One of the main Cubs themes coming out of Winter Meetings last week was the desire for better communication between the front office/coaching staff and the millennial players.
What better way to bridge the gap than to hire a millennial to head up the organization's pitching infrastructure?
Tommy Hottovy, 37, was named the Cubs' new pitching coach earlier this month, a big promotion after he's spent the last four years as a run prevention coordinator with the team.
Sure, it's the Cubs' third different pitching coach in three seasons, but this isn't some 50-year-old coming in off the street having to introduce himself to each of the pitchers on the staff. Hottovy is a guy who can relate to the players in age (he's only about 2 years older than Jon Lester and Cole Hamels) and from the rapport he's built as an integral part of the clubhouse since the start of the 2015 season.
This is a former pitcher who made 17 appearances in the big leagues and last pitched a full season in the minor leagues only a few years ago (2013). The Wichita State University product also has seen the rise of the Cubs firsthand, joining the organization in Kris Bryant's first spring training in 2014 while still trying to make it as a pitcher before trainsitioning to the video scouting/coaching aspect of the game.
"When I was done playing, I really felt like there was this gap in the game. I really felt like there was a unique spot for guys like me who had a little experience," Hottovy said. "I didn't have all the major-league experience those guys have, but I stepped foot out there. I can relate to those guys. But then I can also communicate with the front office and the R&D department that's giving us such good information.
"How can we translate that and take a nugget and give it to Quintana or how can we take a nugget and give it to Lester? We joke because we may do 3-4 hours of work and dig and dig for that two-minute conversation and that two-minute conversation may make or break the next two weeks of the season for the player. So that's really what I envisioned that role to kind of become — to help guys shorten that gap between when we need to make an adjustment and when things got out of whack.
"I was a player and you had to do that off feel — or what a coach told you — for a long time. Now we have data to help provide all that. Now it's about funneling it down and translating it to the players."
Hottovy will have his plate full in his first year on the job as major questions exist on the Cubs pitching staff, including the role/future of Tyler Chatwood, the return to health of Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow and how to avoid a third straight late-season bullpen fade.
He'll also have to navigate the dugout and a new line of communication with Joe Maddon during games instead of delivering scouting reports and information to the manager ahead of games and series. But Hottovy said he's not concerned about that aspect, as he's worked closely with Maddon for four years now and the organization's pitching infrastructure (Hottovy, catching/strategy/associate pitching coach Mike Borzello, bullpen coach Lester Strode) remains intact, which the Cubs hope will lead to year-over-year continuity.
One of Hottovy's main points of interest this offseason is trying to find a way to limit all the free passes. Cubs pitchers walked the third-most hitters in baseball in 2018 and finished 8th in that regard in 2017. (For reference, they finished 14th in walks allowed in 2016 and permitted the fifth-fewest free passes in 2015.)
A lot of that was Chatwood, who led baseball with 95 walks despite throwing only 9.2 innings in the final two months of the season.
But it wasn't just Chatwood. Jon Lester posted his worst walk rate since 2011 and Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish (when he pitched) and Brian Duensing sported the highest walk rates of their career while young flamethrower Carl Edwards Jr. still struggled with his command.
So how can Hottovy and Co. fix an issue that has plagued this team and driven fans crazy for the last two years?
"To say we're gonna walk less people, that's not — in my mind — the right approach to take," Hottovy said. "It's process-oriented, not results. What can we do ahead of time? What can we do that's gonna help? It's about attacking hitters. It's about having the right approach and I think a lot of those this will take care of themselves.
"I think we need to take maybe a little bit different approach to what our goals are in terms of we're not gonna walk anybody, etc. We're [9th] in the league in OPS, so you have the high walk rates, but we limit slug and we do other things. So how can we get better on both aspects of that?"
Much like the position players, Hottovy said the Cubs pitchers are eager to get back to work and come out of the shoot firing in spring training in an effort to put the sour taste of the end of the 2018 season behind them.
Hottovy may not be reading "Managing Millennials for Dummies," but he's still interested in the same concept — paring down the insane amount of information available and focusing on the WHY behind decisions and adjustments.
"With all of our guys, what you're trying to do ultimately is get them in the best position to execute a pitch," Hottovy said. "Yeah, there's mechanics things they work on with everybody, but letting them understand what those mechanical changes are and not just telling them, "You do this and this is gonna help." We're walking them through why and we're helping them see why this part of the delivery is important.
"We have a lot of data and that data will give us information on mechanics and how to make changes, but it's about simplifying it. It's about giving them one or two nuggets to focus on and not 10 different things. It's about, hopefully, in the end, you land in a good position to throw a baseball and execute."
When Hottovy met with the media in Las Vegas last week for the first time since taking the job, he was asked specifically about working with Chatwood and Darvish this winter as the two big free agent signings from last winter are looking to build off rough first years with the Cubs.
However, Hottovy has an interest in meeting with each of the Cubs' pitchers this winter. And since the organization has yet to add to the pitching staff this winter, everybody on Hottovy's current list is a familiar face.
That includes veteran reliever Brandon Kintzler, who had a forgettable time with the Cubs in the final two months of the season, but exercised his $5 million option for the 2019 season. Kintzler is a Las Vegas native, so Hottovy stopped in to see the right-hander before the Winter Meetings began.
"I think it's important to go see as many guys as we can just to get eyes on them. There's technology now — you can FaceTime and see, but there's something to be said to be there and see them," said Hottovy, who wants to visit each guy in person before pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in mid-February. "I think it's important."