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Cubs' Pete Crow-Armstrong learning from 2023 for next opportunity

Ryan Herrera Avatar
January 27, 2024

Trying to draw conclusions from 19 plate appearances and 52 1/3 defensive innings over the first 13 games of a player’s big league career is foolish. Good or bad, that’s just too small a sample to use to determine if someone is going to be a success in the majors or not.

But that doesn’t mean areas of struggle can’t become clear, because even in limited time, those watching top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong’s first taste of the big leagues — which saw him go 0-for-14 with seven strikeouts — could see where he has room for improvement.

“There’s enough to take from it that like, hey, he’s got stuff to work on,” Cubs general manager Carter Hawkins.

That “stuff” includes his ability to handle major league fastballs (four-seamers, sinkers and cutters). Just from watching the 21-year-old’s plate appearances last season, a reasonable takeaway is that he often looked overmatched against the fastball — and particularly against those up in the zone.

Crow-Armstrong saw 11 high fastballs in 2023, swinging at nine of them. The result was one foul ball, one easy popup to shortstop and seven swings and misses (a 77.8 percent whiff rate). He ultimately saw 51 big league fastballs, whiffing on 15 of the 29 he swung at (51.7 percent whiff rate) and posting an overall .132 expected batting average against that pitch group.

Again, those just aren’t big enough samples to draw major conclusions from, but they did give him an idea of what he needed to address this winter. And it didn’t take a long period of self reflection to get there. Even on the penultimate day of the season, he was aware of what he needed to improve on.

After spending November back home in California, Crow-Armstrong headed to the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, Ariz. He’s spent the bulk of the time since working with hitting coach Dustin Kelly, who he already had an established relationship with from Kelly’s time as the Cubs’ minor league hitting coordinator in 2021-22 (which were Crow-Armstrong’s first two years in the system after being acquired at the ’21 deadline).

There hasn’t really been one main area of focus, Crow-Armstrong said, but his work has involved him “feeling athletic again in the box.” Having Kelly around has been instrumental in helping him get back to that feeling.

“He’s done a great job in how to handle me in the cage,” Crow-Armstrong said. “If he feels the need to speak he will, but if I’m asking him questions, he’ll respond. If not, he wants to let me figure stuff out for myself, and I think that’s been a big help. … He lets me be myself. I like to play around and collect different feels and whatnot, physically, so he’s there to kind of rein me in sometimes when the focus of the day does get lost.”

Crow-Armstrong feels president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has been great at laying out expectations from the front office’s perspective. Hawkins also pointed to “getting his swing a little bit more simple” and “being able to handle the high fastball a little bit more effectively” as things they want to see him make progress in.

Maybe some mechanical adjustments could’ve been part of helping Crow-Armstrong make those improvements, but he didn’t think he needed to make changes in his mechanics this winter.

“I mean, I think there could be some underlying mechanical issues with the high pitch,” he said. “I’ve thrown that idea around. But no specific mechanical [changes]. That took care of itself two years ago. I think my swing is in a good spot. The cage time is to feel good again.”

Overall, despite the offensive struggles in his first few weeks with the Cubs, Crow-Armstrong still has a positive mindset. Just gaining knowledge of what it takes to be successful at that level — both from his personal experience and from being around big leaguers — is a positive takeaway for him. So, even though immediate success didn’t come, it’s a learning experience he’ll grow from.

“It feels like two different leagues,” Crow-Armstrong said. “Well, it is, but I recognize that it was such a small sample size, and I still did what I was supposed to do in the sense of playing defense. I had a blunder in Atlanta that I’m not proud of, but those are the learning experiences I feel like I was up there for last year.

“Would it have been nice to make the playoffs? Bet your ass, yeah, obviously. But I think I set myself up well for success going into next year, just because I got to spend time around these guys.”

As far as what next year looks like from him, that’s still up in the air.

The way the roster is currently constructed, there’s certainly a chance he’s on the
Opening Day roster. But the Cubs doing something like re-signing Cody Bellinger would present an obstacle in his path. That, combined with him showing his offseason work led to real progress, will be factors in his roster decision.

“His ability to make those adjustments, bring them into spring training, and countered with just the context of which he comes in, in terms of what players we have, will dictate whether he starts in Iowa or whether he starts in Chicago,” Hawkins said. “But I would say both are on the table.”

Regardless, Crow-Armstrong doesn’t seem to be worried about where he starts the season. He appreciates the time he got to learn at the big league level, and he’s using that to prepare himself for his next opportunity — whenever it comes.

“The way I went about my work based on who I listened to, it set me up really well to kind of know what I gotta do,” Crow-Armstrong said. “Listening to the right people in my clubhouse and using my time correctly, I think that will take all the external stresses away.”

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