There may be a method to Joe Maddon’s madness, but good luck trying to figure it out.
No matter how hot rookie shortstop Addison Russell is hitting, the Cubs’ first-year manager always pencils him in on his lineup card in the same spot in the batting order: ninth.
Slugging rookie Kris Bryant’s natural fielding position is third, but that hasn’t stopped Maddon from playing him in all three outfield positions at times this season.
On a team loaded with big young sluggers like Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber, Maddon regularly bats Chris Coghlan third in the batting order. No surprise that Coghlan has thrived. Despite never hitting more than nine home runs in any of his previous six seasons in the majors, Coughlan, on Sunday, belted his 16th round-tripper.
Call Maddon crazy, but he’s crazy like a fox.
That’s why the bespectacled 61-year-old from Hazleton, Pennsylvania, looks like the top candidate to take home the 2015 National League’s Manager of the Year Award.
CBS Sports’ Matt Snyder predicted a month ago that Maddon would win the award “with ease” over other potential contenders, including the Mets’ Terry Collins, the Cards’ Mike Matheny, and the Pirates’ Clint Hurdle. Little has changed in the last month to weaken Maddon’s hold as the leading candidate.
Maddon’s unorthodox ways have led to a reversal of fortune for the North Siders, who last year finished dead last in the NL Central with a 73-89 record. Through Sunday the Cubs had the fourth-best record in baseball at 82-60 and, if things hold, are in line to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
It’s the kind of turnaround that won Maddon his first Manager of the Year Award in 2008, as skipper for the Tampa Bay Rays, when he led a team of young players that won a division title over the heavily favored New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. He won the award again in 2011 with the Rays.
If Maddon pulls off his third Manager of the Year Award this season, he would be the fourth Cubs’ manager to get the accolade since MLB started giving it out in 1983. The previous Cub managers to take home the managerial trophy were Jim Frey in 1984, Don Zimmer in 1989, and Lou Piniella in 2008.
What has set Maddon apart from all of his managerial counterparts is his uncanny ability to get the best of out what he’s given, even if that means doing things in ways that haven’t been done before. He consistently challenges the status quo of baseball, a game where strategies have changed little over the last century.
Even when he upsets the apple cart, as he did when he surprised many by benching three-time All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro, his moves usually seem to work out for the better of all. Indeed, since losing his starting job on August 7, when his batting average slipped to.236, Castro found his hitting stroke. Cubs Geek’s Aaron Helman reported in an article on September 12 that since August 7, “Castro’s slashed .364 / .373 / .545, good for an OPS of .918, almost 200 points higher than his career average.”
But perhaps Maddon’s greatest feat has been keeping a young team that oftentimes includes four rookies in its starting lineup from caving under the unique pressure of playing for a franchise with a losing tradition unlike any other in all of professional sports. Even during the inevitable bumps in the road – the late June Cards’ sweep in St. Louis or the late July sweep by the lowly Phillies – Maddon kept his youthful squat believing. Mostly, he kept them loose, by reminding them – over and over again – that baseball is a game. Whether he was bringing a magician into the clubhouse or orchestrating a pajama party, Maddon emphasized that baseball is supposed to be fun. It’s a great lesson being taught by the oldest kid in the clubhouse.