At the time, inserting Craig Kimbrel into a one-run game seemed risky.
It was Aug. 14, and Kimbrel still hadn’t recorded a scoreless outing. Sure, Cubs manager David Ross had talked about how hard Kimbrel was working to address his mechanical issues. But the seven runs the closer had allowed in just 2 2/3 innings were still fresh.
That warm summer evening at Wrigley Field, the Cubs trailed the Brewers by one run entering the ninth inning. Ross sent Kimbrel out to the mound, and the embattled right-hander threw a shutout inning.
“Bullpen management can be really tough on any manager, especially a first-year manager,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said at the end of the season. “And I know every manager’s always second-guessed for their bullpen moves from time to time. But if you look at it, our bullpen has really grown over the course of the season.”
Even second-guessing was rare as Ross, a former catcher, navigated bullpen management for the first time. The glaring exception came in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, when Ross left Kyle Hendricks in for arguably one pitch too long. But that’s a good success rate, especially for a first-year skipper. Now, he heads into the 2021 season with more than just catching experience.
Last fall, two of the most intriguing candidates to replace Joe Maddon at manager were former catchers – Ross and Joe Girardi. Maddon himself was a minor league catcher. That pattern is no surprise when looking at recent trends.
In addition to managerial greats like Joe Torre and Bruce Bochy, who were catchers before they were managers, 1/3 of Major League skippers this season were once pro catchers. That includes Kevin Cash, who led the Rays to the World Series.
“Being a catcher for so long,” Cubs pitcher Jon Lester said of Ross in summer camp, “he pretty much managed the games that he was in, and even managed on the bench a little bit when he was there. So, I’m not worried about the managing side.”
Lester would know. Ross was his personal battery mate for years. During that time, Ross helped him navigate a unique affliction. Lester suffered from the yips when throwing to first base.
Catching isn’t just about giving signs and framing pitches, throwing out runners and putting down tags at the plate. At its core, catching is about reading the pitcher and making him look good.
So, when Lester was on the mound with a runner on first, Ross and first-baseman Anthony Rizzo would exchange hand signals. They used the threat of back picks to take care of the running game for their pitcher.
Many things about Ross’ job have changed since then. But when managing the bullpen, he’s still tasked with evaluating pitchers and setting them up for success.
“Having a catching background helps so much in those (mound) visits,” Ross said, “when I have to go out there and listen to a veteran tell me how they feel and let them know what I’m thinking as well.”
The way he addressed Kimbrel’s mechanical issues at the beginning of the season was a perfect example.
“The communication between the two of us has been great,” Kimbrel said in early August. “I think it's the reason that we're going to be able work through this so well.”
Initially, Ross pulled the pressure of the “closer” title off Kimbrel’s shoulders altogether. Then he gradually reintroduced Kimbrel into high-leverage situations, his role varying. When media members suggested that Kimbrel might be back to his old self, Ross tempered expectations, pointing to areas that Kimbrel could still improve.
By the end of the season, Kimbrel had quietly gone the whole month of September (eight outings) without allowing a run or issuing a walk.
Ask Ross about his success managing the bullpen, however, and he quickly deflects credit, instead praising the rest of his coaching staff.
“I tried to set those (relievers) up to succeed in a number of ways,” Ross continued, “but it's also about trust and handling the moment, that the players do. And that's what I'm most proud of, is the guys down there that have handled some really tough situations that I’ve brought them into and continued to step up with a lot of adversity.”
His answer was the manager’s equivalent of stealing a strike and then applauding the guy on the mound.