Joe Maddon’s Trust in His Young Core

Like many of you, I read  Bernie Miklasz’s recent takedown of Mike Matheny from a few weeks ago principally for the schadenfreude. (A German word meaning “a new emotion as of November 2, 2016.”) As I did so, I noticed that one criticism in particular sounded awfully familiar:

“Matheny, as always, remains dutiful and deferential to his veteran players. He doesn’t want to upset them, and must make sure they sign off on any change in plans. If the Beloved Leader of Men insists on a more disciplined, structured and labor-intensive camp — you know, because he’s in charge and all — and the veterans disapprove, Matheny may tick them off. And Mike can’t afford to have that happen. He counts on them to keep the clubhouse in line and can’t alienate them. He’s compromised.”

Now, I’m not going to pile on the Cardinals at this point. They’ve had a rough week. And really, joking about this would be mean spirited, petty, and beneath all of us now that the Cubs are world champions…

…so I’ll limit myself to just one:

I’d say the Best Fans in Baseball should give Miklasz a standing ovation, but it’s not like he advanced a runner by grounding into a double play.

That’s much better.

Looking again at that passage, Matheny’s predilection for deferring to his veterans at all times sounds an awful lot like it could also describe most Cub managers of the past two decades. That list reads like a who’s who of who hates 24 year olds…

Don Baylor loathed young players almost as much as he hated innings with less than two bunts.

Dusty Baker couldn’t be bothered to give rookies playing time when there was a season to be saved and Neifi Perez on his roster.

Mike Quade could have seen a veteran player commit on-field manslaughter and still complain to the media that Starlin Castro could have stopped it, but he chose not to hustle.

Sweet merciful Jesus. Those really were the bad old days. And as with most of Cubs history, by “days” I mean “decades.” The list of Cub managers is the only page on Baseball Reference sponsored by Zoloft. All of this is a long set up to remind you of this important fact:

One of the biggest reasons why Joe Maddon is a great manager is that he has the confidence to put his young players in positions to succeed instead of reflexively deferring to his veterans in every situation. It sounds like a relatively minor detail, but as the above examples show, this quality is astonishingly rare in a game whose biggest currency is service time.

Given the front office’s multi-year commitment to rebuilding with youth, it seems obvious that the one quality they would prize in a manager would be that kind of self-assuredness. And yet, even though we know how much thought they put into everything, their first choice to lead the rebuilding effort was still Dale Sveum.

Perhaps they thought the best way to relate to millennials was the inability to properly use the word “those.”

Sveum’s tough love approach backfired in 2013. After that had become clear, Theo Epstein explicitly stated what he had learned in his statement regarding Sveum’s firing:

“The losing has been hard on all of us, but we now have one of the top farm systems in baseball, some of the very best prospects in the game, and a clear path forward. In order for us to win with this group – and win consistently – we must have the best possible environment for young players to learn, develop and thrive at the major league level. We must have clear and cohesive communication with our players about the most important parts of the game.”

Compare that with Maddon’s self evaluation about why a 62 year old hipster is so skilled in relating with modern day players:

“I’m over 50 by several years but I so identify with what they’re doing and and how they do it. The one thing I always wanted to do is remain contemporary…I just think if you permit yourself an openness to be absorbed in what’s going on, then you can. If you want to fight that for some strange reason, which a lot of people do, then at some point you deem yourself unemployable.”

That was one of the biggest keys to the success of the rebuild. In hiring Maddon, Epstein was bringing in a manager whose personal philosophy was to actively seek common ground with the young players he was going to direct and who would not instinctively negate their experiences just because they were new to the majors. And because he accorded his young core that respect, he was more likely to earn his players’ trust. Which in turn would enable his message to resonate more.

Case in point: last year, his players succeeded in not sucking more profoundly than any Cub team in history.

Since first and second year players formed the backbone of the 2015 and 2016 Cubs, this quality in their manager was essential to their success. But Maddon’s respect for the youth of his team was so much more than just appealing to his stars. When a manager is given mega-prospects like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, their abilities make it easier for him to put them in positions to shine once they’re called up to the big leagues.

Instead, the best way to illustrate how starkly Maddon’s approach contrasts with his predecessors is found in the way he introduced a role player like Rob Zastryzny to the big league level.

Zastryzny was a young pitcher with genuine talent. But the only way he’d make it to the top of the Cubs’ prospect rankings is if Baseball America were guest edited by his mom. Because of this, he’s a great example of how Maddon’s approach to his young players pays off when he puts them in a position to succeed.

On a Joe Maddon team, it’s made clear to all of his players that they’ve been promoted to the majors for a reason and he wants to give them a chance to demonstrate that as quickly as possible. Which was why Zastryzny’s major league debut was in the 10th inning of a tie game against Colorado in Coors Field. And even when he walked the bases loaded, Maddon left him in to work out of it by getting Gerardo Parra to ground to first.

That benefits of that kind of challenge were not lost on Zastryzny:

“My goal was to be someone they could go to, help them win a game, and I figured early on I might be thrown into a 10-1 game. Going in my debut in a tie game in the 10th is a good way for me to show I can be trusted.”

On the day of Zastryzny’s debut, the message was clear: Joe Maddon trusts your ability to pitch more than his ability to pronounce your name.

Under the current regime, trust in a player isn’t bequeathed because of service time and track record—it’s assumed as soon as that player reaches the majors. When that level of trust is combined with the talent of the Cubs’ young core, it creates an infectious atmosphere that allows for joyful innovations like the Wrigley Field party room.

And then it gives the team 103 reasons to use it.

Lead photo courtesy Mark J. Rebilas—USA Today Sports

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1 comment on “Joe Maddon’s Trust in His Young Core”

There were a number of comments made last year by young players who were amazed how acceptingly they were treated by vets. I forget if it was Heyward or someone else who specifically said it was unusual that there wasn’t a caste system of seniority – but that vets treated the newbies like peers rather than porters.

I’m not sure if this foundation was explicitly laid by Joe, a result of observing his leadership or someone like Lester/Ross making that but so much of baseball is a head game – I’m wondering what impact that makes on these kids. People often rise to the expectations of them and I’m wondering how much of a role that plays in Willson, Albert and even Javy continuing to make spectacular growth…

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