Coaching at the professional level is extremely hard, a job cut out for only a handful of people. Unlike college, the players being coached are, for the most part, at the top of their game and represent the most skilled people to play the sport.
The skill many players in professional sports possess often breeds push back to the coaches that are attempting to point out flaws in said player’s game that could allow them to reach the next level of their potential. Most of the time, that push back is so minor that is goes unreported because there is no real issue at hand, something made simpler by the fact that the franchise may be experiencing success.
However, the reverse is also true. If a team is struggling, or failed to make the playoffs in the middle of their “win-now” window, then that friction between player and coach will be brought to light and magnified ten-times. Unfortunately for the Chicago Cubs and their coaching staff, that is the situation they find themselves in this off-season.
Fired hitting coach Chili Davis went on record shortly after his release from the club suggesting he could not connect with many of the players. He also went as far to say “I hope the next guy connects better with the players, because I felt there were multiple players I didn’t connect with. It wasn’t that I didn’t try. It just wasn’t there.” The full extent of his comments can be found in this story by the Chicago Sun-Times back in October.
Davis, a preacher of the situational hitting approach, does not put much stock in the launch angle theory that has taken over the game of baseball within the last handful of years. His comments (found in the story above) suggest pitchers are beginning to pitch batters differently, combating the upper-cut swings so many have adopted.
Instead of adapting to this change in how they are being pitched, Davis has suggested the Cubs hitters were set in their ways, unwilling to change their approach from launch angle driven, to a more situational friendly mindset.
It has been about three months since Davis’ comments on the matter, but the friction between Cubs players and their former hitting coach again resurfaced on Thursday. That’s because, according to John Harper’s (SNY beat writer for the New York Mets, Davis’ new club) sources, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were the driving factors in Chili’s departure from the north side. A source also told Harper that Theo Epstein “caved” and that “he’s not happy about it. He thinks it’s BS that the players complained about Chili, but he wasn’t going to stick with his hitting coach just to make a point” (link to story).
While it’s nice to see Theo sticking up for his players and doing right by them (a choice no doubt made easier by the Cubs’ struggles down the stretch in 2018), I have a hard time seeing where Davis is coming from.
Cubs’ Success in Situational Hitting
It’s no secret the game of baseball is skewing toward home runs more than ever. That, in turn, has led to massive jumps in strikeouts, so much so that striking out is no longer a driving factor in the success of a player.
Davis’ argument centers around getting back to the roots of hitting, shortening up with two strikes and attempting to spray the ball to all fields instead of maintaining a “home run or die” approach. The Cubs have never been a predominantly home run hitting team, managing just 167 in 2018, 22nd in baseball. Before that, the Cubs hit just 199 in 2016, topping out at 223 in ’17.
While 2018’s number seems low, consider Bryant missed about 50 games with a shoulder injury and Rizzo hit south of .200 through the first month of the season.
An area the Cubs seemingly did excel in was situational hitting, more specifically, two out hitting, and hitting with two strikes.
To start off, the Cubs stepped to the plate 2,065 times with two outs in 2018, the third most in baseball, giving them a large sample size in which to post solid numbers. That is exactly what they did, logging the fifth best batting average and OBP and drawing the third most walks (224) in the game. Additionally, the Cubs finished toward the middle of the pack in strikeouts with two outs, recording the 18th lowest amount at 459 while at the same time finishing in the top half of the league in sOPS-plus (OPS for split relative to league’s split OPS).
With two strikes (0-2 counts), the Cubs turned into one of the best teams in baseball, posting the second best batting average, OPS and sOPS-plus, while also turning in the highest OBP for that split.
Thinking about Davis’ comments for another second. When he references players he did not connect with, we can assume he mostly meant younger, less experienced members of the roster, guys like David Bote, Ian Happ and Kyle Schwarber. Guys like Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward (even with his woes at the plate) and Rizzo are all seasoned veterans set in their ways at the plate, ones that have brought them much success in their careers.
For that reason, it’s safe to say Davis would have spent the majority of his time with the younger guys in the clubhouse, especially with Happ and Schwarber struggling to find their way in the league.
Looking at the numbers suggests this approach may have been misguided, offering an explanation as to why Davis met push back with those guys.
In the same two splits we looked at above, hitting with two outs and hitting with two strikes, this time broken down by player, we find it is dominated by young guys. With two outs, names like Javier Baez (sOPS-plus of 146), Rizzo (133), Schwarber (119) and Bryant (117) preformed well above the league average split. In fact, with two outs, only two players on the roster, minimum 100 plate appearances, finished with an sOPS-plus lower than 100 (Happ and Addison Russell).
When presented with an 0-2 count, many of the same names appear with Bote leading the way, sporting a 205 sOPS-plus. Rizzo slots in second (176), Willson Contreras third (145), Bryant fourth (135) and Happ fifth (134).
This phenomena of success in situational hitting does not stop there as Bote led the team in sOPS-plus with two outs and runners in scoring position, high leverage situations and what baseball-reference deems “late and close.” Schwarber, Baez, Contreras and Happ also fill these leader-boards, but I am intrigued with Bote’s front-runner status in so many different categories.
Bote, who has to thank the launch angle revolution for saving his career, would seem to be the exact type of player Davis doesn’t like to see. While still a work in progress, Bote incorporated a slight upper cut to his swing, helping to tap into his elite exit velocity. Him succeeding in many different situational hitting spots, in his rookie season no less, seems to fly in the face of what Davis was attempting to preach.
For Rizzo and Bryant to call-out Davis’ approach, or lack thereof, doesn’t necessarily show that they are unwilling to change. In 2018, Bryant recorded a 17.7 degree average launch angle, well below his 20.9 degree mark he posted during his MVP season of 2016. That translated to a career-low fly ball rate (28.1 percent) for the youngster as well as a 35.4 percent ground ball rate. For Rizzo, the same could be said, In 2018, the slugger saw a drop in his average launch angle, from 15.3 degrees in ’17 to 14.5 degrees last season. The reason for that? Rizzo’s 28.3 percent line-drive rate in 2018, his highest since 2015 when statcast started tracking batted balls.
As I hope you can see, the Cubs did not suffer from a lack of situational hitting. Okay, they did rank in the lower-third of baseball in high leverage spots, but with two outs and runners in scoring position, the Cubs drew the fourth most walks in the league, and finished around the middle of the pack in OBP (.343) and sOPS-plus (96).
There is room of improvement in the situational hitting department for the Cubs and hopefully Anthony Iapoce (their new hitting coach) can help with that. With that being said, as the above split OPS’s reveal, many Cubs hitters experienced success with situational hitting in 2018.
Maybe that is why a rift was created between some of the players and Davis; he was attempting to fix something that wasn’t necessarily broken and that, in turn, invoked a response from the two superstars in the clubhouse.
I wish Chili well in his new job with the Mets, as 2018 proved just because someone may be at the top of their field doesn’t mean they will be a fit with your club. I think Theo recognized that and did right by his players to get rid of something that wasn’t working so that something else could be tested.
Follow Daniel Shepard on Twitter–