Dear Joe: It’s not you, it’s us. Well, it’s partially “you,” but mostly it’s us.
Although it is painful to write this, the Cubs made the right choice to move on to a new manager. The Cubs have underperformed the past two seasons, especially at critical moments, and when that happens, something has to change. And changing the manager is always the easiest thing to try first.
Let’s start with one clear and obvious fact. Joe Maddon was the right man for the Cubs in 2015. As one of only three Cubs managers to win a title, Maddon is the best manager in team history. The other two managers to win a title, Cap Anson and Frank Chance, were so long ago that it doesn’t even make sense to compare them to Maddon. They were also both players when they managed, for one. The responsibilities of a manager back then were far different than those today. For the position as we know it, Joe Maddon was the best ever manager for the Cubs.
But I also know that since the Cubs won the World Series in 2016, there have been problems in each season. The 2017 Cubs were under .500 at the All-Star Break before turning it on and easily taking another division title. The 2018 and 2019 team underperformed badly down the stretch both years and coughed up division leads that should have put them firmly into the National League Division Series. The 2018 team lost two critical “winner-take-all” games at the end of the year to end the season early. The 2019 team lost nine straight games to end the year outside of the postseason for the first time since 2014.
Were those failures Joe Maddon’s fault? Certainly there are all these obituaries on Maddon’s time in Chicago and there’s talk about how communication broke down between Maddon and the front office (The Athletic sub req.) and Maddon and the players. He’s too “hands-off,” one report said. (The Athletic sub req.) Things weren’t all sunshine and butterflies behind the scenes at Clark and Addison, so they say.
But is any of that true? I have no idea. But here’s the thing: no one else has any idea either. No one has really been able to quantify what a manager brings to a major league team. We think they bring something to a team, but it’s impossible to say what. Is Rocco Baldelli such a brilliant manager that he instantly made the Twins 23 games better than what Paul Molitor did? Probably not. But how much responsibility does Baldelli deserve for the Twins’ 2020 turnaround? We can make guesses through the Pythagorean W-L formula, but no one is sure if that’s on the manager or just dumb luck.
But the converse is true as well. Even at the height of Maddon’s tenure with the Cubs, I’m sure you can find some moves that had you scratching your head. His use of the bullpen in the 2016 World Series is just the most famous one. Sure, the Cubs ended up winning, but we have no idea whether it was because of Maddon’s moves or despite them. Even if you want to look at the unseen “intangibles” and emotional content of the team, it was Jason Heyward and not Joe Maddon that delivered that famous speech in Game 7. Of course, one could argue that it was Maddon who created an environment that allowed Heyward’s speech to happen.
Still, I’m convinced from Joe Maddon’s time in Tampa Bay and Chicago that his strong points far outweigh his weak points and that overall, he’s a terrific manager. One of the best. I think he belongs in Cooperstown one day. So why do I think the Cubs made the right decision to move on from Maddon?
First off, just because something is terrific doesn’t mean it’s terrific for you. A Tesla may be a terrific automobile — you still wouldn’t want it if you need to move your washer and dryer to your new house. The Cubs team isn’t the same as it was in 2014. There is no longer that massive pressure that “1908” brought to the team. I don’t know whether the Cubs players buckled under the pressure of the team’s history under Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella. But I know they didn’t under Joe Maddon.
That pressure is gone now. The players are older and more experienced. Many of them have gotten into routines, for good and bad. The Cubs players needed to respond to adversity this September and they didn’t. You can say that it was because of the injuries, but the Brewers had major injury issues too and they ran off 11 wins in 12 games at one point in September. And even injured, the Cubs are a better team that the Reds and Pirates, who won five of the games in that nine-game losing streak. Getting the team to respond to injuries should be one of the primary jobs of the manager.
Sometimes a great manager just isn’t the right fit for a team. Back in the day, Billy Martin was a terrific manager for any team that wanted to win immediately. But Martin’s “take-no-prisoners” red-ass attitude would burn out a clubhouse in a year or two. And heaven help a bad team managed by Martin. Maybe Maddon’s “cool dad” approach to managing isn’t the right fit for the current Cubs roster. Theo Epstein made the hard choice back in 2014 to fire Rick Renteria because he felt that Maddon was the better choice to run the team, even though Renteria hadn’t done anything wrong. Once again, Epstein made the hard choice to move on from a manager because he felt that the team would perform better under a different voice. He was right the first time. Only time will tell if Epstein is right a second time.
There is the other issue that managers can just stay too long in one job. Maddon’s good friend and manager with the Angels, Mike Scioscia, led the team to their first World Series title in franchise history in 2002, with Maddon as his bench coach. He then ran off five more division titles in the aughts. Although Scioscia never took the team back to the World Series, his success was undeniable. He was awarded a ten-year contract extension that turned out to be a huge mistake. After that point, Scioscia just became part of the furniture as the team slowly slid towards irrelevancy. Nothing Scioscia did seemed to make a difference. Scioscia was a great manager, but he overstayed his welcome.
You can find other teams tuning out great managers. Tommy Lasorda, Bruce Bochy, Bobby Cox, Sparky Anderson all seemed to have stayed in their last job a few years longer than they should have. That doesn’t make them bad managers. The Red Sox fired Terry Francona after a few seasons when Boston didn’t live up to expectations. Did the team just tune out Francona? I have no idea. I do know he didn’t forget how to manage, since he’s gone on to be successful in Cleveland. I also know that the Red Sox have won two more World Series titles since firing Francona.
Similarly, Maddon hasn’t forgotten how to manage. It’s very possible that he continues to be successful somewhere else next season. There’s going to be a bidding war for his services, as well there should be. But the results of the past two seasons has shown pretty clearly that whatever magic Maddon had over the first three years of his Cubs tenure was gone. It was time for both sides to move on.
Hiring a new manager is going to be difficult, and I can’t promise that the new guy is going to be better than Maddon. I have my reservations about pretty much all of the top rumored candidates. However, that doesn’t mean whoever gets the job won’t be terrific because no one really knows if a manager is the right fit for a team until after they’ve managed a season or two. The hope is by that point, the team hasn’t changed so much that the fit is gone as soon as it’s discovered.
Whenever there’s a divorce, there are going to be hard feelings. But sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, or both sides are equally at fault. Now someone just has to explain to the players that just because Theo and Joe aren’t working together anymore doesn’t mean they both don’t still love them. The hope is that the players will be able to combine what they’ve learned from Maddon with what the new guy brings and that will lead to another parade on the North Side of Chicago.