Friday’s exercise at Wrigley Field was the latest bit of culture shock in the Windy City. Introducing Dale Sveum as the new manager of the Chicago Cubs managed to be simultaneously an exercise in curiosity indulged and making as tremendous a first impression as those of the men who hired him.
For starters, there was the now-standard bluff talk, about respecting the game, about creating a new organizational outlook, of instituting a culture change that stresses accountability. As Sveum noted, “There are some things you can hold players accountable for. You have control [as a player] over some things.” Screw up on those fronts, and Sveum noted, “You’re disrespecting me, and you’re disrespecting the other 24 guys.” He said, “That’s my job, to make each and every one of these guys accountable.” And the man who served as Milwaukee's hitting coach the past three seasons talked about the respect the Brewers had earned through their aggressiveness on the bases this past season. No doubt, something to emulate when the new “Cubs Way” becomes more than talk on a chilly November morning.
So far, so good, Sveum was on message, and staged events require certain time-honored traditional gestures to what sort of things a new manager is supposed to say during his first day. A big chunk of being a manager today is to be an effective communicator, because he’s going to be the most frequent public face of his team.
As team president Theo Epstein noted, a manager today is challenged to address the media twice a day every day, all season long, something nobody else in the organization has to do. And during the inevitable losing streaks, that can be harder for some than others.
“When you have to deal with adversity, it gets back to who you are,” Epstein said.
That’s just as well, since adversity’s expected to go with the territory in the early going for the Cubs on his watch.
However, what really made Sveum impressive was his easy move from the comfortable talking points and necessary tropes to the concrete details. What he said from there made it clear that he’s an effective representative of both a new generation of managers and new brand of Cubsdom.
He was comfortable enough with performance analysis to observe, “All the numbers and stats, it’s part of the game. You’re using a lot of this stuff as options.” Touching on the subject of sample size as a critical component of data, he noted, “A lot of it’s good, and a lot of it you have to be careful of.”
A full-blooded stathead couldn’t have said it any better, but Sveum’s brand of casual insight comes across as the sort of asset that should make him especially effective in illustrating his in-game and operational management of his team during the long months to come.
You could see why Epstein praised his newly-minted skipper as a man clearly “comfortable in his own skin.” Sveum could simultaneously be very much an obvious baseball guy, speaking frankly about talking to players man-to-man -- “99.9 percent of all players want to be looked in the face and told to get their [act] together” -- while comfortable talking about statistical sample sizes. Derision for data can be happily consigned to the past, especially when what’s reflected instead is the potential for action driven by an awareness of how far you can use information to guide it.
What the days and weeks to come will bring is picking his coaching staff. While acknowledging he’d talk to the three coaches under contract, he appears empowered to make his own choices. His choice for a bench coach is going to be someone who will be frank with him while also being, “a guy who can slow the game down, especially in the NL.” He admitted to having a few names in mind for who he wanted to interview for his pitching coach, without sharing them.
Asked about a pitcher’s pitch counts, Sveum didn’t sound like a hitting coach when he quipped, “It’s not how many, it’s how he got there,” noting that letting a guy go 110 or 120 pitches would depend a lot on a number of variables. (Rattling them off, he got down to the weather.)
Getting into managing a bullpen was also something he was equally comfortable with. Asked about the challenge of not simply gunning for matchups, but managing a pen over weeks and months, Epstein observed of his new skipper, “He wants to win every battle, but he knows he wants to win the war. You’re not going to have your full arsenal [of relievers] every night.”
Expanding on the subject of his key inherited relief asset, Sveum frankly addressed what he felt was wrong with closer Carlos Marmol last season: “He lost his slider a bit. … People were taking a lot more pitches. He needs to get back to fastball command, you need to throw fastballs for strikes, [and] use your breaking pitch as a weapon.”
He compared the situation to Francisco Rodriguez’s turnaround after coming to Milwaukee last summer while asserting that Marmol would be his closer, returning to a standby, “Not everybody’s made to get those last three outs.”
That kind of familiarity with Marmol was bred by seeing the Cubs regularly while coaching for a division rival in Milwaukee. It should be an asset in addressing what else needs fixing. Asked about shortstop Starlin Castro’s defense, Sveum again didn’t pull any punches.
“He needs a lot of polish," Sveum said. "Whoever I bring in as my infield coach, he’s going to have to work with him. There’s a lot of things with his feet, his positioning.”
Asked about Geovany Soto’s arm from behind the plate, he felt that his catcher’s arm strength has improved since his rookie season to rate as average, before then enumerating the Cubs’ pitchers and which ones could be run on most easily.
“Soto’s an average thrower, but I’m sure we were running more on the pitcher,” he said.
Situational awareness doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem for Sveum.
In short, this is a man who already knows this team, and that’s going to be useful in deciding what’s to be done with it at the Winter Meetings, through to the last guttering embers of the Hot Stove to the day that pitchers and catchers report.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.