There’s no way to distill the Cubs’ decision to replace Joe Maddon with David Ross down to a single point, or even two, but you could do worse than looking to structure and intensity. Theo Epstein has cited both repeatedly, even referring to a sense of organizational complacency that began to set in after the World Series. While the front office can’t be absolved of culpability on that front, it’s the manager who bears ultimate responsibility.
“I think the biggest change from Joe to David will be…I know Joe was super relaxed, very laid back, kinda let the players set their own way,” Kyle Schwarber told 670 The Score’s Julie and Maggie Show at Cubs Convention. “I think David’s gonna come in and he’s got it on his mind what he wants to do and I think things are gonna be a little more structured. He’s gonna demand a higher amount of respect.
“Not that Joe didn’t, but I think there’s gonna be a little more structure in everything we’re going to be doing on a day-to-day basis.”
One of the tenets of Ross’s spring strategy is a reboot of Maddon’s call to “do simple better,” which means working intently on the most basic fundamentals of the game. Former bench coach Mark Loretta publicly lamented the lack of practice and game-planning, something Ross plans to change. It’s easy to dismiss the need for highly skilled professionals to work through simple drills, but look back at how the Cubs struggled defensively and on the basepaths and ask yourself whether they could use some improvement.
“I’m trying to create an environment where these guys work together more,” Ross said Tuesday.
As trite as that sounds, there may be a deeper meaning to what Ross is talking about. Not only does he want to establish practice habits for various position groups rather than having everyone doing their own thing in terms of game prep, but he’s looking to pull the team a little closer off the field as well. There’s no better time for that than spring training, when the looser schedule and limited distractions — a cumbersome euphemism, I know — allow for easier socialization.
At the risk of relying too heavily on outside perception, something about the Cubs teams of the last three seasons felt different from those of 2015 and ’16. Far from stark differences, it was more like watching your favorite TV series or movie franchise when a beloved writer or director has departed. The lead characters remain the same, they just lack the familiar spark or verve that led to the production’s success in the first place.
Just like writing and directing take place beyond the eye of the end user, Ross’s tactics will begin with fielding drills and live batting practice. The latter will feature umpires and the removal of the cage, all of which is meant to simulate game action to the greatest extent possible. If you recall, the players had clamored for more BP last season, the implementation of which is one of the changes Maddon saw as front office meddling.
Mundane practice habits aren’t just a means by which players can sharpen their skills, though, as the rookie skipper is using them to learn how to manage as well. Case in point, he simulated a pitching change by coming out to the mound to take the ball from presumed fifth starter Tyler Chatwood. Whether that came after a successful outing or in the 2nd inning after walking the bases loaded.
Another measure of structure is having a more static lineup to whatever degree that’s possible. Another one of the items players pushed for last season, establishing a routine and knowing when and where they’re playing can help with performance.
“Traditionally, I like a standard lineup as much as I possibly can,” Ross said recently. “I think the flow of a normal, consistent lineup is important to some of the players. It’s a real thing, as much as we don’t measure it.”
That includes having a designated leadoff hitter, something Ross is working to decide on by the time the regular season rolls around. He doesn’t have his mind made up yet, nor should he since a lot of things are still in flux, but it sounds like he’s got several options in play for the role.
“There’s a handful of guys you guys can say, or can speculate,” Ross told the media. “I think Rizz [Anthony Rizzo] is definitely a viable option if I want to go with a professional at-bat to lead it off. There’s a group of guys.”
So, yeah, I don’t think it’s a matter of if you want to go with a professional at-bat, but which hitter can put together a solid plate appearance most frequently. A lot of folks are probably pulling for Nico Hoerner to get that opportunity, and he may well be one of the contenders Ross isn’t ready to reveal yet. With the requisite on-the-job training required to get him there and Jason Kipnis being brought in, however, it feels like Hoerner’s chances have grown slim.
Rather that speculate further on who can or should lead off and the minutia involved in better promoting proper execution on the field, it’s probably easier to just focus on the attitude Ross brings. Any new leader is going to come with a different vibe and a new vision for how things should be, but in this case there’s an added bonus of having established relationships in place. That isn’t just a matter of him being a yes-man for the front office, either, not that his detractors will ever be swayed from that belief.
As much as the Cubs have talked about not looking backwards and avoiding some of the things that led to the winner’s trap, there are some aspects of their title team that should be revived. Even if the final vote on Ross’s ability to do that won’t come for months yet, the early returns from straw polls speak pretty clearly.
“It’s good – it’s exciting. I hear him talk, hear how passionate he is,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Chicago about playing for Ross. “He’s just talking about all the meetings they’ve had – they’ve had a lot of meetings – and how fired up he gets. It’s good to see, it’s great to just be a part of that.
“The energy he brings into a room uplifts it right away. Without him even saying hello. He’s so good at getting the best out of you. It’s in a good way, it’s the right way, and it’s fun.”