If Joe Maddon’s lineup ideas spur Cubs, give Tony La Russa, Mark McGwire assists
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It was a quiet piece of team history the Cubs and manager Joe Maddon made Sunday that got overshadowed by all that went – and, painfully, didn’t go – flush in the night during Sunday’s opener against the St. Louis Cardinals (not the least of which was the 3-0 loss itself).
But a simple change in a century of team thinking that led Maddon to bat the pitcher eighth with a second leadoff-type man in the 9 hole could wind up being a key to unlocking more runs from a still flawed lineup – and maybe even get the lineup’s marquee hitter, Anthony Rizzo, a shot at 100 RBIs.
“It’s like a paradigm shift, trying to get people to think differently,” Maddon said.
That the Cubs were shut out Sunday doesn’t mean the idea of feeding more potential RBI chances into the two and three spots didn’t work (the bigger problem was that Jorge Soler and Rizzo went 0-for-4 when they got those chances).
Maddon’s inspiration goes back to conversations in recent years with former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who did it for more than a decade when he had No. 3 hitters such as Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols – who were susceptible to getting pitched around without enough overall support from the lineup.
“The first time I did it in ’98 we had McGwire hitting third,” La Russa said. “We had a nice situation where you had Brian Jordan and/or Ray Lankford hitting second and fourth. But if there’s two guys in front of McGwire and one guy’s on base, there’s at least two open bases and the likelihood is they were going to pitch around him even though we had a guy like Brian or Ray hitting fourth. But if there’s two guys on base, then you think twice before you load the bases.”
The Cardinals that year were struggling to score more than the MLB average, even with McGwire in the midst of a record home run season, and were six games under .500 at the break.
“Mark’s going crazy,” La Russa said, who considered moving McGwire to cleanup but didn’t want to lose the first-inning at-bats it would cost. “So I ran it by [legendary Cardinals coach George] Kissell and [Hall of Famer Red] Schoendienst. I said, `Maybe we can just shake things up.’ The second half we were 10 over [.500].”
The Cardinals’ scoring ticked up slightly the second half that season using the new lineup gimmick, and La Russa got more impact as the seasons wore on, when he switched from No. 9 guys like Eli Marrero in 1998 to more leadoff-type players such as Aaron Miles, Tyler Green and Nick Punto.
That lineup puts the pitcher the furthest possible distance from the No. 3 hitter in the order (considering both directions), and turns the 3 hitter into a cleanup man once the lineup turns over and the 2 hitter into a 3 hitter.
“It’s not your daddy’s 2 hole,” says Maddon, who is intrigued by Soler’s power and pitch selection in that sequence.
“Sometimes the double switch becomes a problem because it’s one hitter sooner, but overall [it’s comparable],” La Russa said, adding that communication is key – especially for the hitters who now get stuck behind pitchers. “You always have to explain to the team why you’re doing it. And Joe is very articulate, very knowledgeable.”
Maddon plans to use Tommy La Stella, Arismendy Alcantara and possibly Chris Coghlan at No. 9, and he already has met with La Stella and Alcanatara to explain the thinking.
“You have to deliver the correct message,” Maddon said. “I told them exactly why we’re doing it. This is not a slight on your hitting whatsoever. Actually, for me, you’re going to get better pitches by hitting in this sport, so I’m really going to take advantage of your abilities by hitting you here.
“There’s a lot of stigma of playing the fat kid in right field and hitting your worst hitter ninth that has to be overcome. You want to break it down. It deserves explanation.”
Maddon is quick to say: “I’m not here to say I know everything by any stretch of the imagination.”
But he knows he inherited a lineup heavy on power potential and strikeouts, with a few on-base guys added during the off-season. And he said he likes the feel of the second leadoff guy at the bottom, and plans to keep using it for now, unless he’s starting Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta when he expects seven or more innings out of them. He used it Sunday with Lester on a tighter pitch count.
Sunday’s game was only the second in at least 102 seasons — the furthest Cubs research goes back — that the Cubs batted a pitcher anywhere but the No. 9 spot (also Sept. 8, 2012, in Jeff Samardzija’s last start of that season, with Tony Campana batting ninth).
“Believe me none of this is etched in stone,” Maddon said. “This is all penciled with a really good eraser attached.”
Maddon said had the Cubs’ “geek department” of analysts run numbers to determine a measurable advantage, and he said the numbers say it’s basically a wash.
“I’m just going on what I liked in spring training, what I think plays,” he said. “But I’m wide open, man.”