By Bruce Levine-
(CBS) — The under belly of the Chicago Cubs’ improved play has been the team’s defense, led by first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
The Cubs were among the worst teams on defense in 2012 and 13 statistically. Part of the issue was due to shortstop Starlin Castro leading the league in errors both seasons. To his credit he has cut those errors in half.
“I have worked hard to get better,” Castro said in late July. “The player we have at first base saves us all a lot of errors.”
That idea is not Castro’s alone as Rizzo’s fine play has begun to challenge Paul Goldschmidt and Adrian Gonzalez for recognition as the best fielding first baseman in the National League. The numbers bear out some of the obvious numbers considered for a Gold Glove award. Entering play on Sunday, Rizzo led all major league first baseman in chances, (1200) assists, (102 ) and putouts (1089 ). He was also ranked fourth in double plays contributing to 94 twin-killings on defense.
2014 has been a breakout season for Rizzo. The 24-year-old infielder should get strong consideration for the Silver Slugger award at first base. That award is given to the top run producer at each position in both leagues.
Rizzo’s nine errors are five more than front-runner Gonzalez. That said the Cubs first baseman’s WAR number on defense and his domination of chances handled, should make it an interesting race to watch as off season awards are handed out.
The Cubs as a team have a .986 fielding average in 2014. That is good for third place in the National League in fielding percentage. After two seasons of bringing up the bottom of league fielding statistics, the Cubs players and coaching staff have much to be happy about with the team’s overall improvement.
“I believe it is a combination of both the staff and the players,” said manager Rick Renteria. “This is still a work in progress for our team but we have had some very clean games on defense in the second half.”
The subtle part of improvement for Rizzo has been on defensive plays without the baseball. That is namely cutoffs.
“I have watched the Cubs play at least a dozen games,” said a National League advance scout. “You see the difference in his play on the cutoffs this year. Last season he was sometimes too deep in his positioning. Rizzo has learned to get up closer to a relay and has a better sense when too cut or let the ball to home.”
The Cubs have a .993 fielding percentage in their last 22 games. That is the highest fielding mark in the major leagues over that period. The Cubs are 11-9 during that span of games beginning August 2.