Epstein’s Comments Indicate Potential for More Front Office Influence on Field
Accepting the blame for disappointing results means being willing to take an active role in correcting the flaws that led to them. So when Theo Epstein laid out some very specific issues during the course of his extensive postseason address Wednesday afternoon, he opened the door to the possibility that he and the rest of the front office will play a more influential role in on-field decisions.
Not that he’s been passive in the past; the Cubs pride themselves on being a collaborative structure they refer to as a flat hierarchy. But when the team’s level of urgency and offensive output are equally flat, it’s evident that something needs to change from the top down. The former area is one in which the front office can likely have the most direct impact.
“[W]e could have done more from Day 1 through 162 as far as a complete sense of urgency every day,” Epstein lamented. “Being completely on mission every day. Showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day to win.
“Sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run or you don’t get it in. Or they’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you went 4-3, you needed to go 5-2.
“Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you’ve already won two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct as a team.”
I could be wrong, but that sounds like pointed advice for — if not a shot across the bow of — a manager who’s wont to rest everyday players on getaway days or who’ll de-emphasize early games in favor of those later in the season. Epstein’s not calling for wholesale changes to a philosophy that’s led to an average of 97 wins a year over the last four years, mind you, just a return to the hunger they had in 2016.
Rather than some kind of micromanagement that involves reviewing each game’s lineup or scripting hype speeches, it seems reasonable that Epstein and Jed Hoyer would perhaps keep a bug in Joe Maddon’s ear when it comes to those occasional punt games. Or perhaps it’s even less direct than that, like reminding the players once in a while about how they felt cleaning out their lockers on October 3 instead of later in the month.
It’s also possible that some personnel changes will be in order, though Epstein declined to comment on anyone beyond Maddon, who he confirmed will return in 2019. Many throughout the fanbase have been calling for Chili Davis to be relieved of his duties, a move that would give the Cubs three different hitting instructors in three years. But when the results are stagnant no matter who’s there, perhaps there’s more to it than just the coach.
“I don’t fully buy into that,” Epstein said in response to a question about being caught between hitting philosophies. “The core offensive philosophy of this organization remains unchanged. We want to be selectively aggressive, get pitches we can drive, and drive them hard in the air. Including out of the ballpark. Line drives.
“We want to have professional at-bats, be relentless, and [with] that selectively aggressive approach you’re gonna draw walks. We should be getting on base a ton, leading the league in on-base percentage as we were at the All-Star break.”
The initial part of that statement seems to indicate that Davis’s job is safe, though one still has to wonder how well his methods mesh with the Cubs hitters on a whole. It was clear that guys like Jason Heyward — with whom Davis began working well before the season — and Javy Baez made major strides, but Willson Contreras, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber regressed or stagnated to varying degrees.
This is where we could employ the axiom that development is not linear, particularly in a sport like baseball that requires constant adjustment. But when your entire team is built upon a foundation of young talent, it simply won’t do to have several of them struggling to grow as hitters.
“[I]n an ideal world, what we’re trying to do to sort of finish the development of our hitters is — especially with runners in scoring position when you’re facing the best pitchers — to take what the pitcher gives you, use the whole field, have great situational and professional at-bats,” Epstein continued. “We did lead the league in opposite-field hits, so there is some progress in that area.
“But the bottom line is we stopped walking and stopped hitting the ball out of the ballpark, especially in the second half. We hit the ball on the ground a ton, I think that was exacerbated down the end probably by a little of the stuff the guys had to deal with, the schedule and the fatigue. But it started long before that, so it’s not an excuse.
“I wouldn’t say ‘caught in between [philosophies],’ but I think still evolving. Still evolving. If we were still caught in between approaches, why were we the best offense in baseball in the first half? So I do think something happened in the second half and especially down the stretch that, as demonstrated most poignantly and painfully in these last few games, that we have to get to the bottom of.”
Much of the reason for the switch to Davis from John Mallee, in addition to the former being a “Maddon guy,” was to further the development of the Cubs’ hitters from an approach standpoint. Where Mallee seemed to be more mechanically inclined, Davis was renowned for teaching pitch recognition and using that selectively aggressive approach Epstein mentioned.
“Hit the homers you’re capable of,” Maddon said of Davis’s philosophy during a power binge in late August. “Hit to the batting average you’re capable of, and balance your walks versus strikeouts. Thus you’re going to score runs. Thus you’re going to be able to drive in more runs by moving the baseball as opposed to swinging and missing so much.”
Though he wasn’t speaking specifically about how he instructs hitters, Davis offered a very clear picture of his methods when he spoke to Sahadev Sharma about his work with a certain slugging left fielder back in late March.
“What kind of hitter does Kyle Schwarber want to be?” Davis said. “Does he want to be consistent or be a power hitter and take the risk of punching out 200 times to hit 30 homers? He’s proven he can hit 30 home runs, but is he satisfied with that or does he want to be better without taking away that natural power?
“When I say natural, that’s a key word. If you’re trying to create power in his case, you’re taking away from your natural abilities just to get power. He wants to be a consistent hitter. He wants to be in the lineup as much as possible. Handle lefties, righties, hit .280 or better. If his focus stays on that path, he’ll still hit his 30 home runs because the power is so natural, it’ll just show up.”
With full admission that there may be some confirmation bias here, I see very clear similarities between Davis’s teaching methods and the sort of laissez-faire attitude Maddon maintains. Seemingly absent in both is that killer instinct Epstein spoke of, almost an admission that things are simply going to be what they’re going to be if you just let players be themselves.
That’s admirable to an extent and there’s something to be said for getting out of the way and letting skilled professionals do their job, but at what point does it actually become a detriment? Maddon spoke frequently about not curbing Javy Baez’s natural tendencies, and that hands-off approach was at least partially responsible for an MVP-type season. Some guys need to be pushed, though, not simply allowed to take what comes.
So does that mean Davis needs to go, or is it again a matter of exerting a little more force from above?
“[Davis] worked his tail off to make guys better, and so in that respect he did everything that we asked of him,” Epstein said Wednesday. “The goal…was never to sacrifice power or, in my opinion, launch angle. It’s not a fad. The bottom line is line drives and balls in the air are way more productive than ground balls.”
Contrary to (often incorrect) belief, the hitting coach is not an island unto himself and he’s not spending his time molding each player in his own image. And only in very rare instances is he going to have an immediate, tangible impact. Ideally, the role is one of a sounding board and mentor, someone who’s there to support hitters and guide them through the rigors of the season.
“When you get frustrated as a hitter, it puts you in that hurry-up mode,” Davis told Sharma. “You think you need three hits in one at-bat rather than just staying patient and sticking with your plan. When you’re frustrated, you start getting hot but you don’t believe in it. So then boom, you get cold again. A lot of things can happen. I’m just trying to help keep him in the right mindset this year.”
That seems to make sense. But many will point to the Cubs’ marked decrease in power, which contrasts sharply with what the Red Sox did this season without Davis on the staff, and lay the results directly at the coach’s feet. Occam’s razor be damned, that’s far too simple an answer, especially when we look at how the offense stagnated under Mallee as well.
Rather, the Cubs are dealing with an overall lack of urgency that permeated the organization as a whole. Getting that back is the responsibility of everyone involved and it starts from the very top. Which means Epstein and Hoyer ensuring that the Cubs are indeed “completely on mission every day, showing up with that assertiveness and that edge every day to win.”
You can keep running new coaches through a revolving door every season, but it’s not going to matter if the overall attitude isn’t conducive to aggressiveness and improvement. Maddon and Davis can’t be and shouldn’t be completely absolved of that, nor can they be easily indicted. Which is why much of the change moving forward is going to have to come from Epstein.
And from the sounds of it, that’s exactly what he intends for 2019.