Judging a baseball manager’s long-term, direct impact on his team is one of the hardest things to do with any true accuracy. There are of course the ostentatiously bad decisions—bringing a young starter out of the bullpen on three days rest, having the three-hole hitter sacrifice bunt, etc.—that are easy to pick over and scrutinize the day after an important game. But a baseball season is impossibly long, and even the most consistently self-defeating managers positively affect their players in ways that are hard to quantify. Ned Yost was one of the worst managers in baseball, until he wasn’t.
All of which is to say that while I don’t really know precisely how good Joe Maddon is at his job, I do know that he certainly seems fine at the routine day to day stuff, and no manager is better at making in-game decisions that are noticeably good. Maddon was up to his tricks again last night, pushing all the right buttons and helping his Cubs team beat the Mariners in 12 innings.
The Cubs were down 6-0 by the third inning, and starter Brian Matusz was chased early by three two-run homers. Chicago scratched out two runs in the bottom of the fifth, and then Maddon dusted off his new favorite gimmick, swapping reliever Travis Wood between the mound and left field in the sixth and seventh innings. The strategy paid off just like it did in June, with Wood recording four outs and making an impressive catch against the wall in left:
The Cubs scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 6-6, and that’s where it stayed until the bottom of the 12th. Jason Heyward hit a double and advanced to third on a sacrifice fly, at which point Maddon sent pitcher Jon Lester to the plate as a pinch-hitter. Even after Lester had two strikes on him, Maddon called for the squeeze bunt ... and got his team a walk-off victory:
It’s easy to imagine either of Maddon’s big decisions backfiring—what are the chances a middle reliever doesn’t a misplay a tough fly ball, or that a guy with just 18 sacrifice bunts in his career lays down a perfect one with two strikes?—but they came off flawlessly, and Maddon’s reputation as a mad baseball genius got a fresh polish.
Whether or not you believe Maddon is the best manager in baseball—and he has a record of results that say he’s at worst up there with anyone—you can’t ignore his willingness to try really interesting things. If other managers are blackjack players trying to grind out a few hundred bucks over the course of a marathon session, Maddon’s the guy who’s outdoing them at that and always manages to hit on 17 just when he’s thrown down $100.
Maybe quietly guiding your team through a great season only to get crushed the first time you mishandle the bullpen in the playoffs is a sucker’s game. Maybe Maddon’s secret is that he understands that the best way for a manager to both win and win some respect is to do things that demand to be noticed when called for, because why not? Bruce Bochy wins a lot, too, but he probably wouldn’t have won a game by putting a pitcher in left field, and if there’s a bit of showmanship in Maddon’s schemes, who can grudge it?
No sane person would argue that the Cubs’ success this season is down to anything other than the work of the very good players who take the field every day—their utility man is hitting .347/.360/.510 since the All-Star break, for Christ’s sake—but as long as Maddon keeps putting those players in good situations and hitting the occasional showy bet, he’s in line both to win plenty of credit for himself and to deserve it. Not a bad gig if you can swing it.