Chili Davis Effect Backfired, Cubs Hitters Regressed Across the Board

Chili Davis was hired by the Cubs to promote situational hitting awareness and “finish the development of [their] hitters,” as Theo Epstein put it. One person closely connected to the team told me after the hire that Davis was a “mental giant.” The Cubs’ intention was clear: Score more runs and be more consistent by improving plate approach, especially with runners in scoring position.

But the “Chili Davis Effect” was a systemic failure. As a unit, the Cubs failed to swing at better pitches, lift the ball, and knock in runs with runners in scoring position. The offense was a complete and total disaster as the Cubs lost the division lead and Wild Card game, prompting a shell-shocked Epstein to remark during his end-of-season press conference that they “broke somewhere along the lines.”

When Davis’s hiring was announced, I imagined it would lead to Cubs hitters swinging at better pitches in 2018. Nope, wrong, they actually swung at more pitches outside the strike zone. Heck, they even swung at more overall pitches.

I also thought the Cubs would improve their contact rate because more contact is part of Davis’s MO. Nope again, the Cubs actually whiffed more under the tutelage of their new hitting instructor.

What’s worse than swinging at more bad pitches and whiffing more? When the Cubs did make contact, a higher percentage of the results were grounders.

And it’s more than just coincidence because you can totally tell the Cubs attempted to change their approach. We heard “go opposite field” over and over again throughout the season, which is exactly what the Cubs did. Epstein even noted that they led the league in opposite-field hits.

But as good as it is in theory to take what pitchers give you, the Cubs sacrificed overall contact, plate discipline, and batted balls to do so this past season.

Above all else, though, Davis was brought in to improve situational awareness. So how did Cubs batters do with runners in scoring position?

Perhaps the most startling failure of all is the Cubs’ inability to produce any semblance of value with runners in scoring position (RISP). Just look at the team’s wOBA with RISP, which dipped well below league average and represented a steep falloff from their 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Maybe Cubs batters weren’t able to produce more runs because they were so intent on putting more balls in play. Perhaps the result of that philosophical change were that they hit more grounders with softer contact.

Even more troubling, Cubs batters also struck out more frequently with RISP than they had in either of the past two seasons. I expected the opposite effect.

Final Thoughts

I was floored after hearing Epstein describe the Cubs offense as broken during his season-ending press conference. Epstein even said the 2018 offense necessitates a top-to-bottom system re-evaluation that would require all their energy this winter.

To be clear, this post isn’t meant to be a total condemnation of Chili Davis. I think the Cubs’ intention was fair, as they wanted their new hitting instructor to stress plate approach and situational awareness after the more mechanically-inclined John Mallee was let go. The Cubs front office consciously rolled the dice trying to further the development of their young hitters. It backfired. Not even in our wildest nightmares did we think the Cubs could go from a .182 ISO in 2017 to a bottom-third .152 ISO in 2018. In their attempts to adjust, power was sacrificed.

Maybe these young players can’t all change their core traits of slugging and whiffing, at least not in short order. And that might just be okay. Not everyone can be Kris Bryant and drastically improve contact while still mashing.

I have no idea what the solution is, although I’m tempted to say it’s as simple as permitting young hitters to be themselves. My perspective is limited, though. I’m not in the clubhouse or the film room, so I can only speculate on what went wrong. But when Epstein says the offense broke and when the data points to failed plate-approach adjustments, I expect big changes to be implemented for 2019.

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15 Comments

  1. It’s a 2 year negative trend line, across 2 different hitting coaches – with largely the same players. While I’m not saying that Chili Davis doesn’t hold some responsibility, the players are the consistent variable in the formula. It may be fools logic to believe that another coaching change alone will fix this, and I don’t think Theo and Jed will go that route again this off season. They may bring in a new coach, but I expect that a couple of players will change in that roster/lineup.

    1. Exactly. I think Hitting coaches are getting less valuable over the years. Maybe it’s works during the 80’s when you have tons of soft throwing Starters (like a steve trout) throwing the ball. Today, it’s power pitchers, fewer times thru the 3rd batting order (which hurts hitter) and harder Bullpen guys. I think the change in pitcher type will dictate to teams “draft guys that have a high hit tool, and can hit elite velo”, and hit to the opposite field. You need a bunch of Daniel Murphy’s that can play the field. And bring in some speed (doesn’t slump). The coaches are mostly irrelevant (token job). It’s tougher to make contact, we need to find those guys. Forget Chili davis, bring in a couple of elite hitters and get some speed in that lineup.

  2. Brendon

    A couple of observations:

    (1) In the early part of ’18’, it seemed that Davis’ approach was clicking — better batting averages, et al. “letting batters be themselves” is what brought, for instance, Jason Heyward back into play (having him going back to what worked for him in the past).
    But, somewhere along the line, something for the team, as a whole, unclicked.
    Could it have been upper management interference?

    (2) Perhaps the real problem is that upper management went after the wrong kind of young players to begin with..
    Seems many of them are very one-dimensional — swing for the fences, or strike out.
    And the classic line for me, in this vein, was the comment reportedly attributed to JB in the early months of the season that he rather swing than walk.

    No, Davis may have failed; but I don’t think it is entirely his fault.
    His pupils may be so engrained in their ways that they cannot or are unwilling to change permanently.
    And when things don’t go right, as they will inevitably happen, they unconsciously revert to older comfortable habbits.

    When things work, batting and pitching coaches get too much credit; when things don’t work out, they get too much blame.

    I see it as an organizational problem rather than a Chili Davis problem. It seems that uppermanagement is too intent in meddling in everyday onfield dicisions rather than trusting their hires to do their jobs as they see best.
    When you have veteran coaches and managers, they probably have a better sense of things than some much younger team president who ought to stick with the gig picture.
    Otherwise, perhaps Theo Epstein ought to do the day-to-day managing himself and see that it ain’t so easy as he thinks.
    .

    He, also seemed to do a decent job with Russell and Almora in the early season.
    Russell’s off-field problems interfered with that beginning in midseason and the league began adjusting to Almora.
    Now he has to readjust again.

    1. Some excellent points in there, Mike, but the timing of Russell’s issues is off a bit. This stuff all first came up in June of last season and didn’t surface again until late September this season. Any struggles he had offensively can be chalked up to constantly changing his mechanics, as Brendan has noted several times in the past. Russell was actually doing pretty well through May and then had a fantastic June, but started to tumble after re-aggravating a finger injury in early July.

      From there, he really wasn’t able to get anything going with the bat on a consistent basis.

    2. Great points.

      I tend to disagree that the players are unwilling to change for several reasons. One reason is that we truly have no idea because we are outsiders looking through the lens of the media. Second reason is nearly every player on the roster has made a noticeable adjustment since debuting with the Cubs (e.g., Rizzo’s stance and crowding the plate, Kris Bryant’s posture/increased contact, Russell’s leg kick, Baez’s upright stance, Schwarber’s hands and upright stance, Contreras’ toe tap, Happ’s leg stride, and so on).

      I do agree that maybe this *could’ve* been an organizational mishap. They hired Chili to institute a philosophical change. He did just that. The Cubs failed to execute the philosophical change. That’s not completely on Chili. The decision to hire Chili was to finish off their player development and it more or less failed.

      Overall, we have zero idea what went wrong in the second half. No clue. But the numbers are jolting.

  3. Evan

    While the Sep announcement may have been a surprise to us, I doubt that it was a surprise to Russell.
    Something clearly was impacting his play on the field — be it what was going on with his ex-wife or something else.
    Perhaps, it’s only speculating, that attorneys on both sides were seeking a settlement for this not to go public.
    Perhaps they were not going speedily enough, or the offers couldn’t be matched.
    Or perhaps, for a settlement to be made, the Cubs would have needed to produce a contract offer for a yr or 2 to help with the paying of the settlement.
    Yes, the saga initially surfaced in June of ’17’, but it perhaps was simmering again throughout the summer and this impacted Addison’s play on the field.
    Hard to keep your mind on your job — especially if you are a young guy — when you know that there is a tempest And perhaps Russell himself may have been the stumbling bloc not llistening to his attorneys who may have been trying to educate him to the realities of such charges!
    We don’t know, or need to know.

    But, the way he was playing during the summer suggests to me that playing baseball was not his primary mental focus.
    And it’s not hard to 7understand why.

    I recall, on this blog, a story in early summer how good Addison was playing that swapping him to the Orioles for Machado would have been a dramatic mistake (Russel’s defense and it’s importance in post season play).festering waiting to potentially explode.
    The surprise, to me, is that the gossip sports writer never picked up on this.

    1. I think the bigger issue with his play was the finger, shoulder, and leg injuries that caused him to miss time and clearly impacted his physical ability. And while I do agree that there was some stuff going on behind the scenes that may have involved lawyers and may have gotten to Russell’s legal team, I’m with you on not being sure to what extent any of it did or did not impact him.

      My guess is that you’re talking about Jeff’s piece on Gold Glove vs. Silver Slugger.

      Who is the “gossip sports writer?”

  4. I wonder how much information can be packed in a guy’s head before his physical ease shuts down. I also wonder how much the small focus of watching tons of video does to the eyes’ ability to focus on the field. Maybe we’re looking at the wrong problem. The best thing that could happen to the offense next year, is for Kris Bryant to quit sliding head first. Yes, please do coach the aggressiveness out of him on that front.

  5. By gossip writers I meant the journalists and tweeters from places like Yahoo, The Athletic, etc whom seem to have sources — and some suggest invent stuff — to titulate readers thinking that, through them, they are in on the know of stuff supposedly no one else knows about.
    I am certain these guys — and a few gals — will be busy, once the World Series is over, telling us who will sign where and why — and when they don’t — why not.
    So-called source leaks, I guess what we call it.

    And, yes, that was another of Jeff’s fine and thoughtful pieces.
    He truly puts together some fine articles and is probably more on target than the average beat writer with there so-called scoops.
    Keep up the great work, Jeff!!

  6. I enjoyed the article and agree with the conclusions from the data almost completely. However, I have to say that almost every graph is misleading and doesn’t represent the data accurately at all. The differences between the data points along with whether any changes had significance, and how significant the change was, validate every conclusion made in the article. That’s why the graphs need to be accurate. It takes away from the validity and soundness of the argument otherwise. Simply, be careful when creating graphs to illustrate points.

    1. As you know from your statistics courses, one cannot test whether means are significantly different without a distribution. These data are overall means. There is no distribution. The effects are arbitrary in this case because there is no reference. Maybe I could’ve used 2016 as a reference, but I just showed the raw numbers so you can make your own conclusions.

      And I guess you could break it up into weekly intervals to get a distribution, but that’s sort of adressing a different question.

      And to be fair, we don’t really need a p value when the President of Baseball Opps confirms the team is hitting a lot more grounders, ya know?

      It’d be one thing to find the types of predictors that predict whether a hitter will hit a grounder — and then try to contextualzie those predictors — but that’s a lot of work lol

  7. I actually really enjoyed this article too…It was funny that when Javy was allowed to be Javy he had an MVP caliber season…maybe that would have worked with a Happ or a Schwarber…maybe even a Contreras..

  8. Maybe they need to do what Boston did. Get rid of Davis and bring in a good hitter and power guy like Manny or Bryce . Or trade for Nolan.

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