New hitting coach John Mallee: It’s all about two strikes

By Jesse Rogers  –

CHICAGO — As the Chicago Cubs scour the planet for pitching this offseason, there’s little doubt about who will step into the batter’s box for them in the coming years.

That’s the good news for the Cubs’ new hitting coach, John Mallee, the fourth such staffer to hold that position since team president Theo Epstein joined the organization in 2011. Mallee already knows the players with whom he has to work.

He has come home to his native Chicago after stints in Miami and Houston as their hitting instructors. The clients on Mallee’s resume include Miguel Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton and, most recently, American League batting champion Jose Altuve from the Astros.

The similarities between Houston and Chicago aren’t lost on Mallee: Both teams hit home runs and both strike out, a lot.

“In both places, there is a lot of youth,” Mallee said over the weekend at a youth hitting clinic at BatSpeed Academy in Gurnee, Illinois. “I think experience will help guys have proper at-bats. I think strikeouts will go down and production will go up with the young guys simply by having more experience in the league and facing the opposing pitchers.”

That’s common sense, of course. But will things even out enough for the Cubs to be a consistent offense?

It’s always hard to judge the impact a hitting coach has on his players. But one thing that’s as much fact as opinion after watching Mallee work with youngsters is he has a passion for teaching hitting. Whether it’s 8- to 18-year-olds or minor and major leaguers, that passion stands out. There’s a certain feeling to his hiring that suggest he’s here for the long term. That wasn’t necessarily the case for his predecessors.

“I’ve had a chance to coach professional baseball for 20 years now,” Mallee said. “I had a chance to go through the low levels of the minor leagues. The goal was always to help the players not necessarily to get to the big leagues or anything. It’s about caring about the players. You need to educate yourself so you can help them.

“When they cry, I cry.”

The task at hand is simple: Allow the youngest offense in baseball to mature without the pressure getting to them. And do it by turning some hitters into more complete offensive weapons.

They’ll need to win some games along the way, as well, which means a more balanced attack. It can’t just be all about the long ball, though that will be the overall makeup of the Cubs going forward.

After the Cubs fired assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley and Bill Mueller subsequently quit, it opened the door for Mallee. But it meant yet another new voice for Cubs’ hitters. Epstein hopes this is the end of that merry-go-round.

“As long as you end up with some consistency entering the next phase, the competitive phase, guys benefit from a few different perspectives and find their way,” Epstein said after hiring Mallee. “I like where it ended up.”

So what is Mallee’s philosophy?

“Getting a hitter to stay within his strengths until two strikes,” Mallee explained. “You want to get a pitch you can drive and be patient enough to wait for it. Working the count is a by-product of not swinging at a pitch you can’t drive. Even if it’s within the strike zone.”

Mallee zeroed in on two-strike hitting, and for good reason. Players batted with two strikes Exactly half the time last season. An OPS (on-base plus slugging) that was .700 overall dropped to .506 with two strikes.

“Getting the players to understand that with two strikes, OPS falls off the map,” Mallee said. “That’s with everyone in baseball. The odds of hitting a home run and creating this big amount of damage is minimal. The major league batting average is .185 with two strikes, but BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .305 last year. We know we won’t hit with a ton of power, because we never have with two strikes. And if I do get the ball into play, I have a chance to hit .300.”

That’s the crux of his philosophy right there. It may not be unique but how a coach gets through to a player might be.

“You have to be a good salesman,” Mallee said.

According to ESPN Stats & Information research, BABIP was actually .299 overall in the league last year. It only went down to .296 with two strikes. In other words, if players can make more contact with two strikes, they are just as likely to get on-base as with fewer than two strikes. They simply won’t have as much power so getting them to make contact is the key. Javier Baez is a great example, of course.

“If you have the right approach and right mindset, your swing will follow that,” Mallee said of Baez. “Getting him to understand sacrificing speed and power for accuracy when you get to two strikes and there are runners in scoring position and putting the ball in play, you’re going to be very productive.”

Mallee was asked what’s the key to selling that notion.

“It’s a secret,” he said with a smile.

It’s probably different for every player, and Mallee admits Baez’ vicious swing is so unique that it might take a unique approach to finding consistency.

“His approach will teach him how to shorten things when it’s needed,” Mallee said. “He’s an exceptional talent, so maybe just convincing him to sacrifice a little power for accuracy with two strikes, that’s when you need to shorten up.”

Mallee said that’s exactly what he got Alltuve to understand, and his batting average went from .283 to .341 in one season. He’s hopeful he can have the same influence on some Cubs players. It doesn’t hurt that the Chicagoan is more than familiar with Wrigley Field. Power isn’t always going to play.

“The game is starting to come back to reality a little bit,” Mallee stated. “Players have to understand in April and May in Chicago, we need to bring out the line drives.”

If they don’t understand, the Cubs have a new, passionate hitting coach with a good resume to convince them.