CHICAGO — Joe Maddon likes to work on his lineups at a local coffee shop. Armed with his iPad, the manager looks over a variety of statistics and other data while searching for every edge for the Chicago Cubs.
The process has been the same for Maddon for a long time. But this year is a little different.
Maddon is doing his lineups three days at a time, giving his players an advance look at what to expect for the upcoming series. It is a marked departure from the days of managers posting the starting nine in the clubhouse before the game, or even the modern practice of nightly text messages, and Maddon likes how it’s going so far.
“It’s getting me out in front even a little bit more than I normally have in the past and there’s not anything wrong with that,” he said. “It’s actually a good thing.”
The change in approach is part of Chicago’s reaction to its disappointing finish last season, when it blew a five-game lead in the NL Central in September and lost to Colorado in a wild-card game. The Cubs were hurt by an inconsistent offense last year and scored just one run in three of their last four games.
The advance notice provides more leeway for players when it comes to their daily routine. It creates more flexibility for scheduling time in the cage or studying video of recent at-bats.
“It all depends on what you do on your routine when you’re not playing and what you feel like you need to work on,” outfielder Albert Almora Jr. said.
It’s also designed to help with the confidence level for some players. Plans are predetermined and not based on a tough day at the plate in the previous game. It reduces the pressure of trying to impress Maddon in order to stay in the lineup.
“I kind of like it,” Maddon said, “and there’s always that maneuverability, if I’m not sure I’ll leave a question mark in a spot. I may, I just need a little time on this one. But overall, I kind of like it.”
Maddon also acknowledged its limitations.
There is little certainty about the weather at Wrigley Field from day to day, and Maddon was admittedly concerned about his defensive alignment on a recent windy day in Chicago. Pitching changes for the opposing team also could force Maddon to make adjustments.
Sometimes, other factors come into play.
David Bote was out of the starting lineup for Chicago’s series finale at Arizona after he homered twice during Saturday night’s 9-1 victory. But a group of veteran players convinced Maddon to put him in. Ben Zobrist, the player Bote replaced, entered in the 10th inning and hit a two-run double in the 15th in Chicago’s 6-5 win. The Cubs took two of three from the Diamondbacks to improve to 13-6 since beginning the season with six losses in seven games.
The 65-year-old Maddon “listens to what the guys have and that shows even more respect,” Bote said. “It’s not, ‘I have my way.’ The fact he did that and listened shows a lot of courage. He has a good pulse on the clubhouse.”
At least one former manager is watching the changing attitude toward lineups with some interest.
“You have to have flexibility because I was taught in the end, literally, you can write the lineup where you have two spots and you’ve got to make a decision,” said Tony La Russa, who won three World Series titles as a manager. “You put a lineup up on the wall in the clubhouse and you go out and watch BP and you’re thinking about it and there’s something in the bottom of your gut where it’s not the lineup.”
Positional flexibility helped pave the way for the Cubs’ experiment. Zobrist, Bote, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Daniel Descalso and Jason Heyward can be deployed in a variety of ways, creating lots of different variables when it comes to the lineup.
The 32-year-old Descalso has played for four teams during his 10 years in the majors. He spent the previous two seasons with Arizona, where he found out the night before about who was playing the next day.
“This is the first time I’ve seen where it’s a whole series at a time,” Descalso said, “but I think it’s trending towards at least the night before teams knowing the lineup, whether they text it out or somebody goes around and tells everybody. Now when I first came up it wasn’t necessarily that way. Everyone was just kind of expected to show up ready to play the next day.”
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