What is going on with the Cubs defense this season?


Look, the Cubs defense isn't the reason why they gave up 18 runs to the Pittsburgh Josh Bells Monday night. 

That falls squarely on the pitching staff.

But the defense has definitely been a concern surrounding the Cubs this season and the struggles have been puzzling. 

Nobody has a clear answer why this team is so far from the 2016 championship team that put together arguably the best defensive season we've ever seen in Major League Baseball. This roster is largely the same from back then, yet the defensive production has not been.

The Cubs had two errors in Monday night's rough loss in Pittsburgh. While those miscues only led to 1 unearned run, Albert Almora Jr.'s error on the very first hitter of the game helped set the tone for the rest of the inning and — subsequently — the rest of the game. Instead of keeping Adam Frazier to a single, Almora's bobble instead allowed the leadoff guy into scoring position as rookie Adbert Alzolay was maneuvering through his first career road start.

Schwarber also bobbled a ball in the outfield later in the game, giving the Cubs 60 errors on the season — the fourth-highest total in baseball. That's led to 34 unearned runs (eighth-most in MLB).

The Cubs are 26-15 this year when they play mistake-free baseball. With Monday's loss, they're now 19-25 when committing at least one error.

FanGraphs ranks the Cubs 8th in MLB in defensive value, ahead of the Cardinals (12th) and Brewers (18th). However, that's still a drop-off from 2016 and even 2017.

Here's Cubs' MLB rank in defensive value by FanGraphs' metric the last three seasons:

2018 — 17th
2017 — 5th
2016 — 1st

So what's the difference? 

Jason Heyward offered one theory in a chat with NBC Sports Chicago's Kelly Crull on the CubsTalk Podcast last week:

"If you look at 2016, a lot of us played the same position — we didn't move around," Heyward said. "I feel like we're moving around a lot more this year. I'm playing a lot more center. [Kris Bryant's] in the outfield every now and then. Schwarbs is out there, of course, when he's playing. 

"It's tougher, when you have moving pieces because the game is different in different spots. You just try to keep an overall mindset of do what you can, keep it simple, prepare the best way you can for that night and go from there."

Heyward thinks all that moving around affects players' pregame routines, too:

"It is tough. Especially if it's a day game and you're playing a different position," the five-time Gold Glover said. "It's not always easy to work. When you can, you try to go spend time doing that. Like that throw [home] KB had from left field [last homestand], that was barely off line. It's not even fair to call it off-line. The guy is not a slow runner and it's a bang-bang play, but it's not a throw he's had to make too often here recently. 

"So it's just things like that. You gotta keep in perspective and know that we're all doing the best we can and let certain things take its course."

That's fair — it's easy to see how moving around could affect a player defensively. Especially when you're battling the sun and wind at Wrigley Field. 

But are the Cubs really moving around more this season than in 2016?

In short — no.

In '16, Cubs defenders still played all over the place. 

Javy Baez played at least 25 games at three different infield positions (shortstop, second base, third base). 

Bryant played 107 games at third base, but saw parts of 75 games combined across all three outfield positions while also playing first base (9 games) and even making an appearance at shortstop.

Because the Cubs already had David Ross and Miguel Montero, they utilized Willson Contreras a bunch in the outfield (24 games) to go along with 57 appearances as a catcher. 

Heyward played mostly right field because Dexter Fowler was a staple in center field when healthy, but Fowler did have a stint on the disabled list — which pushed Heyward to center for 24 games.

Ben Zobrist played everywhere (second base, left field, right field, shortstop, first base).

This year, Baez is moving around far less often than he typically does now that he's a mainstay at shortstop. The same applies to Contreras as catcher. Bryant is actually playing in the outfield LESS now than he did during his MVP campaign — he has spent 39 percent of his appearances in the outfield this season compared to 2016, when he played outfield for at least an inning in 49 percent of his games.

Heyward is playing more in center this year — and the defensive metrics are not favorable for him in that spot, albeit in a small sample size — but that's as much for his offense as anything given Almora's struggles against right-handed pitching.

Whatever the reason, the Cubs know they need to clean things up as the season progresses, especially for a pitching staff has been hammered by injury and ineffectiveness of late. 

"It's just not who we are — we normally play clean games of baseball," Joe Maddon said of his team last week. "We normally do run the bases well without any mistakes out there. Defensively, on any given day, I like the team on the field to prevent runs.

"We're better than that. But of course, you have to show it. I do think it's an anomaly moment — I don't think it's anything to be concerned about. But you gotta go out there and do it, too."


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