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Cold Chili: The Fizzled Flame of the 2018 Cubs and Their Hitting Coach

Chili Davis made his mark on the Cubs before being dismissed at season's end. Patrick Goy digs up some past numbers, ones that show Davis' mark on his previous teams, in his latest work.

Situational hitting. Using your first at-bat of the game as a “recon” and looking for “that fastball” to jump on. Improve on two-strike hitting without losing power and using the whole field when it comes to making contact with the baseball.

Those are all characteristics, teaching principles and an approach to hitting philosophy that Cubs (now) former hitting coach Chili Davis attempts to instill in the players he coaches. As I sit here for my final time writing a baseball article in 2018 and still attempt to try to make sense of this once promising Cubs season, I thought I would do some digging on the most recent casualty of the Cubs franchise moving forward, Chili Davis.

More specifically, I wanted to look at quantifiable data that directly reflected Davis’ approached at the plate. On paper Davis’ approach to hitting makes sense. Disciplined at-bats, no cheap outs, hitting the ball to the opposite field while still being able to slug would make excellent hitters even more lethal. With that being said, let’s start at the beginning and we will soon end up with the most recent sample size, our 2018 Chicago Cubs.

As a sat down to do my research I decided I would gather data that (I think) best resembles and quantifies those characteristics. Those statistical categories being:

BABIP, opposite field percentage (OPP), hard contact percentage, soft contact percentage, walk rate, batting average, slugging percentage and wRC+.

Davis the Player

19 seasons in the Majors as a player, 350 home runs, 1,372 RBI a BABIP of .302, wRC+ of 118 (18 percent better than league average), career 37.9 WAR and a career slash line of .274/.360/.451.

The man was a respectable hitter, there no doubt about that.

Davis the Coach

Davis spent time in the minors cutting his teeth as a position coach before his first stint in the big leagues as a hitting coach in 2011 for the Oakland Athletics. Now I’ll be completely honest, I didn’t know shit about the 2011 A’s. I was junior at THE Illinois State University (Go Redbirds) and had much more to worry about than a money-ball team with the 21st highest payroll in the majors that year paced by the likes of Josh Willingham and Scott Sizemore. The 2011 A’s did win 77 games that season despite not having a single player who hit 30 home runs or slugged over .400. Further elaborating on those Oakland A’s, let’s take a look at those hitting stats and where the A’s ranked in MLB that season.

2011 A’s Hitting Stats

BABIP – (27th)

OPP – (22nd)

Hard contact percentage – (21st)

Walk rate – (13th)

AVG – (24th)

SLG – (25th)

wRC+ – (22nd)

Now, take the A’s stats with a grain of salt I guess. It was Davis’ first stint as a pro hitting coach and that roster was as about as appealing as the cottage cheese bowl at a salad bar when you get there towards the end of the lunch hour buffet instead of the beginning. However, that work would pay off in a sense for Davis as he was about to inherit a plethora of power hitters just five years since having to smell Marc Davis’ scent (use your imagination) all over the Coliseum in Oakland. Chili was headed to Boston in 2016 to coach up the Red Sox.

Chili’s approach to hitting was on full display during the 162 regular game season for the Red Sox as they paced MLB and the American League in a wide array of categories for hitting at the plate.  The 2016 Red Sox had three players to hit over 30 home runs, with David Ortiz accounting for 38 long balls, while two more players hit 20-plus home runs. Four players hit better than  .300, six hit .290 or above, nine players had an above average wRC+, ten slugged .400 or better and five players had a WAR of at least four. Ortiz, Mookie Betts, Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts are a few notables who paced the Red Sox at the dish that season. To further elaborate on this, here are Boston’s notable stats from that season:

2016 Red Sox Hitting Stats

BABIP – (2nd)

OPP – (22nd)

Hard contact percentage – (3rd)

Walk rate – (7th)

AVG – (1st)

SLG –  (1st)

wRC+ – (1st)

With those numbers, one could not hope for a successful postseason appearance from one of the AL’s top teams. Disciplined hitting without losing power was on display here, but a lackluster showing in  “using the whole field” as Davis puts it, did not hit home with these guys. This story that started in 2016 in Boston is about to ring all too familiar for Cubs fans of this most recent season.

The 2016 Red Sox, much like this year’s Cubs team, led or were top-three in an array of hitting categories. But, much like the 2018 Cubs, their success in the postseason was short-lived….well no….it was non-existent. In 2016, the Red Sox got swept out of the ALDS by the eventual AL pennant-winning Cleveland Indians. Boston lost Game 1 (5-4), Game 2 (6-0) and Game 3 (4-3) while only having a combined three home runs, seven doubles and a collective .214 batting average.

Now we all know what happened to the Cubbies in 2016, but what happened in 2018 resembles that 2016 Red Sox team to almost a damn T.

Davis’ third stop in the majors was the most recent for Cubs fans as he was tasked to coach the North Siders, and much like in Boston two years ago, inherited a wealth of talent and bombers at the dish. Per Chicago Tribune, one of the focal points for Davis was going to be working with Jason Heyward, who, notoriously couldn’t do anything except hit the ball into the shift seemingly every time at the plate. The veteran did improve in 2018 compared to his 2017 campaign, but was a far cry from his peak season thus far in the majors when he was in Atlanta during the 2010 season.

Heyward – 2010 Braves: .271/.393/.456 wRC+ of 134.

Heyward – 2018 Cubs: .270/.335/.395 wRC+ of 99.

So, Davis set out and did what he was going to do, work with Jason Heyward, good. But what about the rest of the roster? This Cubs team was second to the Orioles in games in which they scored one run or less (40), and let’s not forget about the final 22 innings of the season in which the Cubs scored a whopping two runs, one of which was a home run.

Not trying to rub salt in fresh wounds, but this does bear repeating to drive home the point. While Davis’ teaching philosophy is all well and good, it comes down to A: your (the hitters) philosophy and B: does this connect with the players you are attempting to instill it in? In my opinion, this year’s Cubs team was filled with power hitters who should have been more concerned with hitting the ball over the fence rather than pulling it into the opposite field.

The 2018 Cubs, much like the 2016 Red Sox, were atop the leaderboard in many a meaningful hitting category this season. However, when it came to the postseason, they were as underwhelming and shriveled up faster than a snake firework on the fifth of July.

2018 Cubs Hitting Stats

BABIP – (2nd)

OPP – (12th)

Hard contact percentage – (28th) Ew.

Soft contact rate – (3rd highest) Double Ew.

Walk rate – (8th)

AVG – (4th)

SLG – (13th)

wRC+ – (12th)

Cubs hitters this season only had one player (Zobrist) who batted over .300, two players over .290 (Baez and Murphy), one player to hit 30-plus home runs (Baez), two who hit 20 or more (Rizzo and Schwarber) and only one with a WAR of four or greater (Baez). Davis’ impact might have connected with an aging hitter in Heyward, a notorious pull-ball hitter, and he seemed to limit Javy chasing the breaking ball out of the zone, but what about the rest of the roster?

When you muster up two runs in 22 innings when it’s do-or-die time after a regular season with so much hitting prowess, somebody’s head has to roll and unfortunately for Davis, it was him who got the axe. People will question Joe Maddon’s inconsistency when it comes to lineup structure, etc… and you wouldn’t be totally wrong BUT, Maddon managed his ass off in the NL Wild Card Game and I’ll stand by that. He did what he needed to do/thought was correct to do in that moment to win the game. The Cubs’ defense gave up one run in 12 innings of the Wild Card match-up and dammit, that should have been enough to get the job done; should have. These Cubs succumbed to the same fate as Davis’ 2016 Red Sox.

Was it too much focus on situational hitting? Was it too much focus on having a non-opposite field hitter focusing on hitting the opposite field gap as opposed to hitting it over the damn fence? Maybe. Probably. But what do I know, I was only watching teams with immense power statistics those years. Ones leading their leagues in hitting categories, that seemingly forget what they were doing when they needed to get the ball in the air at critical moments instead of hitting a soft contact grounder to the opposite field rather than mashing it over the Green Monster or onto Waveland.

Follow Patrick Goy on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: Bleed Cubbie Blue 

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