By Bruce Levine —
CHICAGO (CBS) — When hitters fail and teams like the Cubs lose, questions about batting philosophy begin to circulate.
In the case of these Cubs, the conversation has often centered around situational hitting and clutch at-bats during pressurized moments.
The Cubs are 26-26 in games decided by two runs or fewer this season. The lack of getting big hits with runners in scoring position has been a thorn in the side of Chicago’s offense all season. The team has a league-worst .228 batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position. In late and close situations — defined as the seventh inning or later with the batting team ahead by one, tied or having the tying run at least on deck — they’re hitting at a .224 clip.
The question of the Cubs’ approach came up again the past two games, when young hitters such as Willson Contreras and Javier Baez made poor choices in their crucial ninth inning at-bats.
On Thursday, Contreras initially attempted to bunt to get on base with the team down two runs in the ninth inning, a man on base and no outs. Generally, one might say he was acting selfless, but the trouble was Contreras had a six-RBI game in hand and has been the team’s hottest hitter the past month. He needed to swing away. He ended up striking out
On Friday, Baez struck out by swinging at three consecutive elevated pitches with the Cubs trailing by two in the ninth inning, a man on and no outs. Baez had hit a long home run earlier in the game, but swinging out of his shoes was the wrong approach.
Both Baez and Contreras are incredibly talented players who assuredly will learn through these types of trials and tribulations. Complicating matters, theirs aren’t the only bad at-bats of late, as others aren’t perfect either.
The idea is to have a concept before each at-bat, a game plan of how to attack each opposing pitcher. In the wake of these episodes, Cubs manager Joe Maddon is left explaining the team’s coaching concepts to this youthful group.
“Hitting philosophy is mainly an individual thing,” Maddon said. “There is a team concept, but you just can’t clone hitters. As a hitting coach, you have to be able to say the same thing to two different people in different words. I have to be a good enough coach to be able to get my thoughts across so each man understands what you are conveying. I began with the concept. It is individualistic.”
Maddon also got into a general hitting mantra that exists for the organization.
“We have been working hard at having more of a middle approach,” Maddon said. “As a group, we have been trying to work opposite field with two strikes. We really have been trying to cut down on strikeouts (the Cubs are ninth in the National League in this category). The boys do talk a lot about launch angle, getting the ball in the air. There is no slugging on the ground. That’s permeated our topics the last couple of years.”
“Minor league-wise, Andy Haines (minor league hitting coordinator) carries pretty much the same message as well. Last year, it all worked pretty well. Right now, some guys are struggling. What that normally means to me is somebody has adjusted to you and now you must adjust back. Right now, everything is slanted toward pitching and defense. The hitter’s side is reactionary. The other side is more proactive I think. Although there are some really good hitters in the game, for the most part, we are seeing strikeouts and homers — guys swinging out of their butts a lot. Most of the game slant to pitching and defense right now.”
Four runs in the first inning Saturday — off former Cubs pitcher Edwin Jackson — seemed to indicate some of the hard work by the coaches and players may indeed be paying off.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.