Does Cubs’ new manager have answers to old Cubs hitting questions?

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Cubs manager Joe Maddon is rolling the dice on some techniques for driving the Cubs’ offense.

MESA, Ariz. – New Cubs manager Joe Maddon may not have all the answers for fixing what ails the strikeout-prone young players on his new team.

But ideas and methods he has cultivated for years might have found the right place at the right time to have an impact with his hiring few months ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, coming from a manager who brought his own sports psychologist with him for his new club, Maddon sees the mental side of the game as the solution for not only this contact-challenged team but also for the game’s recent and dramatic downward trend in hitting.

“I think the tenor of hitting these days is going to go away from the physical mechanics and a little bit more into the mental mechanics and vision,” said Maddon, adding that new hitting coach John Mallee is a proponent. “Industry-wide I’m generally looking for the resurgence in offense – where’s it going to come from?

“With us we already have guys that have a nice pedigree hitting wise,” he added of the group of highly ranked hitting prospects the Cubs have stockpiled. “They haven’t necessarily done it on the big-league level yet, but if you look at them, they should. The one thing I want to see us do is be less mechanical and more mental in our approach and have a better plan at the plate that is void of physical, mechanical noise.

“If we can arrive at that point this is going to be a pretty good offense.”

That doesn’t mean the staff isn’t working with big-swinging Javy Baez to cut it down some, at least in two-strike counts. Or that Mike Olt gets left alone to drift into that big swing he admits was part of “trying to hit the ball 500 feet every time” last year.

But the emphasis in this camp is more on keeping the mind clear to react and perform by the time the at-bat starts. That’s probably easier said than done after four other managers in the previous five years had their own messages, along with four hitting coaches in four years (not counting assistant hitting coaches).

Some of Maddon’s unique methods – unique at least to the organization – have created a buzz among hitters in camp.

The big one involves Maddon’s specially ordered pitching machine that throws racquetball-sized baseballs to hitters using heavier, longer bats than normal (up to 37 ounces and 35 inches).

He sets it up about 50 feet from the plate and simulates 90-95-mph fastballs.

“It really forces the use of the hands,” he said, “takes the loop out of the swing, without a lot of instruction.”

That last part is key. The player doesn’t have to think.

“You just compete against the machine,” said Maddon, who has used the drill since he was working with Angels’ minor leaguers three decades ago.

“With a heavy bat, small ball, you have to just go right to the ball,” Olt said. “That’s the only way to hit it. You can’t have a big body swing.”

Maddon has rotated a lot of the Cubs’ younger hitters into the groups to try the drill, including top prospect Kris Bryant in Friday’s session.

Others who have been asked to try it include Baez, Arismendy Alcantara, Starlin Castro and Tommy La Stella.

“It’s a great drill. I love it,” said Olt, who plans to stick with it throughout the season. “I think it’s something that’s going to help my swing tremendously. I tend to use a lot of body in my swing sometimes when I get in trouble. So this is just getting me that muscle memory of just using your hands.”

Olt said his swing right now feels “night and day” better than where he was last year, when he struck out 100 times in 225 at-bats.

That ranked second in major league history to Baez (95 Ks in 213 at-bats) for fewest at-bats with at least 90 strikeouts. Alcantara had 93 in 278 at-bats.

No surprise the Cubs led the majors with a franchise-record 1,477 strikeouts last year. By contrast, Maddon’s Tampa Bay Rays struck out the third-fewest times (1,124).

Maddon, who spent a long time as a hitting coach before becoming a big-league bench coach and eventually a manager, isn’t going to fix it all with a fancy pitching machine.

And mechanics can’t be ignored, especially with Baez’s big movement and unusually violent swing.

But Maddon sees even greater potential with most hitters in backing off a 30-year trend of increased use of video and mechanics-based coaching.

“We tend to give too much of that to the hitters,” he said. “That’s where the confusion sets in, because you’re at the plate, and the guy’s got three different major league pitches he throws real well and you’re up there worrying about where your feet are or your hands or your head. That’s why the ball gets beyond you, and that’s why you’re not a really good hitter or a good hitter in situations.”

Instead, he likes to emphasize the message sports psychologist Ken Ravizza, a longtime friend and advisor now with the Cubs, delivers to players about routines, eliminating negative influences and concentrating on the moment.

“The more physical noise you give the hitter … the more you get this guy even to think, then the less effective he can be,” Maddon said.

Maddon is just one of many in the game trying to come up with ways to restore the historical drop in major league hitting production, “to get offense back to a solvency almost.”

In 2014, there were fewer runs scored per game (4.07) in the majors than any year since 1981 (4.00), fewer hits per game (8.62) than any year since 1972 (8.19), and the average big-league hitter had the lowest batting average (.251) than any year since 1969 (.248).

The only thing Maddon knows for sure: “I don’t have all the answers.”

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