Feature photo of James Triantos and Steven Pollakov by Rich Biesterfeld
“I hope Chicago is ready because the kids are coming.”
That is how the conversation ended when I sat down recently with Cubs Assistant Hitting Coordinator, Steven Pollakov. He would know. In addition to working alongside Hitting Coordinator Dustin Kelly with the organization’s top prospects at last offseason’s mini-camp, the man much of the organization knows simply as “Polly” spent the season as the hitting coach with many of the bright young stars of the farm system in Myrtle Beach.
Pollakov was integral in the hitting development of several premier Cubs prospects. Pete Crow-Armstrong, Kevin Alcántara, James Triantos, and Moises Ballesteros all worked under Polly’s tutelage. The Buffalo Grove High School grad may have had the most interaction with the club’s top prospects, but was quick to note that it was often the calls made from the top down that allowed his young hitters to be so successful.
“The front office has provided us with an incredible amount of resources for us to develop our players to their potential,” Pollakov said as he went on to mention everything from the pre-draft scouting process to the technologies provided on-site. Particularly striking was his passion for the way the organization is run, combining a unique blend of uniformity and autonomy. It’s that blend that makes transitions from level to level as seamless to players as possible while also giving coaches the freedom to teach in their own styles, bringing out the best in their players.
While hinting at it throughout the interview, Pollakov touched on what the Cubs feel is the critical focus in developing prospects — the method behind all the madness that is prospect development.
“Maximizing each player based on how they move and customizing their development plan for what’s going to help them become the best possible big leaguer they could be.”
That’s it, folks. That’s how it’s done. But how exactly do the Cubs make that happen?
While conversations surrounding the development staff’s pitch lab often start and end with a deep dive into metrics — spin rates, vertical approach angle, and seam-shifted wake — the hitting infrastructure warrants a deep dive into multiple elements of the player development process.
First and foremost is getting a player’s body and mind right. That begins with making sure the high-performance team puts individual players in the right position to compete at a high level. The Pelicans’ Athletic Trainer, Nick Roberts, and Strength & Conditioning Coach, Mark Weisman, as well as Cory Kennedy, who recently accepted a position as the Sacramento Kings Director of Performance, work hard with their players to make sure that’s the case.
According to Pollakov, the work the S&C team does puts him in the best position to succeed at his job. “They have done a phenomenal job getting these guys to improve their movement capabilities which allows me to do what I can do on the hitting end,” he detailed as he continued to highlight the work of the entire organization.
But I wasn’t going to let Pollakov get away with deflecting all the love off to the rest of the development team. At some point, the mental side of hitting takes over. The art of hitting combines an unusual amount of discipline and savagery, forcing hitters into a mindset that is unlike any other in sports.
“When a Cubs player steps into the box, he’s expected to have an assassin’s mindset,” Polly told me as I listened to his voice go from an under-control leader of young men to a motivator that nearly had me thinking I could compete at the highest level.
Pollakov continued with a rather appropriate analogy: “My goal every day, day-in and day-out, is to do the absolute best job I can in preparing these guys to go to war each night… We have elite soldiers, an elite special forces team, and everyone has to carry out their role.”
That feels particularly apt given the age of most of the players he works with. They are a collection of dudes aged 18-22 years old, playing the game they love, soaking up every moment with their friends, and absolutely locked in as soon as their toe hits the inside of the batter’s box.
But what about the technology? Surely there’s something going on under the hood of hitting development that looks similar to that of the Pitch Lab that gets used as a way to argue Twitter users’ cases for or against pitch development, right?
Advanced analytics and individual biomechanics do indeed play a significant role behind the scenes. Digging into the way a hitter rotates his torso or how directly his hands can get from a load position to the baseball in the zone or attacking a pitch at the right contact point — they are all things the development staff works on.
But as Pollakov puts it, it might not be as unique as you’d imagine. “There’s this tech arms race that was going on for a very long time… at this point, everyone has all the information needed. There’s no secret sauce, but there are proprietary recipes.”
As is the case with the tech and scouting relationship, it all comes back to the human element in relation to data and coaching. The Chicago Cubs organization is up with the times. They have the technology and data in place to compete with the rest of the league but it’s more than just having the data.
What really sets the Cubs apart is the coaching. Over the course of the last several years, the front office has compiled a group of intelligent individuals who combine the ability to understand the new-age information and share the key points with the players.
Polly was extremely careful when he described it to me as, “A beautiful yin and yang to advanced information and what the game is telling you right in front of your eyes.”
It’s Pollakov and the rest of the hitting development team’s job to translate the cutting-edge data points into a language that players respond well to. That means being very careful about their communication methods. He hit on four major elements to the way messages are communicated to players. :
• How messages are being sent. Not all human beings process information in the same way. It’s important for the coaches to understand who they are talking to and understand the individual’s tendencies.
• Who sends those messages. Is a small tweak coming from the manager an efficient way of communicating? What about a major overhaul to a batting stance; who does that come from?
• When the messages are communicated. There might be a laundry list of things a player needs to work on but he doesn’t hear about the second and third fix until weeks later because item number one is the most important and takes the most amount of time.
• When the messages are not communicated. An 0-for-4 night with four punchies is probably not the best time to relay advanced information to a player.
As player development continues to embrace new and evolving technology, one person’s ability to communicate with another gets lost.
Whether you call it “The Cub Way” or “Being Cub,” there’s no denying that the organization as a whole has done a nearly flawless job of collecting hundreds of players in addition to the scores of coaches that just get it. There are plenty of insanely talented players out there. Intelligent and forward-thinking development staff have existed for years. What sets the Cubs apart is the human element.
Within the Myrtle Beach Pelicans clubhouse, there was a mantra of “birds to the moon.” At this point, I don’t have any doubt they can get there. I just hope they stop by Chicago on their way.