Coaches Iapoce, Valaika assess Cubs' needs

December 8th, 2020

CHICAGO -- During his days leading the Cubs' Minor League hitting program, Anthony Iapoce had his eye on Chris Valaika as a prospect of sorts. The way Valaika interacted with his teammates and used data and information made Iapoce believe he was looking at a future coach.

"You always have players who are on your coaching radar," Iapoce said. "Val was always on your coaching radar."

Valaika laughed when told of Iapoce's assessment.

"He probably thought I was going to be a coach because I wasn't that good of a player," Valaika quipped.

Iapoce is entering his third year as the Cubs' hitting coach, and Valaika is joining him in the big league cages. Last month, new president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer announced that Valaika has been promoted to assistant hitting coach, moving up from his role as Chicago's Minor League hitting coordinator.

The way Iapoce views things, it will be a partnership as the two coaches get to work on improving the Cubs' offense after what was a difficult 2020 for the hitters. The 60-game season came with a series of unique circumstances. There was the mental obstacle of dealing with a short campaign, combined with poor results piling up.

That makes the process of evaluating 2020 and planning for 2021 a challenging one.

"You do have to look at it through the lens of, this was a sprint," Valaika said. "And it's not a complete sample size. There is some good and there is some bad that comes out of it, but I think you look at the whole picture, too. You go through 2019. You see if there's any trends that have continued or that changed or whatever had been going on. And then, let's try to address those changes.

"Let's see why this change maybe is more emotional than anything -- with not having fans in the stands and a 60-game sprint and trying to chase numbers or whatever the narrative may be with that stuff. But it's digging in."

The surface statistics -- such as the Cubs' 2020 slash line (.220/.318/.387) -- do not tell the whole story, especially in such a short season. More jarring, as an example, was Chicago's .255 average and .440 slugging percentage (per Statcast) against four-seamers in the strike zone. Those marks ranked 26th and 28th, respectively, in the Majors.

One potential issue was more passivity at the plate. Per Fangraphs, the Cubs had a 2020 swing rate of 43.7 percent in '20 -- down from 47.2 percent in '19. That included dramatic drops in swing rate both inside the zone (64.1 percent in '20 vs. 68.4 percent in '19) and outside the zone (30.2 percent in '20 vs. 33 percent in '19).

So although the Cubs' walk rate climbed to 10.3 percent in '20 (up from 9.4 percent in '19 and 9.0 percent in '18), the strikeout rate continued to move in the wrong direction. That increased to 25.7 percent in '20 (up from 23.6 percent in '19 and 21.8 percent in '18).

The challenge for Iapoce and Valaika will be "digging in" to those team-wide numbers and addressing them with individual players. But overall numbers can be difficult to tackle when an MLB lineup is a sum-of-all-parts machine.

"That's the biggest challenge in coaching a team offense," Iapoce said. "Today's game is even more of a challenge because of all the individuality between each player and their swing data, and their hot and cold zones, knowing what pitches they can and can't hit."

More often than not, Iapoce said, it comes down to a hitter's thought process, as opposed to anything mechanical. And he believes that having Valaika's eyes, ears and thoughts on the issues will be a big help.

"He's one of the best hitting coaches in baseball," Iapoce said.

The 35-year-old Valaika was a third-round pick by the Reds in the 2006 MLB Draft and worked his way to the Majors as an infielder with Cincinnati (parts of 2010-11), Miami (2013) and the Cubs (44 games in '14). He suited up for Triple-A Iowa in '15 (his final pro season) before heading back to UC Santa Barbara as an assistant coach.

Valaika then spent 10 months working at Sparta Science outside San Francisco, where he dove into learning more about force plates and the data side of hitting. It wasn't long before the Cubs came calling with an offer for him to coach within their farm system.

"Everybody's always looking for that person who can do multiple things," Iapoce said. "With Val, he has experience of playing in the big leagues, being around these guys when they were coming up, being informative with our database already and making player plans and getting in with the technology over the last few years.

"He's been on the forefront of that, while still being a great individual one-on-one coach, also on the mental side, and being proactive on everything he does. He's really good."

Valaika also feels that his relationships with the players -- either as an instructor or, in some cases, as a former teammate -- will be beneficial.

"That familiarity breeds trust," Valaika said. "And I think these guys know that anything that I do or say or bring to 'Poce comes from a place of bettering them. So that's been the big thing. And like I said, just having the familiarity with these guys, it's not diving into a new roster or trying to figure out things.

"I've been around these guys the last five years. So I think that puts me on the fast track to getting to work with these guys."

And finally being the coach Iapoce envisioned.

"We've been around each other in so many different capacities now," Valaika said, "that finally working together in the same cage is going to be really easy."