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What a GM sees when he watches a baseball game

MESA, Ariz. — How does a front-office executive watch a spring training game as compared to the average fan? How is it different than watching a regular-season contest or even a postseason one? On Thursday, Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer gave us an inside look, allowing access to the executive suite for several innings as his team hosted the San Francisco Giants at Sloan Park.

“In season, I’m looking at how well we’re pitching to the scouting report and the rest of our advance preparation and how much we play towards that,” Hoyer says as righty Kyle Hendricks takes the mound in the first inning. “But in spring training, for example, Hendricks’ performance today, I’ll forget by the time I get home.”

From his suite on the third-base side of the field, Hoyer is close enough that he can spot every pitch Hendricks is throwing without the assistance of replay. Some pitches, of course, can look alike.

“One of the best things I did, in my first job, was breaking down tons of film,” Hoyer says. “If you got one wrong, you would hear about it from the major league staff. So, yeah, I can tell every pitch from here. If I was really glued in on Hendricks today, I’d be behind the plate.”

Every day in the spring can bring a different focus. Hoyer might key in on a hitter making an adjustment at the plate or a pitcher working on a mechanical change. With Hendricks, there’s isn’t much for Hoyer to assess. He has developed into a mainstay in the Cubs’ rotation and has a chance to lead the team in innings pitched in 2019.

“If I started listing off his strengths, his ability to repeat his mechanics is exceptional,” Hoyer says, just as Hendricks does exactly that against Giants leadoff hitter Steven Duggar. “It’s like the best golfer being able to do it swing after swing. He has so few misfires. I always joke, he’s the last guy in the world to play darts against.”

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Duggar eventually singles, then Brandon Belt homers two batters later. Though the result is meaningless to Hoyer, he is quick to note the way the ball flies in Arizona. He’s not incorrect; it sounded as though Belt might have cracked his bat on the home run. Again, that’s nothing for an established player.

“I try to get myself in the mindset that guys are preparing for the season,” Hoyer says. “This isn’t the season.”

Hoyer’s attention this game isn’t focused on the mound, though, but on who’s behind it.

“Today, it’s interesting in terms of watching guys not necessarily at their natural positions,” Hoyer says. “That will be my focus.”

The Cubs start David Bote at shortstop, Ian Happ at second base and Kris Bryant in left field against the Giants. It’s not where they’ll normally play during the regular season. The biggest spotlight is on Bote, as he’ll be the backup shortstop while Addison Russell serves his 28-game suspension to start the season. The general manager wants to see how Bote handles himself after playing second base much of the spring. If Hoyer does pick up anything on Bote’s defense, he’ll relay it to infield coach Brian Butterfield. Same goes for Happ, who has mostly played the outfield during his major league career.

The conversation pivots toward communication. Though Hoyer, a former college player, might see something he wants a player to know about, he’ll never go directly to him. That’s what the coaches and manager are for. This applies particularly to hitters, who are getting advice from, well, everyone.

“The number of people that talk to hitters, I can’t control any of them,” Hoyer says. “There are all those external factors. We know outside they’re going to have many voices, but internally, we have to make sure we have one voice.”

Hoyer is asked if he has ever — even once — gone to a player in an official capacity with an observation he has had from the stands.

“Never,” he says. “I mean, we talk all the time, but not anything technical or whatnot, that’s not my place.

“It has to be a chain of command and as few voices and as direct as possible. It’s hard enough to play in the big leagues.”

Hoyer sees no mechanical issues with center fielder Albert Almora Jr.’s swing. Almora leads off the bottom of the first inning with a home run. After a bad second half of the 2018 campaign, Almora is one of a handful of players who committed to a makeover for this season.

“He’s always had a great swing path,” Hoyer says. “His struggles in the second half drove him to make some changes.”

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As each Cubs player comes to bat, Hoyer comments on him. Watching a game with a general manager is like having a personal play-by-play broadcaster and analyst combined. And by the definition of the job, the most knowledgeable one.

“Look at that swing by Bote,” Hoyer says as Bote rips a ball to right field for a hit. “He hits the ball as hard as anyone.”

That’s not an exaggeration. Bote was third in baseball in exit velocity last season, his first in the majors. It’s pointed out to Hoyer that the Cubs could use that kind of slugging in the lineup after finishing 13th in the National League in slugging percentage over the second half of last season. With Russell out, Bote’s playing time should increase.

“He’ll get some opportunities in April,” Hoyer says.

A few minutes later, Happ strikes out on a pitch he should be able to hit. It was a point of contention last season, when Happ tied for the team lead in strikeouts (167) in just 387 at-bats.

“He’s trying to change that,” Hoyer says. “Pitchers are attacking him the same way. Now, it’s up to him to close up that hole.”

The running commentary continues as the Cubs retake the field. If this were a postseason game, Hoyer’s focus would be much different. It would be solely on the scoreboard. As each season progresses, there’s less and less a front office can do to effect change within the team. In the spring, he is watching everything; there are potential trades to be made or waiver-wire claims to be had. By August — especially with a firm trade deadline in place — Hoyer will become a fan, like anyone else.

“You try to stay on top of everything and make sure all questions have been answered, but once a playoff game starts, there’s a powerlessness of the postseason that doesn’t exist during the season,” Hoyer says. “It’s either a wonderful or hopeless feeling.”

But the playoffs are far from Hoyer’s mind on this day. Right now, it’s about getting ready and making sure the team is doing all the little and big things for the grind ahead. Hoyer takes note of the Cubs putting a shift on for Giants lefty hitter Matt Joyce.

“We want to put guys in different positions,” he says. “They need to get used to the different angles and things, because you’re not staying in the same place like you used to do.”

After a few innings, Hoyer is back huddling with assistant GM Randy Bush. The grind is just beginning for the team, but the front office has been in one since the Cubs were eliminated sooner than hoped for in 2018. Hoyer is prepared to be a fan again this October.

“It’s been a good spring,” he says. “I think our guys are ready.”

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