CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs are waiting out the pitching market in this ever-so-slow-moving offseason, but they’ve made one big winter acquisition to help at the plate — and he won’t even get one at-bat this season.
The Cubs hired former Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis while saying goodbye to John Mallee, who was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies for the same job. On the surface, adding Davis may not seem like a newsworthy move. But the Cubs said the only reason they parted ways with Mallee was because Davis became available after manager John Farrell and his staff were dismissed in Boston.
“It was surprising to me — a team that made the playoffs three years in a row and had won a World Series here was going to make a change,” Davis said recently of the Cubs’ job opening.
What makes Davis so special that the Cubs dismissed a hitting coach whose offense finished second in the National League behind Colorado in runs scored the past two seasons and helped them to the playoffs for three straight years, including a championship run in 2016?
“Chili really has a good method regarding situations in general,” manager Joe Maddon said after making the change.
“I was on the staff when he was a player, and even then I thought he’d be a great coach. I like his methods. I like what he says and how he says it beyond theory. I’m talking about practicality, reality, the kind of things I think he can do in-game besides just the work. He has a great message, and he’s very good at delivering the message.”
As good as the Cubs’ offense was in 2017, the team didn’t always like how it achieved those numbers. Home runs were plentiful, but situational hitting — at times — was atrocious.
Both Mallee and Davis spent three years with their former teams. While it’s hard to compare their work — offenses in different leagues, different hitters at different stages of their careers — there’s one noticeable difference: The Red Sox were much better with situational hitting. Every year under Davis, Boston finished in the top 10 at bringing home a runner from third with less than two outs. The Cubs hovered between the middle and the bottom of the pack.
In 2015, Boston drove in a league-best 59 percent of runners in those situations. The Cubs, meanwhile, were at a league-worst 40 percent. Last season, the Red Sox ranked 10th in that category while the Cubs were 26th.
“We think these new coaches can help take us to another level and get us back to the World Series again,” Maddon said, referencing the team’s decision to hire pitching coach Jim Hickey to replace Chris Bosio. “By no means am I denigrating the coaches who are leaving.”
Make no mistake, Mallee was very good for the Cubs’ young hitters. But as Maddon indicated, the team feels Davis can bring an added dimension. The Cubs’ new hitting coach certainly has some fans on the team he just left.
“One of his strengths was just how much he cared,” Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said in a phone interview last week. “He’s always wanted the best for the players. It was never about him.”
The same thing could be said about Mallee, so there has to be more to it. Bradley was asked how Davis approaches situational hitting.
“He’s always preached, ‘Don’t be a hero, the hero role will present itself,'” Bradley said. “That’s a quote he always used. Each player can be a hero at any particular point of the game. So let each moment like that show up on its own. Don’t try to force it. I think guys were really comfortable with that. Guys didn’t try to do too much.”
The Cubs had that mentality in 2016, when they finished 14th in driving home a runner from third with less than two outs. But they got away from it in 2017. They didn’t make the pitcher work as much. It’s something Davis wants hitters to get back to.
“Trust is huge,” Davis said. “Trust in each other. There’s no need to change a whole lot of things, but understanding that I have a guy behind me that if I put a little pressure on this guy on the mound and make him work. It can only help. More so than swing mechanics, I try to bring a mentality, not as much a philosophy. Everyone has a philosophy — a lot of them match — so that doesn’t make me any different than any other guy. But I try to bring a mentality in how we approach games day in and day out.”
In other words, it’s not necessarily a different message but a change in how the message is delivered. Like any team, Davis has some underachievers he needs to address as well.
Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber didn’t exactly max out their abilities in 2017, though Heyward did make some advancements from the previous season. Given the overall success the Cubs had under Mallee, Davis will be judged less on individual performances and more on fixing the most frustrating part of the team’s offense: stranding runners.
“Not only does he know how to break down the game, but also teach it as well,” Bradley said. “He can relate. Being able to relate makes things much easier.”
The Cubs had a nice 1-2 combination in Mallee and former assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske over the past three seasons. Mallee was known more for helping with the technical aspects of a swing while Hinske provided coaching from a player’s perspective after being in the big leagues for 12 seasons. Davis, according to Bradley and others, is the complete package. The Cubs are banking on it.
“They got a great one,” Bradley said. “I’m definitely going to miss him. He takes care of each individual person according to them. The game isn’t easy, and he understands that.”