Chicago Cubs: Lack of defensive shifts hurting Cubs

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs have been in the bottom half of MLB in defensive shifts for several years now. Should they be doing more to prevent some of the seeing-eye singles?

Does it seem like teams are getting the cheapest of runs off the Chicago Cubs on singles that are finding their way through the infield? Well you might be on to something there. Since 2016, the Cubs have been near the bottom in all of baseball in defensive shifts.

This season, they are putting on defensive shifts at just 13.5 percent of the time, which is tied with the San Diego Padres for fifth-fewest in MLB. The Cubs are shifting 8.7 percent against right-handed batters and 22.8 percent against left-handed batters.

The most common shift against left-handed batters for the Cubs (without any runners on base) is Javier Baez playing in shallow left field with the only defender left of second base being third basemen, Kris Bryant. It’s a marginal improvement from 2016 when the Cubs shifted in just 4.6 percent (2.3 percent against righties, 8.0 percent against lefties) of opponents’ plate appearances.

What it ultimately boils down to is defensive runs saved (DRS). If the players are in the right position with runners in scoring position, you more than likely keep them from scoring. So how are Cubs stacking up in DRS?

This season, the northsiders have just 6 DRS, which is good for 15th best in baseball. Just because you have a shift on does not mean that runs are going to be saved. In fact, it could work quite the opposite. Look at the Baltimore Orioles, for example. They are putting the shift on in 47.9 percent of opponents’ plate appearances, which is the most in the league.

However, they have a DRS of of-33 this season. How can that be? Well to be blunt, they are shifting themselves out of position to make plays and has ballooned their team pitching ERA to be 5.53, easily the worst in all of baseball.

Another aspect that factors in DRS is the range of the defenders on the field. Sticking with the Cubs and Orioles, each has a range runs (RngR) of 2.1 and 1.6, respectively. The Cubs have a few guys on their roster who have displayed the ability to make some eye-popping plays in the field.

However, if they are not in the right spots, the hard-hit singles on the infield will find their way into the outfield and possibly score a run or two. Now, you keep saying “right spot” or “right position”, what exactly does that mean?

Typically, managers will align their defense based on the hitter’s slice chart. Look at Kyle Schwarber as one example. He is hitting the ball just 17 percent to the left of second base, so most teams would deploy a shift similar to this (courtesy of BaseballSavant):

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For right-handed batters, if he is historically a pull hitter, managers will line three guys to the left of second base with just the first basemen to the right of second.

The figure on the right is the Arizona Diamondbacks defensive shift against left-handed batters. They are so good at putting their defenders in the right position, shifting 32.2 percent of all plate appearances and they already have 47 runs saved this season (via FanGraphs).

The Dodgers and Astros are two other teams the Cubs should be modeling their defensive shifts after as well. This season, they are showing a shift at a 41.7 percent and 47.1 percent, respectively. The Dodgers as a team are getting batters to groundout at a 45.6 percent clip and are first in baseball in DRS with 74 already this season. The Astros have 54.

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It’s actually pretty amazing how well the Cubs did in 2016 considering the lack of shifts. According to Fangraphs, they lead MLB in DRS (107) and were far and away the leaders in RngR (42.8). Sometimes, it boils down to luck but if there’s a known problem the Cubs need to address it.

It will prevent putting their pitchers in a tight spot especially when every game is going to matter down the stretch of the 2019 season.