Pete Crow-Armstrong already has produced numerous highlight-reel worthy catches as he heads into his second full season of professional baseball.
So when asked to rate his most recent diving grab in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s Cactus League win against the Texas Rangers — smoothly navigating the impending wall as he leaped while crossing over onto the warning-track dirt — Crow-Armstrong remarked, “Oh, that’s up there.” The play kept the game tied, preventing the runner on second base from scoring.
In breaking down his catch, Crow-Armstrong noted how the baseball came off the bat of right-handed hitter Ezequiel Duran, making it easier for him to judge the play because of the expected trajectory and descent of the ball. If it had been hit to the right-center field gap by a lefty, that play’s difficulty would have been amplified with the way the ball would have landed.
“So I wouldn’t say that was the hardest catch I’ve ever made in my life,” Crow-Armstrong told the Tribune. “But what made it a little difficult was the sun and then the last second having to recheck where I was because it was smoked and it was hit low, but it kept carrying so I was a little wary of the wall toward the end of that route.”
Crow-Armstrong, rated the Cubs’ No. 1 prospect, has made a strong impression on his big-league teammates and the coaching staff. Third-base coach Willie Harris, who works with the outfielders, said Crow-Armstrong’s track record “speaks volumes of what he’s capable of doing in the outfield.”
Harris touted everything Crow-Armstrong does to put himself in position to make those elite catches: a great first step, quickness and his prepitch setup. All of which rate as plus-plus attributes.
“From a defensive standpoint — and I will go out on a limb and say this — he’s going to be one of the top-10 center fielders to ever play out there,” Harris told the Tribune. “That’s what I see in him. That’s my expectation from him. He’s very, very good defensively. It’s fun to watch.
“PCA’s in a different league, man, and I’m not saying that to knock anyone. … I mean, I feel like he can help our major-league club right now defensively. We have to understand the situation and stick to the process, but he’s going to be a very special player for a long time.”
Crow-Armstrong, who turns 21 on March 25, is using his first major-league camp experience with the Cubs to soak in as much information as he can. Sometimes that involves in-depth conversations. He also relies on visual learning, gleaning knowledge on positioning and mechanics from watching other outfielders. He has worked with an outfield group that includes Gold Glove winners Ian Happ and Cody Bellinger and is getting an extended opportunity as a midgame replacement with the Cubs missing a few players, such as outfielder Ben DeLuzio, because of the World Baseball Classic.
“I mean, that’s a really hard catch but doesn’t surprise me, though, coming from him,” said Bellinger, who has known Crow-Armstrong a few years. “I’ve seen him make spectacular plays out there. He’s a very special type of athlete. … I go about my business and hopefully it rubs off the right way for him. He’s been doing a great job in camp.”
As with any developing young player, there are elements of Crow-Armstrong’s defensive game in which he can improve.
One area that stands out to Harris is more consistent throws to the right base. Sometimes there can be a temptation when an outfielder has a great arm to try to throw everyone out, Harris said, rather than keeping the situation in mind. Harris pointed to a throw Crow-Armstrong made Wednesday against Team Canada in the eighth inning when he threw to third on a single to center field that allowed the hitter to reach second, erasing the possibility of keeping the double play in order.
“Things like that come with experience and making mistakes,” Harris said. “And he’ll learn that.”
His brief time in the New York Mets organization helped Crow-Armstrong iron out some deficiencies in his route running. During outfield drills with Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora in spring 2021, they suggested he run with the ball and not try to beat it, explaining it would minimize shakiness when running and allow him to better read when a ball starts to flutter.
Crow-Armstrong called their insight the best piece of outfield advice he has received from a mechanics standpoint.
“I’ve kept that with me the last two years,” Crow-Armstrong said. “A lot of times when I got into trouble and I’d undercut balls was when I tried to beat it to the spot because then you give yourself less time to judge where it’s going.”
Crow-Armstrong must continue to progress offensively as he moves through the Cubs minor-league system to become the type of all-around player the organization believes he can be. He showed signs of his offensive potential in 101 games between Low-A Myrtle Beach and High-A South Bend, hitting .312/.376/.520, but knows there still is room for offensive growth.
Part of that includes stealing more bases. Crow-Armstrong wishes he had been more active in the run game after recording 32 stolen bases in 2022. Although he entered Friday hitting 2-for-16 through 11 spring games, he has stolen four bases and has been caught twice. He believes the key to stealing more bases is a combination of cleaning up his first move and conviction in his reaction.
“I need to utilize my speed a little bit more than I did,” Crow-Armstrong said. “But it’s nice. I mean, the goal of spring training is to get your feeling back. I’m definitely not satisfied with the results I’ve had hitting-wise, but getting on base, getting to practice my jumps and stuff like that has been huge, so I’ll take however I can get on base right now.”