Before the beginning of the 2018 season, the Chicago Cubs wanted to improve their situational hitting, increase their contact, and make better use of the entire field – even at the expense of launch angle and power – so they fired hitting coach John Mallee and hired hitting coach Chili Davis. Unfortunately, they only got some of the desired results.
The Cubs managed to keep their contact rate level, while improving relative to the league, and they began pulling it less and going the opposite way more. But their situational hitting got even worse, as their overall production with runners in scoring position dropped over 10 percentage points, from just around league average in 2017 (99 wRC+) to well below that this season (88 wRC+). Even their “clutch” rating improved only slightly (but was still quite terrible).
And so, another year went by and another hitting coach is on his way out the door. But fortunately, the Cubs may have gotten a little lucky with their timing (or perhaps it wasn’t such a coincidence?).
In case you missed it, the Cubs hired back their former Minor League hitting coordinator (turned Rangers hitting coach) Anthony Iapoce from Texas. I say they’re lucky in the timing because from the sound of it, Iapoce not only aligns better with the (forgotten?) espoused Cubs offensive mentality of selective aggression, he was also available right now. If the Rangers decided not to change things up with their skipper in September, Iapoce might’ve stuck around. Keep in mind, the Cubs are about to enter 2019 with a lame-duck manager, so there’s a little career risk to Iapoce in coming to the Cubs, specifically. His availability at this exact moment in time is fortuitous, manufactured (i.e. the Cubs were more willing to part ways with Davis because of Iapoce’s availability) or not.
Back when the Cubs first let their then-development executive leave for greener pastures with the Rangers, SportsDay profiled their new hitting coach, providing some additional comments from the Cubs front office and Iapoce, himself.
Cubs executives – specifically Jason McLeod, the Cubs VP of Scouting and Player Development and the guy who might’ve been most familiar with Iapoce at the time – had nothing but nice things to say about their former colleague: “It was hard for us to give him up,” McLeod said, ‘but we knew this would happen someday …. He played such as huge part in our change of culture.”
This was right before the 2016 season began.
On a granular level, Iapoce’s philosophy is both simple and familiar: “It means looking to drive your pitch in the air for the first two pitches of a plate appearance but thinking contact with two strikes. Do not give away pitches by swinging at a pitch outside your zone in the first two strikes. Do not concede with two strikes.” It’s what the Cubs (and others, of course) have called selective aggression, and it’s what Theo Epstein has preached from the early years of the rebuild through the end-of-season press conference a week or so ago.
I suppose the perceived importance of launch angle has increased quite a bit since Iapoce’s departure, but that’s the beauty of selective aggression and guarding with two strikes … those ideas are not mutually exclusive.
And perhaps most impressively, Iapoce explained (via the Chicago Sun Times) that being rigid in your philosophy isn’t the best practice. Instead, he believes that “the first priority is to learn from players, and talk it out, and then them learning from you.” In other words, this can’t be a one-size-fits-all mentality. Of course, Chili Davis said the same thing last year, but the key difference with Iapoce is that he comes in with familiarity with the organization and many of the players. He isn’t starting from scratch.
Iapoce is quick to tell us that the familiarity doesn’t spell “instant success,” but I think, in this particular case, it’s definitely an advantage. Indeed, even after his brake-pumping, he conceded, “Now, going back to somewhere that you’re familiar with as far as players, coaches, front office, yourself, you can go in right away and be yourself and not be too concerned about looking over your shoulder coaching. You can coach right away.” Iapoce continued: “You feel pretty good going into it knowing the players and what they’ve been through in the Minor Leagues.”
You can read more about Iapoce twice at the Chicago Tribune, where Mark Gonzales runs down seven thinks to know about the Cubs new hitting coach, including his former work with the last Cubs hitting coach, John Mallee, back in the 90s.
For now, I think this is what we’ve learned about the savior of the Chicago Cubs offense (that’s what we’re calling him, right?):
- Belief in selective aggression
- Look to drive the ball in the air early, but *only* if the pitch is specifically where you want it
- Be guarded with two strikes
- Launch angle … still not a fad
- Familiarity with the organization
- Helps on an individual-player level
- Helps get him started quicker, too
- No one-size-fits-all approaches
It’s not much – and it’s not as though we didn’t see the benefits of Chili Davis when he first arrived – but let’s hope Iapoce has as much success with the big league Cubs as he did when they were all thriving top prospects. Because 2015 and 2016 were pretty good years, and I wouldn’t mind the warm, fuzzy feeling those offenses provided.