CHICAGO — In the first inning of their July 22 game against the Cardinals, Cubs outfielders Jon Jay and Jason Heyward nearly botched a routine fly ball.
St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham popped Jon Lester’s four-seamer into the air between Jay and Heyward, and though it was his job as the center fielder, Jay didn’t call for the ball. The two nearly collided, but Heyward snagged the ball anyway. After throwing the ball back to the infield, Heyward took a few moments to speak to his center fielder, likely discussing the importance of communication.
For the Cubs, who rely heavily on defensive flexibility from nearly all members of the lineup, successful execution in moments like these requires considerable preparation.
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“It’s better to have the communication early and talk about it, because if you don’t, then you’re going to have those moments when the game gets by you really quickly,” Heyward told Sporting News hours before that July game. “Even when we’re all lined up, it still doesn’t work out sometimes.”
This emphasis on defensive flexibility is creeping into the league, and Joe Maddon, Cubs manager and early purveyor of the strategy, knows its value, as well as the importance of keeping his players ready to be flexible.
“They usually know the day before,” Maddon told Sporting News, referring to when his players are going to be in the lineup in a different defensive spot. “I really think when you break guys in like that initially, they enjoy it and they like the idea of carrying several different gloves.”
Cubs players such as Kris Bryant, Ian Happ, Willson Contreras and Javier Baez have all come through the system and embraced the value of defensive flexibility, but Ben Zobrist has made a career out of it.
During his time under Maddon with the Rays, Zobrist mastered the process of preparing to play different spots, and that has continued with him in Chicago. For Zobrist, the preparation is about timing.
“Every three, four, five days to a week, you need to be hitting on certain things, to be ready for whatever happens in the game,” Zobrist said. “You can kind of tell when you’re a little bit out of practice at different positions, whether it’s seeing the ball off the bat or your first move in those positions.”
The Cubs are the fifth-ranked team on defense in 2017, according to Fangraphs, and though they can’t replicate the dazzling glovework of their championship season last year, their 17.5 DEF rating places them nearly on par with where they finished in 2015, when they won 97 games and advanced to the NLCS.
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These defensive ratings can fluctuate rather wildly from year to year, so just assuming Maddon’s philosophy of moving his players around the diamond has any firm benefit on defense is tricky. For example, in the two seasons before Maddon took the reigns in Chicago, the Cubs logged DEF ratings of 43.3 in 2013 and then -4.6 in 2014.
But both Heyward and Zobrist said being fluid on defense has been something they have embraced, and that the extra preparation has benefited them. Heyward, who had played only 233 innings in center field between 2012 and 2015 with the Braves and Cardinals, has already surpassed that number in just two seasons with the Cubs. The biggest difference Heyward has seen in spending so much more time in center has been the level of communication it requires.
“You’re surrounded by more people; you have two guys next to you and two guys in front of you,” Heyward said, emphasizing the need to communicate not just with his fellow outfielders, but with the middle infielders as well. “You have to take charge and communication has to be up even more.”
From the beginning of his career, Zobrist has rotated on defense from the infield to left and right field. But even years later, he said, infield is more demanding.
“I have to do more infield stuff than outfield; I have to make sure I get my ground ball stuff first,” he said. “At second base, I work on turning the double play and things that are a little bit awkward and different and specific to that position.”
The outfield, Zobrist said, is less technical than physical.
“There’s the need to stretch the arm out because that’s two different kinds of throws,” he said. “You have the short and quick throws to get it there as quick as possible, and then you’ve got the one that you really need to put something on from the outfield, so I need to make sure I’m getting long toss in.”
This might mean backing up to the outfield wall and throwing the ball all the way to the infield, a practice sometimes used by pitchers rehabilitating from arm injuries to build up their strength.
One of the more unique challenges Zobrist faces is when, during a game, he has to move from second base to the outfield or vice versa. This often means he has to make adjustments at a moment’s notice, rather than having days to practice the necessary nuances.
“The biggest thing is just seeing the ball off the bat. If you’re talking about the difference of 150 feet, it’s a different look, especially if you’re on a different side of the field,” he said. “So you just have to focus a little bit more in the first inning or so in that new position.”
If he gets good reads on the ball in the infield, it’s fairly easy to move to the outfield during a game, Zobrist said. But the reverse is not necessarily true.
“If I’m in the outfield, it’s much more difficult to come in [to the infield] because you’re closer to the action,” he said. “Your steps have to be shorter and more concise in regards to your first step in the infield.”
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Part of what makes the outfield less technical, Zobrist said, is a slightly larger margin for error. Outfielders can make more of what he called “false moves” and sometimes get away with them, but these would be hugely detrimental to an infielder. That’s partly why, Zobrist believes, it’s easier for infielders to move out than for outfielders to come in.
“A lot of infielders who are good infielders could translate into outfielders pretty easily, but it’s more rare for an outfield guy to be good at infield,” Zobrist said. “But that’s where a guy like Jason Heyward is so exceptional. He takes very few false steps, and his path to the ball, knowing whether to slide or stay up, and once he gets to the ball, knowing what to do with it, getting rid of it with a lot of accuracy and velocity … he’s one of those guys who, in my opinion, could translate to the infield pretty easily.”
For now, Heyward is content to master two of the outfield spots, and that’s work enough. Right field, his natural position, is less demanding in terms of communication, but it means relying on someone else to act like the captain on defense. As a center fielder, Heyward said, he has to not only stay mindful of the game situation, but also of who is with him on defense that day — not always an easy task when that changes with such regularity — and of what they are capable.
“I can get a feel pretty quickly on who can do what,” Heyward said. “The goal is to try to take the thinking out of it and allow it to be as natural as possible.”
The moving around that defensive flexibility requires can have unrelated positives, Maddon said.
“If you have to be more concerned about preparing yourself to play multiple positions defensively, you just don’t get locked into hitting all the time, and so I think there’s a benefit, I really do,” Maddon said. “Some people might argue against this and say it’s the exact opposite, but I think it actually can help a guy hitting-wise because he is able to throw his last at-bat into the garbage can, if necessary, and grab his glove and go out there, especially if it’s a position he doesn’t play often because he really needs to focus on defense.”
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This could be the case; the Cubs have not only reached the playoffs in both of Maddon’s first two seasons in Chicago, but, while acknowledging the many variables embedded in this statistic, their team average has steadily risen — from .238 in 2013 to .256 last season.
Whether or not defensive flexibility is a benefit at the plate, Maddon has been clear about his belief that defense will be the deciding factor in whether the Cubs make noise in the postseason in 2017, saying at the January Cubs Convention that winning it all again would have to be a “D-Peat.”
And though the team’s defense has not collectively been as strong as in its championship season, Maddon’s players are willing to put in the work and embrace flexibility.