“Particular managers may make it easier for teams to sign and retain players, while others make it harder.” — Baseball Between the Numbers, Baseball Prospectus
Joe Maddon doesn’t step into the batter’s box every night and hit 450-foot rockets into the right-field bleachers. He doesn’t gun down runners at home plate. And he doesn’t get lost in the ivy making incredible catches. But every day, he influences the players who do do those things in a thousand different ways. He influences their outlook and mindset, encouraging them go out there and do what they love, be confident about it, and—most importantly—to have fun. He may not add value that’s measurable, in a traditional sense, to the team on the field, but he adds value to each of the men who plays on that field.
“There’s so much that sets him apart,” David Ross told Carrie Muskat in October.
And he’s right, there sure is. His managerial tactics themselves are strong and well-praised, but it’s not like he’s not rewriting the book on how to manage the game. He’s simply changing the way he presents the role he embodies to an eagerly onlooking world. Maddon’s teams are laid back, but aware. Accountable, but not self-deprecating. Confident, but humble. Individual, but equal.
“He creates a winning environment because of his personality and what he believes,” Ross said. Let’s talk about that a little bit.
Mentality and Confidence
The rigors of playing as a rookie coming to the big leagues for the first time can be jarring, especially when you add in the elements that come alongside playing for a contending team such as the Cubs. Maddon understands that your success in this game is directly related to your mentality towards it, and that that’s especially true for young guys.
“He pulled off the impossible, making a bunch of 21-year-olds and 22-, 23-year-olds [who are] 40 years his junior gravitate towards him and feel comfortable around him,” Epstein said of Maddon in a press conference shortly after the season’s end.
That’s part of what adds to his legend: his ability to relate to players in all parts of their journey, through life and through the majors.
“I just think I’m more concerned about mental fatigue than anything.” Maddon said once in a pre-game meeting with the press. “You know physically, they’re young, they’re fine, but you know when you have a couple bad days in a row or a maybe a bad week, it can wear on some guys who have never really gone through it before. So my biggest concern is just keeping it light for them because they work, I mean their work is great, they care. So for me it’s just for me being mindful of all that, and then attempting to help them or aid them in processing all that and keeping their minds intact.”
Maddon radiates positivity. Your mental approach to any situation can change drastically—as can the situation itself—when you’ve been given the correct outcome to envision.
“Not every manager has the confidence he’s got,” Starlin Castro told Muskat about Maddon’s approach to the game. “Every time he goes to the mound and tells the pitcher something, he’s so confident, so positive. That’s why we win a lot of comeback games. He comes out and says, ‘Let’s go, let’s get the win. Next inning, we win the game.’ It’s that simple. Every time he says something, something good happens in the game.”
It is that simple. And Maddon has taught his team that looking at situations through a new set of eyes can create a momentum that expands your entire range of possibilities. For the Cubs in 2015, those possibilities suddenly included winning. No matter what the circumstances were. There was “magic” in this 2015 team. But some people just call it confidence.
Accountable and Humble
When Castro was benched in early August, he admitted that at first he took it personally. Castro eventually realized that no one is guaranteed a spot in the lineup every day.
“In the beginning, I took it really personal. After that, I thought about it. You can’t put those guys on the bench. They’re really hot right now and I understand. I thought about it last night. I’ll do whatever I can do for the team,” Castro said.
Maddon makes his players realize that being benched doesn’t mean that another guy is more worthy than you, or that you’re doing something wrong. That’s because this game isn’t about you, it’s about what is best for the team. Learning to contribute humbly to something bigger than yourself is a valuable life lesson that in turn makes you a more aware teammate and helps you contribute to the success of your club.
“Chemistry was a really important component of this year’s team and the winning mix that we had, and it’s not something that I take for granted at all,” Epstein told the media shortly after the season ended. “That’s what I think what made it so emotional in the clubhouse yesterday. If you look at the organization as a whole from ownership, to the business side, [to the] front office, to Joe and the coaching staff, [to] all 25 players, even the guys who weren’t on roster who came up from the minor leagues, all the way down to the minor-league system. It was the most together, connected, selfless ‘team-first’ organization I’ve seen in a long time. No one was trying to grab any credit or deflect any blame, they all supported each other. I think the whole was the greater than the sum of the parts because of that. That’s magical and that’s to be coveted.”
That is the perfect way to describe it: This team was led by Maddon in a fashion that made them realize that they as a whole were greater than the sum of all their parts.
“Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure.”
If optimism and positivity are the building blocks of confidence, recognition is just as important. The human ego is fragile, and often in need of constant recognition in order for a person to continue striving for excellence.
On a number of occasions, Maddon recognized how hard his team worked, and rewarded them for it. In late September, there was a stretch of games in which Pedro Strop appeared every night. Five straight games, one inning each. Two of these games were against the division rival that Strop notoriously struggled against, the St. Louis Cardinals. The other three were against a team the Cubs were in the midst of a playoff race with, the Pittsburgh Pirates. In these five appearances, Strop did not allow a single run. The next day, when Strop arrived at his locker, he was greeted by a lounge chair and a kiddie pool, with a margarita next to it. He had been not just rewarded, but also publicly recognized for his exceptional performance and hard work.
“I wanted to make it emphatic that he was not playing today,” Maddon told the press about the setup. “So, Strop is not available, he’ll be at the beach.”
Strop went on to pitch four more games the remainder of the season, and allow just one earned run. When the Cubs were about to take a road trip to the west coast late in the season, Maddon decided to opt out of batting practice for the remainder of the homestand to ensure that the players had adequate time with their families and to recharge before a challenging trip ahead.
There is a yin and a yang to his approach to work, if I’m not sounding too trite. It’s a fine balance in that one aids the other to create a perfect symmetry. The diligence felt in these player’s work was always accompanied by the most relaxed and upbeat atmosphere I’d ever felt. Don’t be deceived, it wasn’t a blasé approach in any way. Their work ethic was not compromised, it was merely enhanced. It was the definition of working smarter, not harder.
The phenomena that was created via the clubhouse culture, that then became the team culture, and inevitably the fanbase culture, was closely monitored by the baseball world. It was seen, it was heard, and it was felt. It emanated through every word spoken about the Cubs, and rubbed off on everyone in proximity to it. Suddenly everyone wanted to be a part of it. Players wanted to play in Chicago. To be under the lights of Wrigley Field. To witness the persona of a Joe Maddon clubhouse themselves.
To Be a Part of It
As Carlos Portocarrero pointed out in his recent profile of Joe Maddon as a manager, free agents have been giving out “hometown discounts” to play in places that weren’t necessarily their hometowns in order to play under Maddon’s tutelage. We can call these “Joe Maddon Discounts” for now.
This team had specific needs entering the offseason, and there were specific free agents who were targeted to help meet those needs. Every team has those, but not every team is fortunate enough to be able to land them. The Cubs were that fortunate. Money is common currency in baseball, what the Cubs have to offer is not.
Jason Heyward, who was probably the most carefully targeted free agent all offseason, didn’t accept the largest offer he was extended.
“I told myself going into this process I don’t want to take the highest dollar amount when my gut is telling me to go somewhere else,” Heyward said during his introductory press conference.
When asked what helped fuel his decision, he responded that “knowing what I would get the most enjoyment out of for the rest of my career and that’s from teammates, to city, to fanbase, and opportunity of hopefully one day being able to say I’m a World Series champion.”
Heyward expressed a fervent desire to have fun, and to grow with a great core of young guys. His wishes will be fulfilled in Chicago. He most certainly came to the right place.
When Ben Zobrist (somewhat) unexpectedly signed with the Cubs at the Winter Meetings in December, he expressed his desire to reunite with his former Tampa Bay manager as part of his reason for choosing Chicago.
“I want to play for this team and I want to play for Joe Maddon again, and I want to win a championship as a Chicago Cub, that’s my one goal,” Zobrist said during his press conference in Nashville. “I want to be a part of this.”
Hearing a player refer to this club as simply “this” is the apex of what the Maddon era is about. Maddon hasn’t created something that has led players to say they want to be a part of “this team,” they simply want to be a part of “this,” the atmosphere that has been created, and everything that goes with it. Maddon has attracted value via his methods.
“We’ve become a really attractive destination. It’s not just getting to be one of the final four this year, but it’s the atmosphere at Wrigley Field, the fanbase, it’s that we’re on this tremendous journey to win a World Series for the first time in what will now be 108 years, Joe Maddon and the culture he creates. And veterans want to come here to be part of this surge that we’re having now,” Epstein said of the culture that has emerged.
The combination of a modern front office who welcome the insight of their veteran manager, as well as Maddon’s invaluable point of view is a dynamite combo that has lead to the extraordinary success the Cubs saw in 2015. Of course the success of this team’s offseason cannot be entirely ascribed to Joe Maddon, but he is most definitely garnering this club more attention from the market’s overflowing talent pool than most other managers could. The Cubs didn’t need to pay out millions of dollars over value for players to come running this offseason. They simply needed to unveil the magic that was 2015 as a demonstration for what they could become a part of in 2016.
So no, Joe Maddon still will not be sauntering out onto the field in 2016, hitting home runs with the calm, cool and collected demeanor of Kris Bryant. But he helped influence that calm, cool and collected demeanor. And that’s hidden value that is an exceptional asset to have working in your clubhouse.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Brown—USA Today Sports.