SURPRISE, Ariz. — Dale Sveum has been in this game long enough to know how it works.
When the Cubs fired Sveum after 96 losses in 2013, the story became about his tough-love approach being too tough, some personality quirks and how the manager’s hitting philosophy clashed with Theo Epstein’s front office.
When the Kansas City Royals won the World Series last year, the narrative shifted into Sveum being the common-sense hitting coach who helped a young core of players grow up and figure out how to beat the New York Mets team that shut down the Cubs in the playoffs.
Sveum never converted to Small Ball or pretended he had a super-secret blueprint to attack Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and the power pitching that swept the Cubs out of the National League Championship Series.
Sveum’s low-key news conferences and brutal honesty didn’t always play well with his bosses and players in Chicago. But he’s always been willing to answer direct questions and explain big-picture concepts in detail.
— “It comes (down) to personnel,” Sveum said Wednesday before Kansas City rolled to a 10-0 Cactus League win over the Cubs at Surprise Stadium. “It’s not like ‘The Royals Way’ of hitting.
“Eight years from now, we could have different personnel where we’re going to have to take another track. But because of our ballpark, because of our (hitting profiles), we have to really concentrate on putting the ball in play and being good in 3-2 counts. We’re not going to walk much.
“We do have the hand-eye coordination where we do put the ball in play. We’re not going to hit home runs. We’re just not going to do that at our ballpark. Yeah, you put our team in Houston or Miller Park or Wrigley on nice days ... we’d hit 160, maybe 200 home runs. But in our park, we know that we have to do things. We have to get the line moving.”
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— The Cubs understand they will never become the Royals, but they hoped to change their offensive identity by investing $240 million in Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist this offseason.
The Cubs tried to trade for Zobrist last summer but didn’t have the kind of blue-chip pitching prospect (Sean Manaea) the Oakland A’s wanted. Zobrist became a trade-deadline difference-maker, hitting .303 with an .880 OPS during Kansas City’s magical playoff run.
“He brings a lot of things (to the table as) a switch-hitter that can drive the ball,” Sveum said. “He’ll give you a good at-bat all the time.
“It makes the other manager do different things. The biggest thing (for us) was he just solidified our lineup. It was just another threat from the left side of the plate. On a constant basis, it made the pitchers work harder.
“People always want to kind of come up with that ’04 and ’05 Red Sox lineup. Theo was always (about that). I’m like: ‘Theo, come on, dude.’ First of all, we had like three or four switch-hitters. One day we get (bleeping) eight left-handers in the lineup and our only righty was Manny Ramirez. Not a bad lineup. The next day, we could have eight right-handers and our left-hander was David Ortiz. And they were all 30 years old and in their prime and obviously pretty good, too. You fell into that lineup. Don’t think that’s ever happening again.
“But it does really make your lineup a lot tougher to get through when you can put (a guy like Zobrist) and more left-handers (in there).”
— As a coach in Boston — and the manager at Wrigley Field — Sveum impressed Epstein with his ability to break down film, interpret data and create a game-planning system. Sveum said he watched the NLCS but didn’t consult with any Cubs personnel before facing the Mets.
“Obviously, I dissected that series,” Sveum said. “It’s the same kind of hitters. (The Cubs are) pretty aggressive. They do walk, obviously, more than we do and strike out a lot more. But there are some free-swingers (on both teams) and the same kind of numbers across the board on fastballs and breaking balls.
“Besides Harvey (in Game 5 throwing) a heck of a lot more fastballs (in the World Series), they pitched us pretty much the same way they pitched the Cubs. Which I thought was going to happen, because the numbers didn’t lie.”
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— Joe Maddon is the perfect manager for this team and this market. But Sveum certainly would have done better than a .392 winning percentage with this type of talent and actual big-market resources.
“You can talk until you’re blue in the face,” Sveum said. “But we have nine guys that care about winning every single day. It’s being winning hitters. That’s why people are like: ‘Oh, why did you bunt in that situation?’ Well, we’re not going to walk, so we’re going to do things.
“Everybody picks (each other) up and there’s no egos here. Nobody ever talks about stats. Nobody says: ‘Oh, I’m going to hit 30 and drive in 120 this year.’ There’s no crap like that, (which) you hear everywhere else.
“Those kind of goals get in your way. We’re just lucky to have the (Eric) Hosmers of the world. It doesn’t matter if he punches out four times or gets four hits — he’s the same guy every day.
“Our best players are pretty special people. You have the Alex Gordons of the world — they treat rookies with a lot of respect. This is one of the first teams I’ve been around where rookies are real comfortable.”
As Kansas City found out while waiting 30 years in between World Series titles, it takes time to create a culture, allow young hitters to learn from their failures and build a championship nucleus.
Or as Sveum might say: Ya think?