Hottovy combines analytics with experience
New Cubs pitching coach taking new-age approach toward staff
New Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy had a reached a career crossroads. After sustaining a shoulder injury while in Spring Training with the club four years ago, he faced the reality that his playing career was likely over. Baseball might have been done with Hottovy's left arm, but he did not want to be done with the game.
As the information age continued to burst through the cracks of baseball's traditional walls, Hottovy saw an opportunity to carve out a different kind of coaching career. He envisioned himself helping bridge the gap between a front office's analytics group and the locker room. Hottovy did not want players to keep relying on feel or opinions when concrete data was increasingly at their fingertips.
"I really felt like there was kind of like this gap in the game," Hottovy said. "I didn't have all the Major League experience a lot of guys have, but I stepped foot out there, and I can relate to those guys, but then also communicate with the front office."
After the shoulder injury sidelined Hottovy in the spring of 2014, he began researching possible steps to get his foot in the coaching door. His wife, Andrea, found an online course offered by Boston University called "Sabermetrics 101: Introduction to Baseball Analytics," and Hottovy enrolled. Soon, he was spending his days not only rehabbing his arm, but studying up on the history and application of analytics.
Going through that course -- one that included original research projects -- helped expedite Hottovy's learning curve for his next job. Prior to the 2015 season, when manager Joe Maddon was hired by the Cubs, Hottovy was enlisted as a coordinator in the team's Major League scouting department. His unofficial title was "run prevention coordinator," and he held that role for the past four seasons.
In those four years, analytics has grown exponentially with the advancements made both publicly (especially via Statcast™) and within organizations.
"At the time, that class was an intro to what was available at that time," Hottovy said. "Then, I got into working with the Cubs starting in 2015, and then there was an explosion of what information we had. It's funny. At that time, I said, 'I'm still in class.' I was just in class with all of our R&D guys and all our analytics people, and learning and continuing to understand what that data says. If you're not learning right now, you're going to be behind."
On the surface, it is true the Cubs are on their third pitching coach in three years. Hottovy follows Jim Hickey who succeeded Chris Bosio. In reality, the club's approach to building its coaching staff on the pitching side this offseason -- after Hickey stepped down for personal reasons -- was based around continuity.
Over the past four years, Hottovy worked closely with Mike Borzello, who had "associate pitching coach" added to his title this offseason. Borzello -- also a catching and strategy coach -- teamed with Hottovy in recent seasons on the formulation of scouting reports and strategies for series and games. Hottovy brought the perspective of a former pitcher, while Borzello added the point of view of a catcher.
In the season ahead, when the pitchers work with Hottovy and Borzello, along with longtime bullpen coach Lester Strode, they will be doing so with years of rapport already established.
"It's not like somebody coming in that has been completely away from the organization," Hottovy said, "or is coming into a new situation where you have to get to know all the pitchers, and try to understand what they're trying to work on mechanically. We've got notes from the last four years on what guys have been working on and how we can talk about things."
This is not to say that Hottovy does not plan on putting his own fingerprints on the pitching coach position.
Hottovy plans on meeting with as many pitchers as he can -- whether in person or via FaceTime -- before the group convenes at the Cubs' Spring Training complex in Arizona. He wants to begin discussing strategies for improving the team's walk rate, which has risen steadily over the past three seasons (9.9 percent in '18, 9.1 percent in '17, 8.3 percent in '16 and 6.8 percent in '15).
Hottovy also wants to continue to be data-driven in everything the Cubs do -- whether it's mapping out in-game strategies, building matchup based scouting reports, tackling mechanical changes or altering pitches. Within that, Hottovy wants to make sure he is armed with reasoning for anything he and the rest of the coaching staff present to the pitchers.
"It's not just telling them, 'You do this and this is going to help,'" Hottovy said. "We're walking through, 'Why?'"
When Hottovy was still pitching -- he spent 10 years in the pro ranks with cups of coffee with the Red Sox (2011) and Royals ('12) -- he often made adjustments after a coach's experience-based advice. Times have changed. Pitching coaches now must blend their experience with a solid foundation of analytics. Hottovy believes that is precisely what he and the Cubs' retooled staff can offer.
"We may do three or four hours of work and dig and dig for a two-minute conversation," Hottovy said. "And that two-minute conversation may make or break the next two weeks of the season for the player. So, that's really kind of what I envisioned [my role] -- to help shorten that gap."