It was a rough start for Cubs pitchers in 2019. Their inconsistent starting pitching and late bullpen meltdowns contributed to a 1-6 start. Since then, things have turned around. The team is in first place in the NL Central with a 25-15 record. The Cubs are ranked fourth in the NL with a 3.80 bullpen ERA, according to Forbes. Tyler Chatwood, who walked 95 batters in 103.2 innings with a 5.30 ERA in 2018, has rediscovered his command going 2-0 with a 3.10 ERA so far in 2019.
The 35 year-old starters Jon Lester and Cole Hamels have been consistently productive, despite the PECOTA projections that had the Cubs finishing last in the division due to their aging starting rotation. Hamels is 3-0 with 3.08 ERA and Lester is 3-1 with a 1.16 ERA, according to Baseball Reference. The difference in the pitching staff’s turnaround has been the man orchestrating everything behind the scenes, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.
Hottovy was drafted in the fourth round by the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and played with the Royals, Rangers, Blue Jays, and eventually ended his playing career with the Cubs in 2014. When he was with the Royals organization, Hottovy expressed interest in learning more about technology and analytics within their baseball operations department. According to the Chicago Tribune, he took an online course offered by Boston University titled “Sabermetrics 101: Introduction to Baseball Analytics.” When he was in Kansas City, he noticed a disconnect between the front office and players. This was a problem he saw league wide and knew the importance of bridging that communication gap.
Hottovy was eventually hired in 2014 as the Cubs run prevention coordinator where he primarily leveraged new video technology to create and communicate innovative scouting reports to the pitchers and catchers. He’s not only well versed in analytics, but also knows how to apply all of the data and images from Edgertronic cameras and Rapsodo technology. When Hottovy was named the Cubs pitching coach in December of 2019, he became the youngest pitching coach in MLB at age 37.
He spent a lot of time with his analytical work on Chatwood in the offseason reviewing his mechanics from last year so he could help him make adjustments to simplify his delivery. His pitching analysis combines advanced technology and human talent. The metrics confirm that a pitcher is more likely to give up hits the third time through the order, which Hottovy agrees with. However, he feels that if the pitcher is cruising and his pitch count is low, there is no reason to not let him continue deep into the game.
Hottovy also implemented a posture coach for Cole Hamels to help the aging starter rebalance his body which allows him to recover quicker. This may sound unconventional, but that’s what made Hottovy so popular with the players. He’s personally invested in each pitcher and will search for anything that helps them perform at a higher level. Since Hottovy was hired in 2014, the Cubs have averaged 97 wins and have transformed good pitchers into all-stars like Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and Jon Lester.
Effective pitching in 2019 is made up of advanced run prevention, technology, and communication. With the game becoming more data and technologically-driven, Hottovy seems to have found his dream job. Being able to assess high-speed camera movements and optimize data is one thing, but being able to effectively communicate it to a player is another.