Joe Maddon is not new to this game.
When you consider experience, Maddon is someone who has seen the game through a variety of lenses. Outside of his minor league career as a player, he scouted, coached, was a roving hitting instructor and bench coach. His first managerial job with Tampa was after three decades in the game.
He knows a lot. Development, training, growth, talent assessment, production, you name it. He is not in Chicago by accident. The bullet points are indisputable. One of which now has a world championship next to it.
Yet today, a manager is evaluated very differently than those that were hired during the bulk of Maddon’s decades of experience. What used to be a pipeline of candidates, paying their dues, learning the system inside and out by being on the ground and slowly climbing rung by rung, is now a grooming system. Managers are grown in a new kind of farm, special assistants who are taken behind the curtain, pumped with information, shown the keys to the system and trusted to implement them at the highest level.
And to earn the top job, it is not required to have managed before. Anywhere.
The wave of managers that came along under this new model was deep. The Brewers, the NL Central division winners from a year ago and Cubs’ nemesis, are led by Craig Counsell, who took a path of hands-on training in their system. But so did Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, Walt Weiss and many others. Aaron Boone and Alex Cora were first year managers who both won 100 or more games…in their first seasons. All respected former players. Who needs the minor leagues?
Joe Maddon is in the midst of the collision between then and now. He is not necessarily old school because of his age or experience (he has wild, themed trips and keeps young guys loose), but because he took every step under the baseball sun to be where he is now.
Baseball in 2019 is much more about algorithms, methodologies and predictive calculations and the mindset of leadership in how it is conveyed to the players. There are forecasting models, there are rules to most effectively use your bullpen, there is data out of a player’s ear hole that frame how he can be most productive with two strikes.
Just like instant replay, when the technology arrived to be able to see things we used to not be able to see, how can we not use it to make better calls? The data is there now. We know the best times to steal a base. At least the numbers do.
Then, in walks Mark Loretta, the Cubs’ new bench coach. You will want to be a fly on the wall when Maddon and Loretta have meetings. Loretta, who I played with in winter ball in Puerto Rico, listened to the soundtrack to Les Miserables when we drove to games. He would trade Imagine Dragons and a player to be named later for a Broadway musical. Sharp as a tack. Maddon could pour him a glass of 10th century wine and the two of them could figure out how we could play baseball on Mars. Someone put a mic in that room.
Loretta took the new school path. A former player (a fantastic hitter, by the way) who was taught like an apprentice, not like someone climbing a ladder to the top. He then moves laterally into a major league job and instantly becomes a potential heir apparent.
This is today; managers are surrounded by coaching staffs that are full of people that could replace them in a drop of an analytics game day packet.
In the case of Loretta, and as I learned from interviewing for the Rays job in 2014, the bench coach is a trusted advisor. He must be in the know and make a soulful connection to the beat of the team. A manager cannot possibly have the pulse of every player on every day of the season. You need someone else to have the pulse too, to be ten steps ahead and earn the confidence of the team, beyond how they can help you win.
That is a lot of power to share with anyone, especially someone who could one day be your replacement.
But that is the relationship of today’s managers, the same coach who sits on your shoulder and gives you real-time advice, is the same guy that you see over your shoulder inching his way to your throne. Succession planning at its finest.
I am confident Maddon-Loretta will get along fine and together will make the Cubs a better team in many ways. They are crossing paths at a time when the role and qualifications of a manager have changed dramatically in the last five to seven years. Experience not required. And by the way, these kinds of new school managers have been highly successful. So, it is hard to argue against its success, even if they never saw the inside of a minor league manager’s office.
In the meantime, like any time in the win-now mode, as the Cubs are in, it will be important for Maddon to get off to a good start, an inspired start. The Reds are better, the Brewers are not backing down, the Cardinals are, well, the Cardinals. The Cubs struggled to 95 wins. One piece here, one ball bounce there and they have a division title in 2018, but other organizations made moves too (see Paul Goldschmidt). No one sits still, even if they are going backwards.
The Cubs are not sitting still either and only the games will tell us what that means for 2019. Spring training is right around the corner, and we should know up front that the Maddon-Loretta braintrust will be pivotal in whether the Cubs bring home a ring or if “now” one day will take over for “then.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.