David Bote Rises

Thirty-four days. That’s enough time, for some among us, to bike from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back — twice. It’s enough time to build a 57-story skyscraper, then build two-thirds of it again. It’s nearly enough time to write a first draft of The Sun Also Rises, apparently. (I’m cheating a little bit here: Hemingway started the book on July 21 and finished it in early September, but still… what the heck?) And it’s time enough to create the universe four times over, if you’re the Supreme Being whose exploits are documented in the Book of Genesis. Oh — and if you’re David Bote, a 25-year-old infielder for the Chicago Cubs — it’s enough time to author a breakout season.

You may recognize Bote from what he did Sunday night to the Washington Nationals, live and on national television:

That was, according to ESPN’s Mark Simon, the first two-out, walk-off, pinch-hit grand slam hit with a team down three in nearly 40 years, and it came on David Bote’s 34th game in the major leagues. But it wasn’t, as you might reasonably expect if you haven’t been paying close attention to the Cubs this year, the first indication that Bote is someone worth monitoring. The kid’s been raking ever since he was called up in April — and especially since he came up for good on June 27th.

2018 wRC+ Leaders, >90 PAs
Rk Player PA wRC+
1 Mookie Betts 461 192
2 Mike Trout 482 190
3 J.D. Martinez 491 182
4 Jose Ramirez 508 172
5 Steve Pearce 172 161
6 Matt Carpenter 491 158
7 Aaron Judge 447 157
8 Max Muncy 360 156
9 Juan Soto 306 154
10 David Bote 91 154
Figures through games played on 8/12/18.

Setting aside the fact that there’s clearly another story to be told here about Steve Pearce, let’s pause and reflect for a moment on the reality that David Bote, a man who as recently as two years ago spent nearly his entire 23-year-old season at High-A, and as recently as last fall was listed outside of the top 22 prospects in a relatively weak Cubs’ system, has now hit, albeit for a brief period, as well as or better than some of the very best hitters in the game. It won’t last, of course — at least not in this way. But that isn’t really the point. When you roll a fair dice 10 times and it comes up sixes in all 10, you don’t scoff at the accomplishment because it was unlikely to happen that way, but rather marvel at it for exactly that reason.

David Bote is worth marveling at, right now. And there’s reason to think his recent success is done a disservice by being compared, by some idiot author, to a few lucky rolls of the dice. For one thing, there’s the simple fact that Bote’s average exit velocity — 95.9 mph — is quite literally the best in the game. If you had to design a strategy for success at baseball from scratch, hitting the ball harder than either Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge would be a good way to start. Hitting it that hard in the air would be a good way to continue. My old boss Sahadev Sharma noted for The Athletic this April that Bote’s breakout at Double-A last year (and, by implication, his early-season success this year) was the result of an earnest effort to convert his sky-high exit velocities into doubles and home runs rather than ground outs and singles. Which is not a bad strategy if you can pull it off, which he appears to have done.

Bote is still hitting a fair number of balls on a line or into the ground — old habits die hard, I suppose, and that 55% ground-ball rate is still a little bit higher than you might like to see from someone with his profile — but by tweaking his timing to put his contact point a little bit farther out in front of the plate than he had previously, he’s been able to start hitting a fair number of pitches at angles between 16 and 20 degrees, as well, and those are the pitches where he’s making his name (chart via Baseball Savant):

Moreover, Bote has paired that tweaked approach with his existing skills: an advanced ability to recognize pitches — unlike many young players, he’s generated positive value on both four-seam fastballs and offspeed and breaking pitches this year — and a disciplined approach at the plate that’s led to a respectable 11 walks in his 91 plate appearances, which is very much in line with his career averages. None of that stuff is new, nor for that matter is his ability to hit the ball rather preposterously hard. That was all there in Double-A in 2017 — and, for that matter well before that, too. What changed, in Double-A, was a tiny tweak in timing that put a few of those hard-hit balls into the air rather than into the dirt.

There are reasons to think that Bote’s time in the limelight is going to end relatively soon. One of them is named Kris Bryant, who’s expected to return at some point this fall from a shoulder injury that’s kept him out for much of the summer. Another is named Javier Baez, and a third Addison Russell. The Cubs have a lot of infielders, and when all of them are healthy it’s going to be hard for Bote to get playing time, which is all the more reason for him to take a leaf out of Tommy La Stella’s book and learn how to pinch hit the way he did Sunday night (which, for what it’s worth, appears to be exactly what he’s trying to do). But whatever role he takes going forward, let’s not forget what David Bote has already achieved in his 34 days with the Chicago Cubs this year. This is not a man who suddenly became something different than he was. This is a man who became a better version of himself, quite quickly, and on the biggest stage possible. We should all be so lucky.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.

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I have no idea if this guy is gonna stick at all but he certainly makes Theo’s job in the off-season much more exciting. Moving Russell (3 years control) or Happ (5 years) or Almora (4 years) certainly seems more likely if they believe in Bote, his positional flexibility, and want to acquire another SP.


I hope Theo picks the wrong one to hold on to. Fingers crossed. _Sorry, hates the Cubs_