Cubs Could Benefit from Updating Position-Player Development Strategies

Jason McLeod, Cubs VP of scouting and player development, recently admitted to an organizational flaw of being too conservative with draft choices and subsequent talent development. That prompted my recent review of his under-the-radar poor draft record from 2006-15 with different teams.

But while McLeod was primarily addressing the disappointing results in producing homegrown pitchers, he said little about position-player development. So here are some thoughts on a few of the organization’s non-pitching areas that may require additional scrutiny and adjustment as well.

Focus on OPS 

Since Day 1, Theo Epstein has been clear: He covets high-slugging hitters with a patient plate approach. This means hitters who grind out plate appearances, drive balls late in at-bats, take their walks, and run up pitch counts. This approach generally leads to leaps in both OPS and strikeouts. Plus to a point, the added run production from the OPS gains can more than make up for the higher whiff rate.

This high-OPS approach was a key offensive feature of Epstein’s 2004 and ’07 Boston championships. Interestingly, he chose not to apply it fully to his draft philosophy. He still used top picks to occasionally take traditional non-slugging table-setters like Dustin Pedroia (2004) and Jacoby Ellsbury (2005).

But after drafting contact-hitting Albert Almora ninth overall with his first Cubs pick in 2012, Epstein used his next three high first-round picks to exclusively draft and develop high-K sluggers who best matched to his high OPS development style. Young players who didn’t match were traded (D.J. LeMahieu, Tony Campana) or slowed in promotion (Almora). Those who embodied this style – Jorge Soler, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ – ascended quickest to the major league roster.

So how do we evaluate this near monolithic development approach? Does it deserve any credit for a can’t-miss talent like Bryant? Did it hinder free-swingers Almora and Javier Baez? Was Happ over-rewarded for hitting homers and taking walks, but promoted too quickly to the detriment of his contact rate? And could this style explain why other teams consistently value young Cubs hitters less than Epstein does for trades to work?

In search of OPS 2.0

These are all good questions for debate. Of course, it’s important to avoid letting perfect be the enemy of pretty darn good. After all, how can you argue with an approach that contributed to four different World Series titles, including the 2013 Red Sox after Epstein’s departure?

Thus proper respect must given to its past success, but perhaps with an emphasis on “past.” For even at the front office level, baseball requires continual adjustments. After years of emulation by other teams and adjustments by elite pitching, Epstein’s high-OPS strategy has lost some of its potency. This applies less in the regular season, where the Cubs lineup still reliably racks up wins against diluted pitching staffs. Against stronger contending pitching staffs down the stretch and in the playoffs, however, those advantages have flattened.

Cracks even appeared with the 2016 Cubs. That year, playoff opponents shut them out more times (4) than any World Series winner ever. In fact, no other World Series winner since the playoffs expanded to three round in 1995 were shut out more than once. Fortunately, the Cubs’ other superior facets (starting pitching, defense, Aroldis Chapman) provided enough advantage to overcome this boom-or-bust offensive tendency and prevail in seven games over Cleveland.

Interestingly, it was Epstein’s successor in Boston, Ben Cherington, who most successfully built on Epstein’s OPS innovation to create what I call “OPS 2.0.” The Red Sox won another title in 2018 behind the top OPS in baseball. However this version ironed out all the boom-and-bust by lowering the offense’s K-rate to fifth-lowest and mixing in one of baseball’s best running games (125 steals, 80 percent success rate).

Two-strike approach

Meanwhile, the Cubs’ collective farm system keeps posting a high walk rate (9.0 percent), but also had the sixth-highest strikeout to hit rate (1.04 Ks per hit). To Epstein’s credit, he regularly speaks of the need for his young hitters to lower their K-rate by developing better two-strike approaches. He even brought in Chili Davis last year to help with that. But alas, the young hitters rejected Davis – and perhaps that approach – like a bad organ donation.

As they say, it’s hard to change a major league hitter’s DNA. But prospects should be different. So how curious no evidence exists of a strong two-strike approach being emphasized in the Cubs minor league system. Take the Cubs’ most recent position-player call-ups. Victor Caratini’s low power numbers do not justify his 21 percent K-rate with the Cubs last year. David Bote slugs more, but his 29 percent K-rate in the majors and 26 percent at Iowa last year are both too high.

Looking to the next set of position players closest to promotion, middle infielders Trent Giambrone and Zack Short – who our Todd Johnson is quite high on – both feature higher than preferred strikeout numbers. Short did post an impressive 16 percent walk rate at Double-A Tennessee, but also a 30 percent K-rate (136 Ks) against just 17 homers. And although Giambrone has valuable base-stealing skills (26 of 35 last year), his 20 percent K-rate is not ideal for a player with his modest power profile.

So Cubs prospects clearly got the memo on walk rate and OPS. But until the organization better codifies two-strike and situational hitting approaches into their development regimen (including promotion decisions), one can’t expect the system’s penchant for high swing-and-miss hitters to diminish quickly.

The luxury of team speed?

The Cubs significantly deemphasized steals as a weapon under Epstein, who regularly calls having a speedy leadoff hitter a “luxury.” But the lack of diversification of the Cubs’ offense really showed the last two years. However, some indicators show a possible attempt to catch up in the fast lane.

For instance, the Cubs last year boasted five prospects who stole more than 25 bases: Giambrone (AA), outfielder Wynton Bernard (AA/AAA), and A-ball outfielders Roberto Caro, Zach Davis, and Fernando Kelli. This put the Cubs in a tie for seventh-most such base stealers in the minors. Plus 2018 draft picks Nico Hoerner (11 steals in 21 Arizona Fall League games) and Cole Roederer (13 steals in 36 AFL games) both feature speed as parts of their games.

Hoerner may offer the best indication as to whether this development is intentional or fortuitous. For instance, will the Cubs encourage him to sacrifice speed to develop more bulk power, or will he remain a base-stealing threat. For my money, I have no problem if he became a speedier mini-Pedroia: 30-40 doubles, 15 homers, 30-40 steals. In other words, a younger version of Whit Merrifield.

But stealing bases gets harder as a player ascends the professional ladder. I don’t presume to know if fifth-year minor league outfield and baserunning coordinator Doug Dascenzo is adept at teaching advanced base-stealing technique. However, great technique was not his major league forté with his high in the big leagues of 15 steals and a career 65 percent success rate.

Plus, Epstein hired Dascenzo when the organization most valued general baserunning acumen over base stealing. This meant more focus on first-to-third technique, getting good secondary leads, and reading balls in the dirt. Given the Cubs stuck with nearly all the same minor league development staff, I wonder if the organization would benefit from a few new specialized coaches to better cultivate the greater offensive diversification needed.

Catch as catch can

It’s well chronicled that many defensive metrics rank the Cubs young catching tandem of Willson Contreras and Victor Caratini quite low. I first became curious about any connection to development approach after Caratini was demoted to Iowa last May. There he started just 19 of 32 games behind the plate, which seemed incredibly low given what an ideal opportunity it was to get catching reps and sharpen his defensive skills.

A possibility, of course, existed that a lingering injury may have limited Contreras. However further review of Caratini and Contreras’ minor league careers show a pattern of much lower workloads by Cubs catching prospects as compared to the development histories of other top major league catchers.Chicago Cubs

Of course, it makes sense to not overwork catching prospects, as little development can happen when a player is overly fatigued. But as with the Cubs’ pitching prospects, a too conservative approach to catching workloads can slow development in more specialized defensive areas like pitch framing and blocking.

As Miguel Amaya is now one of the organization’s top-rated prospects, this approach is worth immediate review. Amaya did start 92 games at Single-A South Bend last year, a nice rise over Contreras and Caratini’s season highs. However, it’s still below the minor league workload given most of the game’s accomplished catchers.

In closing, a quality development program should encompass many aspects. The Cubs are considered among the industry leaders for their investments in quality facilities, advanced technology, nutrition, and mental skills. But the time seems ripe for a deeper review and updating of development approaches to improve the position-player talent pipeline.

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