David Ross corrected himself. He had begun to say that this was one of the toughest seasons MLB had ever seen, due to external factors. But he only had his playing days to look back on. Comparing those years to his first as manager wasn’t a fair measurement.
“Talking to some other managers and GMs,” Ross continued, “this has been one of the most difficult seasons in baseball history.”
That kind of self-awareness and readiness to lean from those around him was one of the things that stood out to Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein when he evaluated Ross’ rookie season as manager.
“What we saw, what we experienced,” Epstein said, “was a very successful first year for someone who's going to be a great manager here for a long time.”
Though the final result – a first-round playoff exit – was a disappointment, Ross and his staff met or exceeded expectations in plenty of other areas.
Win the division? Check. Transform the bullpen from a weakness into a strength? Check. Weather injuries to the rotation? Check. Optimize infielders’ talents? Check. Improve catchers’ framing? Check. Keep players COVID-19-free? Check.
Then, there were achievements that weren’t so quantifiable.
“He developed great trust with all the players,” Epstein said of Ross. “He was an outstanding leader of the coaching staff and of the group. He set high standards. He didn't back away from difficult conversations. I thought he saw the game extremely well.”
The glaring hole in an otherwise positive performance was an offense that scored just one run in a best-of-three Wild Card Series.
The hitters themselves have been transparent about their collective struggles at the plate this season. Entering the year, offense was expected to carry the team. Instead, the Cubs were below average at creating runs, compared to the rest of the league (91 wRC+).
“In a lot of areas, our coaching staff buoyed our players, supported our players and put them in a position to succeed,” Epstein said. “It didn't happen offensively. It was not for lack of effort. It was not for lack of attempted adjustments or lack of creativity.”
Only so much can be pinned on the hitting coach, and the Cubs have had three different ones in the past four seasons.
As for the pitching staff, there are several collective and individual developments to point to, including Alec Mills’ emergence as a reliable starter and Adbert Alzolay’s ascension onto the Cubs’ postseason roster. The most dramatic, however, came from former closer Craig Kimbrel and Cy Young candidate Yu Darvish.
The Cubs attributed Kimbrel’s abysmal early performance to mechanical issues. They started him on an intensive program to correct those while he continued to pitch in games. By the end of the season, he was throwing harder than he had in years.
Darvish’s run of dominance began in the second half of last season, and this year Darvish proved it was no fluke. Darvish said Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy embraced the right-hander’s propensity for taking his time on the mound. The result was arguably the best season of his MLB career.
The Cubs decided to push back exit interviews to let their players and coaches return home to their families after a trying season. So, Epstein said on Monday that he hadn’t yet met with Ross to discuss his impression of his coaching staff. Then, the front office can decide if they will make any changes to the group before next year.
“As a general rule, he was thrilled by the work of the coaching staff, while also recognizing where we fell short,” Epstein said. “So, we'll just put our heads together on that and move forward. I'm proud of the work from those guys this year.”