While Jed Hoyer and Carter Hawkins have their heads down searching for backup catchers and watching the clock to see when Cody Bellinger will become a free agent, their hitting and pitching coaches are making the media rounds. Both Dustin Kelly and Tommy Hottovy will have a lot of new players to work with once things get started up in Arizona, and it’s clear the Cubs are going to continue to lean on internal improvements to augment their success.
They’re still going to need to add a big-name free agent or three, otherwise the best coaching in the world won’t mean a damn thing. I’ve gone so far as to say the offseason will be a massive failure (see The Rant Live embed) if the Cubs don’t get a big bat, which I stand by even if it borders on hyperbolic.
That said, the organization has made obvious strides over the last few seasons when it comes to pitching development. Continued improvement in that area, both in terms of prospects and veterans alike, will be necessary to maintain success no matter how much money Tom Ricketts allows the front office to spend. Hottovy is the tip of the spear on that front, or at least he’s the most visible member of the pitching infrastructure overseen by assistant GM Craig Breslow.
Hottovy joined the CHGO Cubs podcast Wednesday — still waiting on my invite, fellas — to discuss a number of different topics, starting with the chaotic lockout-shortened offseason last year.
“It took us a little while to kind of find our footing as the season went on, knowing that we lost two and a half months, three months of communication,” Hottovy said. “So we were cramming everything into a quick spring training, everything was about ‘Let’s get these guys healthy to start the year.’
“And then, I feel like we used a lot of the early part of the season for a lot of these small, minor tweaks, mechanical adjustments, pitch grip, pitch usage. Things that we wanted to hone in, that we just didn’t have time to work on.”
Beyond that, the coaching staff had to get to know new players the team had signed just before camp because it’s about more than just what they throw. Hottovy prides himself on not subscribing solely to the information he gets from either the eye test or the Cubs’ data scientists, but on combining all the available inputs in a holistic manner.
“The psychological side, the background side is just as valuable as the analytical side,” he explained. “Let’s just say for example I get a ping from our R&D department saying, ‘This pitcher, his release side is dropping, looks like his stride’s getting a little bit longer, maybe he’s getting a little weak on his back side…something’s off mechanically…’
“Or I’m seeing him and something looks and I need to find it, boom, we’re getting analytical reports on what that might be. Come to find out he hasn’t been sleeping for three days because his newborn baby’s been up all night and he’s dealing with something at home. Might not be the best time to present him with some mechanical changes.”
Though that may have been a completely agnostic anecdote, it’s worth noting that Justin Steele had a pair of sub-standard starts not long after the birth of his son. His first start back from paternity leave was okay, but the next two were a bit rougher. Maybe my theory was biased by Hottovy speaking about Steele’s stuff later in the pod, I don’t know.
The conversation covered a great deal more ground and I’d advise you to check it out, but I really enjoyed listening to Hottovy describe his philosophy. The coach’s main goal is simply to find competitive advantages by aggregating all the available data and applying it to each individual’s particular skillset. What’s really fascinating is that they don’t even necessarily need to see pitchers in live action to understand how certain adjustments will work.
Hottovy gave an example of backing down the velocity of a slider in order to gain more horizontal movement, then using a predictive model to see whether the new pitch would get better results. A computer isn’t an adequate substitution for actual competition, of course, it’s just an example of where the industry is heading and how teams are using technology in different ways.
At the same time their pitchers are trying to find every possible advantage in what is already a pitched battle against hitters, the Cubs are still trying to fix an offense that “broke somewhere along the lines” in 2018. Kelly is the latest head mechanic to poke around under the hood after taking over for Greg Brown in October. Brown wasn’t even in the role for a full calendar year, so the Cubs now have their fourth hitting coach in the last five seasons.
If Kelly lasts through 2025, he’ll be the first Cubs hitting coach to make it that long since 2002. The Cubs clearly believe he can do that and they promoted him rather than lose him to a similar position with another team, but this is hardly a one-man show.
“I’ve kind of described our group as we’re the Swiss Army knife,” Kelly told Andy Martinez of Marquee Sports Network. “Whatever tool is needed, we have somebody on that staff that can help, that can basically bring something to the table in that situation.”
The group in question includes assistant hitting coaches Johnny Washington, Juan Babreja, and Jim Adduci, then you’ve got a whole slew of instructors throughout the rest of the organization. As the minor league hitting coordinator for two seasons, Kelly oversaw the offensive development of a group of young hitters that should start making an impact in Chicago very soon.
Much like Hottovy, Kelly prides himself on getting to know what makes players tick and building the kind of trust that allows him to discuss different adjustments in a constructive manner. If that doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider how Chili Davis criticized millennial players for being closed off to his instruction during his lone season in Chicago. That cuts both ways, but a coach like Kelly who has already developed relationships with future cornerstone hitters may be better able to bend their ears.
The message matters as much as the messenger, so even the most relatable coach is going to hit a brick wall if he’s preaching a complicated sermon.
“A big part of what we’ve done at the minor league level is really simplify our messaging,” Kelly explained. “There’s a lot of minutia that goes on with hitting and there’s so many different things, rabbit holes that you can go down — all of that has value. There’s little things here and there that will help each and every player.
“But as a group we made our messaging really, really simple: Making good swing decisions, making quality contact, and doing damage.”
You can see evidence of that in big seasons from Matt Mervis and Pete Crow-Armstrong, with the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year in particular checking boxes on all three of those items. Crow-Armstrong set about building a swing that could do damage and he was successful on that front, now I imagine he’ll work on further improving his swing decisions to boost that OBP a bit.
The best philosophies in the world are worthless without the right practitioners, so the Cubs still have a whole lot of work to do when it comes to giving Hottovy and Kelly more talent. The flip side is that the team appears better positioned to extract the maximum value out of their players, whether they’re coming in as free agents or being promoted from the system.