CHICAGO — For the best defense to play in this town since the 1985 Bears, the time had come for an audible.
So Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo retrieved a new glove and stationed himself to the left of the pitcher’s mound, yielding his position at the bag to second baseman Javier Baez.
With Giants pitcher Johnny Cueto at the plate and Conor Gillaspie at first base in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday night, the Cubs aligned themselves to defend against a bunt.
When Jon Lester pitched out, catcher David Ross noticed that Gillaspie strayed too far from the bag at first. Ross unleashed a quick throw to first, and the airtight Cubs defense rejoiced as they wiped away yet another baserunner.
Defense wins championships in baseball, too. And the Cubs perfected that old art on the way to 103 wins this season. No team this season was better at converting batted balls into outs.
“That’s been our DNA primarily, especially in this ballpark,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said before Game 2 on Saturday night. “To really be able to catch the ball and help our pitcher in that method.”
When it comes to fielding percentage and errors, the Cubs rank in the middle of the pack, but those numbers don’t tell the full story. When measured by advanced metrics that take into account how much ground they cover, they rise above the pack.
Their errors have been a product of simply getting to more batted balls than everyone else, a product of a roster designed with athleticism and versatility in mind.
That was apparent on Friday night, even on a play the Cubs didn’t make. Leftfielder Ben Zobrist whiffed on a sinking liner that many wouldn’t even have been close enough to attempt a play.
The primary beneficiaries of that glovework have been Cubs pitchers, whose NL-best 3.15 ERA was nearly a half-run better than the competition.
“The quarterback gets all the glory,” Lester said. “But at the end of the day, if you’re allowing a bunch of points, it doesn’t really matter. Our defense has been unbelievable all year with guys bouncing around different positions.”
Baez, whose eighth-inning homer won Game 1, 1-0, had been inserted into the lineup mostly for his stellar defense at second base. He has played all over the infield, giving Maddon the flexibility to deploy him as needed.
Slugging MVP candidate Kris Bryant has proved to be an adept fielder at third base and at both corner outfield spots. That versatility is part of the reason that he is expected to come away with the coveted award.
Shortstop Addison Russell covers more ground at his position that perhaps anybody else in baseball. Jason Heyward was signed partly because of his work in rightfield. And behind the plate, Ross led the big leagues in pickoffs despite splitting time at the position.
It was Ross’s throw that tied together a bunt play that Giants manager Bruce Bochy hadn’t seen since his days playing for Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams. The Cubs had employed a similar tactic against the Pirates at the end of the regular season, and the dry run paid off.
According to Bochy, the Giants did have a play on in the third inning after Gillaspie led off with a single. He simply got caught straying too far from the bag. “With them, it’s a little bit different,” Bochy said. “A lot of clubs don’t do that.”
For the Giants, that willingness to think outside the box only makes a strong defense an even tougher matchup.
During the regular season, the Giants hit only 130 homers, third from the bottom in all of baseball. They relied on putting the ball in play, as reflected by a strikeout rate of only 17.7 percent. They were the toughest team in the National League to strike out.
But the Cubs converted 74.5 percent of batted balls into outs, easily the highest rate in baseball this season, according to Baseball Prospectus. And when that number is adjusted to take their ballpark into consideration, the Cubs didn’t merely lead baseball this season.
Indeed, by this measure, the Cubs own the best defense of all time.