Rather Than Trying to Change Players, David Ross Focusing on ‘Training a Little Bit Tougher’

This feels like one of those topics on which people are going to end up on one of two sides, or maybe it’ll actually be the same side for different reasons. Between that and the amount of traffic we get from Facebook, it almost seems like it’d be easier to stop now and just let everyone comment with their own opinions sans any of my own input.

But since I’m way too self-important to let points go unbelabored, you’re going to get my thoughts here anyway. Monday marks the Cubs’ first full-squad workout, which means the spring training soundtrack now features the crack of the bat in addition to the pop of the glove. It’s real now and David Ross has his work cut out for him when it comes to getting the most out of an offense that has declined steadily since 2016.

The Cubs finished third in MLB with 808 runs (5.01 runs/game) that season, banging out big hits like a drum machine. They were fourth overall the following season with 822 runs (5.07 r/g), then fell to ninth with 761 runs (4.67 r/g) during a campaign in which the offense infamously “broke somewhere along the lines.” They mustered no more than a single run in 40 of their 164 games and scored just three total runs in their last four games, capped by losses in Game 163 and the NL Wild Card.

Though production jumped back to 814 runs (5.02 r/g) in 2019, the Cubs finished 10th in scoring and were incredibly inconsistent when it came to how they accumulated those tallies. To wit, they scored eight or more runs 10 times in 27 September games and scored two or fewer runs in 11 more. On the season, they hung double figures 21 times and were held to one or no runs 22 times.

The Cubs were completed stymied in 2020 as they scored just 265 runs (4.42 r/g), good for 20th in MLB. There’s no need to rehash all the reasons behind the struggles, just as it’s not worthwhile to repeat all the tropes about urgency and reckoning and whatnot. We do, however, have reason to wonder what Ross and Co. plan to do about a trend that becomes even more alarming when considering a pitching staff that doesn’t look dominant.

“There’s going to be no real swing changes,” Ross said in a recent Zoom call with reporters. “It’s training in the right way, identifying where we may have fallen short last year. There’s some real substance to some areas that we didn’t attack the way we normally do. Those have really stood out. I really want these guys to get back to who they are.”

Ross spoke specifically about all the data they’re able to aggregate from hitting sessions and Jed Hoyer noted his team’s struggles against high velocity. There’s also the matter of simply grinding out at-bats, which is about as old-school an approach as you can get. The Cubs too often seemed to be pressing during the short season, trying to win games with a single swing.

Many fans will also point to the stubbornness indicated by former hitting coach Chili Davis following his ouster in ’18, but Ross dismissed that notion.

“I don’t think there’s an unwillingness to work or change,” the manager said. “These guys are really, really good at coming to work every day and trying to be the best version of themselves. It’s about getting the right approach and the right mentality as well as training a little bit tougher.”

Because I’ve contractually obligated myself to it at this point, I’ll note that the all-too-frequent refrain about Kris Bryant failing to adjust is completely uninformed and lazy. As detailed here at CI* over the years, he’s made several changes to his swing dating all the way back to high school that have helped with his plate coverage and contact. Please don’t fall prey to the silliness of leveling criticism that has no factual basis.

Javy Báez has likewise worked to improve tremendously since coming up as a rookie. His increased usage of the opposite field is a thing of beauty, particularly the way he led the league in oppo tacos a couple seasons ago. Anthony Rizzo started crowding the plate to improve against lefties and Kyle Schwarber got much better when it came to taking called third strikes.

Perhaps one of the most important adjustments came over the course of 2019, when Ian Happ spent most of the season at Triple-A working to eliminate some of the holes in his swing. That process was overseen by Chris Valaika, who was then the Cubs’ minor league hitting coordinator and is now with the big league club as the assistant hitting coach, and resulted in Happ absolutely raking overall and in the leadoff spot last season.

So it’s not a matter of being unwilling to adjust, as Ross noted, it’s about being able to implement those tweaks in the offseason and in the cages at Sloan Park before heading into the season. Access to in-game video should help as well, but having a full spring slate and maintaining a more traditional routine may be even more important. Ross has frequently noted his affinity for simply getting reps and working on fundamentals, a practice that was cut short last year when spring training was canceled.

One other potential boon is the status of extension talks with Bryant, Báez, and Rizzo. Whether you believe in the idea of playing up in a contract year or that added security from a long-term deal will allow players to perform better, the Cubs should benefit either way. For what it’s worth, I think extensions would drive all three and that Bryant in particular would benefit from added security and peace of mind.

Now we just sit back and wait to see how the Cubs respond after a winter that saw them make only minor improvements, if any, while retooling and getting a little cheaper.

*There are too many posts to link in one place, so here are a few:

The evolution of Bryant’s swing
Further changes for better contact
Adjusting to high heat
Visual evidence of HS swing

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