CHICAGO -- Dale Sveum isn’t the big name Cubs fans are used to hearing when it comes to managerial hires at Wrigley Field.
Prior to Mike Quade’s 199-game stint as skipper, the previous eight seasons were held by Dusty Baker, who was coming off a run to the World Series with the San Francisco Giants, and Lou Piniella, who could be headed to the Hall of Fame sometime in the near future.
That course didn’t work out as expected, partly because Baker has major flaws as an in-game manager and Piniella didn't appear to approach the game with the same passion he had at the height of his managing career in his final few seasons with the Cubs. However, as my colleague Jon Greenberg pointed out, this new regime, led by Theo Epstein, appears to have abandoned the strategy of having the manager be the face of the organization. That role now falls on Epstein.
As a group that’s expected to do things a bit differently than people are used to on the North Side, many anticipated Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer would pick a manager who would use unconventional in-game tactics. With only 16 games under his belt as a major league manager, it’s tough to tell what type of strategies Sveum will employ. But Epstein emphasized that they never went out looking for someone who would go against the grain, rather someone with the gumption to stand by their decisions, standard or not.
“We wanted to choose somebody with intelligence, integrity, confidence, an open-minded approach to the game, an understanding of what helps you win in this game, the ability to communicate with the players,” Epstein said. “I think when you have somebody that embodies those qualities, he’s probably going to be open to looking at the game beyond the conventional wisdom. You don’t sit there and try and attack conventional wisdom. But you look for someone with all those characteristics that lead you to look for the right answer, not just an answer that’s easily defended in the post game press conference.”
Sveum made it clear that although numbers do have a very big place in today’s game, he wasn’t going to live and die by the statistics, they’re merely there to give him more options. He acknowledged that pitch counts have relevance, but other factors -- stress of the pitches, how hot it is, whether the pitcher spent the previous inning running on the basepaths -- have to be taken into account when looking at those pitch counts. Most importantly, for a Cubs team that was horrendous with the glove last season -- a fact that is easily confirmed by both standard and advanced statistics – Sveum is intent on stressing defense and fundamentals in general.
“Bad defense, when it’s a lack of preparation, isn’t acceptable,” Sveum said. “A lot of guys may put tons and tons of work into something and they’re just not a good player, but at least they’re preparing for the day and their talent just doesn’t allow them to be an above average defensive player. When you do have the abilities and your work ethic is not where it’s supposed to be then you have to emphasize it and kick guys in the butt a little bit.”
Sveum pointed out that it’s easy to get players to go to the batting cages and work on their offense. Working on defense and base-running is a whole other issue -- one that Sveum plans to make a point of emphasis come spring training. It’s the attention to detail -- being positioned correctly, knowing how a ball will come off a particular player’s bat, taking the extra base in the right situation -- that Sveum believes sets apart the teams that make the playoffs and the ones sitting at home in October.
“A lot of coaches will get the spray charts from the opposing hitters and then position [the defense] based exclusively off of that,” Epstein said. “Dale, because of his work ethic, his preparation and his attention to detail, he’d get the spray charts then he’d sit and watch the last hundred ground balls on video from each of the opposing hitters. Then he’d sit down with the spray charts and make fine line adjustments based off what he’d seen with his own eyes.”
That’s the type of work one would expect gets delegated to a statistical analysis intern. But it’s also one of the traits that drew Hoyer and Epstein to Sveum. When working with him in Boston when he was the third-base coach from 2004-05, Epstein and Hoyer were equally impressed by Sveum’s ability to connect with every player on the roster. Whether it was the star with the $150-million contract or the career minor-leaguer who was called up for a two-week stint, Sveum had the ability to go the extra mile that so many are unable or unwilling to do, allowing him to meld with just about anybody. It’s that rare skill that allows Sveum to not only share his knowledge with the players, but also do so in a way that the knowledge will actually manifest itself on the field.
Unless the Cubs go on an unexpected spending spree this winter, it’s likely this season with be a struggle for Sveum in regards to the results on the field. What the Cubs and their fans have to hope is that Sveum will do what Epstein and Hoyer expect, make the right decision when the answers aren’t obvious. Whether it’s pulling his starting pitcher at the correct time or standing up to his star player when he chooses not to run out a grounder, it’s up to Sveum to correct the wrongs of the ones who preceded him.