Cubs president Jed Hoyer sees similarities between Pete Crow-Armstrong's and Javy Baez's development paths

Hoyer praised Crow-Armstrong for his contributions in the field and on the basepaths.

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Chicago Cubs center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong safely steals second base during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on June 16.

Pete Crow-Armstrong safely steals second base during the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on June 16.

Michael Reaves/Getty

SAN FRANCISCO — The biggest piece of advice Cubs center fielder Pete Crow-Armstrong carried from his brief time in the Mets’ organization came from taking fly balls with Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora in spring training of 2021, leading into his first pro season.

‘‘It was when I decided that I was better off running with the baseball rather than trying to beat the baseball to the spot,’’ he said in a conversation with the Sun-Times. ‘‘You’re always taught growing up to beat the baseball to the spot, but they actually said, ‘Take a little bit more time to get your read and rely on your speed later if you have to.’ So I’ve always taken that. That’s really worked for me.’’

The fact that Crow-Armstrong has a choice between the two is a testament to his speed. But the way he absorbed the information reflected the hunger for improvement that was as clear when he was a first-round pick out of high school by the Mets as it has been since the Cubs acquired him at the trade deadline in 2021.

This season, he has gone from being among the first round of major-league cuts during spring training to carving out a regular role for himself on the big-league team.

‘‘I think this is the place for him to develop,’’ president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said last week. ‘‘He’s contributing to winning as much as any position player right now. His defense is off the charts and [his] baserunning.’’

Though it’s not a perfect comparison, Hoyer drew a line between Crow-Armstrong’s development and that of a young Javy Báez. Coincidentally, Báez was the big name in the trade that brought Crow-Armstrong to the Cubs.

‘‘In the sense that Javy sort of learned to hit in the big leagues,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘His contribution early on, offensively, was the occasional homer. But he wasn’t getting on base, [and] he was striking out a lot. But his defense was so remarkable that we played him a lot.’’

During the offseason, third-base coach Willie Harris, who also oversees the outfielders, came up with a motto for the group: ‘‘Tear up ten.’’ The outfielders have warmup shirts bearing the saying.

‘‘A lot of people have been wondering what that means,’’ Harris told the Sun-Times. ‘‘I think it’s time for it to come out.’’

It’s a focus on the first 10 feet of the route an outfielder takes.

‘‘That’s going to help our burst, that’s going to help our acceleration, that’s going to help us getting better reads,’’ Harris said. ‘‘PCA, he’s just got it.’’

Though Crow-Armstrong’s speed stands out — and can bail him out even if he misreads a ball in the air — it would be a mistake simply to chalk up his ability in the outfield to his wheels.

‘‘Pete’s first steps are what separates him from the rest,’’ Harris said. ‘‘He has a really good idea of where the ball’s going to land when the ball’s hit. And that’s a gift.’’

Meshing with the whole team

Crow-Armstrong getting a regular run in center also has created a positional rotation that improves the Cubs’ overall defense. Crow-Armstrong, a left-handed hitter, is generally in the lineup against right-handed starters. When he’s in, Cody Bellinger moves from center to first base, giving rookie Michael Busch a day off, or to right, moving Seiya Suzuki to designated hitter.

Suzuki, who won the equivalent of the Gold Glove five times in Japan, has proved he can make great plays in right. But he has had a series of puzzling drops on routine plays in the last couple of seasons. The most memorable came last season in Atlanta, when his missed catch in the eighth inning gave the Braves the lead in a game with wild-card implications.

More recently, he botched a routine fly against the Reds that led to four unearned runs. He then turned around and hit his first career grand slam, throwing down his bat to release some of the frustration, in a game that would end in a 7-5 Cubs victory at the beginning of the month.

‘‘Yips,’’ Suzuki said last week, just as Harris was complimenting him for a catch he made against the retaining wall in right. ‘‘Me today, DH.’’

It seemed like a good sign he could joke about it, rather than continuing to stew.

‘‘That’s a great sign,’’ Harris said. ‘‘If you can’t laugh at yourself — I mean, in the moment, obviously it’s not funny.’’

Pulling Suzuki out of right altogether wouldn’t make sense, but built-in breaks from playing defense eases some of the pressure. And the Cubs get to play two center fielders — Crow-Armstrong and Bellinger — at once. Don’t forget that Bellinger won his 2019 Gold Glove in right.

Besides the ripple effects of playing Crow-Armstrong in center, his speed on the bases has its own effects. The Cubs don’t have another threat like him. Second baseman Nico Hoerner is their next-best base-stealer, but his baserunning prowess stems more from guile than pure speed.

Crow-Armstrong’s sprint speed (30.2 feet per second) is No. 3 in MLB, according to Statcast. He sits just below the Royals’ Bobby Witt Jr. and the Cardinals’ Victor Scott II and just above the Reds’ Elly De La Cruz.

The Cubs opened a four-game series Monday two games out of a wild-card spot in a packed National League race, and Crow-Armstrong holds an invaluable role on a scuffling team with playoff aspirations.

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