Ditching The Chili Cook-Off Might Not Be The Answer

I’ve never known what it is hitting coaches actually do. From what I gather from people closer to the game than I, they’re not nearly as intrinsic as pitching coaches. After all, pitching coaches go out there in the middle of the game. Though I suppose hitting coaches do their work in the clubhouse and the dugout, as that’s where most everyone is when your team is at-bat. My best guess is they’re glorified sounding-boards.

That didn’t stop Chili Davis from being a popular target/scapegoat this season as the Cubs offense went colder than a well-digger’s ass in the last two months of the season. And if these tweets are true…

… well, you can’t ignore that. And yet… and yet… my immediate questions are, “What players said that?” and just how much water they should carry.

Hey, if it’s Anthony Rizzo going in there and saying this isn’t working, you would obviously listen. Except for a terrible April that was plagued by back problems though, Rizzo had the same Rizzo year he’s always had. So either he just did what he always did and never listened to Chili, or Chili left him alone because he’s a veteran who’s got his approach and methods down, or there was a sampling, or some combination thereof. It’s hard to imagine Rizzo being too upset about it, unless he was talking about what he saw with other players.

As laboriously discussed, Kris Bryant was hurt all year. Maybe his approach was altered when he was playing, but that’s hard to imagine. It’s also hard to see Bryant having a bad word for anyone, but you or I aren’t behind their closed doors.

And you can point to the failure to develop of players like Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Addison Russell (somehow I doubt his opinion is going to matter much to the front office), and the stalling out of Willson Contreras and pin that on Davis. I really don’t know.

But if you do that, then certainly the ascension of Javier Báez from science experiment to MVP candidate has to go on Davis as well. Jason Heyward at least showing flashes of being an average major-league hitter after two years of being Cottonnelle at the plate has to go on that record as well, though Heyward’s numbers are basically just one good month and a few more bad ones. But he was bad before Davis got here, and most likely he’ll be bad after Davis has been fired.

This is the second hitting coach in two years that the Cubs have let go, and one has to wonder when you have to just say, “Maybe it ain’t the arrows, son.” How many more do they get?

So let’s look specifically at the players most culpable for the Cubs’ offense that caught Mono in the season’s second half: Happ, Almora, Contreras, and Kyle Schwarber.

We’ll start with Happ. His walk rate ballooned, but his batting average went down and his strikeouts went up. The batting average fluctuation is strange, as his BABIP exploded to .362. Clearly, he just wasn’t putting enough balls in play.

But to say we definitely know what the Cubs have in Ian Happ simply isn’t true. His only really dominant season in the minors came in High-A. He only played 26 games in Triple-A, and he was great there, with a wRC+ of 144. But it’s 26 games. Kris Bryant nearly had triple that number at that level, and Happ is not Bryant. It’s the same problem as with Schwarber, who only played 17 games at Triple-A before coming up in ’15 and then missing all of ’16. Schwarber has a much more accomplished MLB record than Happ. Simply put, there isn’t that much evidence that Happ is supposed to be a great hitter at the top level other than a flash here or there, his draft position, and a couple of big spring training performances.

If Davis’s approach or tutelage was supposed to get players to work counts and use the whole field, Happ only did half of that. He certainly worked counts. And we know that Happ has great power to the opposite field, at least when hitting left-handed. In ’17 he hit .500 when going to left field from the left side, and this past year it was .465. He slugged 1.194 in 2017 doing that and .977 in 2018. So why did he only do that a quarter of the time? Is that on Chili or on him? Given what we know about Davis’s methods and philosophy (i.e. work up the middle and opposite field), you know which way to at least lean.

So we move to Almora. And it’s sort of the same story. Almora’s only dominant offensive performance in the minors was at Single-A. In 186 combined games at Double-A and Triple-A, he really was only middling at the plate. And that’s basically what he did in the majors. Unlike the other three, he doesn’t walk. He doesn’t strike out much either. And if Davis’s preference was for hitters to use the opposite field when appropriate, how come Almora only did so a quarter of the time as well? Almora’s groundball rate when going to right field was a third of what it was when he pulled the ball. So who’s that on?

Contreras is the one where you can most strongly make the anti-Chili case, as he had a year-and-a-half of major league success before this year, which neither Happ or Almora could claim. His hard-contact rate went way down this season, and he did try and use the opposite field more often. But his groundball rate was about the same as it was in ’16 and ’17. And with Willson, his power has actually always been up the middle mostly. He went there less in favor of going to right field. So that was a problem. But is that enough?

Russell has the same case as Almora and Happ, Between the A’s and Cubs organizations, he played 14 games at Triple-A. And recall when he was promoted, they were basically asking him to just catch the ball. For most of four seasons, Russell has yet to prove to be an average hitter at this level. Not that it matters much now, as he rightly is headed out of the organization. And yes, whatever power Russell showed didn’t materialize this year. He also tried to be up the middle and to the opposite field more. I’ll grant you Russell along with Contreras, except only one is part of the plan going forward. And only one had major success at the plate in the majors, and it wasn’t Russell.

Which brings us to Schwarber. Who was good. Yes, he was. A 115 wRC+ and a .343 wOBA are good marks. 28 homers is good. Is it the 35 you expect from Schwarbs? No, but it’s not far off the 30 he hit the season before. Was Schwarber simply god-awful in high-leverage situations? You bet he was! But he was terrible in them in 2017, and he was terrible in them in 2015. Don’t let a couple singles in the World Series skew your view. This has been a problem for a while.

Schwarber’s 2018 wasn’t was his second half of 2017, when Schwarber was really good. But as far as the direction of where he hit the ball, it was the same in ’18 as it was in that ’17 second half. His line drive rate went up from that, though his hard-contact rate declined slightly.

All of this is basically to get to the idea that the blaming and eventual firing of Chili Davis has, at least an element, of ass-covering from the Cubs’ front office. Because they may have trusted too many lineup spots to guys who simply might not be that good, or at least we have scant evidence that they are or could be. You can point to the Red Sox explosion after the departure of Davis this year. But they also have J.D. Martínez in tow.

The front office kind of bet on itself turning over PAs and lineup spots to their own organizational products. And when the big one went down (Bryant), they lost. Is Davis getting fired because Contreras regressed?

I’m not arguing that Davis should be kept around. If the Cubs find someone who gets through to everyone, great. But if they don’t, or that next coach can’t, then maybe the problems aren’t what the hitters are being told. It’s the hitters themselves.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Reuss

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