‘Natural fit’: How Dustin Kelly became the Cubs’ choice for hitting coach

Kelly had recently been promoted to minor-league field coordinator when Cubs president Jed Hoyer brought up a new opportunity.

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New Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly watches a spring training workout with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer (left) and manager David Ross (right) in March 2022. Kelly was the minor-league hitting coordinator at the time.

New Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly watches a spring training workout with president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer (left) and manager David Ross (right) in March 2022. Kelly was the minor-league hitting coordinator at the time.

John Antonoff/Sun-Times

New Cubs hitting coach Dustin Kelly’s connection to some of the younger hitters on the roster is obvious. He was the club’s minor-league hitting coordinator for two years and was named field coordinator not long before president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer approached him about an opportunity on the major-league staff.

Perhaps overlooked is the advantage of his presence at major-league spring training the last two years.

“Just being there to help throwing batting practice,” Kelly said in a video conference call Wednesday, “and being a familiar face has made that transition a little bit easier.”

Kelly, who coached in the Dodgers’ farm system before the Cubs hired him ahead of the 2021 season, pointed to his background within the organization as something that can help him stick in a role infamous for turnover. As the Cubs move out of their rebuild, they’ll be looking for homegrown hitters to make a long-term impact, players Kelly will have known since their minor-league playing days.

That’s a leg up Kelly’s predecessor didn’t have. Greg Brown was an outside hire last year, and the lockout cut off contact between him and his new players for his first few months on the job.

Kelly will be the Cubs’ eighth head hitting coach in 12 seasons.

“He’s done a fantastic job as a coordinator,” Hoyer said. “He’s built great relationships and done a great job working with [director of hitting] Justin Stone and working with all the coaches and all the young hitters. And we really did like the continuity.”

Jared Banner, vice president of player development, echoed Hoyer’s sentiments.

“He’s a special person,” Banner said, “a really special leader, and I’m not surprised that he’s gotten this opportunity.”

Kelly was a little surprised; the job wasn’t on his radar when Hoyer broached the subject.

Going into the offseason, Kelly said he was looking forward to seeing the impact he could make as the minor-league field coordinator. Then he had several conversations with Hoyer about the major-league hitting-coach opportunity and talked to manager David Ross and other members of the coaching staff.

“It just seemed like a really good, natural fit for me,” Kelly said.

Since accepting the job, Kelly has been at work getting to know his players and fellow coaches better. He’ll have three assistant hitting coaches, with Juan Cabreja and Jim Adduci joining Johnny Washington.

“Everybody has their own specialty, and we’re going to leverage each of those,” Kelly said. “A Swiss Army knife is how I’ve described it to our guys: We’re one unit, one little knife, but within that knife, there’s a bunch of different tools that we have to use and we can pull from depending on the situation.”

As for his players, Kelly said connecting with them has been a fun part of the transition. His conversations have been focused on feeling out hitters’ individual routines, goals and what makes them tick.

He has had a head start for several of those meetings. About half of the hitters on the Cubs’ 40-man roster have spent significant time in the minors the last couple of years, even without counting rehab assignments.

Kelly is also a familiar face for Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner, the longest-tenured Cubs hitters on the roster, thanks to spring training. Not to mention, Kelly’s brother Jason, then an assistant coach at the University of Washington and now the Huskies’ head coach, recruited Hoerner coming out of high school. Hoerner ended up at Pac-12 rival Stanford.

“What we strive for as coaches and instructors is building that relationship first,” Kelly said. “Once you have that and you’ve established that, then you can actually start to make some really good gains, maybe some swing changes or things that need to happen that take some trust and some relationship-building to get accomplished.”

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