Anthony Iapoce

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

The Confidence Conundrum: How Albert Almora Jr. turned his season around

What's the secret behind Albert Almora Jr.'s recent offensive resurgence?

It wasn't switching to an axe bat like Kris Bryant. It wasn't even a mechanical adjustment of any kind.

No, Almora has turned things around at the plate just because he has more of a belief in himself right now.

"This game is all about confidence," the Cubs centerfielder said. "It's a game of ups and downs. It's tough mentally, but the quicker you could get back to having that confidence, the better. It's kinda like tricking yourself."

Having 39,246 people demand a curtain call has to do wonders for your confidence.

Almora hit his first career grand slam in the bottom of the fifth inning Wednesday night and was none too happy to oblige the packed house at Wrigley Field.

That blast was his fifth homer of the season, which ties the total he reached in all of last season.

Over the first 21 games of 2019, Almora was hitting just .182 with a .432 OPS and 0 extra-base hits in 61 plate appearances.

Then he pinch hit against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen on April 25 and smacked his first homer of the season. Since then, he's hitting .341 with a .966 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 87 plate appearances. 

So if the difference is confidence, is there a way to manufacture confidence? Like a "fake it until you make it" kind of thing?

"No, it's tough," Almora said. "It really is. Maybe some guys are really good at it. Defensively, it's a different type of confidence, because you can control more, but you can be confident at the plate and not have the results."

When Bryant started turning things around at the end of April, much was made about his switch to an axe bat. There's no doubt that change in weaponry perfectly correlated with Bryant's red-hot production at the plate over the last month, but even he downplayed the whole thing, using the idiom, "it's not the arrow, it's the Indian" on the Cubs' last homestand.

In talking about Bryant Tuesday night, all Joe Maddon discussed was the star player's confidence, saying he is "unconsciously confident" in every aspect of his game right now.

"It's just who I am — I feel like this is me as a baseball player," Bryant said. "I'm working counts, getting on base, baserunning, playing all over. When I'm doing that, I feel pretty confident, so I hope I can continue that."

Cubs hitting coach Anthony Iapoce echoed Almora's sentiment that baseball is all about confidence and while mechanical changes can certainly help breed that confidence, the only real way to build it is with positive results on the field. 

Obviously mechanics come into play all the time in professional baseball and there's no doubt Almora's and Bryant's physical mechanics are locked in at the moment.   

But there's no substitute for confidence and there's no drill to work on something that isn't tangible and can't even be quantified. 

"I don't know [how to build confidence]," Almora said. "I wish I had the answer. That's why this game is so hard. You just gotta battle and try to not ride that huge up-and-down roller coaster. Try to stay the same. I feel like just having a good attitude is a good part of it and I think it's something I'm trying to feed off of my teammates. I think I've been doing a really good job of just being happy no matter what."

This is Almora's fourth year in the big leagues and he's closing in on 1,100 plate appearances at this level. But he still doesn't feel like he's come anywhere close to mastering the Confidence Conundrum.

"No, because you wanna perform every year, so every year's different no matter what," Almora said. "I've had success hitting at the big-league level, but every year's a new challenge and every year you have challenges for yourself and for your team to win, obviously. It never gets easier."

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Report: Theo Epstein faced pressure from Bryzzo to fire Chili Davis

Report: Theo Epstein faced pressure from Bryzzo to fire Chili Davis

It's been 99 days since the Cubs fired Chili Davis, but we're still hearing new reports on the reasoning behind the decision. 

The latest comes from SNY's John Harper, who explained why the New York Mets were so quick to hire Davis after he was fired from the Red Sox and Cubs in successive winters. 

The reasoning? According to Harper, Cubs president Theo Epstein was pressured to fire Davis by two of the team's most notable hitters — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant:

Secondly, Cubs president Theo Epstein didn't really want to fire Davis, according to multiple sources, yet felt he had no choice but to give in to the wishes of at least a few of his star hitters, most notably Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo.

"He caved," was the way one person close to the situation put it. "He's not happy about it. He thinks it's BS that the players complained about Chili, but he wasn't going to stick with his hitting coach just to make a point."

That is one strong quote on the matter by the "person close to the situation." 

While Davis himself admitted he didn't connect with a lot of the "millennial" players, it's tough to blame his departure solely on that drama.

The simple fact of the matter is Davis was brought in to limit the roller coaster nature of the Cubs lineup (by improving situational hitting, using the whole field, cutting down on strikeouts, etc.) yet the team still wound up leading baseball with 40 games of scoring 1 or fewer runs. It was the quiet offense that led to the Cubs' demise down the stretch in 2018 more than anything else.

Davis deserves credit for helping Javy Baez realize his potential and become an MVP candidate and the hitting coach also helped unlock a bit more offense out of Jason Heyward while overseeing a strong bounceback season from Ben Zobrist.

Rizzo got off to a very slow start to 2018, but he rebounded from May on and wound up having a season that looks very similar to the rest of his career. At this point, Rizzo is his own hitting coach in a lot of ways and he continues to fine-tune his approach at the plate regardless of who is in the position on the Cubs staff.

The Bryant inclusion here is interesting in that the main reason the former MVP had a down season was the shoulder injury that limited him to only 102 games and diminished his power. However, Bryant has always had a "launch angle" type approach instilled in him at a young age from his dad, and Davis wasn't exactly "anti-launch angle," but he prioritized contact over power at times.

In Davis' stead, the Cubs opted for Anthony Iapoce as the new hitting coach. He has a rapport with guys like Bryant, Baez and Willson Contreras dating back years to their time in the minor leagues, so it's a familiar face who already knows how to communicate effectively with the current roster.

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Cubs name Tommy Hottovy pitching coach, announce other coaching staff additions

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AP

Cubs name Tommy Hottovy pitching coach, announce other coaching staff additions

The Cubs' 2019 coaching staff is rounding into form as we enter the Hot Stove season.

Thursday, the Cubs named Tommy Hottovy as their next pitching coach, replacing the departed Jim Hickey. In addition to Hottovy, the team named ex-Cub Chris Denorfia as quality assurance coach and Terrmel Sledge as assistant hitting coach. The team also added "assistant pitching coach" to catching coach Mike Borzello's title. 

The Cubs also announced that Brandon Hyde will return as bench coach in 2019. However, a report recently surfaced that said Hyde will interview for the Orioles' managerial vacancy, so his status is pending.

Hottovy, 37, is a former big-leaguer who pitched in parts of two MLB seasons with the Red Sox and Royals. In a combined 17 appearances from 2011-12, he posted a 4.05 ERA (6.75 ERA in eight games in 2011, 2.89 ERA in 2012). He also pitched with the Cubs in Spring Training 2014, though the team released him that April.

Hottovy has been a big part of the Cubs' pitching infrastructure the last few seasons, working closely with catching coordinator Mike Borzello and bullpen coach Lester Strode.

Theo Epstein confirmed other MLB teams inquired about Hottovy for vacant pitching coach roles and the Cubs also interviewed other potential candidates before landing on their in-house option.

"We talked to a number of other people," Epstein said. "We just felt like there was great risk going outside and also losing some of what we had initially. The more we looked at it, the more we kept coming back to trying to empower Tommy, trying to empower Borzy, trying to empower Lester and it became clear the right answer was to go all in with those guys."

Hickey stepping down as Cubs pitching coach meant that the Cubs would have both a new hitting and pitching coach for the second-straight season. Unlike 2018, though, the two new coaches are not new to the Cubs organization, which is also true for Denorfia and Sledge.

Hottovy became the Cubs' run-prevention coordinator in 2015, while new hitting coach Anthony Iapoce spent 2013-15 as a Cubs special assistant to the General Manager.

Denorfia is a former outfielder who played 10 MLB seasons, one with the Cubs. He hit .272 in his career and .269 with the Cubs in 2015; his walk-off home run in Sept. 2015 against the Royals was one of many for the Cubs that season. 

Sledge is also a former outfielder that played in parts of four MLB seasons from 2004-07. He hit .247 in 291 career games with the Expos/Nationals and Padres; he did not play for the Cubs, but he spent 2015 as hitting coach for Single-A Eugene before becoming the Dodgers' Double-A hitting coach, a position that he held from 2016-18. 

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