The Cubs are stacked, as we all know. Even without Kyle Schwarber, they have a lineup that can score with any group in the American League, as has become evident. And they have a pitching staff that includes Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and John Lackey, the last two of whom have four World Series titles between them.
And in case you’ve forgotten, the Cubs have one of the best managers in the game, something they — and he — seem all too willing to remind us of.
Look, I like Joe Maddon. I find him to be truly interesting, which is more than we can say for the typical tobacco-chewin’, saliva-spittin’, finger-waggin’ horse farmer that baseball managers are perceived as. I look at Joe Girardi, and I see a guy who thinks he’s a hard-ass. I look at Clint Hurdle, and I see a clown. I look at Maddon, and I see someone who spits at the traditional baseball manager mold, which is why I like him.
But the intellectual thing? The beatnik genius-as-manager moniker? It goes too far.
Last weekend, in case you missed it, Maddon twice walked Bryce Harper in a tie game with the bases loaded. Both times it worked. The Cubs walked Harper a stunning 13 times in a four-game series, prompting all of the Maddon suckups — and there are expanding legions of them — to run around declaring how smart he is like chickens with their heads cut off.
So you tell me: Do the ends always justify the means? Or do we just celebrate someone who is willing to try something different as an iconoclast when we’re probably just bored by the customary way of doing things?
Here’s the point: Entering Monday, Harper was hitting .265, and Ryan Zimmerman was batting .236. There is no question who the better player is. But those declaring Maddon’s genius also conveniently overlook the fact that, earlier in Sunday’s game, the Nationals took a 1-0 lead after the Cubs walked Harper (unintentionally) and Zimmerman doubled him home.
Nonetheless, the Cubs still walked Harper twice in extra innings, and retired Zimmerman twice. But to say this decision was “genius” is to overstate it. First, there is simply no way to know if the Cubs would have also retired Harper who, again, was batting .265 by series end. The second is that the sample on Zimmerman is far too small.
When the Cubs and Nationals play again — and if and when Harper is intentionally walked — everything could change. Something as small as a two-run single by Zimmerman would give him a .333 average in such situations, which is a win for the player. We can only hope that Maddon then continues to challenge Zimmerman, because it’s the only way we’ll ever know if the strategy truly works.
Understand? No matter the hitter, no matter the situation, a pitcher wins a confrontation roughly 70 percent of the time. Obviously, those numbers can change depending on left-right and the precise matchup. But you get the idea.
No matter what he did, Maddon had the odds overwhelmingly in his favor on Sunday. So the Cubs win hardly makes him a genius.
Now, if he has the guts to do the same with Harper in the playoffs — if and when the Cubs and Nationals meet — then we might be onto something.
Of course, the national media loves Maddon. He’s quotable, accessible and thoughtful. The baseball media, especially, always loves a guy who fills up the notebook. But every once in a while, the Maddon love gets a little out of control, as if the man has done something that has never been done before.
For example: batting the pitcher eighth isn’t a revolutionary concept. It’s been done before. And for all the attention Maddon got when he flip-flopped infielders — in the middle of an already shifted alignment — well, that crossed over from creative to downright pompous. Okay, we get it. Some guys are better at making some plays than others. So why not move players around for all at-bats, whether they’re shifted or not?
Some maneuvers are creative. Others are hardball masturbation.
Let me say it again: I like Joe Maddon. In a game historically filled with crusty ranchers, his personality, intellect and general coolness are nothing short of refreshing. But baseball was, is and always will be a game won by players — managers can do far more to hurt the cause — and Joe Maddon has a career postseason record of 17-22 with a grand total of one World Series win. Last year, his brilliance could not earn the Cubs a single win in the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets.
This year, Maddon has an even better team. And for the first time in his life, really, he is expected to win. Let’s see how that all goes.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.