Maddon taking hands-on approach with offense

Cubs skipper: 'We're trying to morph into something else'

March 17th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- Anthony Iapoce saw a group of players exit a golf cart and head in a few different directions on Sunday morning. The Cubs hitting coach jogged across the patio area behind the Cubs' complex, trying to catch up with before he reached the indoor batting cages.

The fact that Iapoce could leave Field 1 -- where another pack of batters was working on situational hitting -- is one of the benefits of manager Joe Maddon being more involved with the daily workouts. Maddon handling the situational drills on many of these spring mornings has opened the door for Iapoce or assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge to center their attention elsewhere.

"It definitely frees me up," said Iapoce, who then smirked. "Even to go get some lunch early and leave him out there by himself."

If anyone thought Maddon's involvement in the daily workouts was going to be a case of eyewash -- being seen for the sake of being seen in the wake of the disappointing end to the 2018 campaign -- the past few weeks would seem to have rendered that notion moot. With 11 days until Opening Day, Maddon remains as hands-on as he was when camp first opened.

The season-end soul-searching led to the decision to have Maddon jump back into daily coaching, which is part of his managerial DNA anyway given his career background. Beyond that, though, Chicago knows it needs its offense to be much better than it was last year when the lineup collapsed over the last two months.

To help that process, Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein feels some of the messaging is better coming from the manager's mouth.

"It can be hard for the hitting coach to be the one drilling it in," Epstein said. "Because by definition, [situational hitting] is a selfless activity. In some ways, you're sacrificing your at-bat, your numbers for the good of the team. When you have a manager that involved and making it such a priority, I think it sets the right tone for the group. Joe's done a really, really nice job of that."

Iapoce echoed Epstein's remarks.

"I totally agree with that statement," said the Cubs' new hitting coach. "When the manager's out there running drills -- especially when it's team-oriented drills from an offensive side, things that are hard to do -- and he's giving them different thoughts, sometimes as coaches, players can get stale maybe listening to you. And then they hear a different perspective and it's from the manager, it holds a lot more weight.

"It shows the importance of it. And it also shows how Joe has interacted with these guys. It's been great. You just stand back and watch him do his thing."

Maddon has overseen one drill that involves using miniature baseballs being fed through a machine at a closer distance than typical batting practice. That simulates higher pitch speed, while forcing the batter to really hone in on the smaller ball. On top of that, the manager will call out different situations for the batter to keep in mind, adding approach adjustments to the other layers of difficulty.

Whether it is through bunting, looking to hit to the opposite field, implementing hit-and-runs or other offensive elements, the idea is to get back to a better brand of baseball. Maddon wants to see improvement with runners in scoring position, with two strikes and with two outs. None of this is earth-shattering, but Maddon feels the Cubs have strayed from being a complete offense in recent years.

"We've been more of a drive-the-baseball, hit-a-home-run kind of a group," Maddon said. "We're trying to morph into something else. I think in 2016, we probably demonstrated a little bit more variety. I love variety with that."

And while Maddon is more involved with all of that, he does not plan on getting in his coaches' way.

"If it comes from the manager, it does have a greater impact," Maddon said. "But I really try to minimize that in a sense, because I want to empower coaches."