For me, today was one of the most exciting days in recent Cubs history since, well, when Theo Epstein was introduced as the Cubs president of baseball operations. Today, Joe Maddon would have his introductory press conference as Cubs manager.
As I listened to him talk, he revealed some very encouraging nuggets about his managerial philosophy. For example:
- he doesn’t like to put pressure on his players
- the key to player success is not as much their physical talent as much as what’s between their ears
- he’s a big fan of the Malcolm Gladwell book Blink, which I’m currently in the middle of reading myself
- he combines old-school scouting eyes with new-school number-crunching.
- he doesn’t like to wear out his players, particularly as the season grinds on (“being first at the park and last to leave doesn’t impress me”), a criticism of Dusty Baker during his tenure with the Cubs.
- how important it is to him to have a relationship with his players where they trust each other
Those are all philosophies that I myself uphold as a head coach at the youth baseball level.
But as I listened to all these nuggets, my mind wandered a bit: where does Joe Maddon rank in the list of best MLB managers?
After all, San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy just won his third World Series title in the last five years. Bochy is not big on sabermetrics (though he’s not anti-sabermetrics). But he holds unorthodox philosophies that I myself uphold, such as using your closer in a high-leverage situation—even if it’s in the seventh inning—rather than reserving the closer strictly for the ninth inning, and demoting someone who isn’t performing well even if he’s a highly-paid star (e.g., Tim Lincecum). Maddon apparently won’t do the former.
Then there’s (hack! hack!) St. Louis’ Mike Matheny. He is what Fangraphs called “saber-friendly” (though he’s not completely pro-sabermetrics). On making decisions, Matheny said, “For me, first and foremost is gut instinct. Second is understanding the players. There are things that statistical analysis can’t help with, and the state of the individual players is going to rate really high with me. But is statistical data going to play into every decision? I would say yes. I want to make an educated decision with everything I do.” That sounds eerily like Maddon: the Blink-style gut instincts, resonating with players, understanding the state of the players, and sabermetric data all coming into play in his decision-making.
What’s more, Matheny’s infamous youth baseball manifesto showed that he cared a lot about what was between their ears, that he doesn’t like to put pressure on his players, and that he institutes a respected culture of authority—more attributes that sound like Maddon. Matheny’s managing style is likely a big reason that the Cardinals still had success (two NLCS appearances and one World Series appearance) despite losing their Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa and famed pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Other than Bochy and Matheny, it’s hard to say with certainty who the top managers are. Certainly Kansas City’s Ned Yost could be in the conversation but I’d personally like to see more than one year of success before anointing him as one of the best. The Yankees’ Joe Girardi could be a candidate but you have to wonder if your next-door neighbor could be a good Yankees manager given the roster of highly-paid superstars that the Yankees almost always collect.
I was mildly excited when Dusty Baker and Lou Pinella came to the Cubs. But I’m really pumped about Maddon. Given Maddon’s success with the low-budget Rays in the ultracompetitive American League East division, it’s hard not to get excited about what Maddon can do with the Cubs. And if Maddon can indeed help lead the Cubs to a World Series championship, he would automatically shoot to the top of the list of best MLB managers because if you can do what no other manager in the last 106 years has done, you deserve it.