Updated: Oct 11, 2020
David Bote was a surprise for the Cubs in 2018. After bumbling around in the minor leagues for 6 seasons, he came up to the big leagues and had some clutch hits. Since then, he's put up a respectable .763 OPS in the majors, and been a valuable player off the bench. How did he get here?
David Bote spent 4 seasons at the class A level: 2013-2016. He had a few games at AAA and AA, but didn't really achieve those levels until 2017-2018. Very few guys spend that much time in the lower minors, and typically get cut sooner. Bote hung on before improving with decent numbers at the higher levels. His games played by level shakes out like this:
AAA 80 games
AA: 134 games
A (combined): 359 (76 at A+ 177 at A, 106 at A-)
Rookie: 38 games
It's worth noting that as he started out as a 19 year old, his youth always made him a younger player at most levels he was at. He's still only 27.
His OPS was not great, as he put up a general .700 line from 2012-2015. That's 4 long years of iffy performance. Bote didn't get cut, and figured something out in 2016 with a .328 /.399 /.492 /.892 overall slash line. He got some cups of coffee at the higher levels that year. 2017-2018 weren't quite as good, but he put up a respectable OPS in the .800 range. That was enough to get called up to the Cubs, and the rest is history.
What happened to Bote in 2016? That was the year he started to figure it out and became a run producer. He always drew walks, so I'm not sure it was just a plate discipline thing. His strikeout numbers were pretty consistent year to year as well. Obviously his batting average, OBP and SLG went up that year. But what went into that increase? It's a question that I can't answer based off counting statistics.
I had to dig, but found a solid 2017 Baseball America article that helps explain it. Bill Mitchell writes:
"Bote, the Cubs’ 2012 18th-round pick from Neosho County (Kan.) JC, is quick to credit his Tennessee hitting coach Jacob Cruz and Cubs hitting coordinator Andy Haines with helping him generate more loft in his swing. With Bote getting more playing time and putting up good results, there was a reluctance to change too much of what he was doing. But Cruz and Haines pointed out what they were seeing and what the data was showing, and Bote was ready to make the necessary changes.
"It was a total buy-in sort of thing," Bote said. "I trusted them and I trusted their research ... they are tireless in their work, so I trusted what they were saying. I bought in and I'm starting to see the fruits of it."
"In the second half he made some adjustments to his swing," Cruz said. "We wanted to create a little more lift in the swing. He's a guy who has an incredible exit velo(city). He's always consistently hitting the ball hard. His launch angle was low, and he was hitting the ball into the ground or low line drives. The focus was to get those balls in the air."
So Bote basically had to start airing out some of his hard hits. It makes sense once pointed out. I wouldn't have expected that, as he went from a 20 2B, 6 HR 2015 season to a 26 2B, 7 HR 2016. But then in 2017, those numbers jumped to 30 2Bs and 14 HRs, showing linear improvement.
It might have taken a few years at the lower levels for a minor league coach to figure him out. But once they sorted out his exit velocity with a better launch angle, great things started happening. It's pretty interesting to see a minor league coach talk as much about exit velocity and launch angle three years ago, as that was just as it was becoming more well known to fans at the big league level.
I also find that Bote's case is a strong argument for not cutting down on the minor league system. Not every player shoots through the system like a Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber. Those guys made have had college careers to fuel pro development, but most players don't get to the big leagues in less than two years. Bote always had good potential with his harder hits. But he needed time to develop. If he was a 19 year old rookie league player in today's game, I suspect he wouldn't have been afforded the same opportunities. He likely would have been cut after 2-3 years, and moved on from baseball. Instead, he's the clutch hitter who's given us a bunch of timely hits.
You can't microwave MILB development, and cutting the system will have repercussions at the major league talent level. Give it a few years, but it is coming.