One of the benefits of playing the same position every day in baseball is familiarity. You know where you’re supposed to be, you know where your teammates are supposed to be and, in theory, everybody lives happily ever after.
Mistakes still happen. ESPN’s “Not Top 10 of the Week” regularly features otherwise coordinated baseball players running into each other, losing balls in the sun or tripping over their clown shoes. In general, though, predictability is a wonderful thing that keeps the game running smoothly.
The Cubs’ Kris Bryant, a third baseman by trade, had to leave the game Sunday against the Reds after running into teammate Jason Heyward. Bryant was playing right field, which is Heyward’s normal position. Heyward was playing center field, which is normally Albert Almora’s position. Almora was playing catcher . . . OK, I made that last part up.
Bryant was out of the lineup Monday in Houston after hurting his head and neck the day before. The Cubs say he’s still under observation. He and Heyward had sprinted for a fly ball in the gap. Heyward called for it, but Bryant didn’t hear him. No one can say with any certainty that two every-day outfielders playing their regular positions wouldn’t have collided in the same situation. But that kind of collision is more likely to happen when players are manning relatively unfamiliar workstations.
Here’s what we know for sure: If Bryant had been playing third base, the only place he would have run into Heyward was the dugout.
This brings us to manager Joe Maddon, because it always does. The collision restarted the mighty debate between those of us who would prefer to see regular, predictable lineups and those of you who are sure the Cubs are better when Maddon is spinning his lineup wheel.
The argument from the pro-change crowd is that the Cubs are so talented and so deep that Maddon has to move his players like chess pieces to get everyone at-bats. The argument from those of us pushing for lineup stability is that David Bote, although a nice player, isn’t worth constant turbulence on the field.
When players complained after last season about a lack of communication from Maddon as to when and where they would be playing from game to game, he agreed to let them know future lineups several days in advance. I suspect that the issue goes deeper, that it’s not only about communication. Players want to play the position they’re used to playing, and they’d prefer to hit in the same place in the order. They like routine. That’s not where the game is at right now, but that doesn’t mean players are comfortable with it.
Every good idea has negatives. While Maddon is resting starters, getting Bote, Daniel Descalso and Ben Zobrist (when he’s in uniform) more at-bats and setting up various batting orders that might seem most advantageous to the team, he’s also exposing his club to risks. One of those risks is what happened Sunday at Wrigley Field. It’s not good when you see one of your star players (Bryant) running full-speed at a 6-5, 240-pound man who likewise is running as fast as he can.
I think it’s fair to say that if Heyward had been playing right field that day, he would have known it was the center fielder’s ball. In my perfect world, that would have been Almora.
This is a losing battle, I know. The Cubs are married to their approach. They won a World Series using it, they won at least 92 games each of the previous four seasons using it and they’re on pace to win more than 90 games this season using it. They very well could have had the same results using a fairly rigid lineup, but no one can say for sure. To the victor go the spoils.
All we know is that, with Almora getting some rest, with Heyward playing center and with the apparently uber-important Bote playing third base, Bryant was starting in right field against Cincinnati for the eighth time this season. And we know he ran for a ball and that he collided with Heyward.
Bryant had a rough 2018 because of a shoulder injury. When he did play, he lacked the power that helped him win the 2016 National League Most Valuable Player award. But after a slow start this season, he has pushed his batting average up to .283, and his 12 home runs are tied for third-most on the team. To see him walking off the field slowly after the collision surely made Cubs fans shiver.
Hopefully, it will be a short-term problem, and the Cubs will be able say the whole thing was no big deal.
Until the next time, when it might be.