I’ve written before about Joe Maddon, how he’s the best manager for the Cubs in at least 85 years, and why he should be granted a contract extension — yes, even now, after this year’s early postseason exit.
The reasons he’s so good for this franchise go far beyond any lineup switches or bullpen usage, and if you’ve been around here long enough or anywhere the Cubs are being discussed, you know that Joe’s often ripped apart for those. The question I would ask those doing that ripping is this: Who would you hire who would have more success than Maddon has over the last four years? Further, no matter who succeeds Joe as Cubs manager — and eventually, he’ll not be Cubs manager anymore — it won’t take longer than a few weeks for people to start complaining about that man’s lineup construction or pitching choices.
The reason Maddon is so good as Cubs manager, and why he’s the right guy for at least a few more years, is the culture change he’s brought to the Cubs clubhouse. And yes, that matters.
And if you don’t believe me, well, perhaps you’ll believer former major leaguer Dale Murphy, who recently wrote an article on this very topic for The Athletic.
Since that article’s behind a paywall, I’ll summarize Murphy’s argument. The very first point is right in the headline: “Why in-game strategy shouldn’t be the deciding factor for teams when hiring managers”.
I don’t know if Murphy wrote that headline, but whoever wrote it is correct. Murphy’s argument begins this way:
... if I were hiring a manager, in-game strategy would be way down my list of priorities. The importance of in-game strategy has been debated for some time now, but even if it used to be highly important, I would argue it’s less critical today. Teams bunt less, steal less and call hit-and-runs less often. Outside of pitching changes, there isn’t a whole lot to manage.
What is important, however, is establishing the right culture and tone within the clubhouse. That is far more important than a double switch or deciding which lefty to bring in from the ‘pen.
That’s exactly what Joe Maddon has done. Remember the “Lovable Losers?” It didn’t take Maddon long to erase that from the Cubs vocabulary. When Lou Piniella was Cubs manager, he talked about wanting to establish “Cubbie swagger.” But that never really happened. Maddon’s done that without using those exact words. In many ways, this is more important than wondering who should bat leadoff every day, or which relievers should come into games in which order. Murphy continues:
Look, it’s easy to nitpick strategy day-in and day-out, but if you do that, you get lost in the minutiae. Even in the playoffs, when two evenly matched teams are squaring off, a manager can only do so much. By that point, as players, you’re either ready to go or you’re not. You either execute or you don’t. There’s no extra motivation needed, or if there is, you’ve already lost.
It’s always possible to look back at a manager’s decision and debate what could have been done differently. But most of us react to decisions that don’t work without thinking about what we would have done differently – and without knowing what would have happened.
And that circles back to what I noted at the top of this post. Would a different manager than Joe Maddon have been able to create the culture that brought four consecutive 90+ win seasons to the Cubs franchise for the first time in more than 100 years? I’d say no. He’s created a culture in which he’s helped every Cubs player give his best effort and performance. Why did the Cubs have that early playoff exit this year, then? Basically, I think it’s because they were exhausted after having only one off day for the last six weeks of the season, and because the offense vanished for two games at the worst possible time. If the Cubs win just one more game during that six-week stretch, they’re division champions without having to play the tiebreaker game and who knows? Maybe they’re still playing.
None of that is on the manager, who I think did the best possible job under the circumstances.
Now, it might be the right call to not rush into giving Maddon a contract extension, though I do still think he should get one — again, because who are you going to hire who’s better? Theo & Co. might be right to wait and see how the 2019 season begins before extending Maddon.
But when Joe’s career in Chicago is done, and hopefully that’s by retirement rather than dismissal, there will be days you wish he were still around. Hopefully, the culture Maddon has instilled in the Cubs clubhouse will remain past the days when he’s the Cubs manager.