'Even-keeled' Ross takes 3rd in NL MOY vote

November 10th, 2020

CHICAGO -- During baseball's shutdown after Spring Training, Cubs manager David Ross continued to work with the club's research and development group on game simulations. Ross wanted to keep learning and practicing in-game strategy, even with no real games to manage.

Really, though, there was no way to simulate what was to come in 2020.

For every club, this was a season unlike any other, full of obstacles beyond the expected hurdles of a typical baseball marathon. Under Ross, the Cubs navigated the adversity en route to a National League Central title, and he was rewarded with a third-place finish for the NL Manager of the Year Award.

"He made that adjustment of making us comfortable," Cubs shortstop Javier Báez said at the end of the season. "And making us work at the same time. He was great. He was great -- really positive the whole season."

Marlins manager Don Mattingly took home the NL Manager of the Year Award with 20 first-place votes. Ross received one first-place vote, while Padres skipper Jayce Tingler finished second with six first-place nods from voters in the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Báez's brief assessment got to the heart of Ross' approach as the tone-setter, following the immensely successful five-year period with former Cubs manager Joe Maddon at the helm. Ross gave his players plenty of freedom to have fun, but emphasized discipline and accountability, while empowering some veterans to step up as vocal leaders behind the scenes.

That clubhouse leadership proved crucial once the baseball world was forced to play through a pandemic. After witnessing pitching coach Tommy Hottovy deal with a month-long battle with COVID-19 during the shutdown, the Cubs' players backed up their words and got through the whole season with no positive tests.

"He developed great trust with all the players," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said of Ross at the end of the season. "He was an outstanding leader of the coaching staff and of the group. He set high standards."

On the field, the Cubs got off to a swift start, going 13-3 out of the chute. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Ross was only the 12th manager (and seventh since 1885) to win at least 13 of his first 16 games as a first-year skipper. Thanks to that start, the Cubs were in first place for all but one day during the season.

Chicago's run atop the NL Central was hardly smooth, however.

"There's just a shock factor to how many issues -- or I don't know if it's always issues -- but things that come through a manager's office that, as a player, you have no idea about," Ross said during MLB Network's Manager of the Year Award show on Tuesday.

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Ross was without two of his planned rotation arms (Tyler Chatwood and José Quintana) for most of the season, but the combination of Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks helped keep the cast together. The bullpen was a disaster in the early going, but Ross moved pieces around and the relief corps developed into a strength in the end.

One challenge early in the year involved veteran closer Craig Kimbrel, whose issues could have put Ross in a tough position. The manager has a long history with Kimbrel, but Ross backed away from using him in high-leverage spots early on. By the end of the season, Kimbrel found his rhythm and was on a dominant roll, trusted in big spots again.

"The communication between the two of us has been great," Kimbrel said in early August. "I think that's the reason we're going to be able to work through this so well. He still has trust in me. He knows what I can do."

The Cubs' offense also tested Ross.

The main core hitting group of Báez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber underperformed expectations in the small-sample, 60-game format. Bryant, in particular, labored through injuries and never found his footing in the leadoff spot. That put extra pressure on the pitching staff, but the Cubs continued to pick up wins.

Under Ross, the Cubs picked up the inaugural NL Gold Glove Team Award one season removed from posting -14 defensive runs saved. Baserunning was also an issue in 2019, but the '20 Cubs were third in the NL in baserunning runs above average (4.7).

"The way he's handled everything," Rizzo said near the end of the season, "getting off to a good start, and then the team grinding, and injuries and us not hitting the way we're capable of at the moment -- he's just stayed very even-keeled. And that's, as a player, something that I know I, personally, appreciate a lot."

When Ross was hired, there were questions about whether his past as a teammate of some of his players would be a potential trouble area. In a year with so many off-field factors, those relationships may have helped in establishing trust, enhancing communication and just getting through the exhausting 2020 campaign.

"Such a strange first year as a manager," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said during the season. "Different things to deal with all the time. I think he's handled that really just so gracefully, and I think guys play hard for him."