After colliding in the outfield yesterday, both Jason Heyward and Kris Bryant are not in the lineup today. It raises the importance and difficulty of communication in the outfield and the safety issues that come with it when it fails.
During my first spring training as a newly drafted Chicago Cubs player, I met the intense outfield instructor, Jimmy Piersall. He was notable because of his personality and passion, but from a player who was learning from him, he was also known for his drills.
One of those drills centered around communication, the art of learning how to “talk” to another outfielder through verbal code, but also through visual cues and fundamental understanding of where you should be on a given play. This also tells everyone who does what after you send that message.
Most balls hit to the outfield are basic enough, those that do not involve the sun, a wall, or a Bo Jackson type figure running towards you at 20 mph who may not hear you over the screaming crowd.
But just enough plays are risky, not just because bad communication could lead to turning an easy out into a triple, but because bad communication gets someone hurt.
This was burned into my brain from drill after drill with outfield coaches during years of spring training and pregame rituals, from the beginning of my career to its very end.
Kris Bryant is the rare combination of a powerful offensive force with utility defense. He can play third base, first base, left field and right field. And like a Ben Zobrist, it challenges him to learn everything from bunt defenses to gap communication in the outfield. This is not a simple task given the many scenarios that come up during the game.
As an outfielder, he will have moments when he realizes that certain balls are hit in no man’s land. That space where more than one fielder can call it, maybe more than two could get to it and make the play. So, whose ball is it?
The outfield has a pecking order. The center fielder is the captain. His voice carries the most weight, even if you think he is wrong. Then outfielders have priority over infielders. No matter how fancy a play Javy Baez is about to make, an outfielder charging hard in for a ball who does not have to take his eye off of it, has the easier play unless the infielder is camped under it.
In short, infielders still in motion need to just get out of the way if the outfielder is calling it. But as Piersall used to remind us, you have to call for the ball repeatedly early (while yelling) "I got it! I got it!" Never say “you take it,” which is confusing when you can’t hear much but basic sounds.
This priority game within the game is learned through experience and repetition in the game and in practice. It will help you know who should have gotten out of the way, who needs to call the ball more loudly, who needs to shift into the backup position in case the ball is missed. It is all a fine tuned choreography that is known before the ball is even hit.
Still, there will come a time for that in-between ball. The one where the wind is playing tricks and the captain does not want to call the ball too early. The one where the sun could get in your eyes just after you called it. The one that is about to land in the exact midpoint between the two defenders when they will arrive roughly at the same time. Nasty.
The only defense for that is for someone to call the ball early and often to clear the space from contact. Loudly and repeatedly, because the more fans at the game who are excited by the play, the less you can hear. Like a good quarterback, you have to have a plan for when it will be hard to hear your play-calling because you are inside of a domed stadium. May even have to call an audible.
I learned this lesson the hard way. In one spring training drill, we did a communication set. We all took turns being the corner outfielder and the center fielder. The coach hit a ball right between us, someone had to call it, usually the center fielder because he was the captain. The other outfielder peeled behind him and vice versa if necessary. But on one play, I ran right into my 240 pound right fielder after I called it late. That will wake you up when you run into someone who is 60 pounds heavier that you.
The good news is I played an entire career of well over 1000 games and did not have any major injury from a collision (nor did I hurt anyone.) Still, I recall three memorable collisions.
In order of least damage to most:
1) A ball was coming down in the Bermuda Triangle of the outfield and infield. Pat Burrell, me and Jimmy Rollins came together, Burrell was able to escape, I caught the ball as Jimmy was going out, and he ran into my glove hand and knocked the ball out. The collision smacked off his glasses and nearly his jaw, but thankfully he was OK. Rollins was awarded an error, to add insult to his bruise.
2) While I was playing in Texas, a soft line drive was hit in between me in center field and the bulldozer of a man, Laynce Nix, in right field. Nix had played a lot of center field up until this point, which forces him to have to learn how to play the submissive role as a corner outfielder. Former center fielders are usually pretty stubborn at first when it comes to being called off. Nevertheless, out of the corner my eye, I saw that he was not slowing down so I slid and crashed right into his chest as he slid. Somehow, we caught the ball. I was sore for three days.
3) By far the one that made me realize how lucky I was. It was in the 2003 Cubs run to the postseason. Augie Ojeda was playing shortstop. Pop up over short, I come charging in from left field, while Ojeda tries to make a diving over the shoulder catch as I slid in for the ball. His head hit right below my eye and amazingly all I had was two black eyes for a while.
So there is such a place called no man’s land. You hear the word “un-callable.” But I push back on that word. Every ball is callable, just that it may not be the right call. But there are times you call the ball aggressively just to get someone out of the way. You may even be wrong, but at least you don’t get or cause a concussion either.
This can be a drawback of super utility, it takes a lot of time to build that communication trust between outfielders and infielders. There is instinct involved which can shorten that learning curve, but it is difficult when multiple players are moving around to multiple positions.
It is hard to fully know what happened even when we unpack it. Heyward explained that he did call the ball, and it can be hard to hear at certain time and places, forcing you to rely on visual cues.
We saw the worst of it when Kyle Schwarber was out for the season after Dexter Fowler ran into him early in the 2016 season. You have two different perspectives of the same play. And your job as outfielders is to be able to look through the same set of eyes while making the right decision for both the play and for safety. Many failures don’t show up in the box score. Double, triple, single, even home run; but when they show up on the IL, we truly remember what is at stake.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.