Cubs

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Cubs

MESA, Ariz. – Mike Borzello is the ultimate baseball insider. His godfather is Joe Torre. He learned about The Cardinal Way as a minor-league player, earned four World Series rings as a Yankees bullpen catcher and worked with young Dodgers like Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen before they became stars. 

"I don't even know what his exact title is," Kyle Hendricks said. "He kind of is a secret weapon."

The Cubs list Borzello as the catching/strategy coach in the media guide, though manager Joe Maddon has compared him to a defensive coordinator in football, a unique asset that helps create scouting reports and oversee the binders in the dugout. 

During the early years of the Wrigleyville rebuild, ex-manager Dale Sveum and Borzello stamped the big-league team with their Belichick-ian fashion sense on road trips – hoodies, jeans, flip-flops – and Patriot-like attention to detail.     

So many random things had to break right for the Cubs to finally end the 108-year drought, from the Ryan Dempster-to-Atlanta-for-Randall Delgado deal unraveling, to the Astros drafting Mark Appel over Kris Bryant, to the escape clause in Maddon's contract with the Rays. 

Add this to the list: Red Sox ownership meddling in baseball operations and pushing to hire Bobby Valentine in the wake of an epic collapse to end the 2011 season and Terry Francona and Theo Epstein fleeing Fenway Park. 

"When Dale called me, I was with the Dodgers (and he) asked if I would be willing to actually go to Boston," Borzello recalled. "Because he thought he was getting the job in Boston. And then like 24 hours later, he says: ‘Would you still come if it's Chicago?' I had said yes. And (I told him) the answer is still yes.

 

"That was it. I wound up interviewing with Theo and everything went from there. (Dale) thought he was going to Boston. That's what he told me at least. Next thing you know, we're here."

Where would the Cubs be without that game-planning system?

It allowed Epstein's front office to sell high on Dempster, Scott Feldman, Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija in trades that led to an ERA titleholder (Hendricks), a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta), multiple bullpen pieces (Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, Carl Edwards Jr.) and an All-Star shortstop (Addison Russell).

"‘Borz' is just a great baseball rat (who) knows how to break that video down and get people out," Sveum said. "He's the best I've ever seen at it."

The buddy system doesn't always work in pro sports. But Sveum shrewdly hired Chris Bosio, an old Brewers teammate who would construct the pitching infrastructure on the North Side. Sveum had immediately hit it off with Borzello during spring training in 1998, hanging around a Yankees team that would win 114 games and begin a World Series three-peat.

"Some guys are good at X's and O's," Sveum said. "Borzello is unbelievable at knocking out video and telling you: ‘If you do this, this guy will be an out. Don't do anything more, don't do anything less. If you can do this, then the guy will be out.' 

"Where Bosio can take a guy (whose) slider starts breaking at 40 feet away, and he can teach him a new slider (where it now) starts breaking eight feet away, which is huge when you're talking about spin.

"(Borzello) was a bullpen catcher. But, s---, all you do is talk about baseball every day and you know right away that a guy has an innate ability to break down hitters or break down swings, why this pitch is going to work on that guy: If you do it…the guy's got no chance." 

Sveum – who got fired after 197 losses combined in 2012 and 2013 and wound up winning a World Series ring as the hitting coach for the 2015 Royals – referenced Borzello while talking about the late free-agent additions to Kansas City's pitching staff.   

"The kicker to it all is getting through to the pitchers," Sveum said. "Obviously, I know Travis (Wood), and talking to Jason Hammel, they're going to miss him, because he's got a knack at telling you, straight-up, ‘if you f--- this up, this is your fault.' Because ‘Borz' doesn't care who you are, how much money you're making, he's going to freaking tell you. 

"Some guys think he's abrasive, but he's just brutally honest. He's not going to beat around the bush."

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Of course, this simply isn't a one-man show or a two-man operation. The Cubs also built out an entire research-and-development wing. Coordinators Tommy Hottovy (run prevention) and Nate Halm (run production) also handle advance scouting and help translate messages from The Geek Department into the clubhouse. Investing $155 million in Jon Lester certainly changed the trajectory of the franchise.

But Borzello, 46, has extraordinary perspective after catching Mariano Rivera's cutter during warm-ups at the old Tiger Stadium, an accidental discovery that launched the all-time saves leader. Before Big Data overwhelmed the industry, Borzello also worked closely with Mike Mussina in The Bronx. 

After following Torre to the West Coast, Borzello continued his education at Dodger Stadium, watching how Manny Ramirez would sequester himself in the video room and later helping Jansen develop his own cutter. The system the Cubs use now is rooted in what Borzello learned there from veteran catcher/future Detroit manager Brad Ausmus. 

Don't think heat maps or spray charts or an overly complicated report. Just a one-page template with quick-hit boxes highlighting what the video analysis and the numbers show.

"He gives you a really good feel of what you need to do to execute a game plan," said Hendricks, who made the leap from fifth starter to Cy Young Award finalist last year. "He's been around some of the greatest. He's been with a lot of pitchers who were some of the best in the game for reasons other than just their stuff. 

"It's not just getting away with stuff. It's knowing how to pitch, sequences, that kind of thing. He just has such an understanding of it. Just sitting down and talking to him, you can see it clear as day."