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Do Joe Maddon’s many different lineups help or hurt the Cubs?

Let’s look at the numbers.

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Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As you know, Joe Maddon likes to mix-and-match his lineups. This drives some of you crazy. Many think the Cubs should have a “set lineup,” though that’s not really the way baseball works anymore. Especially on Maddon-managed teams, players who can play multiple positions and do it well have succeeded and helped the team succeed.

Sahadev Sharma recently posted an article on this topic at The Athletic, so I thought I’d take a deeper look into this as well. Here’s the key part of the article, in my view, quoting Theo Epstein:

When he spoke to reporters following his team’s wild-card exit this October, he was asked about how his players handle Maddon’s frequent changing of lineups during the season.

Epstein was honest and said that it bothered some of them a little bit, but for the most part, the players were smart enough to know why it was happening.

“I would say the players very much understand,” Epstein said. “But they’re human. And, of course, at times, they get frustrated. More often when they’re not playing – or not hitting – than when they’re in there a lot and hitting.”

Maddon will tell you that all that talk during the season about his ever-changing lineups was “unsophisticated.” And while Epstein’s words may have seemed to indicate a shift in that philosophy, it’s important to understand exactly what he’s getting at. The Cubs have no intention of stopping their habit of switching players in and out of their lineup. Utilizing their depth is what allowed them to weather various injuries and inconsistencies and still win 95 games.

Now, it is true that Maddon’s use of different lineups has increased every year he’s managed the Cubs, from 119 in 2015 to 130 in 2016 to 143 in 2017 to 152 last year. The 2018 number has a lot to do with various injuries, so you can understand that. The lineup shifting is nothing new for Maddon, either, as in his nine years in Tampa he ranged from 115 to 151 lineups and led the A.L. in that category three times. Interestingly, he has not led the N.L. in number of lineups in any of his four years with the Cubs — not even with the 152 in 2018. Here are all of the teams’ total lineups in 2018 (the teams that switched managers during 2018 are listed with their total) and also the number of wins.

2018 MLB team lineups, sorted by number of wins

Team Number of lineups Wins
Team Number of lineups Wins
Red Sox 134 108
Astros 144 103
Yankees 137 100
Athletics 121 97
Brewers 137 96
Cubs 152 95
Dodgers 155 92
Indians 105 91
Rockies 128 91
Rays 151 90
Braves 103 90
Mariners 124 89
Cardinals 127 88
Nationals 125 82
Pirates 128 82
Diamondbacks 144 82
Angels 132 80
Phillies 138 80
Twins 145 78
Mets 151 77
Blue Jays 154 73
Giants 140 73
Rangers 122 67
Reds 131 67
Padres 146 66
Tigers 144 64
Marlins 137 63
White Sox 142 62
Royals 150 58
Orioles 152 47

As you can see, these numbers are all over the place. Some teams using a lot of lineups won a lot of games, and some teams using a lot of lineups didn’t. Some teams using a more set lineup (I’m looking at you, Indians) also won a lot of games, but others (Rangers, for example) didn’t. 28 of the 30 teams (Indians and Braves the exceptions) used at least 122 different lineups.

The point is that the lineup shifts modern managers use aren’t the problem. Many of us who have followed the game for a long time remember team lineups that rarely changed, but that simply isn’t the way baseball is played in 2018. From Sharma’s article:

“The game is changing a little bit,” Epstein said. “If you look around, especially the postseason games, there are fewer and fewer everyday guys. Rosters are becoming more flexible, lineups more revolving in some ways. It’s just teams trying to use their personnel the best way they possibly can to win games. I think that’s something we’re always going to do and something that Joe’s good at.”

The Cubs can express their frustration all they want, but this is what baseball has become. So it’s the organization’s job to figure out how best to get everyone on the roster to understand that this is their clearest path to success. Epstein and Hoyer used the phrase “buy-in” numerous times when talking about playing time, utilizing depth and making sure everyone on the roster was on the same page. For this all to work, the players have to accept that the road to another World Series is paved by the utilization of the entire roster.

I’d have to say the game is changing more than “a little bit,” but baseball always has. If you were transported, say, to 1968 and watched a game being played, the differences would be subtle, not stark (except maybe for the pace of play!). And Sharma is right about it being the organization’s job to communicate all of this better to players so they “buy in” (another phrase constantly used by Cubs management) and everyone’s on the same page.

Joe Maddon used to be really good at getting all his players on that same page. I’m not sure what happened in 2018 to change that, but it seems clear that the entire Cubs organization has to rededicate itself to doing exactly that in 2019 in order to get back to the long postseason runs we had in 2015-17, something I know Theo expected to do at least during the current window of contention, which presumably has three years remaining.

But the lineups aren’t the problem. As you see in the table above, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts used even more lineups than Maddon did in 2018, and L.A. got back to the World Series. In the postseason, Roberts continued using multiple different lineups, mostly based on matchups.

Joe Maddon will do the same, trying to get the most out of his players while also giving them enough rest so they can make one of those long postseason runs. In Joe’s nine years in Tampa he averaged 133 different lineups per season. In his four years so far in Chicago he’s averaged 136. It’s almost certainly not going to change in 2019 — and it probably won’t whenever Maddon leaves, because that’s simply the way the game is played in the second decade of the 21st Century.