Thursday, November 3, 2016

What Can the Braves Learn from the Cubs?

Swanson's Defense Important as Braves
Focus on Run Prevention

By Arturo Pardavila III from Hoboken, NJ, USA
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The World Series came to a close last night and what a Series it was! Just to put a cherry on top, Game Seven was one of the most captivating games ever played. Congratulations to both teams for reminding the country just how close to perfect baseball can be.

For the Braves, the end of the Fall Classic means we can flip to the Hot Stove Season. With a move to a new ballpark on the horizon along with a slew of young players moving through the minors to join the big league club, this offseason will be pivotal if the Braves want to make it to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Baseball, like all sports, is a game in which success is copied. When moneyball was popularized by the A's, a cascade of teams tried to follow suit. When the Royals rode a bullpen to championship heights, teams tried to build a replica of their own and paid hefty prices in cash and/or prospects - including both teams in the World Series.

There is a lot to learn about the Cubs that can be applied to other teams, but one of the biggest differences in the series might have gone a bit under-the-radar. Sure, the bullpens and their usage was heavily digested. As was the differences between the rotations and lineups. For me, though, one of the clearest differences between the two teams was in defense and run prevention.

Take a look at Game Six. After Kris Bryant quickly put the Cubs ahead 1-0, Chicago followed with a pair of sharp singles. Josh Tomlin, a 1 fWAR guy with a 4.88 FIP during the regular season, went 1-1 on Addison Russell. What would happen next would carry more weight according to Win Probability than even Russell's later Grand Slam. Russell sent a flyball to the right-center gap. Tyler Naquin was a 25-year rookie this season who was not expected to play much of a role, but injuries and his own success changed that. He was in center field rushing toward the gap while Lonnie Chisenhall was coming from his place in right field. A six year veteran, Chisenhall had been moved to the outfield during the 2015 season after failing to establish himself as a competent third baseman in the major leagues. He even started a game in center field this season.

There remains confusion as to what happened next as the ball came down. Naquin said both called it, Chisenhall contends neither did it, and Terry Francona asserts that Naquin told Chisenhall to take it. Whatever the case, a rookie center fielder saw a converted third baseman fly in front of him and a ball drop to the ground between the two of them. Called a double because the error statistic is worthless, two runs scored and Russell ended up on third via an error that was called when a Jason Kipnis throw to the plate got away.

The defensive miscues continued in Game Seven. With a pair of runners on and no outs in the fourth, Ben Zobrist hit a grounder to first. To be clear, it would have been tough to turn a double play, but it nearly turned into no outs as Mike Napoli, a converted catcher, threw high-and-wide to shortstop. They got the one out, but had no chance for a double play. That left the opportunity for Russell to send a flyball to left-center. Again, it seemed the outfielders were not communicating or not keeping their heads in the game. Rajai Davis called for the ball, but never got into prime position to fire the ball home. All the while, left-fielder Coco Crisp was almost crowding Davis, who paused to gather himself after catching the ball before firing home to try to cut the runner down at the plate. His throw, like Napoli's, was high. This time, the runner was safe.

These are just a few of the most high profile situations during this series where the Indians failed to make a play, but it also points toward the differences in the two teams and it's even more evident in the regular season metrics. It's not that the Indians were necessarily bad defensively like the Braves were - just that the Indians were not very good. They were the Vinny Castilla of teams. They made most of the plays they ought to, but while the Cubs had 82 defensive runs scored (DRS), the Indians had just 17. While the Cubs had a Plus/Minus Runs Saved (rPM) of +99, the Indians were just +7.

Cleveland had just three players in their lineup with a composite defensive runs above average (DEF) of 5 or higher. While they had probably the best defensive player in the series in Francisco Lindor, the Cubs had 5 DEF or better guys at catcher, second base, shortstop, third base, and right field. Their worst defensive player, according to the metric DEF, was Anthony Rizzo, who played the least important defensive position and was still rated much better than his compliment on the Indians, the aforementioned Napoli.

None of this kept the Indians from being one game away from winning the World Series three times. The Cubs had their own issues, especially with depth in their lineup. Russell and Javier Baez, while both certainly did some nice things this year, had a .316 wOBA. Of course, a mark like that would have made Jason Heyward thrilled. While the Cubs offense was explosive, it also had issues and the Indians were able to exploit that during the Series at various times. Their bullpen depth was also not as strong as the Indians, though really, I felt that was splitting hairs because Chicago still had some really good arms in the pen.

Chicago's pitching staff was good, but not nearly as good as the results indicated. Kyle Hendricks had a 3.20 FIP and a 3.59 xFIP to go with his 2.13 ERA. Jon Lester had a 3.41 FIP and a 3.47 xFIP to go with his 2.44 ERA. The rest of the starting staff had similar, though less stark, differences that each saw their ERAs look much nicer than their FIP or xFIP. The Indians had some small positive differences or flatout reverse differences. Trevor Bauer's ERA was higher than both metrics while Tomlin's xFIP was .27 points lower than his ERA. However, most of the time, the differences were minor and suggested that the pitcher's ERA was rather close to his performance.

No team came close to the difference between ERA and FIP like the Cubs (-0.62 when ERA-FIP). It's the largest gap in which the ERA is lower than the FIP since the 2002 Atlanta Braves. That's not to say the Cubs weren't a great pitching team - they were. They had a strong collection of pitching talent that was magnified by the strongest defense in the league. The Indians, with a simply good defense, had a ERA/FIP difference of -0.06, which ranked 15th in baseball.

Run Prevention doesn't just fall on the pitchers and as the Braves look to the future, it's important to remember that. If the Braves want to follow anything the Cubs did as they ended their long-lasting streak of championship-less years, a focus on run prevention would go a long way to helping Atlanta get back to the playoffs and succeed.

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