Bill Mueller has a batting title on his resume, but he doesn’t sell himself as a hitting guru.
That’s the smart play, because Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro already had more than $100 million guaranteed, and all these prospects are supposed to be Hall of Famers anyway, right?
As Theo Epstein’s front office sees the way the game is trending and bets on Big Bats, the Cubs hitting coach will be a major force in the Wrigley Field rebuild.
Not that Mueller gives off that impression. He didn’t take a victory lap after Rizzo and Castro became All-Stars, and he doesn’t feed the hype surrounding Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. He’s usually seen walking out to the cage beneath the bleachers, or moving through the clubhouse with a binder in his hand, rounding up players for another meeting to go over the scouting reports.
Mueller won the 2003 American League batting title and earned a World Series ring with the 2004 Boston Red Sox. But he’s kept a low profile since taking the job eight months ago, leaving his front-office position with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Mueller declined to diagnose hitters through the media at Cubs Convention. He always seemed busy at Cubs Park, the team’s new Arizona complex that can feel more like a fortress than the old Fitch Park, wanting to get to know the players without pretending like he had all the answers.
“That’s my personality,” Mueller said. “Actions speak louder than words. So you can explain a lot of different things, but eventually it is about the results on this field – at this level. That’s how I’ve grown up.
“I’ve always approached it (like) I didn’t really need to say too much. I love to talk about the game, (but) for the most part, you have to prove yourself every day out here. It’s: What have you done for me lately?”
“It Makes Sense”
Mueller did a lot for the Cubs executives who used to work in Boston, becoming the perfect complementary piece (.373 career on-base percentage) to the great Red Sox teams that would grind through at-bats and wear out pitchers.
Epstein needed to get this hire right, clarifying the mixed messages after firing manager Dale Sveum and shaking up the coaching staff, 197 losses into the rebuild.
Mueller played with Barry Bonds and twice went to the playoffs with the San Francisco Giants. He saw Sammy Sosa’s act at Wrigley Field and knows what it’s like to perform in this market. He will be remembered forever throughout New England as part of The Band of Idiots.
“We got confidence in his work. It makes sense,” said Castro, who hit .245 with a .631 OPS last season and is now on pace to set career highs in home runs and RBI.
The All-Star shortstop also credited assistant hitting coach Mike Brumley and quality assurance coach Jose Castro: “They’re letting you be yourself. Those guys trust us. We go every day. They listen to you.”
This is what Epstein saw in Mueller, a 15th-round pick out of Southwest Missouri State University in 1993, who lasted 11 years in the big leagues:
“He’s somebody who has a great way about him,” Epstein said. “He’s a calming influence, very down to earth, very thorough, very knowledgeable. Players like him and trust him. He wasn’t the most physically gifted player in the world, but had an incredible work ethic, a great understanding of what he was trying to do in the box.
“He can really articulate hitting and a certain approach really well. But he’s flexible. We’re not trying to turn every hitter into Bill Mueller. Not every hitter is going to be an on-base machine. But I think having an understanding of what you’re trying to do at the plate is important. And Bill will be really helpful in that regard.”
The hitting coach might have the hardest job in baseball, a no-win situation where you get zero credit when players produce and become the easy scapegoat when things go wrong. It’s all about finding a feel, staying in rhythm and playing armchair psychologist.
The Sveum firing exposed behind-the-scenes tensions, a front office with some communication issues.
Sveum had his own ideas, and a good reputation as a hitting coach with the Milwaukee Brewers, helping develop a young core that included Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy, and he now has the same job with the Kansas City Royals.
James Rowson got promoted to interim hitting coach when the Cubs fired Rudy Jaramillo in June 2012, preparing for Rizzo’s promotion from Triple-A Iowa, and made it through last season. By that September, a team official watched Castro’s downward spiral and admitted that Jaramillo’s simple positive reinforcement could have been exactly what the young hitter needed.
Rowson didn’t play in the big leagues, but he spoke the same language as Cubs executives, and he had been a well-regarded minor-league hitting coordinator with the New York Yankees, who quickly gave him his old job back last fall. Rob Deer – who’s tight with Sveum after they played together in Milwaukee – lasted one season as the assistant hitting coach.
Castro heard a lot of different voices, and Rizzo has a tendency to tinker with his swing. Mueller spoke in general terms with Rowson about players’ routines, but said he didn’t get a debriefing from Sveum, the third-base coach on that 2004 Red Sox team.
“I tried to hear a little bit of what was going on, just so that coming in I knew how to conduct myself properly,” Mueller said. “But for the most part, I wanted a clean slate, so we could just go from that first day in spring training and move forward.
“It’s great to be around (Rizzo and Castro), and to be able to work with that type of talent.”
Rizzo was named the National League’s player of the week on Monday after hitting three bombs over the weekend, while the Arizona Diamondbacks swept the Cubs out of Chase Field.
Rizzo has already matched his home-run total (23) from last season, putting up a .907 OPS while hitting .312 against lefties. He’s also coming through with runners in scoring position (.820 OPS), drawing 53 walks and driving in 53 runs through 96 games, producing in a lineup that doesn’t offer much protection.
A pro scout who covers the Cubs tipped his cap to Epstein, GM Jed Hoyer and VP Jason McLeod for drafting Rizzo and engineering the trades that pulled him from the Boston system to the San Diego Padres to the North Side, saying this is a legitimate middle-of-the-order presence.
An NL executive observed the way Rizzo has evolved from his time in San Diego and mimicked the batting stance. Where Rizzo used to be more stiff and upright, he now looks locked in, ready to pounce, with almost no holes in his swing.
It would be foolish to suggest it was all Sveum’s fault or give all the credit to first-year manager Rick Renteria. But Rizzo has responded to Mueller and Brumley after a feeling-out process that might not have been entirely smooth.
“They know me now,” Rizzo said. “They understand my personality. I understand theirs. We really get along. We have fun. When it comes down to business, they know when I’m messing up. They’ll get on me and help me out. It’s more being positive and talking about situations.”
The “Holy S---!” Moment
During their rookie-development program in January, the Cubs showed a clip from “Four Days in October” as a way to introduce Mueller.
McLeod described the ‘Holy s---!” moment as the prospects watched the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, realizing this was the same guy who beat the great Mariano Rivera at Fenway Park, beginning an epic comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.
Mueller talked about “handling the moment,” using your preparation and your routine as a way to manage the stress and avoid getting caught up in all the noise.
The Cubs will figure out the pitching later. They’re planning to get to October with a deep group of position players who are supposed to grow up together.
Seeing a lack of premium offensive talent around the game, Epstein pushed for a 20-year-old shortstop (Addison Russell) when he traded two-fifths of his rotation (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) to the Oakland A’s on the Fourth of July.
While the Cubs (40-57) march toward another last-place finish, Mueller isn’t obsessing over Bryant and Baez or watching much Iowa video, feeling a sense of responsibility to the big-league club and knowing this is a bottom-line business.
“I’ve just been trying to immerse myself with these guys,” Mueller said. “I know that eventually they’ll be here rocking it. We’ve seen them in spring training. We have an understanding of what they’re doing. (It’s) an exciting time for the organization, that’s for sure.”