There are many reasons why Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon won the National League Manager of the Year Award on Tuesday, but one nugget from ESPN Stats & Information sums it up best: The Cubs were the first team to start four position players in their age-23 seasons or younger in a playoff game since the 1966 Baltimore Orioles.
Young teams simply don’t win often in baseball. The grind is too long and the learning curve too tough. But the young Cubs thrived under Maddon. It was never just about the message he delivered to his team; it was about how he delivered it, right down to the vocabulary he used. He set the tone when he was hired in November 2014 by predicting a playoff run in 2015, but even he admitted late in the season it was something any manager would declare in the winter. No one knew for sure he could pull it off -- not even him. But Maddon has a way about him, a combination of being laid back yet focused. It’s the same mentality he wants from his players. And it helped win them a lot of games.
It starts with a relaxed tone, which benefits young teams in particular. Maddon was fortunate, of course, to have several mature rookies to work with. He gained their trust and the trust of his veterans quickly, as his reputation from his days in Tampa Bay preceded him. It didn’t hurt that leaders such as David Ross and Jon Lester saw firsthand what Maddon was capable of -- they battled the Rays for years while playing for the Boston Red Sox.
“His teams were always ready to play,” Lester said in spring training.
It sounded like a cliché, but it wasn’t. Maddon pushed the envelope with his young team, asking more of them as the season progressed. He kept the Cubs in the playoff race while his rookies learned what it took to succeed -- and when they were ready for more, the team took off.
His signature moment came when he benched three-time All-Star Starlin Castro. It seemed like an easy decision, but those moves are never as simple as they look on paper. He was straightforward to Castro and the public, preventing his words from being spun. When he pulled pitcher Jason Hammel from several starts, he again tested his player’s manager label. They were the right moves and they further earned the trust of the team. Even dealing with Lester’s throwing issues to first base, Maddon navigated around the obvious and showed respect to his veteran star.
Over and over again the Cubs manager proved he knew which buttons to push, even when they seemingly weren’t there to be touched. For example, closer Hector Rondon was taken out of his role midseason when Maddon sensed he needed a mental break. When Rondon returned, he was lights out. Maddon’s innate ability to know what’s best for his team might be his greatest skill. He avoided some early pitfalls with his sense for when a change had to be made. How many times do we lament a manager leaving his pitcher in a game too long? For better or worse Maddon was never reactionary.
He also knew his players. Dropping three-year collegiate players Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in the middle of the lineup in a pennant race wasn’t an issue, but the younger Addison Russell needed a softer landing. Batting Russell ninth turned out to be sheer brilliance. It provided the 21-year-old with a chance to see better pitches than he would in the eighth spot and it kept pressure to a minimum -- who remembers the No. 9 hitter? Slowly but surely Russell improved, looking most comfortable when moved back to shortstop. Russell wasn’t ready for the majors when he came up, but Maddon found a unique way to tap his potential. Batting ninth was the right move.
Off the field we all know what Maddon brings to the table, and his philosophies about the game might be a perfect fit for the Cubs. The team traditionally sees a higher number of day games, so Maddon did away with normal procedures. The Cubs went nearly a month without taking batting practice at one point. He allowed his team to arrive an unheard-of 90 minutes before first pitch several times. If anyone can overcome the deficiencies of the Cubs' schedule, it’s Maddon. In fact, his team flourished in the dog days of August. They carried that momentum over to September and October and finished the regular season on an eight-game win streak.
Maddon was brilliant down the stretch. He took advantage of a loaded roster by resting his regulars, rotating them in and out of the lineup. The Cubs weren't out of gas when they were swept by the New York Mets in the NLCS. Maddon kept a young team fresh for seven months of baseball. They nearly played that long.
Both of the other finalists for the award, Terry Collins of the New York Mets and Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals, did masterful jobs this season. But the Cardinals weren’t the first team to overcome injuries and the Mets saw an infusion of talent at the trade deadline in the form of Yoenis Cespedes. Maddon was dealt Tommy Hunter and Dan Haren.
Considering all the elements, from being a first-year skipper in Chicago to managing a young roster to overseeing a team of extremes -- the Cubs struck out the most and walked the most -- Maddon navigated through a season in which a .500 record would have been considered successful. The Cubs were much better than that, earning Maddon his first NL Manager of the Year Award in his very first try in the league.
He deserved it.