One of the things that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has always valued has been the defensive flexibility of his players. The more they are comfortable moving around on the field, the more options it gives him to get different bats in the lineup or to rest players as they need it.
But on a day-to-day basis, Maddon has the dual responsibility of trying to optimize his lineup on offense and of putting his best defense on the field. And the Cubs have struggled in both of those ways at different times. The offense can be streaky, and the defense that led all of baseball in defensive runs saved in 2016 is now solidly middle of the pack while also sitting sixth in baseball in number of errors.
In order to keep all this moving around on defense from becoming a detriment to the team, the guys have to put in extra work to stay prepared. One piece of that is the communication between Maddon, the coaches and the players about when they're playing where.
"Communicatively it is impossible not to be better," Maddon said Sunday. "Really good, straight up conversations that are very, very productive."
Maddon said that after a first half that was downright sloppy at times, the team stepped up communication during the All-Star break and in the games since starting the second half. There has more openness and thicker skin to absorb constructive criticism, Maddon said, something that's vital to making this work.
In Sunday's lineup, for instance, five-time gold glover Jason Hewyard is shifted to center field and Kris Bryant is in right. From a defensive numbers standpoint, this would seem like a sub-optimal approach. Heyward is arguably the best right fielder in baseball, but the drop off when he moves to center is significant.
Thus far in 2019, Heyward has been worth 10 defensive runs saved in right field, but according to Fangraphs, he has cost 6 runs in center. His UZR/150 rating in center is less than half as good as it is in right. And he has plenty of experience in both spots; already this season Heyward has logged 253 innings in center field to his 454 innings in right.
For Bryant, who Maddon has said is playing the best third base of his career, moving to the outfield is a much bigger adjustment, but the communication from Maddon and the coaching staff has helped him handle it.
"I’ve always moved around the field, so it’s fine to me," Bryant said. "It’s just day games when it’s tough here in the outfield with the sun. I lean on guys like Jason and Albert and kind of pick their brains about how they play the outfield. Especially here, because this is a different type of field."
Wrigley has certainly long been known for its quirkiness. Bryant, like many players before him, said that he knows to check the flags and knows that the sun on day games makes his job in the outfield a little tougher.
"It hits right field between the 5-6-7 innings, and it’s tough. I mean, you almost have to come at the ball sideways or at a completely different angle just to keep the sun away from the ball," Bryant said. "Usually you’re taught to get to position, get right under the ball, and catch it. Here, when the sun’s there, it’s almost better to catch the ball on the run. That way you’re not just sitting there and it’s not in the sun."
Maddon said that, especially on hot afternoons, his outfielders have to practice a routine they learned from the late Ken Ravizza, who came to the Cubs with Maddon in 2015, to prepare themselves pre-pitch every time the ball is thrown. In the space before the pitch, they'll think of the circle that they're standing in and step out of it, even turning their back momentarily to the plate, walk around just a few feet, and then zero in on home plate for the next pitch. They're also encouraged to practice visualization to help them anticipate what they will need to do in different scenarios if the ball is hit to them, and how.
"It really comes down to you have to be focused as the pitch is crossing home plate. That’s where it begins," Maddon said. "These are the things that you need to be able to do, and that’s what makes you a good defensive player, that thought in advance of the actual occurrence."
Sunday's lineup, Maddon said, is largely a product of him trying to put the right guys in place for starter Jose Quintana, who gives up more flyballs than Saturday's starter Jon Lester. And then there's the opposing pitching matchup to consider. David Bote matches up against Pirates starter Trevor Williams well, thus Bryant in right field.
Maddon said that he errs on the side of optimizing his groundball defense because the Wrigley outfield dimensions play differently than most other ballparks. There aren't big gaps, so putting someone out there with less range doesn't have as much of an impact.
"But the ground is the ground. When you get a heavy groundball pitcher you definitely want your guys out there," Maddon said.
Even with the high levels of communication and the players' willingness to move around on defense -- Bryant is one Maddon has said is especially amenable to this -- it's still worth wondering if all this moving around isn't at times doing more harm than good. After all, the players are still learning.
"I’m still a work in progress out there [in the outfield]," Bryant said. "I’ve played quite a bit out there, but it’s not like I know how to handle certain things 100% yet, but I think I do a fine job."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Cubs games easily on your device.