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How Cubs' Nick Madrigal made the move to third base

Ryan Herrera Avatar
January 23, 2024

About a year ago at this time, there weren’t a ton of believers outside of the Cubs’ organization that Nick Madrigal could be a viable option at third base.

He didn’t really have the physical attributes of a typical third baseman, particularly when it comes to arm strength. The Cubs also had other players in the mix who at least had professional experience at the spot. Meanwhile, even going back to his time in college at Oregon State, Madrigal had none.

But when the Cubs signed Gold Glove shortstop Dansby Swanson to a seven-year deal, sliding Nico Hoerner — who eventually signed an extension before Opening Day — back to second base to create an elite up-the-middle defensive tandem, Madrigal became the odd man out. The Cubs approached him about trying his hand at third, and knowing that was his best route for consistent playing time, he took it seriously.

“Going into spring training, they kind of gave me a heads up that third base might be one of the only spots that maybe I could get some time at,” Madrigal told CHGO during a sit-down interview at the Cubs Convention. “Before that, I hadn’t played any third base at all. It was something new to me. I immediately in the offseason had an idea that that might be the case, so I started watching tons of film and just guys around the league and just try to study as best I could.”

It was a new frontier for Madrigal, a position he’d have to pick up fast if he wanted a shot at playing every day. And with that came the nerves of trying to learn it essentially on the fly.

“To be completely honest, there’s tons of anxiety, especially in the beginning,” Madrigal said. “It helped to get more and more innings under my belt. But especially in the beginning, I felt still uncomfortable over there. I remember our first couple games in spring training, they wanted to see how I could do it on my own, so they kind of just threw me out there and just, ‘Let’s see what you got and then we’ll start coaching you.’

“But I didn’t know where to stand. I was kind of almost making it up. We went into some different shifts, and I had no idea. I’m kind of looking at Dansby, looking at my position, just kind of trying to almost wing it.”

There were clear differences in playing third and playing second that Madrigal had to adjust to.

For one, just where third basemen look during a pitch is important. Whereas at second base Madrigal could actually watch the ball go into the zone, at third base, he’d have to quickly move his eyes to the zone as the pitcher is about to release the ball and read the hitter.

There’s also the fact that the ball just comes at you a lot quicker at third base (they don’t call it “the hot corner” for no reason). While he would have more ground to cover at second, he would also have more time to read the hops and take the right angle (not to mention the shorter throw to the first). That time is cut down at third base, so Madrigal really focused on his pre-pitch routine so he could be “ready to fire out of the first step.”

“It’s crazy,” he said. “It comes down to a split second of, if I’m not down ready to field the ball, I might be late first step. It’s just a lot of little things that fans don’t see behind the scenes.”

All that work eventually paid off, as Madrigal showed he was no slouch at his new position. Though he had two separate stints on the injured list and even spent time in Triple-A after getting optioned in May, he made 72 appearances (61 starts) at third and racked up eight Defensive Runs Saved and 10 Outs Above Average.

Though he wasn’t making a ton of Nolan Arenado-esque highlights in foul territory, he proved making the position switch was the right call. But even still, manning his new spot hasn’t necessarily become “easy” for him.

“As I started getting more and more innings, more balls hit to me, I started to settle in a little bit,” Madrigal said. “I felt like the game started slowing down on the defensive side a bit. But even throughout the year, I mean, I was out there saying prayers, just trying to stay calm. It was so much different. Luckily it went all right out there. It’s still a work in progress, but I felt like towards the end of the year, I felt more comfortable out there.”

Madrigal hasn’t locked down the position long term, and it’s possible the Cubs’ third baseman of the future is someone else in the organization.

But for 2024 at least, the things he managed to accomplish at third base in 2023 have him firmly in the mix for the spot come Opening Day.

Check out the rest of CHGO’s interview with Nick Madrigal below to hear him talk dealing with injuries in his career, the Cubs’ offseason additions, spending his time in the majors in Chicago and more.

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