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Cubs' defense in a league of its own

Chicago leads Majors in defensive efficiency by wide margin
October 4, 2016

CHICAGO -- Word to the wise for the National League Wild Card Game winner: When you get a chance to score runs against the Cubs, you had better capitalize.While the Cubs feature two NL MVP Award candidates in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, their accumulation of 103 victories was more

CHICAGO -- Word to the wise for the National League Wild Card Game winner: When you get a chance to score runs against the Cubs, you had better capitalize.
While the Cubs feature two NL MVP Award candidates in Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, their accumulation of 103 victories was more about run prevention than scoring.
"Pitching, pitching and pitching," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in September. "And as always, it all starts with the defense."
:: NLDS: Wild Card winner vs. Cubs coverage ::
When Jon Lester or Kyle Hendricks happen to get in trouble, it's just a rally waiting to be halted, often in spectacular fashion.
Rizzo has jumped onto the brick wall down the right-field line to make a catch. He has started a rare 3-5-4 double play on a first-and-second, no-out bunt. Javier Báez has charged from second base to pounce on a bunt and get an out at third base. Addison Russell and Jason Heyward, both strong NL Gold Glove candidates, like Rizzo, rob hits on such a regular basis you almost take it for granted.
Combine that eye-popping fielding with the effectiveness of the starting rotation -- and the addition of Aroldis Chapman -- and you've got a .212 opponents' batting average. That's the lowest mark since Luis Tiant, "Sudden Sam" McDowell and the Indians held a slow-to-integrate American League to a .206 average in 1968, when the league batted .230.
The NL average was .254 this season, and the Cubs undercut that mark by 42 points. Think about that.
Or how Hendricks, Lester and the Cubs' other starters compiled a 2.96 ERA over 162 games while Toronto's Aaron Sanchez captured the AL title with a 3.00 ERA.
Baseball Prospectus designed a metric to measure how often a team's defense turns balls in play into outs. It's called Defensive Efficiency, and the Cubs not only led the Major Leagues in that department but also did so by an astonishing margin.
The Cubs' DE score was .745, the highest by any team since 1982. The Blue Jays were second this season at .717. That's a gap of 28 percentage points, which is greater than the difference between the second-best Blue Jays and the Mets, who ranked 27th (.692). Think about that.
Where did this stand-alone excellence come from? Take a look, position-by-position:
First base: Rizzo
There are a lot of strong defensive first basemen in the NL but none who combine fearlessness and grace as well as the guy whom Jake Arrieta calls "pretty much our MVP every year.'' Rizzo stands even with the mound in bunt situations, daring a hitter to drop one down, and he is willing to fly into the stands if necessary to grab foul balls.
Rizzo's fellow infielders love how he plays bigger than his listed height of 6-3 in handling their throws. He led Major League first basemen with a +11 Defensive Runs Saved.

Second base: Baez/Ben Zobrist
After spending last offseason practicing in center field, the athletic Baez -- known mostly for his light-tower power as a prospect -- has been a defensive wizard in the infield. While the steady Zobrist has been the primary second baseman, Baez has been a difference-maker, thanks in part to some of the quickest hands in the game. Nobody makes a better tag than does Baez.
Baez started only 38 games at second but compiled a +11 DRS, the best figure among NL second basemen. With his totals projected for 1,000 innings, he would have been at +29, challenging Mookie Betts as the most impactful fielder in the game. Zobrist, best known for his versatility, received a -3 DRS rating at second.

Shortstop: Russell
The quiet, unassuming kid whom Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein acquired from the A's has a substance-over-style way of playing that Maddon says is "right out of the Spalding Handbook.'' Russell reacts quickly to get to balls and makes solid, accurate throws with a simple release. He rarely boots the routine play, and he could win the first of many Gold Glove awards this season.
Voters face a choice between the Giants' Brandon Crawford, who is the defending Gold Glove shortstop, and Russell. Both have been worth +19 DR this season, the best figure in the Major Leagues.

Third base: Bryant/Baez
Because of his size, Bryant has been under scrutiny as a third baseman. He has worked hard on his footwork and release, using his height (6-5) and long arms to get to line drives and ground balls. He's not going to challenge Nolan Arenado for the Gold Glove but was worth +4 DRS this season. Baez, who by starting 36 games at third allowed Bryant to get time in the outfield corners, rated +1 DRS at the position.

Catcher: Willson Contreras /David Ross /Miguel Montero
This seemed like a weakness for the Cubs despite primary catcher Miguel Montero excelling as a pitch framer. The Cubs were easy to run on, and too many balls went to the screen. But that has changed since the arrival of Contreras in June. He's quick and has a strong arm, which he loves to use on pickoff attempts and throws to second.
Contreras cut down 37 percent of runners attempting to steal. Ross, who remains Lester's personal catcher, was solid across the board in his final season. Montero's postseason role is to be determined, but he was a solid contributor in September, perhaps because his back wasn't the issue it was at the end of last season.

Left field: Bryant/Matt Szczur /Chris Coghlan /Zobrist
Kyle Schwarber was projected as the regular but was lost for the season with a knee injury after colliding with Dexter Fowler on April 7. Maddon has used eight other starters in left, with Jorge Soler getting the call 51 times. Maddon has started his four best defensive left fielders -- Coghlan (+4 DRS), Bryant (+3), Szczur (+2) and Zobrist (+0) -- only 85 times combined.

Center field: Fowler
After surprisingly re-signing Fowler in March, the Cubs convinced him to play a little deeper in center field. The numbers say that he has been more effective than he was in his first season at Wrigley Field. He ranked eighth among 17 Major League qualifiers with a +1 DRS. Fowler was 19th out of 23 with -12 in 2015.

Right field: Heyward
It has been a struggle for him at the plate, but the $184-million free agent has played a leading role in the Cubs' defensive improvement. Heyward has been terrific in right field, taking away hits in front of him and shutting down baserunners with his arm.
Unless voters punish him for his hitting woes, Heyward should win his fourth Gold Glove. He's rated +14 DRS by Fangraphs, the best in the NL.

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for