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Hitting or missing? Cubs waiting for change in coaching emphasis to pay off

ST. LOUIS – John Mallee still isn’t sure what he supposedly did wrong as the Cubs’ hitting coach during three playoff seasons.

And the way the Cubs have started the season at the plate, it’s tempting to wonder if they miss him, especially on days like the end of last week when they got out-homered in losses to the Rockies because they couldn’t get enough hits up into a wind that was howling out at Wrigley Field.

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What’s more, their 4-3 loss in 14 innings Sunday into Monday against the Cardinals marked the 10th time in 11 games they’ve scored three runs or fewer. After the Cubs took a 3-2 lead on Javy Baez’s home run with two outs in the 14th, they were stunned by former Cub Dexter Fowler, who hit a walk-off two-run homer off Luke Farrell.

New Cubs hitting coach Chili Davis works with Anthony Rizzo during spring training. / John Antonoff photo

“I thought I did a great job,” said Mallee, a Chicago native and area resident, who was one of three Cubs coaches suddenly fired at the end of last season. “And they felt that someone else could take these hitters to the next step, that I wasn’t really qualified in their minds to do it; that’s their opinion.”

He still holds team president Theo Epstein and the rest of the organization in high regard, he said. But even after landing on his feet quickly as the hitting coach for another talented young group of hitters in Philadelphia, the sudden ending gnaws.

“I never expected to not be there. I was totally surprised,” Mallee said during a recent conversation in the home dugout at Philadelphia’s Citizen’s Bank Park. “I don’t have an answer [why]. I’m guessing that they wanted us to be able to perform against better pitching. I don’t know totally what that means.”

The Cubs, who finished second in the National League with 822 runs last year and third with 223 home runs, said at the time they only made the change because Chili Davis suddenly became available when the Red Sox swept out their coaching staff in October.

“John Mallee did a great job here,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said over the weekend in St. Louis, where the Cubs lost the series to their longtime rivals. “It’s all philosophically based.”

As part of his overall method, Mallee is a proponent of the neo-popular launch-angle theory of hitting against the game’s increases in velocity and defensive shifts, which stresses driving the ball in the air. It tends to increase strikeouts.

Davis is more about putting the ball in play where the pitcher gives you the best chance to do it – a change in Cub philosophy this year evident in recent weeks just in Maddon’s mocking of launch angle and “exit velocity.”

“Certainly, Chili came in with the kind of mandate of getting guys to consider using the whole field a little bit more and working on situational hitting,” Epstein said, “working on two-strike approach, working on line drives, through the gaps, instead of sort of an all-or-nothing approach that we can fall victim to at times.”

Then again, a lot of teams fall victim to that these days. For the first time in a calendar month in major-league history April produced more strikeouts than hits in MLB. And ESPN Stats and Information reports big-league pitchers are on pace this year to throw more than 20,000 pitches at 98 mph or faster – more than four times the total just seven years ago.

What that means for an up-and-down group of young, strikeout-prone Cubs hitters is a work in progress the first week of May – and could be a critical part of how well they capitalize on what Epstein considers at least a four-year remaining window of opportunity with the core.

Mallee and Addison Russell last year.

For now, the home run numbers are down: just 30 in their first 30 games (ranked 23rd in the majors). And for a team that ranks 26th in walks (95 through 30 games), that’s not necessarily the best tradeoff – though it’s still early.

“It’s just where we are right now,” Maddon said. “I’m not concerned about any of this. It’s the ebb and flow of the season. We’re good. We’re young, and we’re good. And we’re going to show it.”

How much of that is on Davis? How much was on Mallee before that?

And how much impact does the hitting coach actually have?

Even Davis, who quickly had three interview offers after the Red Sox fired him, got an extra kick on the way out the door in Boston. Red Sox owner John Henry during spring training addressed the lack of improvement on the hitting roster by pointing out the changes on the coaching roster.

“It’s important to understand that your’e not going to get the credit when things are good. You are going to be blamed when it’s not. That’s just part of the job,” said Davis, who said he doesn’t spend much time thinking about comments like Henry’s.

“I guess he didn’t like our offensive approach,” Davis said. “I tried to do the best I could over there with the hitters I had.”

After a big year for Boston’s young hitters in 2016, the numbers sagged in 2017 with the retirement of David Ortiz and several injuries to key hitters. Many of those remaining hitters are having big years now.

Maddon said he wants to see the middle and opposite field continued to be stressed and is fine when natural uppercut power hitters such as Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo seek their launch angles.

“It’s not like we create this new method of teaching hitting,” he said, adding, “We’re just caught in this little bit of a void right now that we’re going to get out of.”