In Search of The Baseballogical Constant: Is it possible to know the impact of Joe Maddon, the front office, and the rest of the organization?

One of the things that fascinates me outside of baseball is science.   Part of that reason is that the more you know about science, the more you find you don’t know.

And so then I wonder about baseball.  There is so much more we know about it then we did in 1980, which was a lot more than we knew in 1950, and so on.  The amount of information available to even the average fan is staggering.   The information available to those in the industry is even greater.  Over time, that information has become more equally spread out among the organizations.

Yet, we still fail to accurately predict the rise and fall of teams from season to season.  Who could have predicted the collapse of the Nationals?  Or the rise of the Royals last year…or the Cubs this year?  For all the information at our disposal, there is still so much we don’t know.  In the words of baseball guru Bill James,

We haven’t figured out anything yet. A hundred years from now, we won’t have begun to have the game figured out.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment here, I am going to digress a bit into  the world of science, but we’ll get back to baseball in a moment.

As Albert Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity, he noticed despite all the information he had, the numbers in his equations seemed to be missing something.   The equations were intended to describe the interactions of gravity  at a fundamental level.  The problem was that the equations just didn’t work.   There seemed to be a mysterious, unknown force in play that was throwing the numbers off.  In science, theory is more than just a guess, it has to be testable and make consistent, accurate predictions about our world.   Einstein’s solution was to fudge the equation with what he called the Cosmological Constant — and suddenly everything worked out just fine.  The trouble is, Einstein didn’t really know that constituted that constant.  He just knew that it made the equations work.  It now stood the scrutiny  of tests and made accurate predictions about gravity.

As more information about the nature of our universe came to light, Einstein came to regard this as his biggest blunder.  Yet, strangely enough. as even more information became available, it turns out he was on to something after all.  You see, for all the known mass in the universe, the billions of stars, planets and other matter within the billions of galaxies — none of it comes close to measuring the amount of gravity  in the universe.  In fact, that percentage of known matter compared to the mass of the universe is estimated at 4%.  The rest of the universe is made of what is called dark matter and dark energy.  And yet, nobody fully understands exactly what that is.  The Cosmological Constant now represents this unknown part of the universe.

Okay, enough about science.  How does this pertain to baseball?

Well, I have sort of a (non-scientific) theory of baseball.  Sometimes  we get so involved in measuring what we know that we forget to consider what we don’t know.  We have a pretty good idea now about statistics and predicting performance to a reasonable degree, we can calculate probabilities based on historical trends and data.  We’re pretty good at predicting what will happen given a certain set of parameters — but I wonder if that is only the tip of the iceberg — that 4% of the observable baseball universe.  What about that vacuum — the stuff we don’t see or the stuff that doesn’t happen?

What  I mean is — how do we know that the Cubs wouldn’t have imploded as the Nationals did without Maddon at the helm?  Or, less dramatically, how do we know they wouldn’t have seemingly worn down over the course of the season the way the Astros may have?  On August 31st, the Astros had a 96.8% chance of making the playoffs and an 87.8% chance of winning the division.  Less than one month later, those odds are now at 44.1% and 3.1%, respectively, and if the season were to end today, the Astros would suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs.  Was it a simple regression to the mean or is there something else there that we can’t measure?

What happened in Washington and Houston?  Or what didn’t happen to the Cubs?

There’s so much that we can speculate on.  We know Joe Maddon is most respected for the atmosphere he creates, not so much the Xs and Os, which most experts agree have a small impact over the course  of a season.  Did he keep the pressure off the team and take that burden on himself?  Did his creative use of match-ups get the most out of players and, perhaps even more importantly, keep the regulars fresh (and possibly healthy) and the bench players involved and in the flow of a long season?  Did the clubhouse culture prevent the Cubs from getting too high  or too low during the season and prevent extended losing streaks?  Does his ability to prepare young players for the rigors of baseball put them in a position to succeed?  How do we even begin to factor that into wins and losses over the course of a season?

Maddon seems to seamlessly bring in young players like Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber, and Tommy LaStella and get immediate value from them.  He was able to pull of the shortstop switch mid-season — and even more to the point, replaced an in-prime 2014 all-star with a rookie — something that just isn’t done in baseball.  And even rarer still is it done with the kind of success we’ve seen.  Starlin Castro has not only remained happy but he has also been a big factor down the stretch between the lines.  Could Dale Sveum have pulled that off with such aplomb?   The questions can go on and on.  Did pulling Kyle Hendricks early in the first couple of months save enough in the tank for him to help fuel a late season resurgence?  Did temporarily removing Hector Rondon from the closer role after a couple of poor outing give him a chance  re-charge his batteries and return to form down the stretch?  Conversely, did his patience in sticking with Dexter Fowler and Chris Coghlan pay off as the season progressed?  Are there late season tailspins that didn’t happen because of what Maddon did — or did not do — earlier in the season?

Who knows?

And while we’re at it, how about the front office’s foresight in hiring him in the first place?  They saw enough value to fire a one year manager who himself had some success getting the best out of young players.  They deemed it important enough to withstand the criticism that it would bring as well as risking the perception of tampering.  There was obviously more to their thinking than the game-to-game strategic baseball decisions.

They’ve also handed over some of the reins of control to Maddon when it comes to decision making and roster construction.  That is a tacit admission that Joe knows baseball on a level that they do not — in the clubhouse and in the day-to-day grind of a season.  Part of being smart is understanding what you don’t know — and recognizing that there are others who can fill that void.

Again, we turn to the Einstein of baseball, Bill James, who admits now that he was skeptical of such off the field stuff — but that it was his mistake, perhaps his “biggest blunder”,

“I have to take my share of responsibility for promoting skepticism about things that I didn’t understand as well as I might have,” he says. “What I would say NOW is that skepticism should be directed at things that are actually untrue rather than things that are difficult to measure.

“œLeadership is one player having an effect on his teammates. There is nothing about that that should invite skepticism. People have an effect on one another in every area of life. We all affect another’s work. You just can’€™t really measure that in an individual-accounting framework.”

James has admitted he made the mistake early on of dismissing the value of those with expertise and experience within the game — and perhaps this is something that Theo Epstein and his staff took to heart.  Perhaps that was the biggest part of the motivation of bringing in not just Maddon, but also players like David Ross, Jon Lester and Miguel Montero — all of whom have been lauded for keeping this team focused, prepared, and on an even keel all season.

Did that make a difference?  Again, who can really say with any degree of certainty?

How much of the Cubs resurgence has been pure talent and how much has been the intangible — the dark matter/dark energy of baseball– is unknown.  There is no Baseballogical Constant that we are yet aware of.  We just know it exists and that in some mysterious way, it just makes this team work.

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  • Very Interesting article.

  • In reply to CubfanInUT:

    Thanks!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Johnn,excellent article. In the purest sense of the word you just descrined what the term "winner" means, which in sport or life is managing people to succed as well as using what you have to work with properly. The best football coaches for example, the Shulas and the Lombardis, adapted there styles to fit the talent on there teams. Joe Madden has done the same here.

  • Great work John. I had tweeted to you a question last week about what Ricky Renteria would have done with this Cubs team and these young players. This is exactly the response I thought you would provide in terms of quality of thoughtfulness. THANK YOU.

  • In reply to Gator:

    Thanks Gator -- and sorry I missed your question on Twitter. What is your handle?

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    ArchieTex

  • In reply to Gator:

    Ahh yes. Have seen you on there quite a bit.

  • Joe Maddon: harnessing the power of dark energy for years.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    :)

  • Cool analogy, John. This Cubs Dark Matter will soon be on a level with the Cardinal Devil Magic that I've heard someone refer to in these comments. Won't that be a good feeling?

  • In reply to criggilyk:

    That would be a great thing. And thanks.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Great article I rhink you touched on the biggest factor in sports as in life. When it comes to a certain situation or a season there is no way to measure human nature, discipline, confidence or buying into a plan. Yet it is real. Now for a career sybermetrics is pretty good gauge of future results.

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    Thank you. I think the pursuit of unknown is what makes life -- and baseball -- interesting.

  • Of course all of this matters. As the recently departed Yogi Berra said, "Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical". When looking at the power, size, and speed of these physically gifted athletes, I think we forget that the mental aspect of the game is even more important. Maddon gets this and has found a way to make the teams he manages better because of it.

  • In reply to Senator Blutarski:

    I almost used that quote -- I wasn't able to work it in, so thanks. The fact that the measurements don't add up make it so appropriate -- and using Yogi Berra and Albert Einstein wisdom in the same context would have been perfect.

  • Just because something can't be measured, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

    Just because something can be measured, doesn't mean we understand it.

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    "Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts" --Albert Einstein

    Is that basically what you mean?

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Kind of. If I was going to modify his wording to meet my meaning it would be:
    Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts, or doesn't necessarily count what we think it counts

  • fb_avatar
    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    It took me a couple readings of the last part but that is true. It would be like assuming that HR=power. They may be closely correlated, but not necessarily equivalent.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Very true.

  • I'm sure there are means of quantifying his effectiveness.

    Someone would have to go through every managerial decision over a year, perhaps assign a batting average to decisions, gather private opinions from personnel, and perhaps rate the effectiveness of a manager's teaching.

    Seems hard to do, because it is.

    Non-scientifically, I can say that Theo, Jed, Maddon, Ricketts, Mcleod, Bosio, are many teachers here who have combined in their efforts, and while it would be nice to single out the individual impact of each one, what we know is that "as a whole", they are doing fantastic.

    So, as a non-religious person, I'm simply going to have faith in this regime.

    Would anyone like to quantify or measure that? :) :) :)

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    Too many variables and unknowns within that premise to come up with practical quantifiable data. We don't know the outcome until it is observed. How do we know what would have happened if something was done or not done? We can only speculate about what might have happened, but we really don't know how things would have turned out differently.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I disagree on the outcomes being observed.

    If Joe brings in Rodney instead of Rosscup, and Rodney gives up a homerun in a tight spot to a left handed hitter with poor leftie counting stats, some type of a negative/positive point could be assigned with enough thinking on the topic.

    The variables within are huge, I agree. Perhaps Rodney is better against lefties than Rosscup. Perhaps the hitter has a great history against Rosscup, poor history vs Rodney.

    But, these are observable outcomes. How do get the data consistent is a larger question.

    I think someone could tail a manager all season, or compile stats on a manager. This would be all after a season of course, you wouldn't be able to quantify in season anymore than you would be able to predict Jon Lester's closing performance after the first month.

    While I agree we don't know how things would have turned out differently, the same is done with player's batting averages, and other counting stats.

    Variables such as FIP try to measure performance beyond simple ERA for example. Perhaps something could be made for managers over time.

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    I am talking about more than isolated situations. We have a statistical guess as to who might succeed vs another player in a given situation -- but as mentioned and is the central part of the article, those game-to-game strategic moves have been shown to have little impact over the course of time. Those kinds of decisions are not really addressed in this piece -- that has already been done by those with greater statistical expertise than me. This is not about the Xs and Os or game strategy. It's about what may or may not have happened without Maddon and some of his decisions on a larger scale. Or if there was someone else making the decisions. As an example, Given his sometimes contentious relationship with Castro, could Sveum have made the same move? If not, how does that affect the rest of the season? And if he does make the move, can he get Castro to buy in? And if he doesn't how might that affect the season? Would it have divided the clubhouse? Remember that Castro is very popular with his teammates -- in turn, how does that affect Addison Russell knowing that some would have taken Castro's side? The answer to these questions can truly be quantified because we just don't know. We cannot say with any degree of certainty whether things would have worked out differently. We can say that Castro did x, y, and z since the move in this instance. We can say the Cubs won X number of games since that move in this instance. But we cannot know if some of those unquantifiable questions I mentioned would have had an impact one way or the other. All we do know is that there are elements that affect the game outside the numbers. And as James said, we know this is the case in our own lives. Who we work with and work for can affect our performance one way or the other regardless of our talent.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I'll give Joe a ton of credit for creating an environment where Russell could take over and Starlin could work his way back slowly to the old Castro we see (and welcome with open arms) today.

    But i don't think it took a savant to see that the move had to be made and I don't think the Cubs accidentally messed him up by over coaching the last few years either. I'm sure mistakes were made, but only Starlin could find himself. As Hal Holbrook said to Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) in "Wallstreet"...."man finds himself looking into the abyss and doesn't see anything staring back at him; and that's when man finds his character."

  • In reply to refugee:

    And to Starlin's credit--he handled the whole thing with as much humility and class as one could hope for..very impressive!

  • In reply to givejonadollar:

    Well and to highlight the problems with trying to measure this in even individual situations is there is so much we don't know. We have usage patterns, but we don't always know whether Rosscup arm is sore and unavailable on a particular day. Also the mental state of players is important and Maddon seems like on of the best handling that. How do you quantify where a player's head is at? Again this is a task that more than a few have undertook (trying to quantify the value of managers), but it seems like we will never have enough information to quantify absolutely.

  • OT, but here is a link to an article that is of particular interest to a lot of fans, and a subject that has come up in recent discussions here regarding the Cubs inability to get runners home from third. None of us were imagining it, they actually are the worst in the league:

    http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/cubs/post/_/id/34676/cubs-achilles-heel-scoring-from-third-base

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Been noticing that for some time now with the Cubs.

    I chalk it up to still being a young team, but it seems like many of the players get fooled by the low and outside pitch and let the ball, right down, the middle go by (for a strike).

    This was evident during the Sunday night game particularly with Castro who was flying open early and still trying to reach the low outside (by several inches) pitch, and by Soler who takes a lot good pitches, then gets crazy and starts swinging at the low outside stuff in the dirt. Not trying to pick on either player, but simply using them as an example of poor approach at the plate. Sometimes, it looks like they are totally guessing on what the next pitch will be and swinging no matter what.

    All our hitters should study old Pitch-Track graphics (from previous games) to see how pitchers are pitching them lately.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Great article, and it makes a lot of sense in light of the the type of lineup the Cubs put on the field. The power potential is fantastic, but so is the strikeout potential. That's the reality of a power lineup - awesome hitting displays one day followed by zilch the next day. That's why the FO brought in La Stella and Fowler, and that's why I think Cubs fans will be surprised at some of the deals that take place this offseason. The team needs a player or two that can put the ball in play when needed, even if they don't hit 25 HRs.

  • Great article as usual, John. I'll admit I never thought a manager could have this kind of impact, but then again, the Cubs have never had a manager as good as Joe in my lifetime. The handling of the Castro/Russell situation was tricky and he pulled it off beautifully.

    As someone who has worked my current job with both positive friendly people and dour negative people at various times, I can appreciate how the influence of co-workers brings out or dampens natural talent and work ethic. I'd sure rather work for someone who throws pajama parties than someone who yells and screams all day.

  • In reply to jmarsh123:

    There are so many unknown variables in baseball, and in life. Some influences will never be quantifiable. None of us have been at the top level of the athletic world, but your point about the differences of being surrounded by positivity vs. negativity can be understood by everyone. No doubt that a positive atmosphere increases productivity and performance, regardless the task at hand.

  • In reply to jmarsh123:

    Thank you.

    And that is a good point. We have all encountered people we have worked for and worked with that have affected our own performance -- either in a positive or negative way. Sometimes the environment of the workplace itself can do that. I've worked for great bosses and bad ones. Luckily, the "boss" we have here at ChicagoNow is a great one,

  • Having great teachers who know how get the best out of a player
    is the key. With so many young players, and more to come, this
    is the greatest key to success.

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    Agreed. Especially important with young kids who are learning and I think the front office recognized that early.

  • As we are on the verge of a playoff game next week involving the Cubs I look back to the day a few years ago when Theo was first hired. Then came Jed and McLeod. Bosio was kept on. Next came Maddon. It has been a long 3 years with lots and lots of players passing through, lots of losses, and lots of draft picks. The 3 year journey has been painful at times but now as we start what I predict will be a number of seasons with a number of playoff appearance it has been so worth it! Onward!

  • In reply to cubbybear7753:

    Here is my observations of teams reaching the playoffs and winning the world series:

    To get to the playoffs you need run producers a deep bullpen and good starting pitching.

    To win in the playoffs and win the world series you need 2 or 3 top starters. A top closer and OBP that can get runs in from 3rd with less than 2 outs in the playoffs you will see (cole, wacha, lynn, wainright, grienke, degrom, harvey, kershaw etc.) Not likely to put up big numbers against those guys u better take advantage when u can.

  • In reply to bleachercreature:

    Couldn't agree with you more.

    Three years ago these kind of discussions seemed light years away.

  • In reply to cubbybear7753:

    Onward!

  • The players the FO brought in this last offseason, Fowler, Ross, Montero, Lester, they will have an impact on this team years after they leave. They are not only bringing leadership qualities to the team now, but teaching those skills to the younger players as well.

  • I do think Maddon deserves a ton of credit, but the young talent on this team is ridiculous. For me late July was the real eye opener. The team had a good record thanks largely to do with Maddon's dark matter. But the offense was really scuffling. Rizzo was the only one going well. Bryant was slowing down. Fowler hadn't got hot yet. Castro, went to crap. Russell still hadn't figured out how to contribute at the plate. Soler got hurt. Coghlan was the teams second best hitter. And Montero, their starting C, was just about to miss 1 month. At the time I honestly thought, "Oh well, it was a fun ride while it lasted". And next year looks bright. And I was really ruing that Castillo for Medina trade, thinking Montero's injury was about to torpedo their season. But instead, Schwarber came up and gave the offense a HUGE boost. Quickly becoming the team's best hitter outside of Rizzo, and the next thing I new the offense took off. Fowler jumped. Russell started contributing. Eventually Castro and Bryant turned it around, Castro in a huge way, while Bryant just came out the other end of his struggles. As much as I love Maddon. It was Schwarber who provided the perfect shot in the arm for the team at exactly the right moment. I'm loving that he's working his way out of his struggles too. What a beast.

  • In reply to SenatorMendoza:

    Talent is no doubt part of the equation, but we only need look back at some of the failures in this organization to know that isn't enough by itself.

  • John, I love this article. Brilliant. But it raises important questions.

    Don't the points you make here tend, at least to some extent, to undercut the regular focus on "process" and the analytics? For example, if this was "Astro's Den" instead of Cubs Den, I could see someone here on August 31 relying on our 96.8% chance of making the playoffs to rebut some assertion. People routinely cite to the Pythagoran W-L as if its gospel. Yet, as you note those numbers clearly failed to predict the Nationals collapse, the Astros' struggles, the rise of the Royals last year, or the Cubs this years.

    I am a big believer in what you perfectly coin the "dark matter" of baseball. I've always called it
    "baseball magic." You can't measure it, but sometimes you see it or at least sense it. The problem is because the dark matter cannot be identified, measured or quantified, how do you factor it into "good process?" I believe the good process is based primarily on the analytics and probabilities. Good process says follow the analytics and don't do dumb stuff. So when do you NOT follow the analytics? When and how do you account for the dark matter?

    Wasn't bringing up Russell so early contrary to what was generally considered "good process?" Same with Schwarber. Both didn't get the same level of MiLB seasoning that Bryant got. Both got less seasoning in the minors; the exact same thing we've often criticized the prior regimes for, from Castro, to Patterson, to Pie and others.

    The 1984 and 2003 Cubs were not predicted to do much going into their season. But by mid-season, you knew those teams had the "magic" and "dark matter" on their side. And this ties into a point I made yesterday. I'd say the FO failed to recognize the dark matter surrounding this team in time to get the one additional quality pitcher we all wished we had should we win the Wild Card game.

    On the other hand, maybe they're smarter than all of us know. Maybe they know the dark matter will guide Hendricks, Hammel and/or Haren to a legendary performance in an NLDS or NlCS or even in the . . . .I won't say it.

    Maybe that will happen and we'll only be able to chalk it up to dark matter. All of which is to say that they don't give out trophies based on Paythagoran calculations and probabilties.

  • In reply to TTP:

    Thanks. I think it is simply my learning more about the game and learning how much I don't know. My nature is to try to understand everything but as I've grown older, I've become more comfortable with the unknown.

    I do say the Astros case may be a simple regression to the mean. Many predicted them to be around .500 or a little above, and that seems to be about right where they are headed. Yet those projects were much loftier going into September. With more information, the projections were adjusted -- and yet they have come up short, so perhaps there is something more to this.

    The Astros are very similar to the Cubs in the way they have rebuilt but the Cubs seem to delve much more into those intangibles -- the hiring of Joe Maddon, the signing of veterans with a specific purpose off the field as well as on the field...does that make a difference? I really don't know -- and that is kind of what I am trying to say here. But if I'm the Astros, I have to at least look into the possibility of doing things differently -- but they're a very data-driven team and they're very good at it, so maybe they stick to that bread and butter. It'll be interesting to see how they approach the offseason.

  • Great article! I don’t think any of us can imagine the rigors of a 162 game season with its wear & tear on the mind & body. In my opinion we would not be in the playoffs if it were not for Joe Maddon’s management style.

  • In reply to Holtzman’sNoNo:

    Thanks. I think that has been a huge factor. 162 games is a long, long season -- and the pressures can get to you even when things go well.

  • Fantastic article, John. The premise of immeasurable science and its effect on measurables is a topic I love.

    As a man of unshakeable faith in God, I question things just as much if not more than the next guy. Without delving into what faith means, I think whether it is religion, science, or baseball statistics, we are guilty of our innate desire to only regard quantifiable measurables as valuable and truth -- we forget that sometimes it's ok to accept an unknown qualifiable as truth, too. Would it be great to find a way to measure Joe's, Theo's, and Jed's impact? Absolutely. But like your article suggests, sometimes it's enough just to admit there's something there and let that stand as a qualifiable truth alone. After all, if we can't measure God and miracles, how can we expect to measure the effect of a pajama party with minion onesies?!

  • In reply to CubbieRoad:

    Thank you. I think there is that innate desire and for some, myself included, that desire to see tangible evidence for everything is what drives me. At the same time, I have come to expect that some things simply won't be known in my lifetime -- if ever. But for me, that should not stop us from pursuing the unknown in our own way. It is that pursuit that helps make us what we are.

  • John, I always enjoy your writing. You often point out angles that others might miss and generates some lively discussion. I'm not kidding though when I say with this piece you've outdone yourself. Well done! One of the things I've liked about this FO since the beginning is that they are multifaceted in their approach. You wrote a piece earlier this year on how much character matters to them and that shows all over the field from Kris Bryant, to Joe Maddon and even to someone like Starlin Castro who they didn't draft but did sign and kept around. The character of all three of these guys (and others of course) has mattered this year in various ways and yet one of the things you point out is that Theo risked his own character being questioned when he pursued and hired Maddon. Those things would seem to be incongruous but aren't at all when you examine it.

    I have some serious baseball biases that affect how I predict the game. I like excess of pitching because seemingly every heartbreaking loss comes down to bad pitching and every wonderful thing comes down to great pitching (hello Madison Bumgarner, Jake Arrieta etc.). I know that's way too simplistic and as you've pointed out stockpiling aces often doesn't work and yet I looked at the Washington Nationals as the best team, on paper preseason, that I had ever seen. That was obviously completely wrong but you sure can't blame Max Scherzer for that. Another bias is that I get ideas about guys and don't let go of them despite the evidence. I thought, and still do on some levels, that Ned Yost was one of the worst managers I had ever seen. I thought he cost his team the division last year and was sure Oakland was going to knock them out in the WC game. Yeah, they played in the World Series. Despite that I still said they should fire him going into this year and bring in someone more competent. Wrong again. The thing I failed to value is how much those guys love to play for him. They know he has their backs and they play with a chip on their shoulders, not unlike Yost himself. I wouldn't hire that guy for all the tea in China but he works for the Kansas City Royals and that can't be denied. Biases can get you in trouble.

    This Cubs team is more than the sum of their parts. No one can deny that. There are probably non Cubs fans that aren't seeing them every day that think the success is fluky. It isn't. There is an odd mix of things going on that can't be explained by stats or even conventional wisdom about the game. I really hung my hat on teh factoid that no team had ever reached the postseason with four rookies with as many combined AB as these four. I had 100 plus years of baseball telling me it couldn't be done. They did it. It is in our very nature as humans and especially baseball fans to predict what's going to happen but on the other hand one of the things I and I suspect many others love so much about this game is the unpredictability. The wind blows out and it's a pitcher’s duel, the wind blows in and they hit 6 HR. I think what this team has done thought is to try to control the things they can like putting character guys with talent in the right places and not try to control the things they can't. Again, thanks for this John. I've been thinking about many of these same thoughts myself and it's great for us to be able to explore them here.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Thank you, TC. Appreciate the kind words and also for sharing your perspective. I enjoyed it.

  • Great writing as usual... Baseball is a pleasant blend of objective and subjective analysis. I like to think of baseball as an intellectual sport - sure the game involves athletics, but much more than other pro sports, baseball requires deep thinking. We have seen this from top to bottom in the Cubs organization and it has richly paid off already this season.

    Plain English

  • In reply to Plain English:

    Thank you and well said. I think that is precisely why so many of us love baseball.

  • Great article John.

    In my work, the average fan has no idea of the crazy analytics and tools we use. Its fun to see the speculation on the internet, but the actual truth in the what-and-how would be surprising to them.

    I'd love to be a fly on the wall to find out what sort of closely guarded metrics and data mining goes on with the front office. I'm sure I would just be blown away.

    Having said that, we still have not figured out how to effectively capture variability due to things like human emotion, team chemistry, injuries or external anomalies (i.e. weather, conditions, etc). And it prevents the science of analytics from being completely reliable. Sure, it helps with decisions and playing the percentages, but human intuition is still important. So despite being one of these number crunchers, I fully concede that managers, coaches, etc are still key players to overall performance.

  • In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    One of the things John mentioned was how we could measure how Joe Maddon has a greater impact on this team than Ricky Renteria would have. That's impossible to know. Renteria and Maddon share a quality in that they can relate to young ballplayers and I'm still of the belief that Renteria has it in him to be a very good, maybe great manager. They had completely different rosters and, although only separated by a year, managed in very different portions of the rebuild. Still I would have doubt in saying that Renteria would not have this team at 92 wins with 5 games to go. I can't prove it but I'll stand by it. I'll also stand by the fact that I think Joe Maddon has impacted more wins than the usual +/- 3 that are often credited to managers. Not everything is a stat and that is both maddening and exhilarating at the same time.

  • In reply to TC154:

    I would imagine that you'd somehow have to normalize the performance of each roster year in order to objectively assess impact when a manager enters or leaves. But, yeah, impossible to me to fathom how one would do this. However, I wouldn't put it past this FO to somehow attempt to quantify this.

    Speaking of impossible metrics, it makes me think of the time when two of our team members WAGS got into a fight and dragged the team into the drama. Again, another example something you can't put a number on or predict as it relates to overall performance. It's still up to "scouting" to keep you informed of those potential landmines and a good manager to diffuse them.

  • In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    Thanks, Demon. I really do believe that there is a lot of intuitiveness in play with this organization in addition to that data. I think it is especially true of Maddon -- I think that is where his true brilliance lies.

  • Last year Baez was such a loud flop. This year, he is such a quiet, well-integrated success. Coaching.

  • In reply to wastrel:

    His use of Baez has been outstanding. Has really put him in a position to succeed.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    Some of it is/was coaching, as Wastrel says. And a significant part of it was putting him in situations to succeed. Last year he was kind of "thrown to the wolves". But I think a third, though not necessarily final, ingredient was another 300+ PAs in AAA. He experienced prolonged success there and fought through a couple slumps successfully. I think some of what he struggled with last year was self-efficacy. It is one thing to be confident, it is another to have even a little less self-doubt. He looks like he has a plan and the game has "slowed down" for him.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I agree ,but as I see it, Baez is a defensive replacement and RH PH in the playoffs. Joe has kept him out of most games against TOR pitchers and the equivalent when the BP takes over. He'll get his chance next yr to show if his approach works against something other than AAA or AAAA pitchers at the MLB level.

  • In reply to wastrel:

    You do have to remember tho that they brought Baez up to see where he was and give him the experience. While he flopped, so did Rizzo the first time around. Letting youngsters come up and fail often gives them perspective for when they return--if they do return. Alcantara may become a perfect example. Will he be back? Maybe.

  • All this deep, philosophical discussion is starting to hurt my noggin. I'm going to grab a cold one and watch the game. What time is the game? Grabbing a cold one anyway... Go Cubs!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Heading that way soon. :) Cheers!

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    Cheers, my friend!

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Haha! I need to wind down with some baseball myself.

    A cold one sounds good. I skipped going to the park today. Taking a break from a late heat wave here!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I almost feel bad for you, John. Having to miss that leisurely stroll down the the Cubs complex to soak up some laid-back baseball nirvana. Almost :).

  • In reply to BarleyPop:

    Haha. I regret not going now, but at least I got some errands done I have been putting off for too long.

  • I don't know if having Maddon pulling the strings on the field was the difference maker,...

    I don't know if under another coach - Soler, Bryant, Russell, Schwarber, and a transplanted and demoted Castro would have done so well,...

    But what I do knows is that I - and most of us - looked at the team pulling out of the gate in April and figured it was a 85 (or so) win team that had an outside shot at a wild-card play-in,.... and with a handful of games left to play in the season, we have a team that has the 3rd best record in MLB, 92 wins already iced,... and has the WC play-in game in hand already.

    Other than Alcantara never quite getting it together, Olt and La Stella missing most of the season (can't blame the manager for that), and a few misfires in the bullpen and in getting anything resembling consistency out of the #4 and #5 starting pitchers,....

    These guys played close to a flawless season,... and a lot of that has to be attributed to the coaching,... and to the management smart enough to put these pieces together in front of him.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Agreed. They certainly have outperformed expectations -- even with a down year from Castro, a replacement level year from Soler, and some pretty slow starts by key players.

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    In reply to drkazmd65:

    Thanks for the reminder that, of the young players ONLY Alcantara had significant struggles this year. And that doesn't mean he can't "put it together" next season. Could he put together a .700 OPS season and bounce around? That could be interesting if he does.

  • In reply to Joel Mayer:

    Alcantara's struggles last season (especially the high K-rate, 90-odd Ks in 300 PAs) were worrisome going into this season. However he has some power, speed and versatility.

    First half of the season in Iowa after he got demoted - he actually wasn't terrible,.. but he ended the season in kind of a tailspin. Still had good power and great speed,... but his solid contact rate after the All-Star break was bad.

    I suspect Alcantara will get through the Winter on the team - but - that's not a given. He's probably too talented to give up on completely yet. I think he still has an option year too,...

    But yeah - if Alcantara ends up being the only significant flame-out of the guys we thought would be contributors after last season into this season - that's also a sign that the coaching has been doing a fine job.

  • Of the countable and knowable: Wrigley is again the third most expensive place to attend a ballgame behind Yankee Stadium (No. 2) and Fenway (No.1).

    http://www.bankrate.com/lite/smart-spending/most-expensive-mlb-stadiums-9.aspx

  • Nice article John. Particularly enjoyed seeing all the different ways the FO brought in leadership. I was skeptical when we brought in 2 catchers to replace Castillo, but the leadership they both bring can be seen just by watching a few games. And to me, that leadership has been impressive. Maybe there is no quantitative measurement for it, but qualitatively it seems obvious to me. I'm happy giving them all sorts of credit for the performance of the team this year.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    Agree, not all veterans are created equal in the clubhouse or on the field. The front office chose wisely.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    The catcher shift was huge. Welington Castillo is a good player who is going to get better at those nuances, but the Cubs really needed that boost sooner rather than later. It turned out to be a prescient move.

  • Scene from the Wrigleyville Starbucks where Theo was first spotted back in 2011 - Joe and Theo are sitting at their favorite table:

    JOE: So Russell made every play!
    THEO: Wow.
    JOE: The plays were great too, really smooth—none of those exciting errors. You know those?
    THEO: Oh yeah: Wow! I can’t believe he got to it…and then threw it into the stands.
    JOE: Yeah.
    THEO: Hate those.
    JOE: The worst part is that Russell possesses many of the other qualities prized by the Big League Manager.
    THEO: I see.
    JOE: So as you can see, I've got a bit of a problem here.
    THEO: Well, if I hear you correctly--and I think that I do--my advice to you is to finish your meal, pay your check, leave here, and never mention this to anyone again.
    JOE: Can't be done, huh?
    THEO: The Shortstop Switch?
    JOE: "The Shortstop Switch."
    THEO: Can't be done.
    JOE: I wonder.
    THEO: Do you realize in the entire history of western civilization no one has successfully accomplished the Shortstop Switch during the season? In the Dead Ball Era you could get locked up for even suggesting it!
    JOE: They didn't have two shortstops on the same team in the Dead Ball Era.
    THEO: Well, I'm sure at some point between the years 1900 and 1920--somewhere--there were two quality shortstops on the same team.
    JOE: The point is I intend to undertake this. And I'll do it with or without you. So if you're scared, if you haven't got the stomach for this, let's get it out right now! And I'll go on my own. If not, you can get on board and we can get to work! Now what's it going to be?
    THEO: All right, dammit, I'm in.

  • In reply to CubsFanInGermany:

    Haha! Nicely done. Glad you caught the reference.

    Not sure if you saw my earlier piece on that. I was skeptical at the time but Maddon pulled it off!

    http://www.chicagonow.com/cubs-den/2015/04/can-the-cubs-pull-off-the-shortstop-switch/

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    And I like your extended version of that scene much better!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Thanks!

    I did not see your article in April, but it is a spot on reference on your part. The Seinfeld scene crystallized in my mind when I saw the lone.

  • In reply to CubsFanInGermany:

    Awesome!

  • In reply to CubsFanInGermany:

    Hmmm... You might be on to something. That's around the time Maddon said he needed to grow a moustache (facial hair) too.

  • In reply to CubsFanInGermany:

    Reminiscent of a Seinfeld scene...

  • In reply to CubsFanInGermany:

    I've been thinking lately that the Shortstop Switch is one of the most significant moves that propelled this team. But not simply because it improved our defense at SS.

    Undertaking that move must've sent a clear message to everyone on the team that no one is above the good of team, even one of their star, marque veteran players. Its signaled that this team is all about winning. And that's huge.

    Second, Castro's reaction also sent a similar strong message to everyone on the team that he too is on message and gets it. It's all about team. It's all about winning. It one for all and all for one.

    So I am convinced that the Shortstop Switch is one the key factors that propelled the team to these unforeseen heights.

  • In reply to TTP:

    Spot on, dude. Very astute observation.

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    I think having a relaxed clubhouse atmosphere really does help. And I like Maddon's ability to as John said keep everyone involved. Almost every player gets time in games. And Joe seems to make a point of using any young players called up immediately. Almost everyone gets AB's and appearances out of the pen. I think that helps. Relating to the science theme I don't know where, but there is definitely a black hole in Nationals Park. Presumably in the home clubhouse. Seriously though from the outside looking in the Nats seem to be a mess. What happened there?

  • Great article!

  • In reply to tirofish:

    Thanks!

  • All of us who read these great comments on this blog are nothing but kids in grown up clothes. Maddon knows how to let these kids have fun at what they do. I loved to see Rizzo's teammates calling for the ball that Rizzo got hit with for the 30th time. They felt free to be a little outside of the box because Maddon gives them that freedom! I hope Don Baylor was watching, he would have chuckled as well.

  • In reply to Tennwolfeman:

    Agreed!

  • Really interesting article on ESPN about cashing in runners from 3rd with less than 2 outs. Turns out the Cubs are terrible at it.
    http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/cubs/post/_/id/34676/cubs-achilles-heel-scoring-from-third-base
    Coghlan stuck out in my mind. He's crapped the bed a few times in recent weeks. I had looked at his situational #s on baseball-reference and he didn't seem THAT bad. But basically with a runner on 3rd he'll he walk or K. It partially explains why a guy with pretty solid performance and plenty of ABs, with reasonable power only has 41 RBIs. He'd probably be best served as the Cubs #9 hitter.

  • John, I'd like to see your take (perhaps a future article) on how Maddon has employed Castro the past few months. I sometimes wonder if the same routine and expectations (starting at shortstop every day) just allows his mind to wander and lose focus. Perhaps moving him in/out/around the lineup and field just appeals to his instinctual style of play allowing him to thrive. Maybe he no longer needs to think too much and it keeps him on his toes.

  • In reply to DemonBerryhill:

    I don't know. That is tough to answer because Castro did have some very good seasons playing everyday at the same position and he still occasionally loses focus in his new role. I think it is just who he is -- a good ballplayer who has lapses and can play poorly for some stretches.

  • Well, the players aren't robots. And Joe being the master psychologist, plays to their human side first to get the most of their baseball side. As far as Bill James & all of the sabermetrics & trying to figure out the Nationals, their is that "human" side again, & funny, we call it team "chemistry"... But it's also why the games aren't played in the computers, they are played on the field. So there's that balance of human/sabermetrics & that Hawkism, "WTW"...

    I think the players are part bionic, & organic, not a cyborg... call them psychotrons. ;o)

  • Since john went science on us... in statistical analysis, there are CTQs (critical to quality). These are variables that have an impact on something, and the goal is to solve an equation with multiple variables (known as "x's" )for an output variable (known as "Y"). Through statistics, the relative weights of each variable can be calculated so that some variables are very important and carry lots of weight and other variables are ruled out as not being significsnt to an outcome. In baseball Y is essentially winning percentage, and we have a descent understanding as to what variables impact winning percentage. however, each X is also an equation that can be a function of several small x's, so ultimately the equation is like an onion with several layers of equations within equations all impacting the ultimate output,winning baseball games.

    Anyone who has played sports at a competitive level should understand the idea that some teams " gel" better than others and that can impact winning. The problem is quantifying it and assigning it a weight in an equation with other variables that ultimately impacts winning. Is pre game pep talk a function of slugging percentag? Did rizzo hit a double the other day because Joe gave him a slap on the backside before the game, or was it the fact that the team chef cut the chicken breast 0.1 oz smaller than usual so rizzo was less bloated and was able to get to the ball quicker in order to drive it up the gap. The answer is, we don't know and we probably never will. The problem is simply to complex to solve for. What we do know is that Joe maddon seems to have a cosmological constsnt. Tampa got better under his reign, Chicago got better under his reign. Theo seems to have a cosmological constant. Boston got better under his watch, and so did the cubs. Beyond that, we can't deduce much more. Some insincerely complex set of variables led to a certain performance on the field, which ultimately led to a certain winning percentage

  • Down here n Houston, their fans are truly frustrated having the beginning they've had. Some stats which are interested. The Astros Pythagorean is 89-69 which would be leading their division by 3.5 games,instead of trailing by 2.5. On the contrary the Cubs are playing 6 games over their Pythagorean which would still have them in the playoffs. Certainly I give Maddon credit for much of the difference.

    The Astros have collapsed in September with a 10-16 record. Their first losing month. And you can put most of the blame on their bullpen with a 2-9 record and a WHIP which has ballooned to 1.458. In August it was 1.062. The Cubs record in September is 18-9 and the pen is having its best month with a WHIP of 1.045.

    Incidentally the Cubs pitchers over 30 are 41-26. With the Astros, its 26-40.

  • Interesting. Schwarbs is leading off tonight.

  • In reply to Denizen Kane:

    If the Cubs do not get a "true" leadoff hitter next year I think you will see that a lot.

  • Okay John, fess up time. Dr. Michio Kaku was sitting next to you when you wrote today's blog, right?

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    Does this eventually come down to nature vs. nurture and how they relate to each other. How does management get the most out of the talent throughout the organization. It must start with the kind of person drafted/signed. Now it also, and this is where not only Maddon but the coaches too, handle those who have been here already. I think he could write a book about Startlin Castro's year. It was masterful how he handled it and how Starlin received it and put team above self. I would really like to read the inside stories of how it went down and how now, some 5 or 6 weeks later Castro has reinvented himself not only as a 2nd baseman but as an accomplished hitter too. I don't want to overlook Russell's attitude in this too. How did he relate to Castro and what went on between them? Everyone seems to haved pulled together on this team. They seem to have fun--remember when Hererra hit the HR and came out for a curtain call when there wasn't one. Everyone had a great time.
    This is a unified group of individuals molded by Maddon and the FO and the minor league coaches etc. It all works.

  • I think joe has done a great job but i also think the talent was clearly upgraded and i think we need to give castro more of the credit than joe for begin mature and more of a team player than he was perceived to be.

  • John, you write better articles than professional journalists (unless you get income from this site that you just don't advertise).

  • You mean, there IS such a thing as team "chemistry?" There might actually be something to all that talk of "gelling," synergy and the anti-matter of "clubhouse cancers?" And, the manager has something to do with all of this?

  • John,

    Great article, and some of the little things really do make a huge difference, when you think about clubhouse chemistry, leadership, etc. For what it's worth, the Wash. Post has spent the week disecting the Nationals season trying to figure out how the Nats train ran off the tracks.

  • This is just excellent. One of the most enjoyable Cubs/baseball related things I've read in a while.

    Joe Maddon's intangibles may never be fully appreciated, though probably never fully understood, until he wins a World Series. I hate to get ahead of myself, but I think the possibility is there this year (and not in the generic "This is the year!" sort of way), and if not, 2016 and 2017 hold real promise.

    Great stuff as usual, John.

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    Really love this stuff! One of the big unknowns in my opinion was how well the organization has been able to first discover talent and then secondly develop that talent. If we go back to 2013 for a moment, we were right smack dab in the middle of this tear down and acquiring talent by any means possible rebuild.

    Much of the comments from that point through last Winter was how we would not be able to rely on these youngsters because they haven't done anything at the major league level. Personally, this left a bad taste in my mouth. Was there no hope? How long were we going to have to wait before these youngsters "proved" themselves and more importantly pushed us into a team that was a good bet to make the playoffs each year. This is what we really wanted because everyone knows that if you just get a chance to make the playoffs, you have a chance to win it all.

    I made a bold stance right then and right there. The Cubs would make the playoffs in 2015! Was I crazy? Did I know something others didn't? Maybe a little of both, lol? Maybe it was more hope than anything but what I really based my prediction on was the "process."

    What exactly is this process? We can all describe it but what made scouts start it off by choosing certain guys over others? Most fans immediately turn to stats to be the "true" worth of a player. But I think it has to go deeper than that or we don't find guys like Arrieta. We don't draft a guy like Schwarber over Michael Conforto. Houston grabs Bryant before us!

  • Speaking of Alberts, can't wait to see how much dark matter Almora brings to the club!

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