Hitting coaches are hired to be fired, especially when you’re talking about a role that has now been occupied by seven different men over the 11 seasons of Jed Hoyer’s Cubs tenure. The team’s continued struggles at the plate in 2021 ensured that Anthony Iapoce wouldn’t return for a fourth go-round, but it’s been nearly 20 years since a hitting coach lasted more than three seasons on the North Side. So what makes them think Greg Brown — whose hiring was officially announced Wednesday — will be any different?
We may have to wait another few years to find out for sure, but the strong indication is that the organization is finally adjusting a development philosophy that either didn’t extend to or wasn’t properly implemented at the big league level. When Theo Epstein admitted in 2018 that the offense “broke somewhere along the lines,” he threw up a red flag that still flies in tattered ribbons of faded pink as it’s buffeted mercilessly by the cool lake breeze and hot air from pundits’ takes.
A look at the season stats will show you that the Cubs’ .258 aggregate batting average in ’18 was the team’s best of the last seven years. However, their .333 OBP ranks third in that span and their .410 slugging sits fourth. The big problem is that those slash-line numbers were .249/.316/.389 in the second half as the Cubs stumbled to the finish line before fizzling down the stretch to score two combined runs over 22 innings between Game 163 and the NL Wild Card.
The last two seasons have been worse overall in nearly every offensive aspect, though it probably doesn’t do much good to lay out the gory details. Rather, we can discuss the macro issue of team leadership not doing nearly enough to address weaknesses that had long since become public knowledge. Whether due to outright negligence or budgetary constraints, the Cubs did almost nothing to improve the roster with hitters who complemented their core players.
This is the part where I remind you for the 50th time that Daniel Descalso is still their only multi-year position player contract since Jason Heyward and that Jon Jay’s $8 million guarantee is the largest for a position player since Heyward.
Anywho, the real problem appears to have been more philosophical in nature in that the front office simply had too much faith in those core players to continue developing as hitters at the big league level. The Cubs achieved ultimate success due in large part to contributions from young hitters who’d shot quickly through the minors, but it felt as if they just assumed those hitters were fully formed and needed no more work.
But just like a cake that hasn’t spent enough time in the oven, cutting past that golden-brown exterior revealed a lump of batter. Get it…batter? Part of that was a function of game-planning, as the Cubs often seemed to be outmatched by their opponents from a strategic standpoint. Perhaps it’s just confirmation bias, but I can recall far too many occasions on which Cubs batters simply had no clue what to do against a pitcher who had figured them out well before the first pitch was thrown.
With full understanding that I’m oversimplifying things and perhaps making Hoyer and Epstein out to be incompetent when that’s far from the case, several problems were allowed to fester for far too long. Enter Brown, who has been hired to serve as sort of a general contractor as the Cubs rebuild their roster. He’s spent the last 15 years or so evaluating and instructing young hitters as a scout for the Astros, head coach for Nova Southeastern University, and minor league hitting instructor for the Rays.
“His background is fascinating with being a really good area scout to a really good college coach to being a coordinator for an organization that really does a really great job developing hitting,” Hoyer told reporters at the GM Meetings. “He was really impressive throughout and we were excited to bring him on board.”
Rather than being tasked with actually fixing anything directly, Brown will head up a revamped strategy that should be more holistic in nature. Getting to the big leagues doesn’t represent an end to the journey, so the development process needs to have more continuity stretching all the way from rookie ball through the end of a player’s time in Chicago.
“We look at this as like a kind of hitting department and a pitching department more than just like a one-man show,” Hoyer explained. “When we think about what does player development look like in big leagues, I think it’s a lot of coaches collaborating to get the most out of a player.”
Whether it was finally winning that elusive World Series — in 2016, people forget that — or growing too emotionally attached to too many players, the Cubs got comfortable to the point of complacency. Even when things admittedly broke, or when ownership was admittedly broke, they didn’t really do anything to fix the situation. That may have worked for Nolan Ryan’s elbow, but it sure as hell didn’t work for the Cubs.
Though it isn’t directly related to the Cubs, these tweets from Arizona State University professor and “How We Learn to Move” author Rob Gray struck me when I read them. What he’s talking about on an individual level can just as easily be applied to the organizational decision to play it safe and hope everything would just work itself out. Sure enough, the Cubs broke into pieces this past season.
..but, if instead, you spend practice trying to break it by adding variability and changing constraints, exagerrating errors and even deliberately trying to do it "wrong" at times, you will get a resilient and adaptable movement made of iron!
— Rob Gray ⚾️👁 (@ShakeyWaits) November 10, 2021
Brown was brought in to be a collaborator who approaches the situation with a fresh perspective and can challenge old ways of thinking and doing things. He’ll also have a decidedly different group with which to work, particularly as the Cubs (fingers crossed) are able to improve the talent level of the roster through promotions, trades, and free agency.
Now they just need to hope Brown can stick around long enough to implement these changes.