John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Curious as to why the Mets hired a hitting coach, Chili Davis, who lasted all of one year with the Cubs? Here are a couple of reasons to believe it was more of a well-reasoned decision than you might think.
First, there is not a more perilous job in baseball these days than that of hitting coach, thanks partly to the launch-angle revolution, which has way too many hitters trying to be J.D. Martinez, and partly to the rise of personal hitting coaches that convince way too many hitters in the offseason they can be J.D. Martinez.
That also explains why, by long-time hitting coach Dave Magadan's count, no fewer than 17 teams this offseason had openings for that very position.
"Hitting coach is definitely a fluid job description these days," Magadan said dryly, speaking via phone.
Secondly, Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't really want to fire Davis, according to multiple sources, yet felt he had no choice but to give in to the wishes of at least a few of his star hitters, most notably Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.
"He caved," was the way one person close to the situation put it. "He's not happy about it. He thinks it's BS that the players complained about Chili, but he wasn't going to stick with his hitting coach just to make a point."
Epstein didn't respond to an email seeking comment, but it's no secret he has a fondness for Davis, going back to hiring him to be the Red Sox Triple-A hitting coach in 2011.
It's also no secret that Davis indeed clashed with some of the Cubs' hitters. He said so on his way out of Chicago, with some very candid comments expressing his frustration.
"I hope the next guy connects better with the players," Davis told the Chicago Sun-Times, "because I felt there were multiple players I didn't connect with. It wasn't that I didn't try. It just wasn't there."
The source of disconnect apparently centered around the launch-angle concept, which is at the root of the home run-or-bust approach that is so prevalent in today's game.
Bryant, among others, is all about the uppercut swing, taught to him by his father, a noted private hitting instructor, while Davis has always preached situational hitting, which means sacrificing power at times to make contact.
Suffice it to say, some players don't want to hear that in this era when no one sees any harm in striking out.
Beyond that, however, Davis indicated that pitchers have made adjustments to the launch-angle approach and he couldn't get some of the Cubs' hitters to understand that.
"Regardless of who's there (as the next hitting coach)," Davis told the Sun-Times, "certain players there are going to have to make some adjustments because the game has changed and pitchers are pitching them differently. They're not pitching to launch angles and fly balls and all that anymore. They're pitching away from that."
Perhaps that explains why Bryant's power numbers were down significantly last season. A shoulder injury was thought to be a factor, as he hit only 13 home runs in 102 games, but maybe there was more to it.
Magadan, the former Mets first baseman who was recently hired by the Rockies after being let go by the Diamondbacks, went into more detail to explain Davis' remarks in a general sense. He noted how pitchers have learned they can attack a lot of the launch-angle devotees with fastballs up in the strike zone, getting swings-and-misses or fly balls that stay in the ballpark.
"The bottom line is you have to know who you are as a hitter," Magadan said. "I've had guys work with a coach in the offseason on the launch angle, and come back telling me, 'I want to hit the ball in the air more.'
"Well, I never want guys hitting the ball on the ground, especially to the pull side. I want them driving the ball into the gaps. But to just want to hit the ball in the air … if you're not (Aaron) Judge or (Giancarlo) Stanton or J.D. Martinez, you're just going to fly out a lot to the big part of the ballpark when pitchers with velocity and high spin rates are pitching up in the zone.
"I had a guy last year who tried to be J.D. Martinez, and we finally had to have an intervention with him. It wasn't until he was sent back to Triple-A that he realized it didn't work for him, and he got back to hitting line drives.
"It's harder than it used to be, communicating with guys. You could be a little more in-their-face with things years ago. Now they have a lot more information; they have their own coaches; teams have sports psychologists they talk to. It's all for the better, but you need to know what makes guys tick, and use all of that stuff as a tool rather than fighting it."
Magadan certainly knows his stuff, which is why he continues to get jobs -- the Rockies are the fifth organization for which he has coached. But when teams don't hit, which was the case with both the Cubs and Diamondbacks down the stretch of pennant races last season, hitting coaches make for easy scapegoats.
Magadan interviewed with the Mets this winter, and said he came away feeling good about the meeting with Brodie Van Wagenen, Mickey Callaway and Omar Minaya, but also said he wasn't surprised when Davis got the job.
"Evidently Chili went in and knocked their socks off," Magadan said. "I'm a big fan of Chili's. We worked together in Boston, when I was the hitting coach there, and he was the Triple-A coach.
"We've talked a lot about hitting. He knows the swing and he knows the psychology of players, so I was surprised to hear about some of the stuff in Chicago, but sometimes you just don't connect with players. I see him doing great things in New York."
Van Wagenen hasn't addressed the Davis hiring yet, but one informed person said the organization researched the situation in Chicago and came away comfortable in believing it was a "unique set of circumstances" that the Mets didn't see as a reflection on the coach.
It also doesn't hurt that Davis has a strong relationship with Yoenis Cespedes from his years as hitting coach with the A's.
Furthermore, the Mets under Van Wagenen and his new analytics people are looking to emphasize more contact and situational hitting, which has been a trademark of championship teams in recent years, even as the sport as a whole has trended toward power at all costs.
Simply put, then, if the Mets hit, Davis will be vindicated for whatever the issue was with the Cubs. If not, well, as Epstein evidently concluded, it's obviously easier to fire the hitting coach than go to war with the star players.