The Rundown: Run Prevention Key to Season, Epstein Strong During Uncertain Times, Contreras Finds Novel Way to Take BP, Sunday Baseball Notes

It’s easy to see why manager David Ross has put run prevention at the forefront of his managerial agenda this season. In 2018, the Cardinals had more errors (133) than any team in the majors. Last year they had the least (66), a turnaround that vaulted the Redbirds from third place to first in the NL Central.

Since 2015, the Cubs have averaged about 105 errors per season, hitting their high-water mark of the Joe Maddon era with 117 last year. Giving the opposition extra outs is never a good thing, but with starters who tend to labor (Jon Lester) or walk their fair share of hitters (Tyler Chatwood), poor fielding is the type of accelerant you want to avoid.

If you add an inconsistent offense into the mix, things can get downright frightening. The Cubs lost nine straight games starting September 17, including an historic five in a row by one run. They committed 10 errors in that span, an unfathomable five of which in a 9-2 loss to the Pirates. Saving a few runs might have pushed the Cubs into the playoffs.

At the time the streak started, the Cubs trailed the Cardinals by two games but led in the Wild Card race and controlled their destiny with six games remaining against St. Louis. When they finally beat the Cardinals 8-2 on September 27, they were seven games behind and mathematically eliminated from a spot in the postseason.

The ’19 Cubs were worst at second base and center field, where poor defensive play and net negative run prevention cost them at least four wins. Things could have been even worse, as Cubs pitchers stranded 1,147 runners, third most in the senior circuit. That will overtax any pitching staff, something that likely led to the September fatigue that cost Chicago a shot at the playoffs.

How badly did poor defense hurt the team’s pitching? Though I’m less of a math nerd than the other CI writers, ERA- may be a telling statistic. That run prevention stat is the pitching equivalent of OPS+, where 100 is league average and each point above or below represents a percent above or below league average. However, as lower is better for (almost) all pitching stats, a lower ERA- is also better.

The Cubs’ leaders in ERA- last season were Kyle Hendricks (79), Yu Darvish (91), and Jon Lester (102). José Quintana (107) had the worst mark of all National League starting pitchers. In contrast, Jack Flaherty (65), Dakota Hudson (79) and Adam Wainwright (99) led St. Louis.

The biggest strength of the 2016 Cubs season was run prevention. That team was not just the best in baseball that year, but the best all-time at stifling its opposition. Chicago has been trending downward ever since.

Imagine the narrative if the Cubs had fielded as well as the Cardinals last season. The North Siders would have won the division, might have made some headway in the postseason, and Maddon might have been extended a new contract. Now it’s up to Ross to right the ship and lead his charges back to the playoffs, something that should seem a forgone conclusion given his roster.

The Cubs should be good at run prevention due to their rotation and infield defensive talent, but they could be ridiculously good if the they clean it up a little bit behind their pitchers. As Ross sees it, and rightly so, that will be one of the keys to unseating St. Louis, staving off the Brewers, and making another deep postseason run.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

If you need some self-isolation humor, may I recommend the movie Blast from the Past? Christopher Walken is great in a supporting role.

Updates on Nine

  1. An attorney representing the Red Sox organization denied that the team used illegal methods to steal signs from their opponents and suggested that MLB has already ruled on the 2018 scandal, though nothing has been announced.
  2. Former Yankees great Mariano Rivera thinks a shortened season would taint the naming of its champion. “I don’t think you can play a 60-game season and you call yourself a champion,” the unanimous Hall of Fame closer said. “Anything can happen in 60 games. I don’t think it’s enough. People don’t play on all cylinders, the whole teams are different. I don’t know. It’s a great question, because I don’t know what’s going to happen if the season is starting in June or July.”
  3. Slugger Aaron Judge revealed he had a partially collapsed lung that has healed and his fractured rib is on the mend. The news that a pneumothorax was “completely gone” from the Yankee outfielder’s CT scan on Friday brought more clarity to what had been a frustrating search for answers about his injury.
  4. I own a Jim Bouton (author of “Ball Four”) Seattle Pilots jersey and one of the cooler baseball stories is how the 1969 expansion Pilots moved to Milwaukee and became the Brewers in a matter of six days just before the start of the 1970 season. Before that, many Milwaukee residents, angered that the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, were unanimously Cubs fans. The Milwaukee Braves (1953-1965) are the only franchise in the modern era to never finish a single season below .500
  5.  White Sox third baseman Yoán Moncada has invited fans to join him online to play PS4.
  6. It’s been a brutal spring for the Astros organization and they’re one of eight teams that might welcome a full cancellation to the 2020 baseball season.
  7. NPB has been playing spring exhibition games in empty stadiums — though the start of their regular season has been postponed until at least next month — which means we can even watch highlights from some familiar faces playing abroad, like Baby Shark Gerardo Parra.
  8. On March 20, 1973, Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapped wives (and families).
  9. Teams are taking to social media to ask their fans which players would make their hometown team Mt. Rushmore. It’s not as easy a decision as you think. For me, the Cubs version should include Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Kerry Wood, and Anthony Rizzo. I had a tough timing not naming Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, or Sammy Sosa. Who would you choose?

Extra Innings

Nelson Maldonado Jr. is prospect for Cubs fans can get excited about.

Apropos of Nothing

I realize what we do here at Cubs Insider is insignificant compared to the problems we face today, and diversions seem difficult to come by in these trying times. The staff here, as well as our peers in the Cubs blogosphere, have made sure to keep readers informed to the best of our abilities, while providing a few posts here and there to collectively take our minds off of COVID-19 for just a few minutes each day. We understand that you have a lot more to worry about than our thoughts on the Cubs, and baseball in general, but we thank you for continuing to follow us.

They Said It

  • “I agree with every shutdown and safety precaution being taken… safety first… but this sucks even more cause all I’ve been waiting to do is play in front of a packed Wrigley.”Jason Kipnis
  • “It’s [now] similar to January, players are on their own. We’re encouraging them to stay in shape and make good decisions. Beyond that, we’ve advised them to take care of their families, make good decisions and to take care, be safe and be well and to always pick up the phone and call us if we can help them in any way, if they need advice, or assistance of any kind.” – Theo Epstein

Sunday Walk Up Song

Illegal Alien by Genesis

What went wrong? Though the message certainly seems well-intended, its accompanying video is all kinds of wrong.

How does it play today? Identifying the struggles of Mexican immigration using stereotypical references like oversized sombreros and mustachioed men wasn’t the best choice. That said, the heart of this song is anti-racism and pro-immigration. So give it an A for its message, and an F for its packaging. “Over the border there lies the promised land” is not true for everybody.

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