Before we get to baseball, I want to give a shout out to the bossman, Joe. We’re all glad you’re doing better–here’s to a speedy and full recovery.
OK, back to the best team in baseball.
“Depth is everything in the modern game.”–Theo Epstein.
Recent events have clearly illustrated the truth behind the prez’s words.
After being remarkably healthy last season, the Cubs have had more than their share of injuries in 2016. Kyle Schwarber, seen as one of the main cogs of the offense, went down 3 games in. Miguel Montero, the starting catcher, is on the DL. This is a double-whammy, since Schwarber’s injury was a blow to the catching depth as well. Jason Heyward, the big free agent prize from this past offseason, has missed games with a wrist injury (which has, apparently, contributed to his slow offensive start). One of the actual depth pieces, Matt Szczur, who has been playing very well, is on the DL himself. For most teams, these kind of injuries would derail the season from the get-go. As for the Cubs?
How has this been accomplished? Depth, versatility, and the brilliance of their manager, Joe Maddon.
Theo and Jed have said many times that they spend the bulk of their time “worrying.” Worrying about injuries, ineffectiveness, unforeseen circumstances, etc.. They dream up worst-case scenarios and build the organization around those. So, when Schwarber went down, I guarantee that they had asked themselves: “What if Kyle goes down with an injury, what do we do then?” The contingency plan was already in place. It’s this ability to see beyond the immediate circumstances and think long-term that makes Theo and Jed so good at what they do.
Versatility goes hand-in-hand with depth. It’s no accident that the Cubs roster is loaded with players who can play well at multiple positions. This team had many “Ben Zobrists” before the actual Ben Zobrist even joined the club. Kris Bryant has played both corner outfield spots in addition to 3rd base (in fact, I think it’s time to consider Bryant an outfielder, at least for now), Javier Baez has already played all 4 infield positions, and we know he can handle the outfield as well. Heyward subbed in for Dex in CF last night (after a BS ejection). Tommy La Stella has seen time at both 2nd and 3rd. Zobrist, of course, can play all over, including spending time in RF lately. You don’t have to have as many actual players if those players can play multiple positions. This is all by design.
Of course, Joe Maddon is the perfect manager to maneuver these chess pieces. I’ve always been a Maddon fan, and I was thrilled when the Cubs hired him, but I’ve been even more impressed than I thought I would be. They guy just gets it. I think the key attribute that makes Joe so successful is his ability to think independently and critically–he doesn’t just do things or make decisions because it’s “conventional wisdom” or “tradition.” He does many things that no other manager has done or would do, yet they seem to work well. As a teacher, I try to get my students to think critically about their practice–if we examine what we do with a critical eye, and we find real evidence that it is working, then we should continue those practices with even more confidence. However, if we aren’t afraid to question traditional practices, and we find better ways of doing things, we should have the courage to go against the grain and do what’s most effective. I think this is where Maddon really makes his mark.
Take batting practice for example. The Cubs are known to take the least amount of batting practice of any team in baseball. Yet, they have the most runs scored in all of baseball. Joe has said that batting practice is “the most overrated thing we do.” During his introductory press conference, Joe said that he thinks guys are swinging too much. Now, this goes against conventional thinking. If someone is struggling at something, they should work on it more, put in more hours, until they get better, right? Not necessarily so. As a musician, I know that practicing more can actually strengthen bad habits, and that sometimes it’s best to step away for awhile and attack things with a new approach. The same can be said for hitting. This is why Joe said that he wants his guys to have interests outside of baseball and not get to the park too early before a game (how many times has a coach told you to spend less time at the park/gym?). Last year, when Addison Russell was struggling at the plate, did Joe demand that he get to the park early and take extra batting practice? No. He assigned Russell a book to read and quizzed him on it every day to make sure he was reading it. Why? He wanted Addy to get out of his head at the plate and stop worrying and over-thinking. Russell’s numbers at the end of the season improved.
Another bit of conventional baseball wisdom is that moving guys around defensively will hurt their offensive game. While there’s no doubt this is true of some guys, Maddon has said several times that he thinks moving guys around on defense can actually help their offense. Why? If a player has to focus on defense, he is thinking less about offense, and his mind is free to relax and react at the plate. Have you seen Kris Bryant’s numbers since he’s been moving around to the outfield? I’m not saying that this defensive move has caused his offense to improve, but there’s no doubt it hasn’t hurt it, and he’s provided more value to the team overall by being versatile defensively. Here’s another fun fact that may go against intuition: after moving players all over the field, the Cubs are well better than average defensively!
Something as seemingly silly as the themed road trips may actually be helping this team play better on the field. In the pregame interview the other day, Joe talked about how having to wear those silly suits out in public helped players realize that it doesn’t matter how they look–they need to get over and forget about the superficial things and focus on what’s important…and Joe believes that really carries over to the field. Once players (or any of us) can let go of the silly distractions in life and focus on what’s important, we’re able to focus and perform at a higher level. “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure” isn’t about not being serious in your work–it’s the opposite. It’s about not letting distractions that don’t really matter (like appearance, old-school “rules” of the game, the media, taking oneself too seriously) go and focusing in on the present task at hand. You just don’t hear baseball managers speak with this sort of depth and sophistication on big-picture ideas like this.
I hope everyone is taking time to really enjoy this team. We haven’t seen our guys play like this in a long time, maybe ever.
Have a great weekend. May your “W” flag fly high, may your brats sizzle on the grill, and may your cap look as cool as Pedro Strop’s.
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