Craig Counsell Making Cubs ‘Uncomfortable’ in Best Possible Ways

The Cubs didn’t fire David Ross and make Craig Counsell the highest-paid manager in MLB history just so they could save on player payroll by morphing into the Brewers. No, Jed Hoyer pulled off the shocking coup because he knew things had grown stagnant at the corner of Clark and Addison, and that Counsell was the right person to shake everything up. As Ken Rosenthal wrote for The Athletic, the goal was for the new manager to challenge the status quo.

“This is gonna be uncomfortable,” Hoyer told the front office and coaching staff. “He’s gonna see things through a different lens. He’s gonna want to do things differently. We have to embrace that. We have to embrace being uncomfortable.”

There’s little value in relitigating David Ross’s tenure as manager, but Rosenthal’s piece — not to mention everything else we’ve heard so far — seems to confirm much of the criticism that dogged the World Series hero. Saying Hoyer desired pushback from his new manager implies that the old one was too willing to go along with everything the front office said.

And while way too much was made of the idea that Grandpa Rossy just wanted to be every player’s best friend, there was a sense that he was kind of like a dad coach in youth ball. By that I mean he was good at connecting with players and keeping the group’s energy up, then seemed to come up wanting when it came to the finer points of strategy and data.

Even the front office may have lagged a bit on the latter front, with Counsell apparently being the first to suggest a change to the information displayed on player pages in their database. It’s wild to think that could be the case given Hoyer’s pedigree as a colleague of Theo Epstein and so many others who were instrumental in the analytical revolution, but the Cubs were still using stats with “limited predictive ability” and hadn’t even considered changing until the new skipper brought it up.

For all his experience, it’s funny that Hoyer actually skews a little more old-school in that regard. Having Carter Hawkins and now Counsell to balance that out is a big win for the organization.

One area in which Ross drew a lot of heat, most of which was probably undue, was his lineup construction. Keeping Ian Happ as the No. 3 hitter may have been the biggest and most consistent complaint from fans last season, but a lot of that came down to the roster. That’s why Hoyer said the Cubs needed to find a three-hole hitter, to which Counsell countered that what they really needed was a three-win player.

They may have just signed both in Cody Bellinger, though Counsell understands that where someone bats in the lineup isn’t as important as it’s made out to be.

“We should not get hung up on that,” the manager explained to Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma. “We can’t control the sequence of the offense as much as we like or think we can. There is a comfortability for players that I think you have to acknowledge a little bit. But it’s also for the players to understand that your spot in the lineup is who am I hitting before and who am I hitting after.

“It’s really as simple as (that). Then go have a good at-bat, swing at the right pitches, and be yourself. That, to me, lends itself to getting your best hitters up a lot. I just strongly believe that.”

I like this guy a little more every time I hear him discuss his philosophy, whether it’s this stuff or how he emphasizes the need to understand players as more than just their on-field ability. He has an intimate understanding of team chemistry, a concept that tends to be either overblown or overlooked depending on who you talk to, and how it can help individuals to be their best selves. Even calling it “chemistry” may be missing the point because of the preconceived notions wrapped up in the phrase, but suffice it to say Counsell gets it.

That’s one reason, though there are more, you won’t see the Cubs making moves to add players with reputations for being clubhouse disruptors.

The perception of Ross was that he had a pretty firm ceiling dictated purely by the strength of the roster he was given and getting high-percentile outcomes across the board. The problem is that he may not have been capable of pushing the right buttons to create more good fortune than he cost his team. While Counsell isn’t some kind of magician who can conjure wins out of thin air, the belief is that he’ll be able to better leverage his expertise to get the most of his players.

All we can say for sure is that people will still lose their minds when he pulls a starter who’s rolling in favor of a reliever who gives up the tying run. Fans are still going to bitch and moan when a pinch-hitter strikes out in the clutch or a slugger is called upon to bunt in a situation that doesn’t call for such a move. Wait, that last one isn’t going to happen. The moral of the story is that Counsell won’t be perfect, he’s just a better fit for a team that needs to start winning again after this latest period of mediocrity.

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