Cubs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

Enter Jim Hickey, the Cubs' new pitching coach tasked with shepherding one of baseball's best staffs

MESA, Ariz. — For years, Chris Bosio was credited as part of the reason for the Cubs’ recent string of pitching success. He helped turn Jake Arrieta into a Cy Young winner and oversaw pitching staffs that led the Cubs to three consecutive NLCS appearances and that curse-smashing World Series win in 2016.

But now it’s 2018, and Bosio is out. Jim Hickey is in.

The Cubs’ new pitching coach arrives with high expectations and has been tasked with shepherding a group of arms that saw a few too many bumps in the road last season. Jon Lester had his worst season in a long time, Jose Quintana’s numbers weren’t as good as they had been during his time with the White Sox, Tyler Chatwood led the National League in losses last season, and Yu Darvish got roughed up in a pair of World Series starts. And that’s before even mentioning the bullpen.

Still, even with all that said, the Cubs look to have, on paper, one of the best starting rotations in the game. And the upgrades in the bullpen have tempered some of the rage over the relief corps’ repeated postseason implosions. Theo Epstein’s front office had a mission this offseason to improve the pitching staff, and Hickey is a very large part of trying to accomplish that mission.

“What really was the slam dunk in my decision to come to Chicago or at least the finishing touches on it was getting to meet Theo, getting to meet Jed (Hoyer), going physically to Chicago, go to the offices there, seeing the physical building, meeting the people inside, just getting that vibe. Everybody was on the same page, and that page was winning,” Hickey said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago. “And also built not just to win here for two or three years but for a sustained period of time, and that was what was very, very attractive.”

Hickey’s ties to the Cubs are obvious. He worked as Joe Maddon’s pitching coach in Tampa Bay for eight seasons before Maddon left to take over managing duties on the North Side. The two coached some phenomenal pitchers with the Rays, guys like James Shields, David Price, Scott Kazmir and Chris Archer and won an American League pennant in 2008. Prior to that, Hickey coached for the Houston Astros and oversaw a staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt en route to the 2005 World Series.

How does the Cubs’ rotation of Lester, Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Quintana and Chatwood compare to those great rotations from Hickey’s past?

“That’s a really tough question. But I think one through five, it may be as deep as any staff that I’ve had,” he said. “Really tough to say. I’ll give you a better idea after the season’s over, but one through five, it’s really, really good. Had some very, very good staffs, obviously, in years past. But these five guys, we talk about it all the time, the starters pitching innings and not falling into this pattern of starters being used less and less and the bullpen being used more and more.

“If you were to give me a staff of five guys, or give anybody a staff of five guys, that threw between 185 and 200 innings, you would probably have a championship-caliber club. And that’s what my expectations are out of this staff, and I think they will be a championship-caliber club.”

Hickey’s toughest task, though, likely won’t be working with all those veteran starters but instead working with a  bullpen that struggled under the bright lights of the postseason last October. While Cubs relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in baseball during the regular season (3.80), the playoffs were a different story, with the bullpen rocked to the tune of a 6.21 ERA. Cubs relievers walked a postseason-high 27 batters while striking out only 35 in 37.2 innings.

The front office tried to fix that strike-throwing problem by bringing in new closer Brandon Morrow, who shone with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, and Steve Cishek, who has closing experience from his time with the Miami Marlins and Seattle Mariners, plus he worked with Hickey last season in Tampa Bay.

But Hickey is the bigger key to fixing that problem, and it’s one of his biggest objectives to not just bring the walks down but make the Cubs one of the best staffs in baseball when it comes to issuing free passes.

“I really think that walks, especially out of the bullpen, are a little bit more of a mindset than they are anything physically or mechanically wrong,” he said. “You come into a situation where maybe you give up a base hit and maybe it changes the game, so you’re a little bit reluctant to throw the ball over the plate.

“So I think it’s more of a mindset, and once the group gets the mindset of ‘attack, attack, attack,’ it’ll be contagious. And I think it is contagious. I think last year it was probably contagious in that there was more walks than you would like, and I think as you turn the corner and head the other direction, that would be contagious, as well.

“I have very few outcome goals in a season. I don’t sit there and say, ‘I want to lead the league in earned-run average’ or ‘I want to lead the league in strikeouts.’ … But that one thing, that one outcome goal that I always have for a staff is to have the least amount of walks in the league. And I think at the end of the day, especially with the talent that’s out there, if that is the case, it’s going to be an extremely successful season.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: David Bote’s wild ride and a huge test for Cubs pitchers

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: David Bote’s wild ride and a huge test for Cubs pitchers

Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki break down the Cubs’ series win over the Diamondbacks at Wrigley Field, which capped off with yet another David Bote walk-off and a surprising performance from Tyler Chatwood. They also break down where this Cubs team is at as they get set to welcome the high-powered Dodgers offense into Chicago later in the week.

:30 – The Kelly Effect

1:00 – David Bote’s wild ride

2:00 – El Mago’s magic pays off for Cubs yet again

3:30 – Bote’s adjustments

6:40 – Chatwood’s big day

8:50 – What’s next for Chatwood?

10:10 – Lester’s return is right around the corner

11:30 – Cubs pitching firing on all cylinders

12:00 – Did Kap jinx Strop?

13:30 – Dodgers pose a big challenge for Cubs pitching staff

Listen to the full episode in the embedded player below:

Add another chapter to David Bote's incredible story

Add another chapter to David Bote's incredible story

David Bote had to be feeling like the luckiest guy on Earth.

The Cubs were humming along in their quickest game of the season and two outs away from a 1-0 victory on a picture-perfect Easter Sunday at Wrigley Field. That was good news for him, because he had a flight to catch — doctors were inducing his wife, Rachel, and she was going to be giving birth to their third child that night.

Then Bote watched as Arizona's light-hitting outfielder Jarrod Dyson — he of 16 homers in 744 career games coming into the afternoon — sent a Pedro Strop pitch into the right-field bleachers in the top of the ninth inning to extend the game.

So Bote took things into his own hands.

Javy Baez led off the Cubs' half of the ninth with a double down the right field line, advanced to third on an error and then Willson Contreras was plunked by Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley.

Up stepped Bote, who watched a curve for Ball 1 and then narrowly got out of the way of a 95 mph fastball ticketed for his left temple. Bradley came back with a curve for a strike and Bote knew what to look for, waiting on another curveball and hammering it through the drawn-in infield for the Cubs' 10th win of the season. 

Minutes later, Bote had bolted out of Wrigley Field, heading back home to Colorado for the birth of Baby No. 3.

Speaking of which, Bote's walk-off hit Sunday came exactly 36 weeks (a little over eight months) after his ultimate grand slam to beat the Washington Nationals...

"It's a grand slam baby and now it's another walk-off for him," teammate Anthony Rizzo joked.

This is just the latest chapter in the incredible story of Bote, an 18th-round draft pick who endured seven seasons in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors. He doesn't even have a full year of service time in "The Show" yet, but he's already proven he belongs and carved out a permanent spot on the roster before signing a 5-year, $15 million extension earlier this month.

"From the homer last year, there was a lot of pressure and he slowed everything down," Baez said. "He just keeps getting better and he knows he's got talent and he can do it. He's got a lot of confidence coming off the bench and he's been huge for this team."

This was Bote's 42nd career RBI and it was already his 4th walk-off RBI. That means nearly 10 percent of his career RBI have come via walk-off situation.

"It's nice. He's had experience early [in those situations]," Rizzo said. "You can't teach that. He's had a lot of situations like that and he's come through. It's fun to watch."

This was only the 10th start of the season for Bote in the Cubs' 20th game, but he's found a way to stay sharp. 

After his 2-hit game Sunday, he's now slashing .295/.380/.455 on the season and showing off the adjustments he's made after hitting just .176 with a .559 OPS after that ultimate grand slam last year.

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