I recently accused Joe Maddon of being stubborn for his insistence on keeping a struggling Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot.
This is a manager whose batting order spins like a slot machine from game to game, so it didn’t make sense for Maddon to be so married to the Schwarber decision. But it sure looked as if vows had been exchanged.
On Saturday, Maddon had Ben Zobrist leading off – hallelujah! — and Schwarber hitting second for the first time this season. The Cubs-Brewers game was rained out – boo! — but for those of us who think a relocation in the order might help Schwarber get out of his slump, it was a blast of sunshine at soggy Wrigley Field.
Maddon gave a long, involved answer as to why he decided to shake things up, and much of it had to do with Ian Happ, he of the 21 career major-league at-bats, being the key to the universe. Who knew? Also, Zobrist is starting to hit better, Maddon said, and perhaps Schwarber wouldn’t see as many defensive shifts if he came to bat with Zobrist on base.
I don’t know if Maddon has finally waved the white flag on the Schwarber Leadoff Experience, but props to him for unfurling it for at least one day.
“The biggest thing is just to get him untracked a little bit, confidence-wise,’’ Maddon said. “… So we’ll see. We’ll see how it all plays out.’’
There is very little difference between batting first or second, of course, so you can make the argument that if Maddon really wanted to help the team, he’d put Schwarber’s .182 average farther down in the order where it can do less damage. Let the 24-year-old get himself right, and then move him back up in the order.
But that’s not how Maddon rolls, and it’s certainly not how the Cubs roll on Schwarber, in whom they are 100 percent invested emotionally. They love the guy. It’s why the mere suggestion of a Schwarber trade sounds completely tone deaf. Haven’t you heard the sweet nothings management has sent his way since he came up to the big leagues in 2015? He’s not going anywhere. Not to another team. Not to the minors.
Schwarber is probably the most extreme example of Maddon’s mellow-fellow approach to managing, but it spreads to every corner of the clubhouse. We haven’t seen Maddon react negatively to the team’s 21-20 start, and there’s no suggestion he will even if the mediocrity continues the entire season.
“The only thing that really bothers me is when I think players don’t care or their work suffers or their work isn’t what it had been,’’ he said. “I really do anticipate ebb and flow all the time. It’s a really difficult game, especially for the everyday guy. If you’re playing close to 162 games a year, it’s not easy to be perfect every night.
“And on top of that, in spite of our recent success over the last two years, our guys are still very young and inexperienced. You’re seeing a lot of young at-bats right now. That’s the biggest thing that I’m seeing.’’
The Cubs embraced their youthfulness all the way to a World Series title last season, so for them to use it now as a rationalization for their struggles feels … what’s the word? … weak.
But Maddon is all about deflection, about absorbing the blows for his players. Schwarber might be struggling, but you’d never know it listening to his boss. He’s hitting the ball hard, Maddon insists. Jake Arrieta, with a 5.44 earned-run average and an opponent batting average of .291, is only a “snap of the fingers’’ away from getting back to the pitcher he used to be. And so on.
Better to insult the intelligence of the paying customer than to bring down the player. That’s the mindset.
“It’s not the typical 40-, 50-year-ago approach where anger enters into methods in regard to attempting to make something better that’s not so good,’’ Maddon said. “I really want to believe that’s archaic, though if you follow politics these days, maybe some people still believe in it.
“I don’t believe in that method. I never have, actually.’’
A player looking for unconditional support from a manager can’t do better than Maddon. A fan looking for the truth might want to look elsewhere.
“Praise publicly, criticize privately,’’ Maddon said.
In other words, don’t come to him to find out why Addison Russell has gone missing at the plate.