It hasn’t been the story that the Cubs inability, or claimed inability, to chase Manny Machado or Bryce Harper has generated the past few weeks. Hell, even the non-story about the Cubs not trading Kris Bryant or even intending to do so created bigger waves. And yet I can’t help but find it strange that the Cubs are making it seem like they’ll push Jim Hickey into the same “Discarded Coaches Bin” that they so quickly shoved Chili Davis.
I can’t help but wonder if it’s another effort to separate themselves from Joe Maddon, making what is seeming more and more an inevitable departure after 2019 that much easier. Maybe it’s another move of an angry and panicked front office. Maybe it’s both.
There’s no question that there were some issues with Hickey in the first half of the season. Both José Quintana and Jon Lester ran career-high walk rates. Kyle Hendricks had some issues in the season’s first two months, but clearly ironed those out. Hickey was never able to lasso the poisonous gas that was Tyler Chatwood, and that was just about the task in front of him. Yu Darvish got hurt, so there’s really nothing to study there.
But is that on Hickey? Lester’s BB/9 rising just continued a trend that’s been the case since he became a Cub. His BB/9 has gone up every year since 2014, and it really just might be as the stuff is just a little less sharp every year, Lester has to be even more on the margins. Which is automatically going to lead to more walks.
Quintana suffered a major jump in his walks and a sinking of his strikeouts, so maybe there’s something there. Hickey might have imparted something to Cole Hamels, who saw his walks decline upon arriving, but it’s been well-covered that Hamels had started that work while still in Texas.
When all was said and done, the Cubs starting staff had a collective ERA in the top half of the league, though their FIP was toward the bottom. Maybe that’s a fireable offense, but it seems a tad harsh for a coach no one had any amplified criticisms of during the season. And the Cubs FIP was just about the same as it was the year before.
It depends on which tack you take here. It feels like the Cubs front office is getting close to scorched Earth, where nothing is sacred. And yet I can’t help but think that’s too aggressive of an approach.
Let’s think of last season in reverse, an exercise I’ve asked you to perform better. The team ends up with the same record and standing. But this time they didn’t hit in the first half. Anthony Rizzo is hurt for September, not April. Bryant misses all his time before the All-Star break, and has his usual Kris Bryant numbers in August and September. Happ and Almora still struggle, but this time Contreras and Schwarber actually close hard instead of being productive in the spring.
Would everyone be decrying it such a failure? Or would more things be written off as just the whims of baseball, and then things simply went wrong for two games at the very end?
The funny thing about all that? The Cubs record was better in August and September than it was in April and May. They went 30-23 in the season’s first two months. They went 34-22 in the season’s last two. And the biggest reason for that was how good the pitching was. The Cubs had the sixth-best FIP in the NL in August and the fourth in September. That didn’t happen in a vacuum without Hickey. So one has to wonder what they’re rebelling against so hard.
It’s not as if this is a staff of young arms that have to unearth something. You pretty much know what Lester, Quintana, Darvish, Hamels, and Hendricks are at this point. More to the point, they know what they are. So any pitching coach is pretty much just going to aid what they’re trying to do already, instead of changing it.
It would seem underhanded to use this ploy to drive a wedge between the front office and Maddon. If this front office wanted Maddon gone, we’d hear about a “mutual parting” already. I also don’t buy the argument that no one is going to take the job with Maddon in lame-duck status. Pitching coaches last multiple managers all the time. Chris Bosio did. Larry Rothschild did. Don Cooper on the other side of town is getting into Daley territory with his stay. Mike Maddux basically writes his own ticket. If your pitching coach is successful and liked, he almost operates outside the manager.
So I can’t see what we’re getting at here.
Perhaps there’s urgency because the Cubs might feel they’re now on the back-nine of this “window.” That the Cub-ocaplypse of Bryant’s, Rizzo’s, and Báez’s free agency, now closer to reality than the beginning of all this. That combined with Theo Epstein’s unspoken policy of not being around for more than 10 years. That all comes in 2021. There’s only three more seasons to play with before all of that. Perhaps the end, or a great change, is now in sight. And that’s causing more than just urgency.
But that looming marker, and the perception of what last season was, can’t lead to rash and impulsive decisions. That hasn’t been the way around here, and that’s not what got the Cubs in this lofty position. That seems more important to remember than how two games in October went.
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports