Soccer meets baseball: How training with a goalkeeper helped Cubs’ Patrick Wisdom at third base

Wisdom has already provided a defensive highlight this spring.

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Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom makes a leaping catch during a spring training game against the Giants at Sloan Park.

Cubs third baseman Patrick Wisdom makes a leaping catch during a spring training game against the Giants at Sloan Park.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Take a freeze frame of Patrick Wisdom’s leaping catch in the Cubs’ spring-training opener and he almost looks like a goalkeeper.

He was robbing the Giants’ Blake Sabol of a base hit, snagging a line drive over his head. But replace the baseball with a soccer ball and he could have been making a last-ditch effort to push a shot over the crossbar.

It’s not a coincidence. In the offseason, Wisdom worked with former professional soccer goalie and coach Ben Dragavon, who’s based near Wisdom’s Seattle-area home.

“I think if you watch him play third base throughout the course of the season this year, you’re gonna see a marked improvement over last year,” said Cubs bench coach Andy Green, who works with the infielders. “He’s just in a good mental space. His body works really well. He’s good over there.”

Even with a tight competition at third, Wisdom is expected to be on the Opening Day roster. He has been a staple for the Cubs since they called him up in 2021, which makes him one of the longest-tenured players on a team that has seen plenty of turnover in recent years. He has proven how well-rounded he can be. Now it’s about consistency on both sides of the ball. His defense and cannon arm stood out in 2021. But last year, he committed a career-high and team-worst 14 errors at third.

“Had a little bit of a step back last year,” manager David Ross said. “But I think we identified some of the issues there, and he’s got a lot of skills over there that can be great for us.”

Wisdom focused this offseason on body position, his first step and being explosive — all of which also translate to goalkeeping.

Of course, it’s not a 1-to-1 comparison. Fielding a line drive may require the same movements as defending a penalty kick, but a third baseman charges in and drops back more than a goalkeeper ever should. Wisdom appreciated Dragavon’s willingness to have those conversations and figure out how to best adapt the program.

“The general thing was just putting yourself in a good position to go in or take that step back,” Wisdom said, “instead of being [compromised] and then overreaching, or just not being powerful.”

He and Dragavon did a footwork drill with two rings, where the goal was for both feet to hit the ground at the same time. Dragavon gave Wisdom new cues. Instead of “heavy step” one way, it was “drive your thighs” that direction.

“That’s what I love about Ben,” Wisdom said. “He’s so open to, ‘OK, how are you perceiving this information? What are you telling yourself?’ ”

On offense, Wisdom had a head-scratching 2022. He led the Cubs in home runs (25), improved his walk rate from the year before (8.5% to 9.9%) and brought down his strikeout rate (40.8 % to 34.3%). But his batting average sank to .207.

“I think in between the ears, honestly, was the main culprit,” he said.

Some minor mechanical tweaks may give him a wider margin for error in the strike zone.

“But a huge thing is pitch selection on what I do damage on, instead of trying to be stubborn and ego-driven and beat the pitcher on his best pitch,” Wisdom said. “It might not be something that I hit well, but I want to prove data and everybody wrong.”

Results during the first couple of weeks of spring training — when hitters are trying to find their timing and pitchers aren’t pitching to a scouting report — aren’t a good measure of a hitter’s offseason work. And Wisdom was out for about a week with tightness in his groin, leaving only three games to judge as of Tuesday. But he has gone 2-for-6 with a pair of walks.

“Mostly just building a foundation of trust in myself was a big part of the offseason,” he said.

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