One game can’t really turn a season around, but Tuesday’s (or Wednesday’s, if we’re going by non-West Coast time) win sure did make things feel a lot better in Cubdom. It didn’t start out that way, though. Not only were the Cubs’ bats silent largely silent against LA starter Ross Stripling, but there was a bit of public unease when word leaked that hitting coach Chili Davis had called for a pregame meeting.
Men in Davis’s position are often targets for fan ire when a team isn’t hitting because, well, they’re hitting coaches. And when the feast-or-famine Cubs are riding a roller coaster of similar design to the one the Red Sox rode last season, people start to connect dots. Even someone like myself, who’s more prone to err on the side of giving guys too much leeway, has to wonder about the role Davis has played in that.
Joe Maddon is a much more public voice when it comes to expressing his team’s offensive philosophy, and he’s said repeatedly throughout the season that they’re working more on “leveling out” players’ swings. Depending on who you ask, that practice might not actually be a good thing, but the overall goal is to reduce a trend toward getting too steep an attack angle and falling prey to the strikeout too often.
Davis was brought in with a promise that he was more about situational hitting and had a more conceptual focus, a contrast to John Mallee’s more mechanical and analytical style. The thought there is that the new guy could sort of build upon and renovate the structure that was already in place.
But what we are seeing is that the Cubs are not only still homer-dependent, but they’re hitting fewer homers upon which to subsis. With 81 dingers through 77 games (1.05 HR/game), the Cubs are tied with the Mets for 10th in the NL. That’s a far cry from last year’s 223 longballs (1.38 HR/game) that saw them one off the pace set by the Brewers and Mets.
Doesn’t seem like too big a deal until you realize that the difference equates to one fewer home run every three games. Might that come in handy once in a while if there were runners on base when that extra ball leaves the yard or when the Cubs haven’t scored in 19 innings?
Rather than indict Davis for that dropoff, I’ll chalk it up to poor timing and an adjustment period as young hitters find their way under new tutelage. But, Evan, isn’t that still laying it at the hitting coach’s feet? Well, yeah, I guess it is. Rather than say it’s his fault, however, I’ll go with the idea that this is a consequence of making a change and that we won’t know for sure how it’ll all work out until we look back over the whole season.
Keep in mind that we’re also looking at a team that has been without its best hitter for over a month. Sure, Kris Bryant has only been out of the lineup for a few days, but the persistent shoulder issue that landed him on the shelf has been around since mid-May. My guess based on the available clues is that Bryant first injured the shoulder on May 19 in Cincinnati while sliding into second base.
He had already gone homerless in the three previous games, a power outage that would eventually continue for a full month. Bryant has homered only once in his last 155 plate appearances, a significant departure from what had been a career average of one homer every 21.3 plate appearances. Adding in what should have been an additional seven or eight homers wouldn’t get the Cubs back to 2017 averages, but it would make up almost half that difference we noted earlier.
But since you can’t go back in time and stop Bryant from sliding headfirst and you can’t suddenly get Willson Contreras to hit more homers, where does that leave the Cubs? As we saw from Tuesday’s win, the bats came to life and they were able to live by the homer. Of course, a mistake or two from the Dodgers didn’t hurt.
So what what exactly did they discuss in that meeting?
“We like to talk,” Javy said after the game (per Patrick Mooney tweet). “Even without meetings, we get together and talk about situations and plays. But it was helpful, for sure. We were just talking about passing it to the next guy and taking our walks when we needed to. Simple stuff.”
Maybe that’s all it takes. Maybe it’s just a matter of everyone getting healthy and having more than one or two players getting hot at the same time. At the risk of getting really weird with this analogy, this year’s Cubs have felt like a string of turn signals to me.
You know, like when you’re lined up at a red light waiting to turn and you sit there watching all the blinkers on the cars in front of you to see whether they’ll all sync up. Since they’re all timed differently, it may never happen or maybe only two of them will harmonize for an instant. That’s the Cubs. No one’s really stayed on constantly and they can’t seem to be on the same pattern for more than a game or two at most.
Can Davis play the role of mechanic and synchronize the disparate patterns of his hitters so that they’re flashin’ in a more orderly fashion? I have no idea. But he might want to see about adding a little power while he’s messing around under the hood.
What Javy said about the brief team confab with Davis is in keeping with Maddon’s call to do simple better, something this Cubs team hasn’t done this season. Not on a consistent basis, anyway. There’s no need for massive overhauls in personnel or philosophy, but little fundamental improvements here and there would likely yield big results.
I’d caution that no single meeting or game is going to change the fortunes of a team, except that we’re talking about a Cubs team that may owe its latest World Series title to a meeting during Game 7. But barring a string of 17-minute rain delays throughout the season, future success may just be a matter of checking in and being vigilant when it comes to reinforcing the fundamentals.
Is that an oversimplification? Probably. But sometimes doing the little things right is all it takes.