Ian Happ

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

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USA TODAY

How Theo Epstein sees Chili Davis making a difference for Cubs

The Cubs can’t send Chili Davis out to face Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw, but team president Theo Epstein believes his presence will help the franchise’s young hitters next October.

Those pronounced playoff struggles against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers — on top of the way the New York Mets power pitchers overwhelmed the Cubs during that 2015 National League Championship Series sweep — led to a major shakeup of Joe Maddon’s coaching staff.

Firing hitting coach John Mallee isn’t really about what he didn’t do, because he worked nonstop across the last three years, overseeing an offense that actually scored more runs this season than the 2016 World Series team.

It’s more the instant credibility that Davis brings as a switch-hitter who made three All-Star teams and earned World Series rings with the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the last New York Yankees dynasty (1998-99).

Epstein initially brought Davis into the Boston Red Sox organization, hiring him as an overqualified hitting coach for Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, the last season before sweeping changes would hit Fenway Park.

Davis spent the next six years as the big-league hitting coach for the Oakland A’s and Red Sox, working with players like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi.

“Chili’s well-established as one of the very best hitting coaches in the game,” Epstein said after Thursday’s staff announcements. “His philosophy and approach happened to fit with what we hope will be the next step for many of our hitters. We talked after the season about hoping to get better with situational hitting, with our two-strike approach, with using the whole field, with having competitive, team-based at-bats.

“That happens to be Chili’s core philosophy — hitting line drives to the middle of the field. Your line drives will turn into home runs. He’s excellent at teaching a two-strike approach and teaching situational hitting. He’s really good at helping to get hitters to understand when an elite pitcher’s on his game, you have to sometimes take what he gives you, and have an adjustable swing, an adjustable approach for those situations.

“He’s got the gravitas of a 19-year career, 350 homers, over 1,300 RBIs. That combined with his excellent manner and ability to communicate with players makes him a really impactful figure.”

Mallee — who grew up as the son of a Chicago cop and graduated from Mount Carmel High School — brought stability to a position that used to have the job security of the drummer for Spinal Tap.

The Cubs wanted Mallee’s data-driven approach and the ability to explain heat maps and cold zones and how pitchers would attack each at-bat. Mallee also gave the Cubs a very accurate scouting report on Dexter Fowler before making that January 2015 trade with the Houston Astros.

During Mallee’s tenure, Kris Bryant became the fourth player in major-league history to be named MVP the season after winning Rookie of the Year honors. Ian Happ kept making enough adjustments to hit 24 home runs during his rookie season (with only 26 games of experience at Triple-A Iowa). Javier Baez made great strides this year — 23 homers, 75 RBI, .796 OPS — before an 0-for-20 tailspin to start the playoffs.

In one way, the Cubs even endorsed Mallee’s methods by promoting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines to work with Davis as the assistant hitting coach. Mallee and Haines have a Miami connection after working in the Marlins organization.

“I would like to thank the Chicago Cubs for the amazing opportunity to be part of a great tradition and organization for the last three years,” Mallee wrote in a statement. “I left a great Houston Astros organization to be closer to home with my family and to help my hometown team win a World Series.

“We did that. I have no regrets and stand by my work. I wish nothing but the best for the Cubs organization and all the amazing people I met along the way, especially my hitters. See you from across the field.”

When the Cubs talk up their culture and the first-class organization they’ve built, there’s also an unspoken, underlying coldness to it all, even while making justifiable decisions. The Cubs publicly hailed Ricky Renteria basically up to the moment Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and someone better came along.

Whether or not that will always be sustainable, Davis does have a great resume, no doubt. The Cubs are hoping Davis can help salvage the $184 million investment in Jason Heyward and rewire an offense that ranked last in batting average (.168) and on-base percentage (.240) among the 10-team playoff field. Outside of that unforgettable 9-8 thriller at Nationals Park, the Cubs scored 16 runs in nine postseason games.

“John Mallee is an outstanding hitting coach and we would not be in the position we’re in now with rings on our finger without him,” Epstein said. “Chili just happens to be, in our opinion, uniquely qualified for this group, at this moment in time, to help us get to the next level.”

Outfield changes for Cubs as they unveil starting lineup for NLDS Game 2 against Nationals

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USA TODAY

Outfield changes for Cubs as they unveil starting lineup for NLDS Game 2 against Nationals

Get your pencils and scorecards ready.

The Cubs announced Joe Maddon's lineup for Game 2 of the NLDS, and it looks a little different from the starting nine Maddon trotted out for Game 1 on Friday night in Washington.

Here's how the Cubs look for Saturday's game against starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and the Washington Nationals:

1. Albert Almora Jr., CF
2. Kris Bryant, 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B
4. Willson Contreras, C
5. Addison Russell, SS
6. Ben Zobrist, RF
7. Javy Baez, 2B
8. Ian Happ, LF
9. Jon Lester, P

Almora and Happ replace Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward in the outfield, with Almora the new leadoff hitter after Zobrist was 0-for-4 at the top of the order in Game 1. Zobrist, however, remains in right field. Almora's season-long numbers against left-handers are terrific: He's hitting .342 with a .411 on-base percenatge and a .486 slugging percentage. Many of Happ's offensive numbers have actually been worse against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching this season, and he was 0-for-3 against Gonzalez when Gonzalez pitched against the Cubs earlier this season. Important to remember that none of the Cubs' starting outfielders got a hit in Game 1.

Meanwhile, the Nationals will send the exact same lineup against Lester that they sent against Kyle Hendricks in Game 1. With, of course, the new starting pitcher in Gonzalez.

1. Trea Turner, SS
2. Bryce Harper, RF
3. Anthony Rendon, 3B
4. Daniel Murphy, 2B
5. Ryan Zimmerman, 1B
6. Jayson Werth, LF
7. Matt Wieters, C
8. Michael Taylor, CF
9. Gio Gonzalez, P

One guy to watch is Wieters, who's had great success in his career against Lester, with most of that coming when the two were playing in the American League East. Wieters is slashing .314/.357/.412 with four extra-base hits and nine RBIs in 56 career plate appearances against Lester. Murphy homered off Lester in the 2015 NLDS, when Murphy tore the Cubs up as a New York Met.

Lester gave up four runs in 12.2 innings in two starts against the Nationals during the regular season.

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

Hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Ian Happ went to work at the team’s sprawling Arizona complex, meeting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines at a batting cage that November morning.

Surrounded by Cubs fans the night before, Haines had watched the epic Game 7 with Double-A Tennessee hitting coach Jacob Cruz at Culinary Dropout, a Tempe restaurant, the TV audience multiplying to around 40 million viewers. Together, they saw the organization’s first-round picks from 2014 (Kyle Schwarber) and 2013 (Kris Bryant) jumpstart the 10th-inning rally that would beat the Cleveland Indians and end the 108-year championship drought.    

Around 7:30 a.m. – while the Cubs were just beginning a World Series hangover that would last for most of this season – Happ and Haines talked about getting ready to win the next one and began early hitting before the Arizona Fall League action that afternoon.

Happ – the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft – is so driven to make it in The Show and focused on earning a ring that he doesn’t need to see the symbolism in that moment.

“That’s my goal,” Happ said. “It just happened to be the time that we were there.”

In terms of timing, yes, Happ missed the unbelievable ride last October, seeing Schwarber up close while he trained briefly in Arizona before his dramatic, post-knee surgery World Series return and getting glimpses of playoff games on an iPad in the dugout in between innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.

But Happ maximized his opportunity in the middle of May when the Cubs dealt with the types of injuries that would contribute to their first-half funk, promoting him after only 26 games at Triple-A Iowa. Happ made his big-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, launched a two-run homer 413 feet off Carlos Martinez and never went back to Des Moines.  

What the Cubs initially framed as a temporary solution became a key piece to the 92-win team that is about to face the Washington Nationals in a best-of-five National League Division Series.   

“Right away,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, starting in spring training, “the veteran guys really gravitated towards him. They loved the way he worked. They loved his intensity. It’s just a really serious demeanor. He fit right in with this group immediately. He had zero assimilation process, just because of the way he carries himself and the way he takes everything so seriously.”   

During three years at the University of Cincinnati, Happ made the dean’s list five times and earned a 3.68 grade-point average as a finance major. Happ’s father, Keith, a longtime U.S. Golf Association agronomist, died of brain cancer two years ago. Happ’s mother, Mary Beth, is a Ph.D-level dean/professor at Ohio State University’s College of Nursing.

[MORE: Jon Lester not conceding anything: 'We should win the World Series']

Except for the occasional faux TV interview in the dugout, Happ maintains the same game face. He plays with an edge, internalizing the idea that the Cubs drafted him because he would be on a faster track as a college hitter and could be marketed in a deal for pitching later.

The Cubs never traded Happ for a Jose Quintana or a Sonny Gray as manager Joe Maddon started him at second base, third base and all three positions across the outfield. Happ became the fastest player in franchise history to 20 home runs (89 games) and his 24 homers are the second-most all-time by a switch-hitting NL rookie (Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell put up 26 this season). Of Happ’s 68 RBI, 30 came with two outs. Of Happ’s 92 hits, 44 went for extra bases.

“He’s right in Joe’s wheelhouse,” Haines said. “He plays multiple positions. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s competitive. Winning is really, really important to him.”

So even if Happ’s name isn’t in Friday night’s Game 1 lineup at Nationals Park, there will be ways for him to impact not only this series, but make his mark in the playoffs as the Cubs try to become a dynasty.

“I think this team is going to be good for a long time,” Happ said in spring training. “It’s nice to be part of an organization that doesn’t feel like it’s a one-and-done situation. It feels like they’re building something here. And you’re going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come.”