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The Truth About Joe Maddon

Look, we've had a lot of fun around here talking about the magical mysticism of Joe Maddon, but that's all in fun. In truth, Maddon is neither sprinkling holy water on his lineup cards nor playing hunches. As a sabermetrician, he is in diametrical opposition to hunches. I'd like to see us get it right, so we can understand the truth about the man's managing.

Instead, even the city's best sportswriter - by far - has fallen for the latest Cubs myth:

"Who takes out his hottest hitter and replaces him with another rookie and then gets a two-run homer as if it is exactly what he expected to get?" Bernie Lincicome wrote after the Cubs beat the Cards in Game 2 of the NLDS the other night. ["Shaft!" - Tim Willette]

"Manager Joe Maddon, the mad alchemist, that's who. He shakes his beaker and pronounces today's brew ready and darned if it isn't. What has no business being anything is not only good enough, not only remarkable enough but satisfying enough."


The reason why Maddon took Kyle Schwarber out of the starting lineup on Saturday and put Jorge Soler in is clear enough: Schwarber sucks against lefthanders and the Cardinals were starting a lefthander. Maddon even said so - straight up.

"For me, honestly, his body of work [against lefties], in general, has not been very good," Maddon told reporters

Indeed, Schwarber hit just .143 (8-for-56 with 27 strikeouts) against lefthanders during the regular season.

How do you get the best performances out of your entire roster? Put them in the best positions to succeed. Starting Schwarber on Saturday would not have been doing that.

Meanwhile, Soler. It was either him or Chris Coghlan. Maddon said he chose Soler because the liked the energy he brought on the basepaths as a pinch-hitter in Game 1.

Soler also has a .370 career OBP vs. lefties as a major leaguer (compared to .311 vs. righties); Coghlan's OBP against lefties is .208 (compared to .355 vs. righties).

You don't need to shake a beaker to figure that one out.

That doesn't mean Maddon merely lets the stats dictate his lineups. But what some people call "playing hunches" is really the work of an observational master who knows who's hurting, who's confidence is up and down, who needs a rest or even who is having personal problems. That's the secret sauce a great manager lays down over the analytics.

In the case of the Cubs, the analytics department is comprised of about 40 people, which is pretty amazing, running permutations and simulations of every combination and scenario they can think of. Maddon gets the results, surveys his locker room and figures it out with the touch of a boss with superior people skills - that's what sets him apart.

In the wild card game against the Pirates, for example, Cub Nation was aghast at Maddon's decision to start Tommy La Stella at third. First, haven't y'all learned by now that Maddon knows what he's doing? Not that he should be immune from questioning, but that a certain benefit of the doubt has been earned, and the question isn't really "Why in the world is Maddon doing that?" but "Let's try to figure out why in the world Maddon is doing that!"

People forget that LaStella began the season as the team's starting second baseman, and only seems like a utility player because he's been hurt most of the way. He's capable. Also, Maddon started Kris Bryant in left field and Kyle Schwarber in right field. In a one-game, do-or-die playoff game. Why? Maddon wanted to put his best nine bats in the game and go for an early lead. So he chose the bats (with the best match-ups against Pirates starter Gerrit Cole) first, then figured out where to play them. He could've put LaStella in left, really. But given the sort of contact that Cubs starter Jake Arrieta gives up, infield defense is more highly valued than outfield defense.

Having gotten the lead, Maddon switched to his defensive replacements.

On the other side of the diamond, reformed Old Schooler Clint Hurdle, now a sabermetric evangelist, did much the same, but in his team's case, he went for speed and defense to start, leaving Pedro Alvarez and Aramis Ramirez on the bench. Once the Pirates got down early, out came the boppers.

Similarly, there was nothing but logic behind the pair of squeeze bunts the Cubs put down on Saturday.

"The manager had been thinking about this day - or at least a day like it - for weeks now," Jayson Stark wrote for ESPN.

"Everything has to be set up properly for that," Maddon said. "It just was. I mean, that happens every so often, I guess a harvest moon, possibly, I don't know. But it's one of those things that you look for, you work toward, but it doesn't always present itself.

In other words, he was prepared for just such a moment for a squeeze bunt (or two) to present itself - and it did.

"There is a lot of setup involved in making that play work," Maddon said postgame. "Sometimes you have to wait maybe a month or two months to have it happen, and furthermore, you have to have the right people to execute it, honestly. So it just happened tonight that everything was set up well. The things we talked about in September showed up on Oct. 10. It's just one of those things."

Some managers are not so prepared - and neither, then, are their players. Not so with Maddon's.

When asked if he was shocked to see that second squeeze sign, Russell shook his head and said, "No, I anticipated it."

Before this season, Russell had laid down one sacrifice bunt in his professional career. But after he was traded to the Cubs in the middle of the 2014 season, his Double-A manager, Buddy Bailey, convinced him to practice his bunting every day.

"At the time, I was like, 'OK,' but I know now it's key," Russell said. "It's something I can incorporate in my game, and I think I can get better at it too."

He took it seriously enough, even after reaching the big leagues, that his manager took definite notice. Maddon hit Russell with the bunt sign four times in the last two weeks of September - again, with an eye toward a moment such as this. Russell rewarded that faith in September with two bunt hits and a sacrifice. So when that bunt sign came around again Saturday, he swore he wasn't shocked.

"I anticipated it - really," Russell said. "That's just something I bring to my game. And all these guys in this clubhouse do. We anticipate something that's out of the norm. We're just ready for that."

There are no magic beans involved. That's the old way. The new way is magical, but not magic.


The Week In Review: The Cubs went 3-1 last week, beating the Brewers in the regular-season finale, dispatching the Pirates in the one-game wild-card game, and splitting the first two games against the Cards in the best-of-five NLDS. You knew that, but can you believe just a week ago they were playing the Brewers?

The Week In Preview: Games Monday, Tuesday and (if necessary) Thursday against the Cardinals. This week could be even better than last week.

The Second Basemen Report: Starlin Castro got all four starts at second last week. What a world.

In former Cubs second basemen news, Footsie Blair last played second base for the Cubs in 1931. His real name was Clarence, and he could also play first and third. He is missed.

Mad(don) Scientist: Think of him more as writing code than wearing a white lab coat and mixing up a batch of bewitching chemicals.

Wishing Upon A Starlin: Starlin Castro got all four starts at second last week. What a world.

Kubs Kalender: Is this year finally here? I can't tell by looking at my Cubs calender through this blurry, salty discharge.

Ameritrade Stock Pick Of The Week: Though White Sox Resentment is trading at an all-time high, we still rate it a BUY because the sky's the limit.

Over/Under: Goat stuff this week: +/- 1 million.

Beachwood Sabermetrics: A complex algorithm performed by The Cub Factor staff using all historical data made available by Major League Baseball has determined that next year is not guaranteed.

Touch 'Em All: The Cub Factor archives.


Comments welcome.

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