There are many words we could use to describe Joe Maddon, the relentlessly fascinating manager of your Chicago Cubs. But "traditionalist"? That one wouldn't be in the top 100,000.
Has there ever been any facet of baseball -- tried and commonly accepted for, like, 140 years -- that Maddon couldn't look at and ask: "Why? Are we sure about that?"
The correct answer to that, of course, is: Nope. And that brings us to the Cubs' 2015 lineup card. Maddon has written out one of those lineup cards 51 times this season. And every day, he's done something Herman Franks and Phil Cavaretta never even fantasized about:
Every single game of this season, the pitcher has batted eighth.
Doesn't matter if it's a pitcher who is 0 for the 21st century, like Jon Lester -- or a pitcher with nine career homers like Travis Wood. Into that eighth slot he goes. And into that eighth slot he'll continue to go.
And why is that? Because "I like it," Maddon says.
"When you look at this card and you see that the pitcher is hitting eighth, does it bother you?" Maddon asks, basically interviewing himself for this piece (which we always appreciate). "Do you feel like you're missing out on something? Well, I don't. I really don't."
It makes some people crazy. He knows that. It makes other people curious. And the manager admits he's still one of them, actually. So how did this happen? Why did this happen? And how should we go about judging whether this is working? Let's allow Joe Maddon, the one and only, to explain that to you.
How it began
It was August of 2013. Maddon was still managing the Rays. They were in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers in an interleague game played under National League rules. And as he stared at his lineup card, he found himself more tempted than he'd ever been to do something he'd long thought about -- i.e., batting his pitcher in the 8-hole.
"So I called Tony La Russa and asked him why he did it," Maddon recalls. "I just needed to know more. I mean, I had my ideas, but I wanted to hear what he had to say."
And if you wanted to consult anyone on earth about the merits of hitting the pitcher eighth, La Russa was definitely the man to call. He may not quite have invented the concept. But it's safe to say he's been there, done that. Heading into this season, of the 619 occasions in the last 50 years in which a pitcher had batted eighth, 432 of them were in a Tony La Russa lineup.
So Maddon dialed his number and asked the questions he'd been storing in his brain for years.
"Honestly, when I first saw this with Tony, I didn't know what he was doing," Maddon says now. "But I wanted to know. When I was in the American League, I was thinking: `What's he up to? What's he seeing that I'm missing here?'"
La Russa explained all about the 1998 season, when he controversially bumped up a guy named Mark McGwire from the 4-hole to the 3-hole -- while moving the pitcher from ninth to eighth. And also told Maddon his philosophy behind doing it again a decade later, when he was nudging a fellow named Albert Pujols up a spot in the order (along with the pitcher).
With the exception of the 2008 season, La Russa didn't do this daily, no matter what. It depended on how his other lineup pieces fit together. But his philosophy was logical, even if it was far from indisputable.
He was looking for ways to get more plate appearances for his best hitter. And by hitting a position player in the 9-hole as sort of a second leadoff man, he was trying to increase the chances of his best hitter(s) batting with as many runners on base as possible.
Let the record show that in 2008, Pujols came to the plate with at least one man on base in more than half of his plate appearances -- compared with 47.9 percent of the time the year before, when La Russa used this configuration only sporadically. Interesting, right? Doesn't prove anything. Still intriguing. And after listening, Maddon was more intrigued than ever.
But just as he had questions, we have questions. So here they come:
Shouldn't the No. 9 hitter be a high-OBP guy?
It's been six weeks since hotshot prospect Addison Russell arrived in Chicago. He's spent all but one game of those six weeks hitting ninth -- his eight walks in 139 plate appearances notwithstanding.
If this were just about numbers, Maddon concedes that Russell might not be the ideal No. 9 hitter because he "maybe is not on base at the level you think he's going to be yet. But I think it aids his development, because by hitting 9 as opposed to 8, he should see better pitches by hitting in front of 1-2 [in the order], as opposed to hitting in front of a pitcher, where he's not going to get pitched to at all."
Maddon knows the sabermetricians are debating the science of his lineups pretty much 24/7. But this is the part of this lineup strategy that matters way more to him than to the math majors -- the part about helping a 21-year-old phenom mature faster than he would otherwise.
"I think that's being totally overlooked," Maddon says of Russell's development. "And I think there's a group that might say that's overrated. But I really don't think so. I really think it's cool to break in a 21 year old that way. ...
"If he's hitting in front of the pitcher," Maddon goes on, "you'd have to put him up to at least [the] 7 [hole], with a decent 8-hole hitter behind him, to get him pitched at more constructively to where it could be beneficial to him. But I don't think there's any better spot other than hitting first. And you don't want him to have that extra at-bat yet. By hitting ninth, I think that aids his development."
But to make it work, the manager had to sell it to Russell, make sure he was aware that hitting ninth in this lineup doesn't mean what it meant all his life, in all those other lineups. And Russell has appears to have bought in, telling ESPN Chicago's Jesse Rogers this week: "I believe Joe put me there for a reason. He wants me to succeed. He didn't want to put me in the middle of the lineup and feel that pressure."
At some point, Maddon expects Russell to graduate to a more prestigious spot. But until then, there will be no portion of this experiment that the manager cares about more.
Does it matter that three Cubs pitchers are 0-for-the-season?
Lester, Jake Arrieta and Tsuyoshi Wada made up three-fifths of the Cubs' current starting rotation. Fortunately, their main gig is pitching for a living, since they're 0-for-53 combined at the plate. But they still bat eighth because, well, of course they do.
Asked how the offensive travails of those three sweet swingers factor into his lineup philosophy, Maddon replies, instantly: "Not at all, because they could be 0 for 53 in the 9-hole. And if they're there, in the 9-hole, then that doesn't help [the] 1-2 [hitters]."
But in Maddon's lineup, his No. 9 hitter isn't 0-for-the-millennium. He's a rising superstar, who has already scored as many runs (17) as the Cubs' most frequent cleanup hitter, Starlin Castro. So this isn't just about getting Addison Russell better pitches to hit.
"It's about feeding those behind you," Maddon says. "That's the most important part. And who protects who. It's about protection and feeding. So this way, Addison is protected better. And he brings the potential to feed 2-3. Which I like a lot."
That's because, in the Nos. 2-3 slots, Maddon has Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who might otherwise be hitting 3-4. But under this alignment, they both bat in the first inning every game. Then they have Russell and Dexter Fowler setting up their RBI opportunities later in the game. That's the plan -- and it's one Maddon has tried to contemplate from all perspectives.
"You know, when the lineup is sent over from the other side, I'm always looking at who's hitting behind guys that I think are really good," he says. "You have to protect people. And after I look at that: `Well, who's getting on base in front of him? Who do I have to keep off?'"
If the other manager views his lineup and asks the same questions, he suspects the answers would be more uncomfortable with the pitcher hitting eighth than hitting ninth. But maybe not. After all, no other manager has used this deployment more than eight times this year. Then again, they don't think the way Maddon thinks (as if that would even be possible).
"They only do that when they perceive that the pitcher is a good hitter," Maddon says when asked why other managers seem to pick their spots on this. "And that's not even a criterion for me."
So does this work or not?
As beautifully and meticulously as all this has been thought out, you won't be shocked to hear that many, many people out there still ask: What the heck is Joe Maddon doing? And that isn't just talk-show callers. It's actual baseball people.
"If it worked, everyone would do it," says one longtime big league coach. "But only a small percentage of guys do it. So obviously, we haven't seen anything yet that says that's the way to go."
Well, maybe they should see this. It's the baseballmusings.com lineup analysis tool. And just for fun, we fed the Cubs' most common lineup into it this week -- with the pitcher hitting ninth and Russell eighth, and vice-versa -- just to see what it would tell us.
We even used Lester as the pitcher, since, at 0-for-61 lifetime, he owned the worst offensive numbers of any pitcher in history. And guess what? The simulator projected the Cubs would score 45 more runs this year with Lester in the 8-hole than they would if he were in the 9-hole.
Now that's using current stats, which might be too small a sample. So our esteemed colleague Dan Szymborski, master of the fabled ZIPS projection system, plugged in the projections for the rest of the season and ran the simulation again. His data projected the Cubs would actually score eight more runs with Lester hitting ninth than they would if he hit eighth.
So ... cleared that up convincingly, didn't we?
But mathematical wizards have been messing with these estimates and projections for years and found pretty much the same thing. Batting the pitcher eighth might produce more runs. Or it might not. It depends on so many variables that there's no set answer. But there's very little downside. So after grilling his own information guys in Chicago, Maddon sees no reason to stop doing what he's doing. Even if he recognizes this lineup has its issues at times.
He has faced two different instances, for example, when the No. 3 hitter led off an inning, which led to Lester having to hit with the bases full and two outs. And that, Maddon says, was "bothersome." But "it could happen with the pitcher in the 9-hole, too," he knows. And he's right.
He's also had situations where his No. 7 hitter, Chris Coghlan, doubled with two outs -- "and then here comes your pitcher to hit. And you're thinking, `Wow, I'd like to have a guy here who might be able to drive him in with two outs.'
"But the truth is," he says, "if your 8-hole hitter comes up, he's going to get walked to pitch to the [pitcher]. So I'd rather they just go ahead and pitch to the pitcher and then have a good hitter lead off the next inning in front of 1-2."
Asked if he's confident that he's created more opportunities for Rizzo and Bryant this way than with a traditional lineup, Maddon replies: "You know, it feels that way. But I'd have to see the actual numbers."
"But again," he goes on, "there are two things that can't be underestimated -- the development of Addison and the fact that the pitcher is really only the 8-hole hitter the first time through the lineup."
After that, he's convinced, the lineup flows better this way. And when the pitcher's spot comes up for a third time, this gets even more intriguing -- because he feels as though he often gets to take a shot, with a better bat off the bench, one spot earlier than the other manager.
"I mean, that's how I look at it because, really, here comes the third time through and a lot of times, that would be an interesting part, too," Maddon says. "At what point do you actually hit for the pitcher in the National League? Is it his third at-bat? Is it his fourth at-bat? His three and a half at-bat? When do you normally hit for the pitcher? That would be an interesting thing to look at."
Well, the answer, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is the third at-bat. (Pitchers have been pinch-hit for after 3.07 plate appearances this season, 3.09 last season to be exact).
But ultimately, much as he loves it when the information matches his philosophies (or the other way around), this is just another time when Joe Maddon has more than one reason for doing what he's doing. Part math. Part science. Part psychology. Part player development.
It's a reflection of the qualities that make him one of the best managers alive. He's a blend of all of the above. But mostly, he's never afraid to question tradition and convention -- and do what his gut (and spreadsheets) tell him needs to be done.
In this case, "I'm not the first," he admits. "Really. Tony was the trailblazer with all this stuff primarily. But I like to believe I'm a good listener. And I truly believe I don't know everything. But to me, for all the reasons I've just given you, this makes the most sense for us right now."
And if it doesn't make sense to the rest of Planet Baseball? Well, that's just one more excuse for Joe Maddon to ask: Why not?