Chili, Will He Really Help the Cubs Re-Shape Their Offense?
Whether or not you consider it a sandwich, one thing Chicagoans can agree on is that you never, ever put ketchup on a hot dog. Chili, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable. Or at least that’s what the Cubs are hoping.
Now I suppose you could choose to view my use of “hot dog” as pejorative when applied to the likes of Javy Baez, but that’s taking the analogy further than it was intended. Beyond the flashy free swinger, new hitting coach Chili Davis is being tasked with conveying a new message — or maybe it’s a version of the same message, just in a new way — to all of his charges, from Jason Heyward to Kris Bryant.
I’ve been vocal in the past about the undue attention paid to a team’s hitting coach, particularly as it applied to John Mallee over the last few seasons. Far too much emphasis is placed by fans on the impact a coach has on offensive performance. Some folks even believe that players are being told when to swing while they’re up there at the place, which is…yeah.
Given that frame of reference, I guess it’ll sound a little odd when I say that I think Chili Davis can have a significant impact as he takes over for Mallee in Chicago. My belief is rooted more in my rudimentary understanding of human nature than it is in any specific aspect of coaching acumen, though I do belief Davis has some desirable qualities in the latter area.
There are times in any teaching or coaching situation, not to mention relationships in general, when a message just isn’t getting through. Whether it’s due to massive philosophical differences or just an imperceptible flaw in delivery and/or reception, the result is the same. Sometimes the only way to improve the matter is to change the voice.
In Mallee, the Cubs had a hitting coach who was well-versed in advanced metrics and the mechanics of hitting, traits that had served him well in previous roles. They won him rave reviews in Chicago for a time, too, though some of the tinkering may have worn thin toward the end of his tenure. Despite an impressive aggregate output by the offense, certain hitters seemed to have regressed or stagnated last season, leading to inconsistency and issues with what Jed Hoyer called the “shape” of the offense.
It’s entirely possible that every other hitting coach who’s ever coached hitting would have gotten the same results, but the Cubs don’t have the luxury of creating a perpetual time loop they can use to test each of those scenarios. Hence, they made a change not unlike replacing Rick Renteria with Joe Maddon. This particular move was perhaps less about Mallee’s shortcomings than it was about Davis’s availability following the firing of John Farrell in Boston.
In addition to being a literal new voice in hitters’ ears, Davis brings a different point of view and approach to the role.
“I try to bring a mentality and not as much a philosophy,” Davis explained. “Everybody has a philosophy and to me a lot of them match. I try to bring a mentality in how we approach the games day in and day out. Trust is huge.”
Davis has already been working extensively with Heyward, whose struggles at the plate have been chronicled ad nauseam, but there’s reason to believe the coach can have an impact on even MVP-level performers. While worries about Bryant’s “clutch-ness” are much ado about nothing, it’s clear that the Cubs can do better as a team when it comes to driving in runners in scoring position. That’s not so much about correcting mechanical flaws as it is better understanding situations.
Perhaps the biggest improvement that can be made with Cubs hitters is not how they swing, but when and where they swing. Knowing what tendencies to look for in a pitcher and what locations to attack and avoid in certain counts and with men on base could pay serious dividends. One need look no further than Baez, who has actually done well with some down-and-away pitches, to see the truth in that.
As much as the message itself, being able to connect with players and get them to buy in will be key to Davis’s role.
“Not only does he know how to break down the game, but also teach it as well,” Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. shared with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. “He can relate. Being able to relate makes things much easier.
“He’s always preached, ‘Don’t be a hero, the hero role will present itself.’ That’s a quote he always used. Each player can be a hero at any particular point of the game. So let each moment like that show up on its own. Don’t try to force it. I think guys were really comfortable with that. Guys didn’t try to do too much.”
Most of the focus this offseason has been on the pitching staff, rightfully so, and I’m not even talking about the pursuit of another starter. The back end of the bullpen remains a big focus for a lot of fans, though Theo Epstein feels pretty confident that Brandon Morrow can be the team’s closer. And if the new Davis can have the impact I believe he can, people may forget all about the old Davis now pitching in Denver.
Sound like a stretch? Maybe, but remember when the Cubs’ juggernaut offense relegated Hector Rondon to mop-up duty during their scoring opening stretch in 2016? And yes, I also recall the Cubs making a move to acquire that one guy from New York for the end of the season and the playoffs.
What it really comes down to is having a new voice and a different style to help an already potent lineup take that next step forward. If he’s able to do that, Chili Davis may indeed be one of the Cubs’ most important pickups of the offseason.