MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon does not expect onlookers to see a dramatic difference in how he navigates his way around the practice diamonds this spring. When he says he plans on taking a more hands-on approach, returning to his coaching roots in the process, he believes it
MESA, Ariz. -- Cubs manager Joe Maddon does not expect onlookers to see a dramatic difference in how he navigates his way around the practice diamonds this spring. When he says he plans on taking a more hands-on approach, returning to his coaching roots in the process, he believes it will be more nuanced than noticeable.
There may be some more involvement in the spring bunting drills and instruction, coupled with some more detailed behind-the-scenes work with the overhauled coaching staff, but Maddon feels the biggest difference will be on the situational hitting front. He wants to provide hitting coach Anthony Iapoce and assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge with an additional authoritative voice.
"I've done it in the past," Maddon said. "I really got involved with the two-strike approach. That's another thing I really want to talk about. But again, Poce and Sledge are in charge of the hitting. I'm there to, I'm almost like an aide to them. But I know, I know, regardless, sometimes you've got to admit it, that the fact that you are the manager, they may listen a little bit more. So I want to get more deeply involved."
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The Cubs' second-half hitting troubles have been documented ad nauseam since the team's swift exit from the October stage last year. Chicago went from being arguably a top-five offense in the Majors over the first four months to a nose dive across the final eight weeks. Lacking a healthy Kris Bryant played a large role, but an offensive plague ate through most of the hitters' bats.
Without any major additions to the lineup, the Cubs' task this winter was to find ways to address and fix the issues that arose over the final two months. That started with the dismissal of hitting coach Chili Davis and the re-hiring of Iapoce, bringing in a new voice that has a built-in rapport with a group of Chicago's hitters from his days as the team's Minor League hitting instructor.
And now that the hitters will all be together in camp -- the first full-squad workout is slated for Monday -- Maddon and Iapoce can shift from messaging to executing.
During the Cubs Convention last month, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said it is important for the team's hitters to have a "B swing" for then the count gets to two strikes. Once a two-strike situation arrives, the Cubs want to see an improved physical and mental plan this season.
"Before you get to two strikes," Epstein said, "when you're early in the count and you're aggressive, you should be hunting a pitch you can drive. You should be hunting a pitch you can hit hard. You should be hunting a pitch that you can hit in the air. Go for it. Hit it in the seats where they can't catch it. When you get to two strikes, we collectively have to make an adjustment."
Last season, the Cubs posted a .261 slugging percentage (20th in the Majors) and .510 OPS (17th) with two strikes. The MLB averages were .274 and .519, respectively. Chicago also struggled with runners on third and less than two outs, turning in a .392 slugging percentage and .717 OPS, which both ranked 30th. The Cubs' production in innings seven through nine was also near the bottom of baseball (.339 SLG, 30th; .650 OPS, 27th).
Maddon said there need to be some fundamental changes to help correct those types of problems.
"There's just a lot of misconceptions about [choking up on the bat]," Maddon said. "It's about getting your top hand closer to contact. When you do that, you have a better feel for where the end of the bat is. Thus, makes sense that you have a better chance to make contact. ... It's just common-sense stuff."
Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.