Rowson brings fresh approach, patience to Cubs
Hitting coach strives to keep batters focused and calm at the plate
OAKLAND -- Monday is an off-day for the Cubs. Some will play golf. Some will tour San Francisco. Some will catch up on their sleep.
Cubs hitting coach James Rowson has video to watch.
It's been an odd year for the Cubs offensively. They lead the National League with 166 doubles and rank second in extra-base hits, yet they've struggled to score runs and are last in batting average with runners in scoring position.
Rowson was hired last season to be the Minor League hitting coordinator, and he took over as the Cubs' hitting coach in June when Rudy Jaramillo was dismissed.
"The thing about James is that he came from the Yankees organization that was big into the whole OPS side of things, and he's bringing that outlook to us," Chicago's Darwin Barney said. "It's nice working with him because he's not going to change you, he's not going to say, 'Maybe you should do this, maybe you should do that.' He'll say, 'Let's make what you do better.' Ever since I bought into that, I've felt really comfortable with that."
No matter how much video Rowson watches or hours he spends in the batting cages, it has to be frustrating when the Cubs strand runners, or Starlin Castro struggles to hit his weight (the 190-pound shortstop was batting .165 this month).
"I'm holding up fine," Rowson said. "We know we have the right players, we know what these guys are capable of. I feel we have to stay with the process and stay with the plan ... you can't expect everything to be great all the time. It'll get better."
Before a game in Seattle, Rowson addressed some of the Cubs' hot hitting topics in the first half. Let's start with Castro: The two-time All-Star shortstop has looked like anything but. He was batting .233 overall. This is a player who began the year hitting .297. Has he regressed?
"My thing with Starlin is any time you're talking about changing a little bit of your approach or something you've done for a long time, there will always be a period of struggle," Rowson said. "I think right now we're seeing that. We're seeing that he's going through some struggles, but he's making adjustments."
Rowson said Castro understands the process.
"I believe he's accepting it," Rowson said. "But he's playing at the Major League level, and he's trying to go out there and compete. While he's competing, he's also working on making some adjustments, so there's going to be some ups and downs and there will be times when it gets frustrating. He may go back to some things he did before, but overall he's been very accepting, he's worked hard at it. We feel like at the end of this, he'll come out and be a good player."
What about Anthony Rizzo? The first baseman batted .234 in the No. 3 spot in the lineup and was dropped to fifth, where he's hitting .255. He does lead NL first basemen in doubles and is in the top five in extra base hits. But he's hitting .216 in June.
"Anthony can be a little bit of a tinkerer with his lower half and where he starts his hands," said Theo Epstein, Cubs president of baseball operations. "Most great hitters are obsessed with hitting and work on it every day. Anthony's like that. He's still continuing to get to know himself and the player he's going to be."
"When he goes up there, he knows he can hit home runs, and there are times when he may get a little big or try to hit a few more home runs than he needs to," Rowson said of Rizzo. "When he's taking a good swing, it's conducive to driving the ball to all fields and also being able to hit home runs.
"Some of his streaks are just a matter of him staying within himself and getting back to what he does well," Rowson said. "We'll battle that off and on, and as he gains maturity and experience, we'll see less and less of these ups and downs."
Is there anything Rowson can do to improve the Cubs' numbers with runners on base?
"Sometimes what happens is you start putting pressure on yourself as an offense," he said. "The good teams that hit with runners in scoring position, you look at some of their swings when there's no one on, and their swings are similar. One thing you have to do is try to stay within yourself and try not to press."
In Sunday's 7-6 win over the Mariners, the Cubs delivered in spurts. For the game, they hit six doubles, went 5-for-11 with runners in scoring position and stranded six. Imagine if they had knocked in a couple of those other runners.
"You have to get them comfortable and just be themselves and not feel like they have to do more when there is a runner in scoring position," Rowson said.
Rowson was in the Yankees organization when Robinson Cano came up. The Yankees second baseman had a strong, veteran supporting cast. Castro and Rizzo don't, and they are being counted on to deliver while still very inexperienced.
Barney said players rely on Rowson. They know he's waiting in the dugout after each at-bat if needed.
"It's really about having a relationship with someone you trust, someone who can help you stick to a routine and find a routine and be part of a routine," Barney said.
Rowson feels that someday soon, Castro and Rizzo will look back on their struggles this year and realize how much they learned from the experience.
"It's a matter of being calm and not hitting the panic button and understanding that sometimes it takes time," Rowson said. "I really feel like with this group of players -- what we're going through now, on the other side of it -- it'll be that much better once we get to the other side of this hill. What we're going through, in a nutshell, is really grinding it out now, learning how to grind it out, learning how to work at-bats, going through the struggles of doing that, but down the road, we'll be ahead of the game."
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.