When news broke that Chili Davis would be replacing John Mallee as Cubs hitting coach, the announcement that Brian Butterfield had taken over for Gary Jones as third base coach was little more than a footnote. Not that you’d expect anything different for a seemingly ancillary role on the staff. But perhaps Butterfield is worthy of a bit more attention.
Before we get into that, though, a short preamble on the titular use of “new.” Back in March, we talked about Mike Borzello’s importance to the Cubs. The catching instructor is a veritable baseball savant, adept at breaking down the tendencies of hitters and pitchers alike. Among his more notable exploits are developing Kenley Jansen’s cutter and turning Kyle Hendricks into the Cubs’ ace.
It wouldn’t be fair to place expectations of similar impact on Butterfield, but Ian Browne’s glowing profile of the former Red Sox coach from back in 2014 sure sets the bar pretty high.
His title doesn’t do him justice. In the minds of nearly everybody who works with him, Butterfield is the best at what he does.
Yes, the best.
In other words, there might not be another coach in the Major Leagues who handles the volume of responsibilities Butterfield does with such execution and such attention from his players and fellow coaches.
Butterfield runs the Red Sox’s infield, both individually and collectively. He spends an exhaustive amount of time designing shifts. During the season, Butterfield spends hours studying the opposing team’s films and spray charts so he can properly align his defense for each game. He works with every position player on baserunning. And, oh yeah, he coaches third base.
While all of it is quite impressive, the content of that last paragraph really caught my eye. In addition to being Joe Maddon’s right-hand man and frequent mouthpiece, Dave Martinez was largely responsible for the team’s defensive alignment and shifts. Now that he’s left to manage the Nationals, we can presume that those duties will fall to Butterfield.
When Theo Epstein spoke in his end-of-season press conference about the need to change personnel and approach, he wasn’t just talking about the bullpen. Turnover in the coaching staff is not just about change for the sake of change, but getting new voices and different philosophies as the Cubs look to take another step.
Mallee was an expert in hitting mechanics, Davis is more about the mental side of the game. Jim Hickey is perhaps more adept at dealing with younger pitchers and could be a better fit as the Cubs seek to finally develop some homegrown arms. Butterfield is a tactician and a tireless worker who can help with the fundamentals of defense and baserunning.
Though the Cubs didn’t have a bad defense by any stretch, it wasn’t the elite unit we witnessed in 2016. They seemed somehow not as sharp, more prone to silly mistakes. The Cubs accumulated 82 defensive runs saved last season, 31 more than the next-best Astros. This season, however, the Cubs tallied a DRS of 30 that was good for fifth in baseball.
Their work on the basepaths, however, left a lot to be desired. A collective -6.6 BsR (Fangraphs) ranked 24th in MLB and tells us that they gave up more than half a dozen runs via TOOTBLAN and other gaffes. Compare that to a 15.9 BsR mark last season and you can see how some new tactics might pay dividends moving forward.
The hiring of a third base coach isn’t normally something to get excited about, but after learning a bit more about Brian Butterfield, I’m inclined to be pretty stoked about what he brings to the table.
Shark is a good option
I had written about his inclusion in rumored talks between the Cubs and Giants that would have the two teams swapping undesirable contracts, but that was more about Jason Heyward. Well, it was really more about Giancarlo Stanton, but whatever. Now I’d like to look at the possibility of the Cubs acquiring Samardzija for the sake of acquiring him.
Sorry, Facebook followers, but the Cubs could do a lot worse than bringing Shark back to town. I know a lot of fans don’t like the way he left the North Side or the way he said later that the rebuild was becoming a joke. I didn’t like them either. But you also have to consider the position he was in and the very different perspectives between spectator and athlete.
That’s not meant to give him a free pass, not totally, though I do think there’s too much of a tendency for us to get bent out of shape about perceived slights directed at our favorite team(s). Setting aside any of that unpleasantness, it’s pretty clear that Shark could offer the Cubs some much-needed stability over the next few seasons.
The Giants would like to shed some salary and get a little younger, so the veteran righty is very much available at the right price. And because he’s not exactly playing on a bargain deal, San Francisco might not be looking for much in return.
Samardzija will turn 33 in January and is set to earn $19.8 million per year for the next three years, which may seem like a lot for a guy who’d serve as a de facto No. 4 in the rotation. But with the exorbitant cost of solid starting pitching, that’s not much of an overpay for a man who’s made at least 28 starts in each of the last six seasons.
As we saw with the Cubs in 2017 — or didn’t see, as the case may be — there’s great value in consistency. Samardzija is as solid as they come in that regard, throwing over 200 innings and making either 32 or 33 starts every year since 2013. The biggest reasons for that? He doesn’t walk many and he doesn’t give up a ton of homers.
Epstein stated a desire for proven strike-throwers in the bullpen, but it wouldn’t hurt to have another one in the rotation. Shark’s 1.39 BB/9 and 3.8 percent walk rate were the lowest in MLB among qualified starters this past season, and those aren’t aberrant numbers for him. They’re lower than his career marks, but not out of line with what he’s done since the 2014 campaign that saw him traded away.
If we did a blind taste test and I gave you Samardzija’s peripheral stats and asked you whether you’d want him on your team, the answer would be a resounding yes. And if you chose to get a little antsy about the personality after I revealed his identity, just remember that he’d basically be replacing John Lackey.
Cubs still champs
The Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series. People forget that. Maybe not as many as forget about the White Sox winning the ’05 Series, but it’s still pervasive. And after tonight’s Game 7 between the Dodgers and Astros, I suppose faulty memory won’t be quite as big a flaw.
So enjoy this final day as fans of the reigning World Series champion.
Featured image via Billie Weiss