As the Chicago Cubs kick off the National League Championship Series tonight against the Dodgers, there is great hope in Cub-land for this year’s edition finally breaking the franchise’s 108-year drought since last winning the World Series, or at least its 71-year drought since last appearing in the World Series. There are plenty of amazing facts quoted about how long ago 1908 was: Teddy Roosevelt was president; it was less than a year after the United States had added its 46th state, Oklahoma; the Ottoman Empire was still in existence; Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain were still alive; Al Spalding and Cap Anson, pioneers from the franchise’s 1876 founding at the dawn of the National League, were 56 and 58 years old, a little younger then than Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe are today.
Much of the preseason hype and in-season attention to the Cubs has focused on their loaded lineup (which was expected to be even more power-packed before Kyle Schwarber went down in April) and their stellar pitching staff. A particularly large factor in their offensive turnaround has been a second straight season leading the National League in walks drawn, after a stretch from 1986 to 2014 in which the Cubs offense finished better than sixth in the league in walks only twice in 29 years and 10th or worse 21 times. But more attention should be paid to the fact that this team may be one of the best defensive teams in modern baseball history.
Quick background on defensive statistics in baseball: they have traditionally not been very good (fielding percentage, for example, only tells you how often a fielder makes errors, and ignores the fielder’s first job, which is to prevent base hits), and as a result, fielding traditionally tended to attract a lot of adjectives and not much analysis. But that changed in the early 2000s after Voros McCracken – following Bill James’ dictum that “much of what we view as pitching is in fact defense” – presented groundbreaking research showing that major league pitchers rarely had much impact on whether balls in play became hits. McCracken’s theory has been refined a bit since then by other analysts, but the bottom line is that (1) pitchers are best evaluated by the three things they control in mano-a-mano combat with the batter (strikeouts, walks and home runs), which can be combined into a “Fielding Independent Pitching” line (“FIP”), while (2) balls in play are mostly the job of the team’s defense, and the simplest measure of a team’s defense as a whole is “Defensive Efficiency Rating,” (“DER”) which is just a fancy term for the percentage of balls in play turned into outs instead of hits or errors. More sophisticated tools have been developed since the late 1980s to track where balls are hit and thus evaluate individual fielders, but because DER is simple (the only modest complexities are outs on the basepaths), it can be computed for every team going back to the start of the professional game in 1871.
In 2011, I did a two part series (here and here) to locate the best and worst defensive teams of all time, walking year-by-year to compare each team’s DER to the league average, using figures compiled by Baseball-Reference.com. (The series also looked at the steady decline in balls in play as a percentage of plate appearances). Unsurprisingly, this yielded a Top Ten drawn entirely from teams that played between 1871 and 1885, when the game was still professionalizing, the fielders didn’t wear gloves, and the level of competition and team cohesiveness was very uneven. But the line for “modern” baseball is generally drawn right at 1900 (when the twelve-team National League of the 1890s dropped its four weakest franchises) and 1901 (when the American League was founded). Before this season, just one team since 1900 had been 6% better than its league in DER, five teams were at least 5% better, and 14 teams were at least 4% better. The 2016 Cubs join the latter two clubs, and narrowly miss the first. (Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus has offered a similar analysis over at ESPN, albeit using a slightly different measure of DER; Miller gets into some more detailed reviews of why the Cubs are so good). Here’s how these Cubs stack up – - to illustrate the effectiveness of these defenses, I also show how much lower their team ERAs were than would be predicted by their FIP if they had a league-average defense:
A quick rundown, from bottom to top, of the top 15 teams, ranked by DER compared to the league (I used Baseball-Reference.com’s “Fielding Runs” as a quick cut to list each team’s major defensive contributors):
15. 1969 Baltimore Orioles: 109-53, AL Champs. Best defenders: Paul Blair, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, Don Buford. Manager: Earl Weaver. A legendary defensive team – advanced defensive stats confirm that Robinson and Belanger were among the best glove men in the game’s history, and surely the best pair to play in the same infield for an extended period of years – it’s almost surprising they don’t rank higher, but their DER is the best on the list, albeit due partly to a better defensive climate in 1969.
14. 1981 Detroit Tigers: 60-49, third place in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Best defenders: Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Steve Kemp. Manager: Sparky Anderson. The short schedule may have helped them stand out, but the young double play combo would anchor the Tigers for the rest of the decade.
13. 1940 Cincinnati Reds: 100-53, World Champs. Best defenders: Lonny Frey, Billy Myers, Eddie Joost, NL MVP Frank McCormick, Billy Werber. Manager: Bill McKechnie. A team without a dominant offensive star or a big time power pitcher that won back-to-back pennants on the strength of its defense. McKechnie is in the Hall of Fame largely for his ability to build good defensive teams.
12. 1991 Chicago White Sox: 87-75, second place. Best defenders: Lance Johnson, Sammy Sosa, Ozzie Guillen. Manager: Jeff Torborg. This team had a lot of young talent (Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura), and would win the division in 1993 and 1994. Sosa at 22 was raw and helpless at the plate, but his speed made up for that in the field.
11. 1980 Oakland A’s: 83-79, second place. Best defenders: Dwayne Murphy, Tony Armas, Rickey Henderson, Dave Revering. Manager: Billy Martin. The “Billyball” A’s, this team was the talk of baseball at the time for Martin turning around the pitching staff by driving Mike Norris, Rick Langford, and Matt Keough to throw 20 to 28 complete games apiece, but the actual secret of their success was a fast-moving young outfield (Henderson was 21, Murphy 25, Armas 26, and they combined to throw out 43 baserunners).
10. 1900 Boston Braves (then known as the Beaneaters): 66-72, fourth place. Best defenders: Chick Stahl, Jimmy Collins, Herman Long. Manager: Frank Selee. I used 1900 rather than 1901 as the cutoff because this team deserved mention: if we went back to 1897, we’d have four straight years of the Beaneaters on this list, including the 1897 and 1898 NL pennant winners. Third baseman Collins was the anchor of their defense, and would go on to be player-manager of the first World Series champs in 1903 with the Red Sox; he’s largely forgotten today, but there are only four men in the Hall of Fame primarily as third basemen who played between 1871 and 1942 – the first seventy years of the game – and of those, arguably only Frank “Home Run” Baker was better than Collins.
9. 1990 Oakland A’s: 103-59, AL Champs. Best defenders: Walt Weiss, AL MVP Rickey Henderson, Mike Gallego, Dave Henderson, Mark McGwire, Felix Jose, Willie Randolph. Manager: Tony La Russa. This team, which like the 1969-71 Orioles got upset twice in three years in the World Series, was not really known mainly as a defense-first team, and you would not have guessed that Rickey Henderson would show up twice on this list, but 22-game winner Dave Stewart and 27-game winner Bob Welch owed a lot to their defense.
8. 1905 Chicago Cubs: 92-61, third place. Best defenders: Joe Tinker, Billy Maloney. Managers; Frank Selee, Frank Chance. The 1905 Cubs were on the eve of a dynasty, anchored by the fabled Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance infield, and only a 105-win Giants team and some bad luck (by their runs scored and allowed, the Cubs should have finished 104-49) delayed them from breaking out. The team was assembled by Frank Selee, who had led the Boston Beaneaters to five championships between 1890 and 1901, but tuberculosis forced him to hand the team to first baseman Chance, who would manage them to pennants in 1906 and 1910 and the Cubs’ only two World Championships in 1907 and 1908.
7. 1999 Cincinnati Reds: 96-67, second place, lost a one-game playoff to the Mets. Best defenders: Pokey Reese, Mike Cameron, Jeffrey Hammonds, Aaron Boone, Barry Larkin. Manager: Jack McKeon. Larkin’s Hall of Fame credentials rely heavily on the winning teams – 1990, 1995, 1999 – that seemed to overachieve with him at their center, and this team probably deserved better than getting throttled by an Al Leiter 2-hitter in a one-game playoff, but their weak pitching staff was carried by this defense.
6. 1975 Los Angeles Dodgers: 88-74, second place. Best defenders: Ron Cey, Willie Crawford, Bill Russell. Manager: Walter Alston. The Dodgers were steamrolled by the Big Red Machine in 1975, and that year’s team is easily overshadowed by the mighty pennant winning Dodgers of 1974, 1977 and 1978. And the Dodgers’ defensive statistics may be partly inflated by the difficulty of hitting in Dodger Stadium in those years. But the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield had established itself as a stable unit by 1975.
5. 1906 Chicago Cubs: 116-36, NL Champs, best single-season record in baseball history. Best defenders: Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, Jimmy Slagle. Manager: Frank Chance. This was the best of the Tinker-Evers-Chance teams, although they lost the World Series and would post an even lower team ERA of 1.73 the following year. You’ll notice their team ERA was the furthest below their FIP of any team on this list.
4. 2001 Seattle Mariners: 116-46, AL West Champs, most wins in American League history. Best defenders: David Bell, AL MVP and Rookie of the Year Ichiro Suzuki, Bret Boone, Mike Cameron, Carlos Guillen, Stan Javier. Manager: Lou Piniella. There’s Cameron again. The Mariners shocked the baseball world by winning 116 games after losing Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson, the stars of their strong but underachieving 1990s teams, and defense was the main reason why.
3. 1914 Chi-Feds: 87-67, second place in the Federal League. Best defenders: Joe Tinker, Jack Farrell, Al Wickland. Manager: Joe Tinker. The Federal League, the USFL or ABA of its day, was a breakaway third “major league” that ran for two years (1914-15), so this team is probably ranked so high only because it faced such uneven competition. But it’s the third Joe Tinker team on the list, and he was the manager as well as the shortstop, so you could say the man knew his glovework.
2. 2016 Chicago Cubs: 103-58, NL Central Champs, destination unknown. Best defenders: Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant. Manager: Joe Maddon. Russell is sorely miscast as a number five hitter and Heyward has disappointed with the bat, but both are elite defenders and keystones of the Cubs stellar defensive team. By some metrics, Heyward is one of the most consistently valuable defensive outfielders the game has ever seen. And when I looked at this five years ago, the biggest single-season defensive improvement by a team since 1878 was the Joe Maddon-managed 2008 Tampa Bay Rays (the 1980 Billyball A’s were fourth). So, don’t underestimate the Cubs’ manager’s role in this. It’s not a coincidence that this list is full of Hall of Fame managers and guys who won pennants and titles with multiple franchises.
1. 1939 New York Yankees: 106-45, World Champions for the fourth straight year. Best defenders: Frankie Crosetti, Joe Gordon, AL MVP Joe DiMaggio. Manager: Joe McCarthy. One of the few teams with a strong argument as the best ever, managed by a man with a good argument for the greatest manager ever (McCarthy, no relation to the Wisconsin Senator, never had a losing season). How do you survive the loss of a legend like Lou Gehrig to a fatal illness and get even better? Defense. (Lefty Gomez once attributed his success to “clean living and a fast-moving outfield”).
As you watch the Cubs chase the ghosts of history over the next week or two, pay attention to their defense. It may be a while before you see one this good again.