The Secret Ingredient in David Ross’s Special Sauce? Let Players Be Themselves

It’s like TINSTAAPP, except not limited to pitching prospects. For David Ross and the Cubs, it’s more like there is no such thing as a perfect philosophy. The organization has learned that the hard way when it comes to developing pitchers in the minors, but Ross appears to have gotten a handle on how to get the most from his charges at the MLB level in pretty short order.

Admit it, you thought the Cubs just hired Manager David to carry Theo Epstein’s water and pal around with Jon Lester and his surrogate grandkids. Oh, I know you didn’t think that. You, though, you hated the hire. In any case, Ross has acquitted himself quite well in the same time some pundits are beginning to ask whether the man he replaced should just hang ’em up.

In truth, they’re actually very similar managers when it comes to their understanding of personalities and how to avoid stifling players as people. The difference comes more in Ross’s attention to detail in preparation and being more intentional about certain moves rather than following a gut feeling that may have just been that morning’s breakfast burrito.

With the Cubs nearly halfway through this odd short season, the new structure around old freedom seems to be paying dividends. That’s something they hoped would happen prior to last season, though things didn’t quite play out according to plan.

“The environment surrounding the team, we can have a little more structure and a little more structured work…which is what you need to develop,” Epstein said in January of 2019. “You need routine, you need consistent work, you need a structure around you that puts you in the best position to get better every day. And so we’ve made some subtle adjustments behind the scenes just to make sure we’re putting that type of environment in place.”

Just like sarcasm, subtlety only works when everyone gets it. That’s why bigger changes had to be made, even if much of what Ross is doing now is the same as what Joe Maddon did over the past five years. The only real difference is that there’s a little more urgency from everyone, whether it’s from the change in leadership or the knowledge that this truncated season might be the Cubs’ last with this core group of players.

Not everyone is playing like they’ve got a fire under their ass, though, particularly a certain slow-moving pitcher who works through his 37 different pitches like Friday traffic on the Dan Ryan. But Ross understands that’s his jam and he’s happy to go with the flow.

“Yu Darvish being free to be himself is the magic formula,” Ross told Patrick Mooney and other media ($) recently. “This guy can really do a lot of things with a baseball and follow a game plan. The more you can let these guys be free — that’s what I thought Joe did such a great job of here — and let the players be themselves, (that’s) the main thing.”

What we haven’t really had a chance to see if whether and how this translates to the guys coming up through the system. Adbert Alzolay looked great in his spot start against the Cardinals and Tyson Miller got a shot a couple days earlier, but we still haven’t been given any real evidence of a philosophical shift toward being more aggressive and letting pitchers move through the system at their own pace.

The Cubs had previously been much more rigid and generic in their development of arms, a puzzlingly archaic stance from a progressive organization. It wasn’t until after the 2018 season that they admitted a need to loosen the reins and only after last year did they really get serious about setting up more customized development plans for each individual pitcher.

Ross is really just the tip of the spear, the face of an organizational overhaul that has seen the Cubs revamp and replace a great deal of their pitching and hitting infrastructure. The idea is to be better aligned across the system so players are not only more comfortable being themselves, but also know exactly what to expect when moving up to a new level.

That’s almost purely hypothetical at this point due to the shortened MLB season and the elimination of the minors for this year. However, what we’re seeing now with the Ross and the Cubs offers at least a conceptual preview of how things should work throughout the entire organization moving forward. If that means finally promoting some homegrown pitchers, I think even more people will be eating crow and loving it.

With a little of Manager David’s Secret Sauce, of course. Now let’s just hope Ross can put that shit on everything like Frank’s Red Hot, because the lineup could sure use a little more flavor too.

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