New Cubs manager David Ross played for the team for two seasons, 2015 and 2016. Those were two of the most successful years in franchise history. First, the team roared to a postseason spot in 2015 and made the NLCS before falling short of the World Series. Then there was the World Series championship season in 2016, a year none of us will ever forget. Ross was a key player in both seasons. His offense in 2015 wasn’t great, but he provided solid defense that year with plays like this [VIDEO].
Ross’ 2016 season was solid offensively (.784 OPS, 106 OPS+, 101 wRC+), and he posted 1.7 bWAR (1.9 fWAR), perfectly fine numbers for a 39-year-old catcher who caught in 58 games (50 starts). He became respected by his teammates and beloved by the fanbase, as shown in this clip from the final regular-season game at Wrigley Field in 2016 [VIDEO].
No doubt, this hiring is popular with many Cubs fans. But the question has been raised: Is Ross “too close” to his friends and former Cubs teammates? Ross addressed that in a statement issued by the team when his hiring was announced Thursday:
A lot has been made, and rightfully so, of my connection to the 2016 World Series team, and the notion that I’ll now be managing players I once counted on as teammates. Having those relationships going into this will be a bonus, no doubt about it. But those guys know I’ll be the first to hold them accountable, the first to demand their best daily effort and the first to let them know about it if they give anything but their best. I never had a problem dishing out a lot of tough love as their teammate, and that won’t change as their manager. We’ll have our fair share of fun along the way, but working hard as a team, playing fundamental team baseball and winning a lot of games will be our top priorities.
Knowing what I know publicly about David Ross, I have absolutely no doubt that he will “demand their best daily effort,” because he did that when he was their teammate. It’s been said by some that he was almost “a coach in the dugout” while he was a Cubs player. The role of “player-coach” hasn’t been a thing in baseball for many years, but there are players today who do take on a role like that even if they are not officially designated “coach.” Ben Zobrist is another Cub who has taken on the role of “mentor,” at the very least, if not “player-coach,” and though many Cubs fans dislike him, Yadier Molina serves in this role for the Cardinals.
One thing to remember is that we are now three years past Ross’ last season as a player with the Cubs and there simply aren’t that many players left who played with him. Just 12 players remain from the 2016 team, as of today, prior to this offseason’s free agency: Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, Pedro Strop, Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist.
Strop and Zobrist are free agents and might or might not be back. Russell might be non-tendered. A couple of others on that list might be traded. The team Ross will greet next February for spring training in Mesa will be very different from the last one he played for. I don’t think this will be an issue at all.
Another thing that I think will help Ross in becoming a successful manager is that he was a catcher during his playing career. Many good managers were catchers. The reason for this is likely that catchers have to understand pitching, and Ross was quite good at that. Of the 32 men who managed teams in 2019 (including two interim guys), 12 were catchers during their playing careers (including Joe Maddon) and another two were pitchers. Further, as a backup catcher for most of his career, Ross surely understands how hard this game is to play. This is not to say that good players can’t become good managers, but often, some of the best managers in baseball history have been bit players or never played in the big leagues at all — Maddon, for example.
Lastly, one of the things some are concerned about regarding Ross is his complete lack of official coaching or managing experience. I noted above that Ross was often looked at as a “coach” in the dugout while he was playing, and I’ll also cite the example of Aaron Boone, who took over the Yankees before 2018 with no previous coaching experience. That seems to have worked out all right.
This article by Jon Greenberg in The Athletic looks at Ross’ coaching philosophies from his book “Teammate,” which is a good read if you haven’t seen it before. Here’s one example from Greenberg’s article:
He uses a dugout meeting with [Willson] Contreras as an example. Midway through the 2016 season, the Cubs were playing Seattle at home and in a fastball count, Contreras called for a breaking ball to Nelson Cruz (“pitching backward”) and the pitch wound up in the bleachers. Ross waited a few innings to talk about the mistake with Contreras and did it in a way that showed he understood why he did it, while also telling him why it wasn’t the optimal strategy.
“I told him he wasn’t wrong but I shared what in my experience might work better,” Ross wrote.
Giving feedback like that had to be done in small doses, at the right time. Ross gets that and it can only help if he sticks to that philosophy as manager.
“It’s true that my behavior on the bench as a player could be a bit manager-like at times,” Ross wrote.
What does that mean?
Essentially, Ross said he was always trying to figure out what the other team was going to do and he would talk with coaches about situational strategy. As a catcher, he was in the thick of it on the field, the only position player facing the action.
That’s a very good example of the philosophy Ross might bring to managing. In the end, though, the players are going to have to perform, and the front office is going to have to make the right moves to fix some of the issues that plagued the Cubs during 2019. A manager’s effect on a ballclub can be overrated, to be sure, but I believe David Ross is the right guy to be on the field for the Chicago Cubs beginning next season. He’s got three years (at least) to help guide the Cubs back to the World Series.