Even by his standards, free-radical Joe Maddon is out there this year
Cubs manager Joe Maddon is having a tough early season, hitting to all fields in the ballpark of strange.
If he’s not insisting on Kyle Schwarber leading off, despite a batting average that has been on a six-week crash diet, he’s talking about ‘‘awkward’’ scheduling being a factor in his team’s mediocre start and railing against the emasculation of baseball.
Can a guy complain the game is going soft when he allowed a mime to entertain his players during spring training last year? I’ve checked the rulebook, and the answer is no.
Let’s start with Schwarber. I don’t know anybody who dislikes the kid. There might be people who are frustrated he has reached legendary status in Chicago based on a short story of a résumé, but it’s hard not to like his swing, his smile and his squatness.
Whether he should be the Cubs’ leadoff hitter was a huge debate in town even before the season started. The idea of a power hitter batting first never bothered me. I just chalked it up to Maddon wanting to be different, also known as ‘‘Joe’s reason for living.’’
But now that Schwarber is hitting a flyweight .179, Maddon’s stubbornness is showing. One of Maddon’s hallmarks is his unpredictability. His players check the lineup every day because they never know what position they might be playing and where they might be hitting in the order. For reasons that escape me, Schwarber has been exempt from the controlled chaos. He has hit leadoff in 32 of the Cubs’ 37 games.
Please don’t bring up former Cub Dexter Fowler as a comp. Yes, he was a fixture in the leadoff spot for the North Siders last season when he wasn’t injured, but he was also an eight-year veteran and finished 2016 with a .393 on-base percentage, 11th-best in baseball. Schwarber’s on-base percentage this season is .313, tied for 124th.
Maddon is being inconsistent with his mad-scientist lineup act. It’s possible he’s worried he’ll hurt the confidence of a slumping player even more by moving him down in the lineup, but giving a player a change of scenery in the batting order sometimes does wonders.
The answer to the Schwarber problem isn’t this question: Who else would you bat first? That’s beside the point. But if you insist: Anybody else.
Meanwhile, Maddon has gone all-in on what he perceives as the scourge of daintiness seeping into the game. His anger flared Saturday in St. Louis, when Cubs rookie Ian Happ slid past second base, breaking up a possible double play and allowing a run to score. The baseball rulebook says players have to make a ‘‘bona fide attempt’’ not to slide past the bag. The second-base umpire said Happ hadn’t. Both Happ and batter Anthony Rizzo were called out, ending the inning and wiping the run off the scoreboard.
‘‘There was nothing egregiously dangerous on the part of our runner,’’ Maddon said after the game. ‘‘Don’t give me hyperbole and office-created rules because I’m not into those things.’’
Protecting players is part of managers’ job descriptions, but it always has bothered me that the ire skippers direct at umpires or the other team never seems to find its way to their own guys. The Cubs aren’t playing well, but you’d never know it from the way Maddon describes his team, which is this/close to breaking out, if you listen to him.
Would it kill him to let the reality of a blah start seep into his answers to reporters’ questions? If he’s worried he’ll lose his players with some pointed remarks, then he never really had them. Thirty errors, the third-highest total in the majors, should lead a manager to scream publicly, ‘‘For the sake of all that is good and right, catch the damn ball!’’
Perhaps Maddon really does hate the slide rule, which went into effect in 2016. But it’s just as likely he’s trying to take some heat off his scuffling team, which has lost three consecutive series and is 18-19 heading into a 10-game homestand that starts Tuesday. If so, it’s not working.
Maddon said recently that the defending World Series champions’ early-season schedule might be the culprit behind a sub-.500 start.
‘‘I think right from the beginning of the year our schedule’s been kind of awkward,’’ he said. ‘‘Nobody’s really had a chance to settle in.’’
An unwieldy schedule. As excuses go, that’s a new one.
Why is Joe off to a rough start this season? Either the sun has been in his eyes or the dog ate his homework.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.