Cubs getting homework done on opponents
Club using two-scout system on road to prep for series
CHICAGO -- When Cubs coach Pat Listach played in the early 1990s with the Brewers, he had limited scouting reports available.
"Twenty years ago, our advance scout was the box scores in USA Today to see who got three hits and who was hot," Listach said.
Today, the Cubs have amped up their prep work. Listach spends so much time in the video room that the staff there taped his baseball card to a monitor to reserve his seat. The Cubs also employ two full-time advance scouts who rotate series and meet with the players in person to deliver their reports.
Manager Dale Sveum used video when he was with the Red Sox and Brewers, and he would review a player's last 100 ground balls to pick up tendencies. If a batter hits the ball to the left side of the infield 90 percent of the time, that's how they'll defend against him, most likely employing a defensive shift.
The Cubs' strategy worked perfectly on Wednesday. The Braves had runners at first and third with two out in the sixth, and Chipper Jones lined the ball to center, nearly clipping pitcher Paul Maholm's head. But the Cubs anticipated that and had moved Darwin Barney behind second base. Barney snared it, and the Cubs won, 1-0.
It was a different story on Monday. Atlanta's Tyler Pastornicky hit two balls in the hole, something he hadn't done in the video Listach watched. On Tuesday, Listach asked Sveum if he wanted to move shortstop Starlin Castro against Pastornicky, but the Cubs manager stuck to what they'd seen on video. Pastornicky went 0-for-3.
Sveum believes in the 90-10 rule.
"If 90 percent of his ground balls are to the other side of second base, we'll put three infielders over there," Listach said. "It's very rewarding when you win a game 1-0. There's a real good chance we could've been down three or four [runs]."
The players don't argue with the defensive shifts. Listach has the charts and video to back him up.
Sveum introduced his coaches to the video system when they met for the first time in December in Arizona, and it complements the advance scouts setup, which president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer used in Boston.
Former catcher Adam Melhuse, one of the Cubs' two advance scouts, watched the Braves and was at Wrigley Field on Monday to personally present his report to the coaching staff and the players.
"They pick up on some tendencies that maybe we don't see, because they're specifically looking for them," Chicago's Bryan LaHair said. "They tell us about the action of their balls, what their go-to pitches are, what their strikeout pitches are. We can look at the video, but it's good to know someone is seeing a pitch in a certain situation every single time. It's definitely an advantage."
It requires a significant financial commitment, but Hoyer said it's worth it. The players have responded well.
"It's awesome the way it's set up," infielder Jeff Baker said. "The biggest thing is they can put into words what they're trying to say on a report. You can see a report and read it, but it might not make sense or be convoluted. [Melhuse] irons it out and you ask questions."
Baker and Melhuse were teammates on the Rockies, and the two speak the same language.
"It's no disrespect to anybody who hasn't played, but when guys have played, they know what they like as hitters and what they were looking at," Baker said. "The lingo is a little different and you can understand it. A lot of guys played with him or knew Melhuse, and you knew how much pride he took when he was playing and you see the same thing in his job. It's a huge resource for us."
Melhuse, who played for Listach at Triple-A Iowa, doesn't stay long. He's back on the road now to advance the next series. Kyle Phillips, the Cubs' other advance scout, will most likely be at Miller Park on Friday before the Brewers series, although Sveum knows them well enough to do the report himself.
One National League scout estimated that 20 of the 30 Major League teams had advance scouts on the road, but didn't know of any teams who employ a pair as the Cubs do. Some teams rely solely on video and don't send anyone to games.
"When I was in Colorado, they shut down the advance scout going out and they watched all the games on film," Baker said.
The Pirates had an advance man, Maholm said, but then switched to just video. However, he doesn't really study the reports.
"You pitch with your strength and what's working that day," Maholm said. "You get in the flow of the game with the catcher. Sometimes it's gut feeling, sometimes it's what's working. I'm just trying to get ground balls quick."
Maholm did benefit from Listach's spray charts and Melhuse's work Wednesday, and he credited Barney and Castro for being in the right place at the right time. This all started with Sveum.
"I've always had a gambler's attitude," Sveum said. "To me, you're gambling, but all it is doing is something different than what [is traditionally done in] the history of baseball."
Expect plenty of movement this weekend. The May 7 issue of Sports Illustrated noted the Brewers used infield shifts last year more than any other NL team. Listach doesn't mind the extra work. At their December meeting, Epstein challenged the coaching staff to work harder than any other Major League team.
"What this has done for me is made me a better coach," Listach said. "If you want to be the best, you have to work the hardest. You have to outwork the other guys, and that's what we're doing."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.