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The Chicago Cubs Are Flexible Beasts

How unusual is Joe Maddon’s approach to defensive positioning? We had to invent a new metric to fully appreciate it — and to understand what it might mean for the Cubs’ World Series hopes.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2016 Chicago Cubs are the rabbit hole of baseball teams, presenting us with an almost dizzying volume of story lines to explore. There’s the history (108 years since their last World Series championship!). There’s the greatness (103 wins this season!). Even if you ignore the obvious paths and take the road less traveled, there are still plenty of fascinating gems to unearth.

Take, for instance, their defense. Per Baseball-Reference, the Cubs allowed a .257 batting average on balls in play this season, meaning they turned 74.3 percent of the balls put in play against them into outs, the highest percentage by any team in the major leagues since 1981. While there’s evidence that their historically low BABIP is due at least in part to their pitchers inducing abnormally weak contact, the Cubs led the majors with 82 defensive runs saved, the third-highest total in the past 15 years.

But this article isn’t really about the quality of the Cubs defense: It’s about the flexibility of their defense. With mad wizard Joe Maddon at the helm and a roster full of athletically gifted, versatile players, the Cubs move fielders around the diamond from game to game like no great team we’ve ever seen before.

This started last season, Maddon’s first as manager, when Chicago essentially had shortstop Starlin Castro (now with the Yankees) and second baseman Addison Russell trade places in early August. Top prospect Kris Bryant, who came up from the minors in mid-April and went on to unanimously win NL Rookie of the Year honors, claimed the third-base job, but nevertheless started games at all three outfield positions and first base during the season. And fellow rookie Kyle Schwarber, despite not making his major league debut until June 16, became just the third player in the past 30 years (after Evan Gattis in 2013 and Eli Marrero in 2002) to appear in at least 20 games in both left field and behind the plate. All of that moving around and the Cubs still won 97 games.

But just as the Cubs elevated their win total this year while posting the franchise’s most victories since 1910, they similarly boosted their flexibility. Case in point: When an outfield collision in the third game of the season knocked Schwarber out for the year with a torn ACL, Maddon filled his spot on the roster with an eerily similar player. Willson Contreras, despite not making his major league debut until June 17, became the fourth player in the past 30 years to appear in at least 20 games in both left field and behind the plate. Only the Cubs would have the depth of multiposition defenders to replace one slugging catcher–left fielder — a species more rare than a coelacanth — with another. Contreras had even less outfield experience than Schwarber, having played just eight professional games before he was called up, all of them in A-ball; but as with Schwarber, the Cubs felt his bat was too valuable to take out of the lineup. You’d normally expect a left fielder with a catcher’s speed to be a liability in the field, but that whole best-BABIP-in-a-generation thing suggests his glove hasn’t hurt them too much.

Also picking up some of the slack in left field was Bryant, who despite being the presumptive NL MVP doesn’t have an everyday defensive position. Bryant started 100 games at third base this season, but also made 36 starts in left field, 12 starts in right field, six at first base, and one at DH during interleague play. The last league MVP to start at least 10 games at three different positions in the field was Stan Musial in 1948, but his starts came only in the three outfield spots. No MVP has ever started 10 games at three different positions that included a non-outfield spot.

New faces were used similarly. The Cubs signed Ben Zobrist in the offseason as much for his versatility — Zobrist had made at least 25 starts at both second base and in the outfield for seven consecutive seasons — as his bat, and Maddon, who had managed Zobrist for many years in Tampa Bay, deployed him widely, pulling him away from second base to start in left field 11 times and in right field 18 times. When Zobrist roamed the outfield, his replacement at second base was typically Javier Báez, who played all over the infield, starting 38 times at second base, 36 times at third base, 21 times at shortstop, and twice at first base, with a couple of innings in the outfield dotted in for fun.

To figure out how unusual this amount of position shuffling is, we need to come up with a metric to measure it. With help from our friends at Baseball Prospectus, we’ve created what we’re calling Flex Score. A team’s Flex Score is calculated by counting up the number of games started by each player at positions aside from their primary position (the one where he started the most). Two caveats: Starts at DH don’t count, and all outfield positions are lumped together as one. Outfield positions are interchangeable enough that we’re not interested in which teams move players from left field to right field and vice versa, or even from center field to one of the corners.

The 2015 Cubs had a Flex Score of 147, which ranks in the top 6 percent of all teams since 1950, as 10 different players made starts at multiple positions during the season. But the 2016 Cubs took that up a notch with a Flex Score of 173. Báez made 59 starts at secondary positions, Bryant 54, Zobrist 29, Contreras 23, Tommy La Stella seven, and Chris Coghlan one.

While that Flex Score ties them for 29th among all teams going back to 1950, it doesn’t even rank first this season: That honor goes to the Cardinals, whose Flex Score of 230 ranks fourth since 1950 thanks to the likes of Matt Carpenter (72 starts at secondary positions) and Jedd Gyorko (61). But unlike the Cardinals, who remained in contention until the final day of the season, most of the teams that rank ahead of the Cubs in this category weren’t very good: The collective record of the 28 teams above them is under .500. That isn’t surprising: Most teams that move players around the field with abandon are either beset by injuries and forced to improvise, or are bad teams flailing around in search of a solution. For some teams, what we call “flexibility” could be a euphemism for “desperation.”

Rarely is a team this flexible by design. Since 1950, just two teams with higher Flex Scores than the 2016 Cubs made the playoffs: the 1992 Oakland A’s and the 1957 New York Yankees. Just three teams with higher Flex Scores have won 90 games:

The most flexible 90-win team since 1950 was managed by … Maddon, with Zobrist in a feature role. How interesting.

In point of fact, all six of these teams had an iconic manager. The 1957 Yankees were run by Casey Stengel, who almost single-handedly brought platooning back into baseball after decades of disuse, implementing a hyperflexible lineup around the fulcrum that was Mickey Mantle to win 10 pennants and seven titles in 12 years. The 1992 A’s and 2001 Cardinals were both helmed by Tony La Russa, who for most of his career was regarded as the most aggressively creative manager in the game. And the 1982 Orioles were blessed to have Earl Weaver, who was maybe the only man on the planet who would have given a player the size of Cal Ripken Jr. the chance to play shortstop, and in early July moved his rookie third baseman to short, Lenn Sakata from short to second base, and Rich Dauer from second base to third base.

As a baseball fan, I find Maddon’s hyperkinetic usage of his roster interesting, different, and fun. But I’m not sure whether it will actually help the Cubs win in October; neither the 1992 A’s nor the 1957 Yankees won a playoff series, after all.

There are two conflicting ways to look at the Cubs’ roster usage. The first is that the incredible roster depth that helped them win so many regular-season games isn’t much of an asset in the playoffs. What wins in the postseason isn’t depth; it’s frontline talent. With all the off days built into the October schedule, a team can start the same lineup every game and give 90 percent of its meaningful innings to four starters and three relievers.

The Cubs have one of the best benches in modern memory. Their backup catcher (Miguel Montero) hit .216/.327/.357. Their other backup catcher (David Ross) hit .229/.338/.446. Their utility infielder (Báez) hit .273/.314/.423. Their other utility infielder (La Stella) hit .270/.357/.405. Their backup outfielders (Matt Szczur, Coghlan, and Albert Almora) all posted an OPS above .700. Twelve different Cubs batted 100-plus times and posted an OPS+ of 95 or higher; only one team in the wild-card era (the 2003 Yankees) had more. That’s a wonderful resource to have when playing six days a week for six months, but it doesn’t do as much good in October when those guys are all on the bench while Jason Heyward starts.

That’s the pessimist’s view, anyway. Here’s the optimist’s view: The Cubs play in the National League, which means that at least until Game 1 of the World Series, they will hold a decisive advantage every time the pitcher’s spot in the lineup comes up from about the sixth inning on. When Maddon wants to call upon a pinch hitter, whether it’s for a pitcher or a position player, he has one of every make and model — left-handers and right-handers, guys who hit for power and guys who hit for average — and the luxury of completely disregarding what his defensive alignment might look like afterward. That depth might be why the Cubs won eight games this season that they were trailing entering the ninth inning, the most by any NL team in the last 10 years. (Only one NL team since 1987 won more than eight games when trailing in the ninth: the 2001 Rockies, who played in a ballpark and an era in which no lead was safe.)

This is a nice luxury to have in any game played under NL rules, but especially so in the postseason, where the combination of lower scoring (due to both better pitching and cooler weather) and more evenly matched opponents make close games more commonplace than they are during the regular season. While one-run games are not significantly more likely (29.3 percent of playoff games in the wild-card era have been decided by one run, compared to 28.4 percent of regular season games), extra-inning games are (10.5 percent vs. 8.6 percent, a 22 percent increase).

As we saw on Tuesday night, managerial decisions become magnified in a tight playoff game, and that AL wild-card game was one in which the managers only had to worry about managing their bullpen, not their bench. If a Cubs playoff game goes into extra innings, Maddon is going to have capable options to pinch hit for the pitcher’s spot long after his opponents run out of them. If he wants to pinch hit for one of his position players to get a favorable matchup, he can use almost anyone with the confidence that he can still field a playable defense, even if it means moving Bryant to left field, or playing Báez anywhere in the infield. For God’s sake, the Cubs won a game this year in which left-handed reliever Travis Wood made a great catch in left field because Maddon took advantage of the rules loophole that allows a pitcher to move to a different position and then move back to the mound. (The Cubs won the game when Jon Lester, a terrible-hitting pitcher, pinch hit in the 12th inning and laid down a walk-off squeeze bunt.)

That so much of the Cubs’ success this season was due to their roster depth makes them a little more vulnerable in the playoffs than it would appear at first blush, because their superior regular season was in part due to an unmatched ability to use their depth to field an elite lineup every game for six months. While that depth will be on the bench to start every October game, it still makes the Cubs particularly dangerous late in close contests. It’s true that they underachieved in close games during the season: The Cubs finished just 22–23 in one-run games, and no previous team in major league history had a losing record in one-run games while winning as many games overall as the Cubs did. But much of that record can be blamed on a bullpen that didn’t get straightened out until Aroldis Chapman arrived at the end of July. And in extra-inning games, the Cubs went 9–4. (It’s also worth noting that the last team to have a losing record in one-run games despite tying for the MLB lead in wins, the 2007 Red Sox, went on to win the World Series.)

If you’re a Cubs fan who will regard anything less than a World Series appearance this season as a failure, the team’s historic flexibility is a mixed blessing: This team is not as likely to dominate in October as it did in the regular season, but is still more prepared than any other team to deliver late-inning heroics. And for those of us who want even more intrigue than the Cubs’ Sisyphean attempt at a championship usually provides, their roster construction will make their playoff run even more fun to watch. The Cubs’ exhilarating carousel on defense means that almost anyone could be playing any position at any time. Imagine a postseason game decided in the 14th inning when a pitcher that Maddon stashed in the outfield for a few batters is challenged to make a great play. As if the Cubs’ quest to win a World Series needed more drama.

Thanks to Rob McQuown of Baseball Prospectus and Zach Kram for research assistance.