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Cubs: What to Expect from New Hitting Coach Chili Davis

A comprehensive look at the resume of Chicago Cubs' new hitting coach Chili Davis', and what fans can expect to see from the Cubs offense this season and beyond.

One of the more surprising moves of the Cubs’ offseason was the decision to not retain hitting coach, John Mallee. Mallee, since hired by the Philadelphia Phillies, had previously led the Cubs to three straight seasons of promising offensive performance. But inconsistent performance from key players, compounded with scoring dry spells in the playoffs, ultimately prompted a change.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of Major League coaching. It is a business based solely on results. When performance is strong coaches probably do not get the level of credit deserved. When performance dwindles coaching is generally the scapegoat.

Mallee’s tenure with the Cubs produced phenomenal results that culminated into a World Championship. He probably will never get the level of credit he deserves for the Cubs’ offensive firepower, given the amount of talent on the roster. But all things considered, Cubs fans should look back on Mallee’s time with Chicago fondly.

Upon confirmation of Mallee’s exit, the Cubs immediately announced the installation of Chili Davis as hitting coach. Davis, a former All-Star and World Series Champion, has previously overseen hitting for the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox. Davis’ time in both organizations proved successful as his team made the playoffs five out of six seasons.

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Boston Red Sox owner John Henry (Source: The Boston Globe)

As is the case regularly upon a coach’s exit from Boston, Davis’ departure was met with controversy. A little less than a week ago, Red Sox owner, John Henry, took some shots at the previous Red Sox regime. Henry’s comments were perceived to come at the expense of Chili Davis. Henry boasted that the organization has made other changes besides just manager. Henry went on to criticize the team’s offensive approach, referencing a lack of power and unrest amongst the players. 

However, yesterday on The Speigel & Goff Show Cubs’ GM Jed Hoyer quickly squashed any concerns.

“Missing (David) Ortiz had something to do with it. The year before, the Red Sox had the best offense in baseball. Chili is a fantastic hitting coach, and you can’t talk about 2017, without talking about 2016 where they were phenomenal,” Hoyer said.

Hoyer went on to speak towards his enthusiasm for bringing Davis on board, “For us we feel like (Davis) brings something we need. We are going to have power. He’ll help us hit situationally, using the whole field. Being willing to pass the baton to the next guy and grinding out at bats. He’s had a ton of success in Oakland and some years with the Red Sox, so we’re excited to have him.”

Clearly Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein are sold on the new hitting coach, but just what should the Cubs be expecting from Davis come April?

Hitting Philosophy

First of all, it is a very good sign that the last three organizations to hire Chili Davis possess three of the most data-driven front offices in baseball. It shows to me that Davis is committed to interpreting trends, and building an advanced approach that is based on the specific hitter and the specific opposing pitcher. He does not look to be the type of coach that preaches one uniform message for all hitters.

In an interview, Davis detailed his own philosophy on hitting, “You have to look at the individual, and know what their capabilities are. I can’t try to clone someone, because they won’t think like I think.”

Davis’ strategy speaks to the fact that he formulates separate approaches, giving each hitter the best chance to succeed. Meaning hitters with vastly different skill sets, like Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber for example, will employ different tactics.

He went on to talk about pitch recognition and selectiveness, “The first at bat should be more like a recon mission. Pure recognition. I would go up there with a plan based on the pitcher I was facing, and look for the fastball at a certain height, and attack that area. If the pitcher made the mistake to pitch in that area, I was firing. If he didn’t pitch in that area, then he’s giving me an idea of what he’s trying to do. But I’m not swinging outside of my zone.”

Davis’ self-assessment on his approach to hitting should excite Cubs fans. For a team that had a slew of strikeouts in 2018, any notion of selective aggressiveness should be welcomed. Davis will not make the Cubs lineup timid, but rather will get them to swing at better pitches that they can drive.

Much can be said for Davis’ ability to communicate and plan. John Farrell was the Red Sox manager during Davis’ tenure in Boston, and had nothing but good things to say for his hitting coach. “He has a credible message. Credible in the sense of what his personal experiences have been. He’s got a unique blend of being able to talk with guys, to a certain hitter, and yet his real strength is game-planning, what to look for, what’s the out pitch of a given pitcher on the mound.”

Chili Davis looks to be a well-respected coach throughout the league. His own comments as well as comments from personnel around the league leads you to believe he will be a success in Chicago. But do the numbers paint the same picture? Let’s look at how Chili Davis-run offenses fared in Oakland & Boston over the last several seasons.

2012-14 Oakland A’s

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Davis with the A’s (Source: Jerome Miron- USA Today Sports)

From a win-loss standpoint Chili Davis’ tenure with the Oakland A’s would have to be considered a success. The oft-rebuilding organization made the playoffs three years in a row while Davis was part of the staff. The raw numbers are a bit of a mixed bag, but with the “Moneyball” notion that the A’s famously employed, Davis seemed to get the most from his hitters.

Aside from all-world talents like Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, Davis was working with mainly journeyman players who had yet to experience sustained success at the big-league level. However, under Davis’ tutelage, several of these journeymen experienced the finest years of their career.

Josh Reddick

After three-years of struggling with the Red Sox, Reddick blasted 32 home runs in his first year under Chili Davis. Reddick’s breakout even earned some MVP consideration. Before the success in Oakland, Reddick had only logged ten career home runs.

It’s difficult to judge Reddick’s improvement, given that he was unable to put up any meaningful stats for an extended period in Boston. However, it appears that Reddick was simply identifying pitches he could drive. His walks and strikeouts remain virtually the same, as do his standard metrics. The only big change came in the power department. His Home run/Fly ball ratio spiked to 14% in 2012, meaning that when Reddick got the pitch he wanted, he drove it.

Derek Norris

The catcher’s first three big league seasons came under Davis, and Norris saw steady improvement each of those three years. Norris even made the AL All Star Team in 2014. Under Davis, Norris had more efficient at-bats by lowering his strikeout percentage to the best rate of his career.

Quality contact was another hallmark of Norris’ surge. During his All-Star season he achieved career bests in Z-Contact percentage (Contact at pitches in the strike zone) and swinging strike percentage. In Norris’ case, Davis appeared to work on his selectiveness and pitch recognition.

Brandon Moss

Moss, mainly a journeyman for the duration of his career, totaled 23 career home runs in seven seasons before arriving in Oakland. In his three seasons under Davis, Moss achieved home run totals of 21, 30, and 25 respectively.

Moss’ 2012 was by far the best year of his MLB career, where he slashed .291/.358/.596. The improvements here look to have come through his commitment to avoiding contact with pitches he could not drive. Moss’ O-Contact% (Contact at pitches out of the zone) was the lowest of his career.

Team Totals

From a team-wide standpoint, the A’s look to have been a team that was void of depth. However, through a customized hitting approach, the offense was able to make the most of each at-bat. As you can see from the rankings below, the A’s under Davis were a squad whose hallmarks were patience and opportunism. A’s hitters worked favorable accounts, and drove the ball when they got their pitch.

  • Home runs (4th)
  • Runs (5th)
  • RBI (5th)
  • BB% (1st)
  • BB/K% (1st)
  • wRC+ (3rd) – Runs created weighted by ballpark effects
  • O-Swing% (2nd) – Swing % of pitches outside the strike zone
  • First Pitch Strike% (1st) – A’s took the lowest amount of first pitch strikes

2015-17 Red Sox

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Davis with the Red Sox (Source: Kim Klement- USA Today Sports)

On the other end of the fiscal spectrum were the Red Sox, Davis’ employer starting in 2015. With the Red Sox, Davis had the chance to work with established veterans like David Ortiz, as well as high-end prospects like Rafael Devers.

Offensively, the performance during Davis’ tenure was strong, but overall this was a tumultuous era of Red Sox baseball. After a loss in the 2017 Division Series, Manager John Farrell was fired, and Davis was not retained.

The highlight of Davis’ tenure was the 2016 season where the Red Sox quickly became the best offense in baseball. However, this success did not come easily for Red Sox hitters. Davis’ key contributions during his time with the Red Sox was getting struggling prospects back on the right track, while stars like Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Hanley Ramirez met expectations.

Xander Bogaerts

Originally a highly touted infielder in the Red Sox system, Bogaerts struggled mightily the year before Davis’ arrival, slashing .240/.297/.362. The following year with Davis at the helm, Bogaerts really hit his stride. His improvement is probably the most drastic of any player that has worked under Davis.

The young infielder improved his number of hits by 51% year-over-year. His strikeout percentage dropped 27%, and his OPS rose an amazing .100 points. Intelligent aggressiveness was the key to the Bogaerts’ turn around. He swung at a higher rate of pitches in 2015 than at any other time in his career. He was not trying to kill the ball either, as his rate for hitting the opposite way was a career high. Both walk and strikeout percentages were also down for Bogaerts, speaking again to his aggressiveness.

Jackie Bradley Jr.

Once a high-end prospect believed to be the future in center field, Bradley Jr. was downright awful in 2014, slashing .198/.265/.266. Upon Davis’ arrival Bradley Jr. got back on track in 2015 and even flourished in 2016, which resulted in an All-Star appearance.

JBJ’s slash line in 2016 was .267/.349/.486, far and away the best season of his up-and-down career. The changes to his approach can be seen through better pitch selection. Bradley Jr.’s rate for producing contact was the highest of his career. Additionally, he was able to lower his percentage of swinging strikes and strikeouts to career lows.

Team Totals

Davis clearly had ups and downs with the Red Sox. Several high-end prospects like Rusney Castillo, Blake Swihart, and Travis Shaw just never really panned out under his watch. However, when looking across the three years, it is apparent that the Red Sox had one of the best offenses year in year out.

Obviously, this was a lineup filled with stars, and the offensive statistics reflect that. But there is no denying that Davis was able to keep his hitters focused on taking quality at-bats based on the below numbers.

  • Hits (1st)
  • Runs (1st)
  • RBI (2nd)
  • Walks (8th)
  • Batting Average (2nd)
  • BB% (9th)
  • K% (3rd)
  • OBP (1st)
  • Slugging (6th)
  • OPS (3rd)
  • wRAA (3rd) – Weighted runs above average
  • wOBA (3rd) – Weighted on base average
  • wRC+ (5th) – Runs created weighted by ballpark effects
  • O-Contact (1st) – Contact with pitches outside the strike zone
  • Z-Contact (1st) – Contact with pitches in the strike zone
  • First Pitch Strike% (1st) – Red Sox took the lowest amount of first pitch strikes
  • Swinging Strike% (1st) – Red Sox swung and missed the least of any team

Conclusion

Chili Davis will, in a sense, have his work cut out for him in a Cubs uniform. He will have one of the best lineups in baseball at his disposal. But the media and fans alike are already buzzing about his work with Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber. Will he be able to get the most out of his struggling stars?

As is the case in most sports, attitude toward coaches is reactionary. Succeed and we will love you. Fail and we won’t. Davis has succeeded in two previous stops, and statistics would have you believe that his offenses were arguably some of the most efficient in Major League Baseball.

Will these trends carry over to the North Side? Let’s hope for Chili Davis’ sake they do, because as we have seen in recent months, anything short of the World Series seems to no longer be enough for this Cubs’ front office or their fans.

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