For John Mallee, a ‘no-brainer’ return to the Chicago Cubs as an assistant hitting coach has been years in the making

Sometimes leaving presents a path back home.

John Mallee earned the distinction of helping the Chicago Cubs win their first World Series title in 108 years as the team’s hitting coach in 2016, only 15 miles away from his hometown and old high school, Mount Carmel. But after three seasons in the role, the Cubs parted ways with Mallee in October 2017, providing a wake-up call.

Over the next five years, Mallee was part of two big-league coaching staffs and embraced self-reflection. He worked on himself away from the field, stopped drinking alcohol and changed his diet.

“I grew up a lot and started to recognize that this game is bigger than just the game itself,” Mallee, 55, told the Tribune. “There was more outside of the game than just the life and once I got rid of the life, I really started to enjoy family, hobbies. I think I’m the best version of myself now.”

It all led him back to the Cubs.

After spending last season as their Triple-A hitting coach, Mallee was promoted to the major-league staff under new manager Craig Counsell as an assistant hitting coach. Instead of his 2017 departure severing the relationship, the organization still viewed Mallee as an asset who is well-liked among hitters and complements hitting coach Dustin Kelly and assistant hitting coach Juan Cabreja.

“The good thing about this group here is there’s no egos,” Mallee said of the trio. “We’re just trying to win. We’re together as a unit. We all have our own strengths and if we stick to our strengths as coaches, and we put that all together, you’ve got one really strong message.”

The Cubs fired Mallee after the 92-win season in 2017 when they lost in the National League Championship Series in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, then the general manager, thought Mallee had done a good job and clearly cared about players’ development, but there was a big-picture reason for the change.

“I look back on that decision and I feel like we were at that time philosophically trying to figure out where we were with that group and we made that change, but certainly it wasn’t because we didn’t feel like he was a good hitting coach,” Hoyer told to the Tribune of Mallee. “And I think he understood that. He always stayed in touch with the organization, stayed in touch with us, and I’m really happy for him that he’s back and happy for us he’s back.”

Mallee wasn’t upset the Cubs chose to go in a different direction in 2017, knowing they felt a change might help the hitters collectively move forward. He departed the organization on great terms to set up this opportunity more than six years later.

Since Hoyer took over as president, he has sought outside options for many of the team’s baseball operations openings. Mallee’s journey after leaving Chicago exposed him to other ideas and viewpoints while working as the Philadelphia Phillies hitting coach (2018-19) and Los Angeles Angels assistant hitting coach (2020-22).

Mallee’s time with the Phillies provided a different outlook on advanced metrics, and he worked closely with now-GM Sam Fuld, who served as the go-between for the front office and coaching staff to merge analytics with hands-on work. In Anaheim, Mallee reunited with manager Joe Maddon and learned the Angels system for game planning. Both stops allowed Mallee to meld those insights with his previous experiences.

“Hitting coach is one of those jobs where, for better or for worse, it’s a very short lifespan oftentimes with teams, so I think with a guy like John, he’s a good hitting coach, players really respond to him and sometimes it’s situational,” Hoyer said. “We’ve always felt like he was really talented and I feel like he’s in a really good place and I thought he did a fantastic job at Iowa last year.”

When the Cubs hired Mallee as the Triple-A hitting coach for the 2023 season, Kelly figured the organization would only have him for one year before they lost him to another team for a big-league job.

“When ours opened up, it was really a no-brainer to get John back up here,” Kelly said.

The Cubs felt they had a huge advantage in having someone with Mallee’s pedigree overseeing their Triple-A hitters and knowing what they needed to prepare for the majors. Hitters who worked with him in Iowa last season spoke highly of Mallee, who is in his 29th season as a professional baseball coach. A common theme from their experience: he cares about them as people and puts in the work to help them in any way he can.

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David Bote described Mallee as “a special cat” and one of the hardest-working coaches he’s seen. Matt Mervis appreciated Mallee’s passion for hitting and how well he knows both the swing mechanics and mental approach at the plate. Chase Strumpf always felt Mallee was fighting for him every day, calling it a treat to work with him and credited him with helping players mature.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to get to a point where you understand yourself as opposed to kind of listening to every single coach that gives you tips here and there,” Strumpf said. “For me, I struggled a little bit in Iowa so I was very fortunate to have him. He cares so much that he will lose sleep over your struggles.

“When he speaks you listen, bottom line.”

Mallee was known among Iowa’s hitters for being the first one at the ballpark and the last to leave. Even on Triple A off days, Mallee watched videos of the pitchers they would face the next week.

“It just builds trust with the player like, OK, when this guy tells me something, I know he’s done his homework,” Bote said. “He takes an extra step of, before I tell the player this, I want to go see if what I’m reading lines up with what the video’s saying, so he’s very meticulous.

“He deserves to be in the big leagues because of what he can bring to the table on a daily basis, both on the mental side and the mechanical side and the preparation — his preparation is far beyond anybody else I’ve ever seen, which is great because it just adds another layer of if I need to fall back on something that I’m missing here, he’s got it.”

Mallee wanted Triple-A hitters to be ready for that anticipated big-league call-up and, if they haven’t been there before, to know what life is like in the majors. At Iowa, that meant implementing MLB-caliber pregame scouting reports for their hitters for the first time. Baseball is so routine-oriented, from pregame to postgame recovery and everything in between, that Mallee made sure Iowa’s hitters understood what that entails when it involves game planning.

For Strumpf, the pregame scouting reports were his first exposure to that level of detail and coincided with reaching Triple A for the first time in his professional career. Strumpf praised Mallee for how he delivered information, consuming it first and then filtering it for players.

“It’s very refreshing,” Strumpf said. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, I watched this guy for 12 hours, but here’s the three things I want you to focus on.’ And that’s it, so it’s really nice to have an extensive list of data and amount of data to read, but the way he translates it for a player is second to none.”

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Bote, who has played 384 games for the Cubs over parts of five seasons, believes that level of attention and understanding how to prepare at the big-league level is vital, something Mallee emphasized in his role last year.

“There hadn’t really mentally been a game-plan routine and then you get to the big leagues and there’s this game-planning thing and it throws a wrench into everything else and all your timing,” Bote said. “So just being able to put that in your routine of that’s how you’re going to look at this plan, this is how you can do it yourself, this is how it’s going to look in the big leagues, how it’s going to be here that just makes it another transition that much easier, which is very smart, and I mean, he gets it.”

The Cubs had struggled to create continuity with their big-league hitting coach and infrastructure before promoting Kelly to the lead position before the 2023 season.

With Kelly, Cabreja and Mallee in place, hitters have appreciated how the group wants to empower players and stay on the same page. There is no friction among coaches if a Cubs hitter prefers working with one more closely.

“We’re in a great spot with our staff where you’ve got a group of people that really value relationships first and they trust the players a lot and they have very good feel for when to introduce things,” Nico Hoerner said. “I just really appreciate the tone and also how they work together. There’s no egos involved.”

Hoerner came into the season hearing good things about Mallee from Happ and has liked the way Mallee emphasizes approach at the plate.

Mallee became a valuable resource for Happ during the outfielder’s 2017 rookie season. He taught Happ about the strengths of his swing, game planning and how to utilize the Cubs internal data system. They became close during the season and remained in touch after Mallee left the organization. Happ was excited when the Cubs added him to the big-league staff in the offseason, knowing how Mallee brings the best out of hitters and always gives guys confidence.

“Males listened to the things that I was working on, the things that I wanted to do, what pitches I thought I handled well, what things I thought made me successful,” Happ said. “And so to be able to have those conversations and have him repeat to me when I was struggling with things that I believed in were huge parts of that first year.”

Mallee considers it a privilege to coach this game. He doesn’t take the job for granted nor the impact he can have on a player.

“Coaches at the major-league level, there’s so little opportunity, but that doesn’t mean that anybody can’t make it if you work hard and you learn,” Mallee said. “And the key is to reach the player. You can be the smartest guy in the room, but if you can’t get the information, break it down in its simplest form to the player, it’s not going to help.”