Welcome Guest | Register | Login

How Cubs' Manager Joe Maddon Created A Revolutionary Lineup

"Bookmark



Joe Maddon is smiling.

 

Joe Maddon has the best team in baseball and the most unique outlook in sports.

 

Joe Maddon has his team in the World Series with the best record in baseball.

 

Joe Maddon has changed everything.

 

And no one is noticing.

 

Maddon, the Cubs manager who has led the team to their first World Series since 1945, has totally rethought and revolutionized the lineup in baseball. This is no small thing. Like a lot of institutions, baseball is resistant to change. But after guiding the Cubs to a major league leading 103 wins this year, it is time to look into exactly what Maddon has done because it is truly different, and simply amazing.Photo: Newscom

 

I’ve been waiting for some astute baseball writers to tackle this subject. None have, so here goes with the views of a writer who has been a fan for over sixty years.

 

I want to go through the lineup position by position and explain the traditional way of doing things and Maddon’s creative reinterpretations. Feel free to play along at home.

 

The Lineup Reimagined

 

Position Number One: The leadoff man. This spot is for a guy who can get on base, and once on base has both the speed and the baseball IQ to move around the bases using a admixture of intelligence, aggressiveness, and opportunism, until a run is scored. The job description is get on base. This can be accomplished by a base hit, a walk, or getting hit by a pitch. Maddon is a traditionalist here, and in Dexter Fowler, he has a player who does an excellent job doing his job.

 

This is Maddon’s only nod to tradition. From here to the end of the order it’s Rock & Roll, it’s the American Revolution, the French Revolution or, if you prefer, it’s the national pastime revolution.

 

Position Number Two: Here, then, and rather quickly, Maddon begins to get creative and the results are truly amazing.

 

Traditionally, this position is a bridge to the Big Boppers coming up next; the number three, four and five hitters; the run producers, the stars who hit for average and power. These are the guys who, by their production, will determine if a team scores a lot of runs or not. The traditional role of the second hitter is to be a bridge to the heart of the lineup. This spot in the lineup is usually held by guys who can handle their bats exceptionally well: hitting, bunting, hitting behind the runner on base to advance him, going the other way instead of strictly trying to pull the ball, producing a walk, and crucially, avoiding double plays.

 

In Maddon’s scheme, however, this concept is tossed out completely. In his lineup, the number two position is manned by the team’s number three hitter, Kris Bryant. Traditionally the number three hitter is the best hitter on the team; a high batting average guy who can drive in runs and hit with power. By placing the three hole hitter in the second spot in the lineup, Maddon is immediately putting a lot of pressure on the pitcher as well as the defense behind him. Additionally, the number two hitter will get added at-bats during the long season because he rotates to the plate so often. The results of Maddon's approach speak for themselves: Bryant has produced. He is an MVP candidate with a .292 batting average, 39 home runs, 102 RBIs, and 121 runs scored. Not many, if any, number two hitters put up that kind of production. Pressure indeed. No longer a bridge to the Boppers, this is the Boppers themselves, right now and often.It is a very aggressive way to do business.

 

Position Number Three: Here, Maddon extends his approach and keeps the pressure on the other team by batting his clean-up hitter third in the batting order instead of fourth. The number four hitter is usually a power hitter who makes pitchers very nervous. In Anthony Rizzo, Maddon has a prototypical clean-up hitter with many of the attributes of a number three hitter, namely a very solid batting average to compliment his power. Rizzo’s stats are impressive, as impressive as Bryant’s. This year Rizzo hit .292 with 32 Home Runs and 109 RBIs. This excellent production has thrust Rizzo, like Bryant, into the race for MVP.Photo: SportsMockery.com

 

How is this working out for the Cubs? Combined, Bryant and Rizzo have accounted for 35% of the Cubs’ home runs and 27% of the team’s RBIs and runs scored over the entire season. Production indeed.

 

Position Number Four: The Clean Up Hitter. This is the place in the batting order where  Maddon reveals his true genius. Instead of a power hitter here, Maddon is using Ben Zobrist, who is more a two hole hitter. Zobrist does not hit for power (18 HRs), is an okay RBI guy (76 on the season), but he hits (.272) scores runs (94) and he’s clutch. When it matters most, Zobrist is consistently able to deliver a hit, RBI or solid at-bat. He is one of the most versatile and intelligent players in baseball. And he wins. When the Cubs signed him as a free agent last offseason, Maddon gave Zobrist the ultimate accolade: “Ben’s about winning,” he said.

 

Zobrist is the bridge that Maddon gave up by hitting Bryant and Rizzo in the two and three spots. That being said, he’s a very unusual and unique bridge. A bridge not to the Big Boppers, but a bridge to the rest of the lineup, which is, perhaps, Maddon’s greatest creation and most overlooked achievement of all.

 

Positions Five Through Eight: The rest of the lineup is an expression of how to get the most out of everybody because, as impressive as the top of the order is for the Cubs, the bottom of the order is more impressive. And because Maddon abandoned conventional thinking at the top of the lineup, he is free to both continue his unconventional thinking and create a virtual fiesta of mix and match opportunities at the bottom of the order.

There are basically six players that make up the last four spots in the batting order. At times. the bench guys, the role players, get a start or an extended opportunity to play, but basically it is the Big Six that do the heavy lifting.  

 

They are:

SS Addison Russell

2nd Baseman Javier Baez

Right Fielder Jason Heyward

Catchers Miguel Montero, David Ross, and Wilson Contreras.

 

On any given day, anyone of this group will hit in any spot at the bottom of the order, but trends do emerge. Usually either Russell or Baez with hit fifth. Heyward, the weakest hitter of the group, is hidden in plain sight by Maddon and usually hits sixth. The seventh spot is reserved for the catcher. Then, in the eighth spot, Maddon inserts either Russell or Baez, whoever does not hit fifth that day.

 

This is inspired because both these guys are emerging into stars. Rusell,with 95 RBIs is an unusually productive shortstop. Baez, just now coming into his own, is making giant strides and impressive contributions with both his hitting and fielding. These two should be bulworks for this team for a lot of years. Perhaps the best comparison is that of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, the long time SS and 2B combo in Detroit.

 

As a group, the production is amazing. This group accounts for 36% of the team HRs, 39% of its RBIs, and 33% of the runs scored. Take a quick look at what Bryant and Rizzo have done offensively, and then compare the above numbers for the low end of the batting order. There is an uptick in production overall, but, more impressively, and perhaps more importantly, there is no drop off in production like you see on most teams. On most teams the bottom of the order is a liability. The hitters get weaker and the contributions less impressive as you head for the eighth spot in the lineup; most teams limp into the end of the lineup and hope to get the top of the order back up to hit again. That is not the case in Chicago. Bryant and Rizzo apply pressure on the opposing team, the guys hitting fifth through eighth make sure that pressure never lets up. And it doesn’t.Photo: Bleacherreport.com

 

It must be said that Maddon, bright and innovative as he is, is probably not doing this all by himself. The Cubs’ front office, led by the secretive and elusive Theo Epstein, has an bedrock belief in the value of advanced statistical analysis. It would appear as if that analysis comes into play on a daily basis and provides Maddon with the information he needs for his mix and match scheme for that day. I imagine that a thorough breakdown of the Cubs opponents and its pitching staff is combined with an equally thorough analysis of the Cubs’ hitters and their particular strong and weak points. This is synergy, baseball style. This is incredibly effective teamwork.

 

On many teams there is tension, not to say mistrust bordering on hate, between the “baseball people” (baseball lifers who love to pretend they have the keys to the kingdom in their all-encompassing experience) and the advanced statistics department (geeks with pencil necks and algorithms and degrees in computer science and no baseball knowledge worth talking about). The truth, of course, is much more difficult to fathom.

 

The results, however, are evident. This is working. And the credit goes to Maddon because he sits at the crossroads of all this experience and analysis and  he makes the lineup and in game decisions that mean a win or a loss.Then there is the hidden gem of this team, the  Cubs Catcher Corps. Not much has been written about the catcher position on this year’s Cubs. There should be because the team’s three headed Catcher Corps of two veterans and a rookie (Montero, Ross & Contreras) is a superstar position with 30 HRs, 100 RBIs, and 87 runs scored. How many catchers do this is today’s game?  

 

Take a look at some of the game’s top catchers. All play for winning clubs, all made the playoffs, all are highly regarded around baseball.

 

Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals: 22 HR, 80 RBI

Jonathan Lucroy, Texas Rangers: 24 HR, 81 RBI

Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants:  14 HR, 80 RBI

Yasmani Grandal, Los Angeles Dodgers: 27 HR, 72 RBI

 

None of them individually, as great as they are, can match the Cubs Catcher Corps in offensive output.

 

The baseball press, even the writers in Chicago, have not caught onto the significance of the  contribution from the Catcher Corps. Their performance has been overlooked because this team has so many young, bright stars. This is too bad because these guys deserve a lot of credit. I suspect that the advanced stats department is helping out here too. The results are too dramatic and too impressive for this to be an accident.

 

A fair question here is this: Why is it this way? Why is Chicago so much more productive in this key position? It could be because these other catchers play everyday, and the long season will wear down even the best of them. Catcher is the most intricate position in baseball, and its demands are considerable and unrelenting. Maddon, by rotating his group of catchers so skillfully, is putting each one them in a position to succeed. He’s keeping them fresh. And, in the process, has created a superstar out of whole cloth; none of these guys would be considered a “star” on his own. But together, they are the best catcher in baseball by a wide margin. Look for the rest of baseball, all the “me too” guys, to follow this template in the future.

 

So, what Joe Maddon has done in Chicago is amazing. It is unique. And, if he keeps it up, everybody else will try to jump on his bandwagon and try to copy his methods. Most likely, by the time that happens, Maddon, Epstein, and all the rest of the Cubs’ organization will be onto something else.

 

Something no less innovative, no less revolutionary.

 

Welcome to the revolution.

 

Michael Settle is a retired investment adviser and writer. He lives in Paris with his wife.

 

Contact Michael Settle at michaelsettle@gmail.com

 

Register NOW with Philly2Philly!  

Follow us on Philly2Philly's Facebook page!  And, don't forget to "like" Philly2Philly

Follow us on Twitter

Maddon Photo: Chicagobusiness.com

Bryant/Rizzo photo: SportsMockery.com

Epstein photo: Bleacherreport.com