Anthony Iapoce (it’s pronounced eye-uh-poh-SEE) returns to the Cubs organization as their hitting coach after spending the last three years as the Rangers hitting coach. He oversaw minor league hitting as a special assistant to the general manager with the Cubs from 2013-15 so he’ll already be familiar with a large number of Cubs players who were in the minors at that time including Albert Almora Jr., Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, and Willson Contreras.
While the Cubs have had some incredible runs during Theo Epstein’s tenure he has yet to be satisfied with the Cubs approach at the plate. This position has been a bit of a revolving door with six different hitting coaches during his eight years with the club. So today I wanted to take a look at what Iapoce accomplished with the Rangers to see if it provides a bit of insight into what Epstein is hoping to see from the Cubs’ hitters in 2019.
The broken offense
Among many candid moments in his postseason press conference one stood out. Epstein admitted that the Cubs offense “broke somewhere along the line” and said he would fix it. It was not particularly shocking that Chili Davis was fired shortly thereafter. It’s worth taking a look at some of the components of that broken offense.
In early June I took a look at the Cubs offense and found that they were the most potent offense in the National League. This wasn’t the result of cherry-picking stats or categories. It was true by almost every measure.
And then, it wasn’t true anymore. Below is the chart of National League offense from my article on June 1, what follows is the National League offensive stats for the second half. One of these things is not like the other:
National League Offensive Stats as of June 1
National League Offensive Stats 2nd Half
These numbers are really startling. The Cubs offense was worth more WAR in April and May than in the entire second half. Their wRC+ goes from a league leading (and above average) 110 to sixth worst in the league (and below average) 89. Most tellingly, their SLG went from a league leading .435 to the third worst in the league at .305.
It almost seems like Theo’s statement about the offense being broken is an understatement. This is like a tale of two teams, one of which knows how to hit for power and score runs and the other of which is incapable of either.
Regular readers of my writing know I’m not all about home runs and think the launch angle revolution has gone a bit too far, but there is a difference between trying to hit solely for power and not hitting for power at all. The Cubs offense had a power outage. It’s really easy to see this in comparing HR numbers between 2017 and 2018. In 2017 Cubs hitters hit 223 home runs. In 2018 they hit 167. That’s fully 25 percent fewer home runs in a season with roughly the same hitters.
Now, to be fair, the Rangers also saw a home-run decline in 2018. In 2017 Rangers hitters hit 237 homers compared to only 194 in 2018, However, the Rangers also lost 46 homers combined from Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli. While the Cubs lost some offensive production from Kris Bryant being hurt (16 HR difference between 2017 and 2018) they didn’t lose anything like the home run production of two players.
Another home run detail that caught my eye with the Rangers is that in 2017 they were the first team to have nine players hit at least 17 homers. That type of power spread across multiple players is reminiscent of the 2017 Cubs being the first team to have five players under 25 hit at least 20 homers. If at least some of that power comes back, while the Cubs maintain a high OBP, I think the Iapoce hiring will have been a success.
Hard hit rate
The other stat that caught my eye for the Cubs in 2018 was their relatively low hard hit rate. The Cubs hit the ball hard just 31.7 percent of the time, which was third to last in MLB (only the Orioles and Phillies had lower hard hit rates than the Cubs.) The Rangers, meanwhile, were ninth overall in MLB with a hard hit rate of 37.3 percent.
While that 37.3 percent was a bit of an outlier for Iapoce’s time with the Rangers, it is worth noting that the Rangers’ hard hit rate was higher than the Cubs for every season Iapoce was with Texas except 2015. as you can see below:
Cubs and Rangers hard hit rate by year
Hitting the ball hard doesn’t guarantee more offensive output, but it could help the Cubs recover their home run stroke and SLG numbers. I think most Cubs fans will agree that there seemed to be an inordinate number of warning track fly balls at key moments for Cubs hitters this year.
Anthony Iapoce is already familiar with many of the Cubs’ key offensive players and should be up to speed very quickly on their capabilities and approaches at the plate. During his time with the Rangers his teams demonstrated consistent power and harder contact than the Cubs. That extra boost of power and output is exactly what the Cubs lost in the second half last year and they are hoping Iapoce has the formula to bring it back. He’ll be the third hitting coach in the last four years, with any luck his approach will make him the last new hitting coach for a while.