Serving as the Cubs hitting coach is sort of like being married to Henry VIII, as heads roll with alarming frequency when the reckoning for the broken offense needs a scapegoat. That could have been Anthony Iapoce, who just finished up his second year with the club and first under rookie skipper David Ross. A front office pick to replace Chili Davis in Joe Maddon‘s final season, Iapoce’s focus on the mental game hasn’t yet yielded the expected results at the plate.
Despite several hitters posting career-lows all over the backs of their baseball cards in the shortened season, Sahadev Sharma and Patrick Mooney of The Athletic report that Iapoce is expected to return for the final year of his deal. The same is not true, however, for assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge, who the report says will not be retained when his contract expires on October 31.
A former player who gained infamy in 2003 when he became one of the first MLB players to test positive for PEDs, Sledge played several seasons with the Expos, Nationals, and Padres before heading to Japan for a handful of seasons. He was then a hitting coach in the Dodgers organization, which consistently turns out impact talent from the minors year after year.
When it comes to big league hitters, fans place way too much emphasis on hitting coaches, often blaming them for a team’s poor performance. At least one caller to 670 The Score actually believed the hitting coach told players when to swing. While that’s an extremely misguided thought, it’s not actually that far from the general view of a coach’s role and influence.
Regardless of how knowledgeable a coach is or how much energy he brings, the key to him being effective is getting buy-in from the players. If they’re not willing to accept their own shortcomings and be open to instruction, whether it’s about their mechanics or the mental game, all the coaching in the world won’t matter. Davis sounded a little like an old man yelling at a cloud after his departure, but he may have had a point when he said the Cubs’ young hitters weren’t willing to listen to his message.
He’s also more of an old-school, contact-first guy, so it’s easy to understand why those players might have been reluctant to vibe with him. As an organization, the Cubs have tried to be more forward-thinking when it comes to the development of both their hitters and pitchers. That includes a focus on mindfulness and technology, with Iapoce embracing the former and director of hitting Justin Stone heading things up on the former.
Though that aforementioned report says Stone is not in contention for a role on the big league staff, his methods are almost certain to play a more prominent role in Chicago moving forward. That could mean bringing in someone with very little actual coaching experience at the MLB level, if at all. Tommy Hottovy had never coached before being tabbed to lead the Cubs’ pitching staff, and that seems to be working out quite well.
The key isn’t getting someone who’s been there and done that as a hitter, but rather finding someone who can effectively identify issues and communicate solutions in a way the hitters can understand. Sometimes how you say something is more important than what you say, which is still just as true for professionals as it is for youth hitters. The difference is that pros also have egos that must be taken into account and navigated.
Whatever direction the Cubs end up taking here, whether it’s Mike Bryant (not really, but that’d sure make for some fun interviews on Marquee) or Kevin Barnhart (also not really, but he’s worked well with my son), the players are the ones who will ultimately determine the outcome. As obvious as that sounds on the surface, I’m not talking only about the numbers they put up. They need to humble themselves and understand that they can’t get better all on their own.
Unless and until that happens, it won’t matter who’s coaching them or how many millions of dollars the organization has spent on technology. The real reckoning takes place with the players themselves.