The Cubs’ choice to replace Jim Hickey as pitching coach came as a surprise to many outside the organization, even the legions of fans who pride themselves on parsing minutia. For those who’ve spent time around the team these last few seasons, however, it was clear right away that Tommy Hottovy (“HOT-uh-vee”) was the man for the job. And despite speculation, maybe even a little flirtation, with big names like John Farrell and Brian Price, the Cubs really didn’t conduct an extensive search.
Familiar to the front office from his days as a Red Sox farmhand, Hottovy actually ended his professional pitching career with the Cubs just before they took the quantum leap forward in competitiveness. With his time in uniform over, the lanky lefty threw himself himself into the statistical side of the game — he was a finance major with an economics minor at Wichita State — and caught back on with the Cubs as part of the staff once Joe Maddon was hired.
And now, after four years spend mostly at the computer and up in the stands meshing metrics with the results from the eye test, Hottovy is ready to button his jersey up again. He joined Bruce Levine and Matt Spiegel on 670 The Score (full interview below) this past weekend to discuss his view of his new role and what makes him uniquely suited to succeed despite have no previous coaching experience.
And a lot of that was being this bridge…and just really help them understand what information’s out there and how to use it wth our pitchers.
“I was lucky to be with some of [the current pitching staff] in camp in 2014 as a player on a minor league free agent deal and a big league camp invite,” Hottovy explained. “And I knew after I threw that last pitch that spring training, I was probably gonna be done.
“My shoulder didn’t feel good, so started that transition between my playing career and kinda what I wanted to do after. And a lot of that was being this bridge between the analytics department, the front office, and the coaches and players and just really help them understand what information’s out there and how to use it with our pitchers.”
It’s not just about existing relationships with players, though, and Hottovy knows that. As a coach with very little direct experience, he’ll be leaning on other members of the staff to guide and support him along the way.
“We have a great support group around us, and I’m not gonna sit here and say I know everything about analytics and I know everything about pitching,” Hottovy said. “I promise you we have amazing people in our front office that know a lot about analytics and can help us dive into stuff, and we have great pitching coaches around us.”
One of those great coaches is Mike Borzello, now Hottovy’s associate pitching coach, who’s worked behind the scenes in much greater capacity than his title of catching coordinator indicated. When the credits roll on the Cubs’ end-of-season highlights, Borzello is deserving of a producer credit. Hottovy, though, would probably have been listed as something like “guy at computer.”
But while viewers might have missed his contribution entirely, everyone on set has been well aware of the value Hottovy brings. He’s built trust during his time as run prevention coordinator through keen insight and the ability to relay it to coaches and players in a way that’s easy for each individual to digest on his own terms.
“So as…the last four years evolved and those relationships have evolved, my job really became working with Borzello on the game-planning part of it,” Hottovy explained. “But even more than that too, working with our pitchers on the mechanics and what pitch data was telling us and how to help shape pitches and make pitches better, how to sequence better, how to look for mechanical adjustments that need to be done.”
The real key to making this whole thing work, regardless of how little experience, is understanding how all the pieces work together. Hottovy’s strength lies not just in what he knows and how to interpret it, but in what he doesn’t know and and being willing to seek out additional information.
“You’re always gonna go off of what you see with your eyes and you want to make sure you understand what you’re seeing with the pitcher,” Hottovy said. “But what data helps you do now, what all this analytics helps you do, is pinpoint the exact things that are going wrong in a delivery.
“So now we can have our idea of what we’re seeing and then all of a sudden you look at the information, you look at the analytics, you say, ‘You know what? I was either right, so let’s go act on it.’ Or ‘I was wrong, this is what’s actually going on. And now let’s go figure out how to fix it.'”
It’s [not] all analytics or all pitching mechanics. They’re completely intertwined and how we can use them to help guys get better just makes it that much faster.
How exactly he plans to figure it out seems simple enough, but it’s somehow remained at the center of an odd controversy that has long brewed among baseball fans: scouting vs. analytics. For whatever reason, be it a lack of intellectual curiosity or spiteful stubbornness, people on either side of the argument all too frequently fail to acknowledge the very real importance of the other.
“So that’s the big thing that I think people maybe don’t get to see, is how it’s [not] all analytics or all pitching mechanics,” Hottovy explained. “They’re completely intertwined and how we can use them to help guys get better just makes it that much faster.
“And when you can see that information, you can make that adjustment. And now all of a sudden you’re doing something based off of facts rather than just an overall opinion of what you’re seeing.”
It’s so simple it’s revolutionary. Or is it too revolutionary to be simple? After all, it’s one thing to have hours to pore over data and match it up to what you’re seeing and quite another to trot out to the mound to calm Jon Lester down after a pair of walks to open the 5th inning. Or when Tyler Chatwood does what he did all too often last season.
Guys like Lester and Kyle Hendricks aren’t really going to be Hottovy’s biggest challenge. They’re already their own pitching coaches and usually just need a nudge here or some advice there to get back on track. Chatwood, though, he’s an enigma. How can Hottovy work with him in this new role?
“It’s always a blend of the mental side and the physical side,” the new pitching coach said. “I think it’s simplifying things for him physically and giving him one or two nuggets that he can focus on and make his keys on the mechanical side. And then, again, it’s continuing to work through situations mentally and be prepared for when they arise.”
We’ll file that in the “Believe When Seen” file, right between Yu Darvish‘s health and Brandon Morrow‘s ability to pitch more than than twice a week without his arm falling off. Some may be putting Hottovy’s aptitude for his job in there as well, though that’s probably the least of the various worries the Cubs have with their staff in the coming year.
A pitching coach isn’t some island operating independently and relying upon outside influence only as it sees fit. So Hottovy describing himself as a bridge over which information will flow in both directions between multiple parties offers a perfect metaphor. The only question remaining is how troubled the water will be beneath him.