After Hollywood-esque rookie season, David Bote breaks down swing adjustments and fear of failure


David Bote didn't spend his winter reveling in the glory from his Hollywood-esque rookie season.

Not that anybody expected him to, of course, especially when he was coming to camp for the first time ever with a spot on the Opening Day roster all but guaranteed.

Bote came out of nowhere to help keep the Cubs afloat in Kris Bryant's absence last season and no baseball fan alive will ever forget that ultimate grand slam on Aug. 12 — one of the most thrilling regular-season moments in the last decade (or maybe even longer).

So what did he do all winter? He broke down his offensive approach to the studs and started from a way.

It's not that Bote reinvented his swing, exactly, but he had clear weaknesses to address and clean up if he had any hopes of earning staying power in the big leagues.

After that grand slam — where Bote reached down to his kneecaps to get underneath a Ryan Madson fastball — he still came up with a few big hits, including another walk-off dinger less than two weeks later against the Reds (Aug. 24). 

But the book was out on his swing and where his weaknesses were and teams started pitching Bote up above the strike zone more — where he struggled to make contact with his "launch angle" swing.

In 40 games after that ultimate grand slam, Bote's stat line took a major dive: .176/.244/.315 (.559 OPS). It was even worse over the final month: .494 OPS, 28 Ks in 79 plate appearances from Aug. 28 through the end of the season. That's a 35-percent strikeout rate.

But, as Bote points out, it was a small sample size. Just like the success he had early in his big-league career. 

So this winter, he had to figure out how to hold up over a larger sample, especially now that the league had caught on to his weaknesses.

He wanted to get back to his roots from 2012-13, where his best asset offensively was catching up to the high fastball. His weakness back then was doing damage on pitches low in the zone, so he went the "launch angle" route that has gotten so much attention the last few seasons. Something clicked with the new swing in 2017 in Double-A Tennessee and he rode that momentum into 2018.

By now, you've heard plenty about the standard launch angle success story, even if you aren't familiar with Bote's particular version: Player records high exit velocity, but isn't hitting for much power, so he makes some swing changes to get more loft on the ball and winds up lighting up the stat sheet.

"I got called up to the big leagues and that was something I continued to work on," Bote said. "I kinda left that old high fastballs swing. And then they started going back up there and I tried to do the launch angle-ish swing and it wasn't working. So now it's like, 'OK, this offseason, let's find a way to do both.'"

Bote clarified that he's not trying to have two totally different swings up there and put himself into a position where he would have to decide which "swing" to use sometime in the split-second from when a pitcher releases the ball until it enters the hitting zone. 

It's more about a mindset and approach, he said. Essentially how hitters shorten up with two strikes. If he knows teams or certain pitchers are going to attack him up in the zone with fastballs, he can be ready with his quicker swing while still able to go back to his "launch angle" swing if a sinkerballer is in the game or a team continues to pepper him with knee-high fastballs.

It's also about learning to lay off certain pitches — especially that high fastball above the strike zone that he'll never do damage with.

"It's the whole cat-and-mouse game," Bote said. "So now I'm trying to adjust back to them and if I do that, I expect them to adjust back to me. And that's where the Mike Trouts of the game, the Kris Bryants, the Anthony Rizzos are SO steady and can make those adjustments. That's what makes them so special. That's what I strive to be — to make those monthlong slumps that I had last year into a week, into a series, into a day. Being able to anticipate better.

"Now, I feel like I have the tools to do that. Last year, I didn't feel like I had the tools to do that. I was still trying to figure out the low-ball swing. I wasn't comfortable with it. I'm excited to see it.

"I have the confidence of knowing what I need to do on the high fastball, what I need to do on the low fastball, what I need to do on the breaking ball. I have all these little tools on the tool belt that we have as a hitter — it's not just a one-trick pony."

So he worked on these adjustments all winter and showed up at the Cubs complex in Arizona early to put them in action. He started seeing live pitching from his teammates in mid-January and actually wound up swinging and missing 15 times in a row to begin. 

He was ready to give up and abandon the new approach/swing changes and go back to what worked in the past. But he stuck with it, started fouling some pitches off and then got the hang of it a few days later and gained that comfort.

"I was OK to fail, I was OK to struggle a bit because I wanted to trust it and see what happens," Bote said. "It's a new feeling — just try it out. It's very easy to jump ship after 15 swings, but there was nothing riding on it. 'It's January. Let's just see how it works. Over a couple weeks, let's see if it gets any better' and it started to.

"I got on the [pitching machine], cranked it up with a good spin rate at the chest — 'What does it take for me to hit that pitch? Do I have to make a smaller move? Is it less of a leg kick? And if it is, can I do the lesser leg kick on a low-ball pitch and drive it?'

"The fear of failure is a huge crutch. You gotta go out there and be OK with it. Not OK in accepting it and not being accountable for it. But also not be afraid of it. To go out there and if you do fail, look at it, see what happened and move on to the next at-bat. There's a danger zone where you work so hard in the offseason and if you don't see results your first time out in a game situation, don't jump ship.

"That's why spring training is so long — you have a chance to trust it out, feel it out. You're getting 1 or 2 at-bats a game. It's February and March. But also, be accountable for it, too. Compete, find a way to get it done and towards the middle to end [of spring training], you say, 'OK, I'm in a good spot.'"

Bote has emerged from an 18th-round pick labeled as an organizational filler to success at the big-league level and likely carving out a long-term future as at least a role player, if not more.

The "more" will depend on how Bote makes adjustments. 

He turns 26 shortly after Opening Day and with his stellar defense at several positions along the infield — and an ability to play the outfield — it creates an enticing package if his offense can stabilize. 

"He came up with some really big hits from the time that he showed up," Joe Maddon said. "He was very good in clutch moments — home runs at the end of the ballgame. He turned some games around offensively, but also defensively. ... Knowing his work ethic and getting him together with Father Butterfield [Cubs infield coach Brian Butterfield], the work — the effort, the intensity, the information — has really gone through the roof.

"So you got a solid second baseman, a really good third baseman and now we're trying to add some shortstop too in the event of an emergency early on. This guy's really motivated — where he came from and his path to the big leagues. It's impressive. Very grounded, very mature for his age. Nothing that he does surprises me, but he still has things to work on offensively."

Of course, the intangibles are a huge factor here. Fans, media and coaches alike salivate over that "Rudy"-type underdog story of a hard-worker sticking with his craft and finally "making it."

"You always have a soft spot in your heart for a guy like that," Maddon said. "Not just myself, I think anybody from my perspective — coach, manager — guys like that, they endear themselves very quickly. And it's authentic; it's not contrived on his part whatsoever and that's the important part of it, too.

"He's refreshing. When you speak to him, he's so far beyond his actual, chronological years regarding his maturity level. He's gonna keep getting better."

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