game. The mere presence of Russell on the field would allow Baez to patrol second base, and his instincts and quick twitch muscles would have given him a better chance to make that play or minimally hold the ball.
Individually, Baez, Almora, and Heyward each made highlight plays last night. Their team defense due in large part to Russell’s absence will overshadow these plays and others moving forward until the Cubs build greater cohesion in the field together. A staff that relies on their defense to make plays behind them needs this sooner rather than later.
Follow Marcus on Twitter @MarcusWordlaw