Is the Cubs’ Tommy Hottovy the best pitching coach in MLB?

(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)
(Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images) /

The Chicago Cubs are on their third pitching coach since 2017.  It seems they’ve finally found the guy who can get the most out of their staff.

He was the most unlikely choice for a pitching coach for the Chicago Cubs. Tommy Hottovy pitched in the majors from 2011 to 2012, appearing in 17 games for the Kansas City Royals and Boston Red Sox.  He amassed 13 1/3 innings, all in relief. DFA’d by the Red Sox after 2012, and he was picked up by the Rangers, released and picked by the Blue Jays, then demoted to the minors.

Hottovy joined the Cubs before the 2014 season and was released that April.  He joined the Cubs before the 2015 season as the Run Prevention Coordinator.  He was promoted to pitching coach in 2019.  Not exactly a sterling pedigree for a guy expected to coach the likes of Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, and Yu Darvish.

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Lester was especially skeptical, saying in 2018 that he doesn’t concern himself “with that analytics BS.” Ouch.  But as my Cubbies Crib colleagues Erik Mauro and Benji Sabitt pointed out last year, Hottovy’s methods were beginning to pay off.

Even Lester was coming around to seeing the benefits of the system, helping Hottovy acclimate to his new position.  Maybe an old dog can learn new tricks?

Remember 2018, Tyler Chatwood? He of the massive walk rate who couldn’t get out of the fifth inning due to his pitch count?  Well, that’s gone.  Chatwood currently sports a 0.71 ERA, 0.789 WHIP, and a ridiculous 4.74 SO/W ratio.

Yes, he clanked that last game in KC, but not because of walks. He struck out four and walked no one.  What happened was that he induced far fewer swinging strikes than the previous two games.  KC was sitting on a pitch–his fastball.

The Lester mentioned above whose career was given up for dead after a mediocre season in 2019? He’s spun a 0.92 ERA and 0.545 WHIP so far in 2020.

And where did Alec Mills come from?  He sat out 2017 after being traded to the Cubs and pitched well enough in 2018 and 2019.  But this year filling in for the injured Jose Quintana?   A 1.38 ERA and 0.769 WHIP, and overall his velocity is actually lower than Kyle Hendricks’ if you can believe that.

Even Darvish with his terrible first game bounced back and Hendricks’ second game was rough but not as sharp as the stats show. Two of his six earned runs were allowed by the bullpen. I’ll be surprised if that’s not The Professor’s worst game this season.

It’s the bullpen that presents the more significant challenge.  Except for the Chapman acquisition, the Cubs have short-sheeted the bullpen every season.  The one exception is Craig Kimbrel and his three years, $42 million contract with the 2022 option/buyout–even Brandon Morrow was a fraction of Kimbrel’s cost.

Kimbrel has admitted his mechanics are off, and he’s working with Hottovy to diagnose the breakdown and remedy the problem. What if Hottovy can fix the hot mess that is Craig Kimbrel in time for him to make an impact in the remaining 37 games and the playoffs?   It would be the story of the season, assuming a Cubs starter doesn’t win the NL Cy Young.

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The ascent of 39-year-old Hottovy from an average MLB pitcher to Cubs assistant pitching coach to pitching coach has been remarkable.  I think he’ll be here with the Cubs a long time