From the Pages of Vine Line: Q&A with new hitting coach John Mallee
Say hello to John Mallee, the Cubs’ new hitting coach. Or, technically speaking, say hello to him again. The Cubs announced the 45-year-old as their new hitting coach on Oct. 9, replacing Bill Mueller, who resigned the post shortly after the season ended. Even though most people don’t know it, this is not Mallee’s first go-round with the club.
“He’s somebody we know well,” said Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein. “We actually hired him a couple years ago to be our minor league hitting coordinator. We were very disappointed [when] four days later, he joined Bo Porter’s staff to be major league hitting coach for the Astros.
“John’s got a great reputation. He’s done this job before and done it well with a lot of young hitters and got results. He’s a knowledgeable, energetic, passionate, true worker. Hopefully he’ll fit in well with the rest of the staff and create some stability for us with the hitting-coach position. We’re aware of the turnover. Our hitting coach position is like the Spinal Tap drumming situation. We hope that John will solve that for us.”
Mallee is a native of Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up in a family of die-hard Cubs fans. In 2015, he will begin his fifth season as a major league hitting coach. Before working with Astros hitters (including reigning American League batting champion Jose Altuve) from 2013-14, Mallee was the big league swing coach for the Marlins from 2010-11.
Overall, he has 19 seasons of professional coaching experience under his belt. Prior to that, he spent two years as an infielder in the Phillies’ system from 1991-92.
Mallee sat down for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session in early November, at which he exhibited all of the knowledge, energy and passion Epstein talked about and demonstrated why he might have been born to do this job.
Vine Line: This isn’t your first time talking to the Cubs about an open position. How did it come about that you were hired by the Cubs before taking the Houston job?
John Mallee: A couple of years ago, I was a senior adviser to player development for Toronto. I said, ‘You know what? I need to get back on the field.’ I learned a ton from Toronto. They were amazing. The front office was great. But at the time, I said, ‘I’m a hitting coach. I need to get back on the field.’ So I was going to go back to the minor leagues and start over as a hitting coach. I was going to try to be a hitting coordinator in the minor leagues. I interviewed with the Yankees—I ended up getting a hitting coordinator position with the Yankees—but I didn’t accept the job yet. A couple of days later, I flew to Arizona and spent a couple of days with Theo and [Cubs Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development] Jason McLeod and those guys. They were awesome. I ended up taking a Cubs hitting coordinator position.
Two days later, I flew to Houston and interviewed for the major league hitting coach position with the Astros. Two days from there, I flew to Cleveland and interviewed for the Cleveland Indians hitting coach position. I got offered both positions, Cleveland and Houston, and I ended up choosing Houston.
VL: As a lifelong Cubs fan, how thrilling is it for you to finally be working for the team?
JM: It’s a dream come true for me. I grew up on the South Side, but I was always a Cubs fan. My dad is a big Cubs fan. It wasn’t even an option in the house growing up. You had no choice but to be a Cubs fan. Getting to know Wrigley Field and listening to Harry Caray and coming home from school and trying to catch the end of the game when I was a kid and watching my dad be excited so much for the Cubs when they’d win and so sad when they lost, I’ve been in that emotion the whole way.
It was funny. I was with the Marlins [organization] when we won the World Series in 2003, and I was in the stands watching the games. I had Miguel Cabrera in the minor leagues and Dontrelle Willis and those guys. I ended up coaching Miguel. But I felt bad when the Marlins won and the Cubs lost. I had a sick feeling in my stomach. I’m like, ‘I’m with the Marlins.’ I was happy that the Marlins won, of course, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach that the Cubs had lost. Ever since then, I’ve always felt that way when they lose. To have an opportunity to come home and be the hitting coach of the Chicago Cubs is a dream come true.
VL: How did hitting a baseball become your calling in life?
JM: I played high school baseball at Mount Carmel in Chicago and then went to the University of Illinois-Chicago. [I] got drafted in the 12th round with the Phillies. I was always a really, really good hitter. I got to the minor leagues, and I didn’t hit. I didn’t know why I couldn’t hit anymore. After I got done playing, because I didn’t perform offensively as a player, I was on this quest to figure out why I didn’t make it, because I always thought I was better than everybody growing up. I could always hit better than everybody. When you get inside the world of professional baseball, everybody was always better than everybody.
When you’re young, you try to separate yourself. When you get into professional baseball, you try to separate yourself from the separated, and I couldn’t do that. I wanted to know why, so I started really studying hitting. I started giving private lessons at a baseball school in 1992. I’ve just been a student of it ever since. It’s been a quest of mine. I started with myself, not knowing why I didn’t perform. I wanted to know, mechanically, what I was doing wrong. It was actually mental more than mechanical.
I started giving private lessons, and I got infatuated with the swing, giving all these lessons and speaking around the country at conventions. I just started studying it more and more.
VL: Do you have an overriding hitting philosophy, or do you tailor instruction to each individual player?
JM: I tailor it to each individual guy. There are certain key components to the swing that have to happen to everybody’s swing—all the best hitters too. But, ‘Put your hands here, or put your bat this way, or do this or do that,’ it’s not like that. I believe in biokinetics. There are some biomechanics that all hitters should do if they want to be successful. But I try to let the hitter have his own style unless it directly affects one of those absolutes you need to have. You’ll see some of my guys with leg kicks, some guys with toe taps, high hands, low hands. As long as you get into the strongest hitting position and your swing works in sequence, you’re good.
VL: There are a lot of young, talented players on this team. How well do you know the Cubs’ hitters?
JM: I have all of their film with me. I also have all of their analytical information so I know their sweet spots, their hot zones, their cold zones. I know who will get them out and how they get them out. It’s learning the blueprint of the player. At the end of the day, if the player trusts me and knows how prepared I am for them and knows that I’m going to have dialogue with them every day, that’s going to be the biggest challenge.
I’ve talked to a few of them on the phone already. Luckily, I’m going to have some help because the minor league hitting coordinator is Anthony Iapoce, and Anthony has been with me forever. I coached Anthony as a player and tried to take him everywhere I went as a coach.
It was interesting because when I left the Marlins, I went to Toronto, and then we brought him over to Toronto as the hitting coordinator. When I turned down the Cubs job to take the major league job with the Astros, they asked me if I knew anybody who runs [my] philosophy. Anthony was the guy. He’s now in the minor league system, and he knows a lot of these players, and he knows I’m going to talk to him constantly about it.
VL: Are there challenges to managing so many young hitters?
JM: This game is about making adjustments. The guys who can adjust are the guys who have success. First of all, we have to figure out where the adjustments need to be made. Where did it go wrong, why did it go wrong, and how are we going to fix it? They have to be fearless enough to take a step back to take the two steps forward.
Everybody gets into a comfort zone, and they want to go back to what they normally did because they had success with it. But what I’ve learned now is that it’s a different game up here. The guys who got away with a lot of stuff in the minor leagues, they’re facing so much different pitching, with the pitchers here who have the command and the control and can exploit weaknesses.
VL: Is it fair to say your job involves nurturing both the mechanical and the psychological aspects of hitting?
JM: Absolutely. Anything where you have such a high failure rate, it’s psychological. There are a lot of mechanical things with older players. When I had [former Marlins infielder] Hanley [Ramirez] and other guys, they had already been successful. I like to know when they’re going good, what makes them go good. So when they get out of whack and the adrenaline’s going and they need a quick ‘Hey, do this, do that,’ I can bring them right back. It’s paying attention to those guys and trying to develop the younger guys.
Experience, No. 1, is going to help—hopefully my experience with helping young players and young hitters have a lot of success. The adjustments that Altuve made this year in becoming a batting champion [happened] because the kid didn’t have the fear to make adjustments. He could have been content with [being] a .280 [hitter] the year before. We met in Spring Training, had a meeting on Day 1, and I said, ‘OK, this is what I got. This is what you need to improve. You want to keep doing what you’re doing, and you’re going to be a really good player.’
He said, ‘I want to be the best player.’ I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ He didn’t have the fear of taking two steps back to make this one step forward. That’s one of the reasons he ended up becoming the batting champion.
VL: Theo and Jed [Hoyer] have talked a lot about the Cubs’ need to get better with on-base percentage and making consistent contact. How important are those things in taking the next step and being a good offensive team?
JM: Ultimately, that’s what’s going to make or break us, our ability to put the ball in play, especially with runners in scoring position, and being able to increase our scoring opportunities, being able to manufacture runs—runs created by a walk, baserunning, dirt-ball reads, being able to go base to base.
Getting guys to be more selective at the plate, a lot of that is innate. A lot of that is instinctive. A lot of them had that when they came in. If they don’t have it, it’s hard to develop. But with a proper approach and a proper plan, it’s easier to eliminate pitches. It’s easier to eliminate zones.
You talk about how do you get guys to walk more and not just make them take pitches? That’s a very tough situation. A guy like Javy Baez you can tell, ‘Hey, you got to get your walks up.’ But you don’t want him to take the ball that he can put in the seats. What you do, though, is identify—and he’ll identify—what his strengths and weaknesses are within the strike zone.
So if he handles the ball down or in or up or away or wherever he likes the ball the best, and that first pitch is there, he needs to swing. But if it’s not there and it’s still in the strike zone, you can’t have the fear that [the umpire] is going to call that a strike and ‘Now I’m down 0-1, and I took a fastball.’ If he doesn’t handle the fastball in, he’s not going to do anything with it anyway. He’s going to make an out or foul it off, so it’s still nonproductive.
Getting them to attack a pitch within their strength early in the count, but being patient enough to wait for it, that’s the trick of the whole thing, of selective aggressive hitting.
—Bruce Miles, Daily Herald