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Looking For Glove In All The Wrong Places

By Garrett Monaghan

After Jim Hendry's recent, unsurprising announcement that he doesn't pay much attention to fielding data, I figured it was time to take a long, hard look at the Cubs' defense and the role its played in this season's struggles.

In terms of overall errors (56) and fielding percentage (.983) the Cubs are an almost exactly average defensive team for the National League. Unfortunately, those numbers are a little deceptive, since they only measure how good the Cubs are when they actually get to the ball; and getting to the ball is something a few of the Cubs have some problems with. Let's start with Chicago's worst offenders: the pitching staff.

The Cubs' pitching staff doesn't seem to have a problem getting to the ball, it's the fact that they don't seem to have a clue what to do with it afterward that worries me. Cubs pitchers lead the National League in errors with 15, with Ted Lilly being the worst offender with 5. It's really surprising that other teams don't bunt more often, considering that the guys on the mound have an ungodly .908 fielding percentage on the year. Errors by pitchers are really inexcusable in my book, because most of them come from plain bad fundamental baseball. Cubs pitchers might hit and pitch well, but they're killing themselves in the field.

Their battery mates, on the other hand, have done a great job all season. Cubs catchers have a league average 4 errors so far, and are clearly above average in terms of runners caught stealing (32%) Soto and Hill are both excellent defensively, and they've both really helped the team behind the plate this year.

First base is a bit of an interesting case for the Cubs. Derrek Lee has a couple Gold Gloves under his belt, he's made only two errors on the season, and his .997 fielding percentage looks great. Only problem is, Lee is dead last among National League first basemen in range factor this year, and he hasn't been higher than ninth since 2005. Admittedly, Cubs pitchers throw a lot of strikeouts and get a lot of outs in the air, which reduces the number of opportunities the infielders have and thus their range factor; but it's disconcerting to see Lee so far down the charts. He looks great at first base, and what he gets to he handles very well, but when you look at the numbers, Lee is a clearly overrated first baseman.

Third base has been surprisingly good for the Cubs this year, considering that we've had Mike Fontenot holding down the hot corner for the majority of the season. Fontenot did a respectable job in his time at third, and the Cubs are better than average there in terms of errors (9) and fielding percentage (.960.) Fontenot doesn't have a third baseman's arm, but he actually did better there than I would have expected a converted second baseman to do. It's been hard to gauge Ramirez and Fox's performance defensively this season because of a small sample size, but they both seem to have done a pretty good job so far. Fox looks more comfortable than I thought he would, and while he's probably destined for DH duty somewhere, he hasn't hurt the team much with his glove.

The blogosphere seems to be in love with ripping on Ryan Theriot from time to time, but the only legitimate argument against The Riot is his lack of range. Theriot's actually middle of the pack in most defensive categories, but in range factor he's close to the bottom; only ranking ahead of Edgar Renteria and Jimmy Rollins. What he gets to, he handles fairly well, but the problem is that Theriot doesn't get to quite as many balls as you'd like to see. There's no denying he plays his butt off, and his offense certainly makes him a valuable commodity, but it's hard to argue that Theriot is a defensive asset. Andres Blanco, on the other hand, has all the makings of an elite middle infielder. Although he's mainly played second base, his range at short is terrific, and he's got an excellent arm. If he could produce offensively, he could be a huge asset for the team down the road.

Second base has seen a hodgepodge of players this year for the Cubs, but defensively, they've all been pretty good. The Cubs have only committed four errors at second all season. Of the three guys who have seen the bulk of time there, Blanco is clearly the best defender. Miles and Fontenot are both respectable, and while Fontenot has a better glove than Miles, he's a little below average in terms of range. Either way you cut it, second base hasn't been a problem defensively for the Cubs, and won't be for the near future.

The outfield is where things get really, really ugly. Alfonso Soriano is capable of single-handedly destroying any defensive metric known to man, and he's done more than his fair share to contribute to one of the worst defensive outfields in the game. Soriano holds seven of the Cubs' twelve errors in the outfield, and he's a disaster in other categories as well. His range in left is no better than average, and since team's have stopped running on him, he only has a league-average five assists. Admittedly, his arm has forced other teams to be more conservative on the bases, but it doesn't make up for his other shortcomings.

Milton Bradley isn't having a horrible defensive year, his .991 fielding percentage looks great on paper, but he's very limited in terms of range, and his arm is extremely unimpressive. Bradley is second to last among NL right fielders in assists with two. If Bradley could get to a few more flyballs he'd be passable, but he can't, and he isn't.

Kosuke Fukudome can get cut a little bit of slack because he's playing largely out of position this year, but on a team that gives up as many flyballs as the Cubs, his defense hasn't been adequate. Fukudome is tenth among NL center fielders in range, and while he only has one error on the year, he also only has two assists. Fukudome actually has a good arm, but it plays better in right given his lack of movement in center. When you look at his numbers in right as opposed to center, Fukudome goes from being well above average defensively in right field, to well below average in center.

The backup outfielders for the Cubs aren't particularly gifted defensively either. Hoffpauir and Fox are effectively playing out of position regardless of where you put them, and while Sam Fuld has looked good in the majors so far, his defensive numbers from the minor leagues aren't anything eye-popping either. Reed Johnson is really the best defensive outfield the Cubs have, and even he doesn't cover a comparatively large amount of ground (home run robbery not withstanding.)

The Cubs aren't a horrible defensive team, but they also don't help themselves much in the field, either. If they were producing offensively, you'd forgive a defense that's below average in a lot of categories. Unfortunately, when the team isn't hitting, they need to play much better defense than they have so far.


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