Didja like what I did with the double entendre punnage in the title? Because Chili could mean either the opposite of heat or like the food, which could be very hot. Wow, I just blew my lede on an explanation of my title. Anywho, let’s get on to the business of the new Cubs hitting coach and one of his most talked-about charges.
I’m not sure you remember now that we’re so far removed from 2017, but Kyle Schwarber didn’t have what most people would consider a great sophomore season (with allowances for a vacated 2016). In fact, some would go so far as to say it was disappointing. They’ll cite his batting average and the fact that he was sent down as reasons for why he was overrated and shouldn’t be occupying left field on a regular basis.
They’ll no doubt bring up his fielding as Exhibit B, though we’re going to save talk of that for sometime after we’ve seen how he moves around with that new shape.
And if we’re being honest, hitting is the true barometer of Schwarber’s value, which is where Chili Davis comes in. While I’m often critical of those who place much of the burden of players’ success on the shoulders of hitting or pitching coaches, I do believe there’s potential for Davis — and Jim Hickey, for that matter — to have a tangible impact this season and beyond.
Some of that may simply be coincidental, a matter of being in the right place as young Cubs hitters continue to develop. But I believe much more than luck will be at play here. John Mallee was more of an analytical coach with a metrics-driven approach that fit what the organization was looking for at the time. And it worked, as he held the reins of an offensive juggernaut that captured a World Series title and put up runs in bunches.
But there was something missing, a seeming inability on the part of those same young hitters to reach the next level in their growth. Despite their propensity to put up runs in bunches, the lack of consistency and situational awareness was a bugaboo last season.
That’s where Davis comes in. He’s been there and done that, which affords him the requisite street cred to have his hitters’ ears right from the jump. Better yet, he knows how to speak to them so that those ears don’t go deaf. That’ll be big when Davis is working with Schwarber.
“My second year, I went into slopville, where boom, I hit .230 or something,” Davis told Carrie Muskat Friday. “I got sent down to the Minor Leagues around the All-Star break. I needed to go out there and become myself again because I was trying to become something in the big leagues that I wasn’t. I didn’t try to do that in my first year.
“My third year, I came back and I just did the things that I did well and I ended up making an All-Star team and my career took off.”
Welp, there you have it, proof positive that Schwarber will bounce back and become an All-Star this season. Or not, but the real key is that what Davis is saying can be backed up by the numbers on his Baseball Reference page. There’s also the matter of simply coming at things from a different angle.
“[Davis] has a really great understanding of the game and he gets the hitters’ side of the game where he can just sit down and talk to you and go through what’s in your mindset,” Schwarber explained. “I think it’ll be a great new voice.”
That new voice isn’t just about tone and inflection, it’s indicative of a different approach to hitting. Davis brings more of a philosophical bent that dovetails nicely with the Cubs’ focus on mental skills, something that is evident in his words above. He’s also big on situational hitting, what to look for and where to look for it in given counts against given pitchers.
Schwarber has never lacked for power, and won’t even with a lighter frame, but his plate approach was all kinds of messed up last season. Too often, he’d be overly patient early in the count, watching mashable pitches go by. That would put him into swing mode, when he’d chase bad pitches and walk sullenly back to the dugout. Davis working with him on when to be aggressive rather than how to be could unlock better performance.
Hardly a knock on Mallee or some kind of assessment of one style being better than the other, this is more a matter of adding a new dimension to what’s already there. It’s combining scouting with data, which is at the core of what the Cubs have done as a whole in building this team.
And speaking of combining, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the other half of the hitting coach tandem. Andy Haines joins Davis after being promoted from roving minor league hitting instructor to replace Eric Hinske as the team’s assistant hitting coach. If that name tickles a synapse or two in your prefrontal cortex, it’s probably because Haines worked with Schwarber during the hitter’s brief exile in Iowa this past season.
So that means the Cubs have a pair of coaches who can appeal to Schwarber — among other hitters — from pretty much every conceivable angle. They’ve got his trust and his respect and they also offer a fresh perspective on both his struggles and his potential. That’s pretty cool, right?
All told, this sounds like the perfect Petri dish of culture and chemistry within which Schwarber can rediscover the form that made him a cult hero.