Cubs want their outfielders thinking about adjustments, not analytics

“I don’t want my guys playing outfield like a robot. I want them to go out and play,” outfield coach Willie Harris said.

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John Antonoff/Chicago Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — Analytics have changed how the baseball industry views many areas of the game, from production to lineup construction to defense.

While some analytics have helped the game, others sometimes have made it more difficult for players to use their natural instincts.

Striking a balance between what is too much and what is just enough is a constant battle teams and players have to deal with. Defensive positioning in the outfield is one such area where that balance comes into play.

New Cubs left fielder Joc Pederson has been known more for his bat than for his glove during his seven-year big-league career, but he thinks he has a chance to show more defensively this season without some of the limitations of analytics.

‘‘I just felt a little bit restricted [by the analytics],’’ Pederson said. ‘‘I think before . . . I was more free going off more feel rather than analytics. I understand the analytics, and I understand that they work. It’s [not a negative] comment toward them because they’ve been successful, but I think I just am better off with a little bit more feel and being more athletic out there rather than standing in certain spots where they hit the ball the majority of the time.’’

Pederson, who played his first seven seasons with the Dodgers, said he has been comfortable working with the Cubs’ outfielders and coaches, who are allowing him to use his natural athleticism more.

Defensive-positioning charts aren’t out of the ordinary in the majors, and viewers often will see outfielders go into their back pocket and pull out a small card with numbers and positioning for each hitter. While most teams use them, some are more strict about not straying from what those numbers say.

‘‘I don’t want my guys playing outfield like a robot,’’ Cubs outfield coach Willie Harris said. ‘‘I want them to go out and play. Now, we do have a system in place that we go off of and we use that, but I also want the guys to use their feel. They’re out there playing the game. So when you see some things that analytics can’t see, you make adjustments.

‘‘I just don’t want the guys to be out there . . . thinking, ‘I have to stand here.’ Our pitchers attack hitters differently. We have some guys that throw 89 [mph]; we have some guys still 95. So use your feel and make your judgment on all that information.’’

Last season was Ian Happ’s first full year playing center field, and having a plan of attack as the captain of the outfield was a priority. But after having routine conversations with the coaching staff and his fellow outfielders, adjusting naturally during games has become easier.

‘‘We do a good job as an outfield of communicating with [assistant pitching coach Mike Borzello] and [pitching coach Tommy Hottovy] with the way the pitchers are gonna attack hitters,’’ Happ said. ‘‘I think those guys are the best in the world at using the analytics to know where the balls are going to be put in play.

‘‘But you also have to have a feel with that for how guys are getting pitched. And guys aren’t the same every day. It’s not a video game. You can’t expect them to do the same thing over and over again.’’

Regardless of numbers, metrics and charts, Harris wants his outfielders to keep things simple. And with a perennial Gold Glove winner in Jason Heyward in right field and two athletic outfielders in left and center, he thinks his group can do just that.

‘‘The message has been pretty much: ‘Just be yourself. Be who you are. Know what you’re capable of doing and go out there and do that,’ ’’ Harris said. ‘‘I can’t ask Joc to go out there and be Jason Heyward. I can’t ask Ian Happ to go out there and be Joc Pederson. Just be who you are, man. You guys understand the game, you know how to play the game, so just go out and play.’’ 

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