Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein likes his team’s hitters to grind out at-bats. Kind of like what Epstein and Co. to do with hitting coaches: Bring ’em in and grind ’em out.
Most hitting coaches employed during the Epstein era have done the equivalent of going down swinging at three pitches.
It was during a ticketholder event in the fall of 2014 when Epstein was asked about this upon the Cubs hiring John Mallee to be their third hitting coach in three years.
“We’re aware of the turnover,” Epstein said before delivering the punch line. “Our hitting-coach position is like the Spinal Tap drumming situation. We hope that John will solve that for us.”
John did do that for the Cubs, and things looked to be going swimmingly until he was unexpectedly fired after the 2017 season because Epstein and manager Joe Maddon seemed to like Chili Davis better.
So Davis was hired as part of an entire coaching-staff purge-and-reset.
And all was well again. Until recently, when Davis was fired.
The Cubs since turned to Anthony Iapoce — a close protégé of Mallee, of all people — to come back to the organization and serve as hitting coach after three years in that job with the Texas Rangers.
How did we get here, and why has the volume of talk concerning the Cubs’ hitting coach gone to 11, in Spinal Tap parlance?
Let’s take a look.
The Jaramillo years:
The hitting-coach carousel actually got started in the fall of 2009, when former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry hired Rudy Jaramillo.
The Cubs’ offense had just suffered a big fall after the 2008 team led the National League in runs scored, total bases, walks, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and victories.
“When you get an opportunity to put somebody in place that is so well respected and so universally considered at the top of his profession, you certainly jump at the chance, and that’s what we did,” said Hendry, who gave Jaramillo a three-year, $2.4 million contract.
Hendry was fired during the 2011 season, and Epstein came aboard that fall. He kept Jaramillo, even talking about having the swing guru help author the “Cubs Way” manual.
But Jaramillo was fired in June 2012 as a woeful Cubs team failed to produce.
“I think it’s more about philosophy going forward,” Epstein said at the time. “Rudy’s not to blame for the results. That’s something that we’re all accountable for. We put the roster together. It’s probably more on us than it is on him.”
To replace Jaramillo, the Cubs turned in house, to minor-league hitting coordinator James Rowson.
Rowson was a low-key hard worker whose tenure was pretty much nondescript over parts of two woeful seasons. Rowson left the organization after manager Dale Sveum was fired following the 2013 season.
The former batting champ:
The Cubs had a new manager, Rick Renteria, for 2014, and they brought in a familiar face as hitting coach.
Bill Mueller played for the Cubs in 2001 and part of 2002. The Cubs may have won a division in ’01 had Mueller not suffered a gruesome knee injury in May of ’01, when he slid into the wall in St. Louis trying to catch a ball.
His career recovered enough for him to win a batting title for Epstein’s 2003 Boston Red Sox. He was a member of the ’04 Red Sox team, which broke its own “curse” by winning their first World Series since 1918.
Mueller seemed happy to be back with the Cubs and even more happy that former Cub Mike Brumley was his assistant.
“I think it’s wonderful because I was given the opportunity to pick the guy I wanted to work with,” Mueller said that season. “It’s been wonderful with Mike, and we have a great working relationship together. We have the same values and the same ideas and the same principles about hitting.”
At the end of the season, the Cubs announced that all coaches would be welcome back for 2015 — except for Brumley.
Coming home to coach:
Renteria was still the manager when the Cubs turned to Mallee after Mueller resigned.
That changed a few days later when the Cubs hired Joe Maddon as manager. Even though Maddon by that time was a marquee manager and probably could have demanded more of “his” coaches, he inherited the staff, but he was allowed to bring in Dave Martinez as bench coach.
For Mallee, a native of Chicago’s South Side and from a family of Cubs fans, the job was a dream come true after he had worked as the hitting coach of the Houston Astros and helped to turn Jose Altuve into an offensive force.
“I grew up a Cubs fan and always dreamed of standing on the field and representing this amazing franchise,” Mallee said at the time. “I have been in professional baseball as a player or coach for more than 20 years and have never had an opportunity to see my family during the season until now.”
With the Cubs, Mallee oversaw the rise of the core of young hitters assembled by Epstein and scouting chief Jason McLeod.
Part of Mallee’s philosophy: “Obviously you don’t want to hit the ball on the ground — ever — if you can help it because there’s no slug (slugging percentage) there. You don’t want to hit it too high especially here at Wrigley with the wind blowing in. So what we try to do is understand at what launch angle creates the hits. So anywhere between a 12- to 18-degree launch angle.”
The Cubs offense dominated the NL in 2016, when the Cubs won their first World Series since 1908.
Things seemed fine at the end of the 2017 season, when Maddon and Epstein said the coaching staff would be welcomed back.
But Mallee was caught in the purge, and Maddon said it happened simply because Chili Davis became available.
He got launched, too:
During this past season, Maddon took every opportunity to downplay the “launch-angle revolution,” which many interpreted as a shot at Mallee.
Mallee landed in Philadelphia as the Phillies’ hitting coach, and when the team visited Chicago in June, he had good words for Epstein but barely acknowledged a question about Maddon.
Meanwhile, Cubs hitters got off to a good start and were atop or near the top of several key offensive categories at the all-star break.
Things went south in the second half. The Cubs had trouble scoring down the stretch. They lost their division lead and were quickly bounced out of the postseason.
Davis was the first to pay the price, and Epstein reaffirmed his belief that launch angle indeed is important.
Iapoce is friend and a protégé of Mallee, who coached Iapoce in the minor leagues. Their philosophies are similar. Iapoce was as a special assistant to Cubs GM Jed Hoyer while overseeing the club’s minor-league hitting program from 2013-15. So he knows many of the young hitters he’ll be coaching.
The Cubs have not make public comment on their coaching, saying they wanted to do so only when the staff has been finalized.
It will be interesting to see how both Maddon and Epstein spin things. And let’s not forget the hitters, some of whom may not have responded to Davis’ message and methods. Part of this on them, too.
• Follow Bruce’s Cubs and baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112.