Grading David Ross’ First Season as Cubs Manager
The Cubs On Tap Crew evaluates the former Cub during his first year as manager.
The Beginning of the Ross Era
David Ross became the Chicago Cubs manager in October of 2019, replacing the legendary Joe Maddon. Maddon won a World Series championship in 2016, his first as a manager and the Cubs first championship in 108 years.
David Ross was on that team and was a vocal leader in the clubhouse and beloved fan-favorite on and off the field throughout the season. He ended his career after that championship season, even hitting a home run in Game 7 of the World Series, the last game of his career.
Ross’ reputation as a leader plus his familiarity with a vast majority of this Cubs team made him a favorite to replace Maddon. However, Theo Epstein made clear that those relationships with his former teammates wasn’t the only reason for his hiring: “David’s connection to the organization and his relationships with his former teammates could be assets initially, but they were not factors in our decision…He earned the job on the merits, and he will move the team forward in a new and different direction.”
Many question marks surrounded the 2020 Cubs as the talented roster that won 103 games and a championship in 2016 had significantly regressed, including two straight seasons without a trip to the NLDS. Even more question marks entered the mix as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which delayed the MLB season until late July.
How Ross Dealed with Pitching
The Cubs stormed out of the gate with a league best 13-3 record after 16 games. The starting pitching, led by Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks, was performing at a historic pace. Yu and Kyle have continued to be a very good 1-2 combination. Ross has also not pulled his starters too early like Maddon had a tendency to do. This resulted in 30 quality starts for the Cubs, second only to Cleveland.
What really impressed me about Ross was his management of the bullpen. Yes, the bullpen was historically bad during the first few weeks of the season, but Ross was not afraid to mix things up, including demoting the most expensive bullpen signing in club history, Craig Kimbrel, from the closer role.
This allowed signing of the season Jeremy Jeffress to obtain the 9th inning spot, a position he never relinquished. Kimbrel eventually settled down and was very good down the stretch. The same could be said for Jason Adam and Duane Underwood, in addition to Ryan Tepera, Dan Winkler, and Rowan Wick being solid bullpen options all year round.
Ross found his bullpen rotation early on in the season, made a few adjustments, and eventually settled on a core group of 5-6 guys he trusted and that performed well. The Cubs bullpen had one of the best ERAs in the majors during the month of September, a performance that will need to be replicated in October.
How Ross Dealed with the Lineup
Overall, the Cubs lineup was bad. The team had an overall batting average of .220, good for third-worst in the league and the same average as the Pittsburgh Pirates. While the Cubs were more patient at the plate, drawing 229 walks (T-8th in MLB), on-base and slugging percentage were both in the bottom half of the league.
While there were nice surprises in the lineup from players like Jason Heyward and Ian Happ, players that were supposed to lead the offense struggled mightily at the plate. Javy Baez had his worst year offensively, barely batting over .200 with an OPS of .599. Kris Bryant, who struggled with injuries, also hit barely above .200.
What I liked about Ross and his management of the lineup was that he tried to stay consistent with lineup placement, something Joe Maddon flip-flopped with way too much towards the end of his Cubs tenure. I thought Maddon’s lineup tinkering hurt the Cubs hitters and that Ross’ approach of staying true was welcomed.
However, Ross did end up tinkering the lineup towards the latter part of the season after he had no choice. It did work out at times. Willson Contreras got out of his slump after being placed in the two-hole a few times. Moving Kris Bryant out of the two-hole helped him, especially during the last series versus the White Sox.
Situational hitting was an issue for the lineup and must be addressed this offseason. But while the offense significantly underachieved in 2020, it had less to do with Ross’ management of the lineup and more due to the fact the players simply didn’t execute when needed.
Cubs On Tap Staff Grades
As I mentioned, I was impressed by Ross’ management of the bullpen, something I think managers get paid big bucks for. There were some questionable pitching decisions, but nothing major. For the most part, I liked Ross’ management of the lineup as well. And at the end of the day, the Cubs won 34 games (~92 games in a full season) and a division championship. That has to be considered a successful season for any first-year manager.
If we can get to the NLCS, his grade rises to an A-. A NL pennant, then an A. If it results in a championship… A+.
As a first season manager, Ross did an excellent job with this team. After very few moves were made to improve the team, the front office entrusted Ross to get the most out of a roster that has been a shell of itself since 2017. That said, he took almost the same team that missed the playoffs in 2019, and turned them into NL Central champs.
Things I enjoyed about Ross this season were his usage of his starters, going to the guys who earned being trusted, and finding ways to win with many of their big hitters being really bad this season. He lets starters go much deeper in games than Maddon ever would, and he found the bullpen guys that were solid and trusted them when it mattered. We didn’t see Steve Cishek 2.0 this season, thankfully.
We also saw this team find ways to squeak out ugly wins and a lot of that can be credited to the character and culture that Ross brought to the managerial spot. The team underperformed with Maddon, but Ross was the exact guy they needed to bring that group together.
Ross normally made great bullpen decisions with the exception of a couple. His stubbornness in moving Javy & KB wasn’t smart and having Alzolay throw 82 pitches in the last game of the year is the dumbest mistake all year. But overall, he instilled a different culture in the clubhouse which is what this team needed and it resulted in a division championship.
David Ross did a great job of holding players accountable this season while creating a new culture in the clubhouse. I am viewing this grade as incomplete considering the Marlin playoff series is still looming. This series will put the spotlight on Rossy’s in-game management skills, which as fans, we have a lack of information on due to the shortened 60-game season. If David makes the correct moves in the playoffs, I will be quick to update his grade to the B+/A- range.
I give Rossy a B+ because he entered his first year as a manager with a scenario no one expected, and still managed this team to a division championship. Listen, Ross has not been perfect, but you can look at the Cubs position players and see the offense has been brutal for most of the year. There is not much he can do about that.
But the pitching — which coming into the year many thought would be a weakness — has been better than we could have ever expected. The bullpen was bad and Rossy made it better by finding his circle of trust quickly. The team loves Ross and will play their hearts out for him. That’s all you can ask for in a manager at the end of the day. We’ll see how he manages in the postseason for the first time. How will the team react to adversity and if he can rally the troops in those moments? He sure helped do that in 2016.
The 2020 season was unlike anything most fans could have ever imagined. While my grade for Grandpa Rossy is based mostly on his job on the field, we can’t ignore the unique challenges he faced. Honestly, it seemed as the season went on he got a little in over his head, especially with how long a leash he gave his pitchers. All that said, Rossy may have been uniquely qualified to be the manager for THIS season, as managing personalities is all the more important. He helped steer the ship straight and deserves recognition for that.