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Cubs assistant hitting coach Rob Deer was a better batter than you might remember

1990:  Outfielder Rob Deer Milwaukee Brewers swings bat. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport

1990: Outfielder Rob Deer of the Milwaukee Brewers swings the bat. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel /Allsport

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109 Cubs assistant hitting coach Rob Deer’s career OPS-plus, despite finishing with a career batting average of .220.

When the Cubs hired Rob Deer as their assistant hitting coach, there was a good deal of puzzlement among fans. You probably have heard the questions, if you didn’t ask them yourself: What can a career .220
hitter who led the league in strikeouts four times teach anybody about hitting? Did the Cubs really just hire the first player with 100 more strikeouts than walks in a season (186 vs. 80 for the Brewers in 1987)?

Yet for all the negatives, Deer had an 11-year big-league career, including seven seasons with 500 or more plate appearances. The Brewers and Tigers saw enough to play him almost every day.

Why? Deer had two things going for him: power and patience, a couple of categories dear to the hearts of sabermetricians. He had eight seasons with 20 or more home runs, with a career-high 33 for the Brewers in 1986 and 32 for the Tigers in 1992. And he walked enough to turn that .220 batting average into a .324 on-base percentage.

When you take Deer’s career OPS of .766, adjust for ballpark effects and normalize to the league averages of his time, you get an OPS-plus of 109. The league average for OPS-plus is always 100, so Deer was roughly 9 percent more productive than the average hitter of his time.

We can use that to compare him to hitters of other eras. A more recent player with an OPS-plus of 109 is Miguel Tejada. He had a higher batting average (.285) and didn’t strike out as much (career-high 102) as Deer, but he didn’t walk as much, raising his average only 51 points to a .336 OBP. Compared with the league averages of his time, it all shakes out to an OPS-plus of 109.

Or take Lou Piniella, a high-average (.291), low-strikeout (career-high 65) player in 18 seasons, mostly with the Royals and Yankees. He didn’t hit many homers (career-high 12), nor did he take many walks (career-high 35, OBP of .333). Career OPS-plus: 109.

Bill Mueller, Dan Ford, Eddie Stanky, Tony Phillips, Chris Sabo and Dick McAuliffe are among the pretty good players who took different routes to a 109 OPS-plus.

Deer’s route is pertinent as the new-era Cubs try to reverse a long-standing aversion to getting on base. In the 15 seasons of the 16-team National League that began in 1998, they finished 10th or lower in OBP 10 times. The only time they finished higher than sixth was 2008, when Piniella’s Cubs topped the NL with a .354 OBP while compiling a 97-64 record.

Hitting coaches often are counted on to teach things they couldn’t do themselves, and the Cubs aren’t going to want a roster of low-average, high-strikeout players. But whatever other tricks Deer has picked up, it wouldn’t be a bad thing at all if he can pass along a little of what he could do. After all, patience and power made him into a durable, above-average player.



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