Dustin Kelly was settling into his new job as the Chicago Cubs minor-league field coordinator when the unexpected opportunity arose.
Kelly could not have expected team President Jed Hoyer to approach him about taking over as major-league hitting coach. Kelly’s two years in the organization set him up for the chance to take on the challenge.
“The relationships that I built and some of the things that have gone on in the minor-league levels the last couple of years — it just seemed like a really good natural fit for me,” Kelly said Wednesday.
Kelly touted a collective approach for the hitting coach staff, which features assistants Johnny Washington, Juan Cabreja and Jim Adduci. This model on a major-league staff has become more popular the last couple of years. The Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers are among the teams to have at least three hitting coaches on their staffs.
Kelly noted that first-base coach Mike Napoli also will be able to provide insight on Cubs right-handed hitters from his angle on the field — coaches are blocked from the open-side view of those hitters at Wrigley Field, where the home dugout is along the third-base line — as well as drawing on his 12-year playing career.
“One of the things that we talked about early on was how do we utilize each member of our staff that’s involved with the hitters that has a presence with these hitters and identify what they’re really good at and then be able to bring that to the table to create a group that services our hitters,” Kelly said. “Our goal as hitting coaches is to get our players prepared every single day with whatever they need.
“Every (hitting coach) has their own specialty, and we’re going to leverage each of those. … A Swiss Army knife is how I’ve described it to our guys. We’re one unit, one little knife, but within that knife, there’s a bunch of different tools that we have to use and we can pull from depending on the situation.”
The Cubs want their hitting infrastructure to mirror what they have developed on the pitching side, creating continuity from the minors to the majors and subsequently making adjustments at the big-league level. Messaging is a key component to that consistency.
“That’s healthy in my mind to have multiple voices within the in the batting cage that players feel comfortable with that maybe my message doesn’t get across to one particular player, but (Washington) or someone else has the ability to put it in some terms that are maybe more simple,” Kelly said. “We’re all are going to check our egos at the door. That’s a big thing that we’ve talked about is there’s no ego here. We’re the hitting department. We’re here to help players and whatever needs to get done for that particular player that day, we’re going to be able to do it as a group.”
Kelly has been connecting with Cubs players the last few weeks. He has asked them what last season was like for them and how they are approaching the offseason. Kelly wants to figure out what makes the hitters tick and get to the point where they are comfortable with him. Some worked with the 39-year-old the previous two years when he was the Cubs minor-league hitting coordinator.
Hitting coach is one of the toughest jobs in baseball, part of why the Cubs have churned through them during the last decade. For Kelly, it’s about creating and delivering good messaging to big-leaguers about the organization’s expectations while also having empathy for how difficult it is to hit major-league pitchers.
“We’re going to get our players prepared, and they’re going to see that and know that when our group steps into the cage that they’re going to be prepared to play every night and be prepared for pitchers and situations and to manage at-bats and and work counts when we need to work counts and put the ball in play,” Kelly said. “Setting some really clear expectations … as Cubs hitters is really going to help.”