With zero focus on high-profile player acquisitions this winter, the Cubs focused on making improvements to their coaching infrastructure across all levels of the organization. Much of that was necessitated by the decision to part ways with Joe Maddon, which begat a natural attrition of coaches, but this wasn’t just a matter of replacing open positions. The Cubs actively sought out new methods and skilled practitioners of their respective crafts who could have a meaningful impact in short order.
Enter Craig Driver, the new first base coach and catching instructor with an excellent track record of success when it comes to developing catchers. He spent the previous two years on the Phillies’ staff as bullpen catcher/receiving coach and was instrumental in helping J.T. Realmuto earn a Gold Glove during his first year in Philly. But his success as a coach dates back to his first job right out of college.
After starting at catcher for three seasons at the University of Puget Sound, Driver spent the 2012 season as his alma mater’s catching/first base coach before moving on to Central Washington University. He led CWU catchers to huge increases in caught stealing percentage (from 18.8 to 37.3%) and fielding percentage (.976 to .987), largely by tailoring technique to individual talent.
Between CWU and his move to the Bigs, Driver coached at Yale and had a second stint at Puget Sound as the Athletic Recruitment Coordinator and lead assistant coach. Now he brings his “blocking mindset” to a Cubs team led by a former catcher who’s seeking to strengthen the commitment to defense and attention to detail.
That’s of particular importance when working with pitchers like Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood, since their elite spin can have balls scooting away if the catcher isn’t careful. During a live interview with Marquee during the Cubs-Reds game on Wednesday, Driver talked about having guys start on one knee rather than in the traditional squad in order to better prepare for a ball in the dirt.
He noted that such a precaution might not be as important for Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini, but that Josh Phegley’s reduced hip flexibility — a nice way of calling him old and slow — means going to a knee is a good idea in some cases.
“This game is one that’s so challenging and so different from player to player that we gotta make sure we’re catering to the guys’ skillset that we have and not trying to make them into robots or make them into other guys across the league,” Driver explained. “That doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. So what I do is go through and look at everybody and figure out, ‘Hey, this might work for Vic, this might work Willson,’ and kinda go from there.”
One of the more common refrains when it comes to Contreras is that he’s not the kind of elite framer today’s metrics tend to favor. Despite feline blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quickness and a laser-rocket arm that stops runners from stealing bases, the All-Star catcher hasn’t been great at stealing pitches for his staff. That should fall out of vogue with the advent of electronic zones, much to the chagrin of Baseball Prospectus honks, but humans are still calling balls and strikes for the time being.
That fallibility really comes into play with Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester, pitchers who rely on location and being able to get calls when they’re “pitching to quadrants,” as Lester explained the other day. A single call here and there might seem insignificant, but what if it’s a borderline ball four in a full count with two outs that results in the cleanup hitter digging in with men on base? That one call could force the pitcher from the game or even cost a run.
And if you think one run doesn’t matter, just look at how many close games the Cubs lost in 2018 that would have meant hosting a playoff series had a single score gone the other way. Far from being frivolous constructs, framing metrics seek to quantify a catcher’s impact on human behavior. The concept of framing is neither perfect nor the ultimate measure of defensive value, but it’s something Contreras in particular needs to continue working to improve.
From the sounds of it, he was doing exactly that over the winter.
“I don’t think it’s really fair for me to say a whole lot about how he was last year,” Driver said. “I mean, I only saw him for seven games across the field. Obviously, I’ve done quite a bit of homework in terms of looking at what he did last year, but I think the thing that’s really impressive about Willson Contreras is he put in a ton of work this offseason to get better at that before him and I had ever even met.
“I went down to Orlando, spent a couple days with him, and he kinda showed me what he had done already. And he put himself in a really good place to improve and I think you’re starting to see the fruits of his labor a little bit already, just from the changes that he made in the offseason.”
That’s really good to hear, especially since Contreras admitted prior to last season that he’d kind of slacked off in terms of his overall workout routine during the 2018 season. It was obvious that he was a different player last year, so one can easily imagine how the work he put in over the winter will be evident as the season continues.
Even more encouraging was Driver’s explanation of his coaching style, how he doesn’t try to form every player into the same ideal image of what a catcher should be. As obvious as that might sound, there are plenty of coaches out there who want to stick with their set method regardless of how it fits an individual’s talent and ability. Make the system work around the player, not the other way around.
A coach’s impact is often exaggerated, but in this case I think we might to see a legitimate lift from Driver’s work with Cubs catchers this spring. If not, feel free to blame me.