On the day of his introduction as Cubs manager, Joe Maddon declared, “I’m gonna talk World Series this year.” Since that beginning, the eminently quotable Maddon has continued to embrace bold predictions while keeping the young Cubs loose yet focused, and players like Anthony Rizzo have echoed the confident tone set by their philosophical skipper.
And, at last, the postseason is upon us. Since the end of July, the playoffs have supplanted a .500 record as the barometer for a successful Cubs season, and this year’s club finished incredibly strong, tallying 97 victories, and tying the 2008 team for the most wins by a Cubs team in my (admittedly short) lifetime. In the bustling harbor that is BP Wrigleyville and across the expansive sea that is Cubs fandom, it’s become clear that Maddon’s demeanor has helped breed fun baseball—and, more importantly, good baseball—but one thing remains uncertain about the captain steering the ship: how will he manage this particular team in the playoffs?
Luckily, we have quite a bit of data from which to pull in analyzing Maddon’s postseason tendencies. In his third season at the helm of the Tampa Bay Rays (and the first under their new moniker, sans “Devil”), Maddon led the club to their first ever playoff berth and an AL pennant. That surprisingly good team dropped the World Series to the Phillies at the height of their Utley-Rollins powers, but it was a harbinger of good things to come for Tampa Bay and Maddon. Maddon secured the AL Manager of the Year award for his and the team’s performance that season. The Rays, meanwhile, would miss the playoffs in 2009, but win the East again in 2010, adding two more playoff appearances as the AL Wild Card team in 2011 and 2013. In the latter year, Maddon’s Rays bested Cleveland in the new one-game Wild Card playoff, later faltering against the Red Sox as that team marched to their third World Series championship in 10 seasons. Overall, Maddon is 13-17 in the postseason.
This year’s Cubs bear some resemblance to those Rays teams in terms of key young players, but specific personnel differences make it more difficult to translate Maddon’s decision making process one-to-one from the Rays to the Cubs. However, Maddon has some unique tendencies when it comes to tactics in short series and do-or-die situations that likely will become relevant in the Wild Card game and beyond.
Ryan Davis has already analyzed the Cubs’ optimal lineup versus the Gerrit Cole-led Pirates for Wednesday’s Wild Card game in Pittsburgh, so let’s focus more on how Maddon has deployed his pitchers and bench players.
In the 2008 playoffs, Maddon’s first as a manager, he did not hesitate to pull his starters early in games, and exhibited heavy favoritism towards his top relievers, not an unusual playoff strategy. Maddon’s starters—James Shields, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine—averaged a tick under six innings per start in 16 games. Only twice did a Rays starter complete seven innings of work: Shields in a Game One ALCS loss, and Sonnanstine in a Game Four blowout win.
Maddon used a mere seven relievers over those 16 games, relying most heavily on J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler. Edwin Jackson appeared in mop up situations, David Price received a few late-inning, high-leverage situations, and Trever Miller was the LOOGY. Howell actually appeared in six of seven ALCS games and 12 games total. In short, Maddon trusted just a few select bullpen arms to get high-leverage outs in a deep playoff run, going back to the same pitchers night after night. Whether by luck or by skill, the strategy worked well enough to secure a pennant.
The 2008 playoffs are many years ago now, but Maddon stuck to a similar pitching framework in 2010 and 2011, both ALDS losses to Texas. Armed with better starting pitching in the form of an ascendant David Price, Maddon still preferred to get his starters out in the sixth or seventh innings. In the 2013 ALDS—the series featuring the famous “bullpen game”—Maddon only let Price get into the eighth inning.
Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester are better starters than anyone Maddon had in Tampa, save Price, so expect a longer leash where those two are concerned. Right on cue, Maddon has let both of the Cubs’ aces go deep into games and into the pitch count stratosphere when necessary, a tendency highlighted by Sahadev Sharma in his recent piece on Arrieta’s workload. Both pitchers are in prime physical condition and without major arm issues, allowing Maddon to trust each with greater workloads, even as the season draws to a close.
With Jason Hammel or Kyle Hendricks, Maddon will most likely adhere to the template he’s worked from in his previous playoff experiences and in the latter half of the 2015 season. He’ll prevent exposure to his starters a third time through the order, and not hesitate to give the hook early if either pitcher is clearly in want of his stuff or command that night.
Which brings us to Maddon’s bullpen management. Without the knowledge of the front office’s final roster decisions, it’s more difficult to predict how the bullpen will be used, but it’s safe to say that a few arms will receive the lion’s share of the work. Hector Rondon has been the Cubs’ most consistent reliever this season (24.6 percent strikeout rate, 5.3 percent walk rate, 52.4 percent groundball rate, 3.17 Win Probability Added), so he’ll be the closest analogue to 2008 J.P. Howell, and will likely appear in every close game.
Pedro Strop and Travis Wood are firmly in the second tier of relievers at Maddon’s disposal, and both have earned their manager’s trust in key situations both early and late in games. Wood is the wild card of the pen—he can throw three innings in a bullpen game or dial it up for a few important outs—and he figures to be nearly as integral as Rondon to the ‘pen’s postseason success. Don’t be surprised if Maddon uses Wood in an out-of-the-box manner akin to David Price’s role on the ’08 Rays.
Beyond those three, the picture is significantly hazier. Fernando Rodney, Trevor Cahill, and Justin Grimm have shown flashes of dominance this season, but it’s hard to say that any have Maddon’s full confidence. It’s with them that Maddon’s tactical mind will be pressured the most; in the sixth inning of a tie game, with the starter out, who will he choose? Rodney’s changeup and Grimm’s curve both generate strikeouts, so they’re prime “big out” options, but each has had poor outings down the stretch that tug at the back of the mind. The only conclusion easily drawn from a reading of Maddon’s experience and this year’s bullpen is that he’ll use Rondon, Strop, and Wood as often as they can pitch.
When perusing the box scores of Maddon’s playoff games, one thing becomes apparent very quickly: Ben Zobrist was Maddon’s absolute favorite. Maddon played Zobrist all over the diamond—a subject already well covered—and that usage allowed him positional flexibility not only from game to game, but when defensive replacements and hitting matchups became pertinent.
Much has been made of Maddon’s continued creativity with player versatility in his brief Cubs tenure, and rightly so. He’s managed the Cubs depth chart to a great effect, which has played up with his National League roster. Even when he was managing an American League club, Maddon rarely had the big boppers of a traditional slugging AL lineup. He therefore utilized double switches and positional changes to gain slight advantages in defensive alignment and matchups. For example, Game One of the 2013 ALDS: three times, Maddon pinch hit for a starting player, including a struggling Evan Longoria, his star. Or the first game of the 2010 ALDS, in which Maddon switched his catcher, second baseman, and third baseman without even moving Zobrist.
This type of shifting is most likely in a game in which David Ross catches, or when Kris Bryant plays right field, as the Cubs will have significant pop off the bench in the form of Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler. Pinch-hitting several times in one game is more feasible when the team features multiple dangerous bench bats.
Finally, let’s look at how he configured his players defensively late in the 2013 AL Wild Card game: Maddon used Sam Fuld as a pinch-runner in the sixth for Desmond Jennings, with the Rays up 3-0. Two innings later, he moved Fuld to right and inserted Kevin Kiermaier in center, thereby optimizing his outfield defense with flyball pitcher Joel Peralta on the mound. With the season on the line, Maddon sought the best defensive outfield he could muster. Unlike the above example, this type of alignment would be more likely with the Cubs’ usual starters already on the field, the bench more defense-oriented and light-hitting.
Between Bryant, Chris Coghlan, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber, Maddon is going to have a plethora of options, both defensively and with respect to handedness. Chris Denorfia and Austin Jackson also offer solid late-inning defense in the outfield, and we’ve seen Maddon employ them in that role down the stretch. If Hendricks, Hammel, or the Cubs’ flyball-inducing relievers see significant innings, Maddon’s love of the late-inning outfield substitution will become even more relevant. As with the Rays, I expect the Cubs’ fourth, fifth, and even sixth outfielders to get playing time.
As far as pinch-hitting options, the Cubs have an embarrassment of riches compared to other clubs. Tommy La Stella has exhibited a knack for line-drive, pinch-hit singles and doubles, and Maddon will use him accordingly in the middle and late innings. Two of Coghlan, Soler, and Baez will be on the bench for the Wild Card game, so they also offer a balanced array of skills and splits when Maddon is confronted by a pinch-hitting scenario. As in the games described above, bench players will certainly receive key plate appearances as early as the fifth inning, should Maddon yank his starter.
We shouldn’t expect Joe Maddon to radically alter his managing style in the playoffs. After all, we have quite a bit of postseason data from which to pull, and a season’s worth of close analysis of his roster management of this specific team. Maddon’s 2015 Cubs will fit perfectly with his established playoff canon; it’s just that now, he’s conducting a better orchestra.
Lead photo courtesy Kelley L Cox—USA Today Sports.