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Skip the stats, Maddon an inspired choice

11/1/2014

For a baseball franchise whose core product for decades has been sentimentality -- about its ballpark and its "lovable losers" legacy -- the Cubs are proving to be relentlessly unsentimental these days. One season in, the Rick Renteria era is over and likely to be remembered about as fondly as Tom Trebelhorn’s single season. The lesson here is that, to serve the need of the great goal of a World Series win, everyone, players or staff, is expendable.

And that’s totally OK. To belabor the obvious, Joe Maddon should be an improvement over Rick Renteria. You wouldn't blink if the Cubs made an upgrade in the lineup or on the mound -- and the dugout is no different. But one problem is that burning through two managers in three years when the average big league skipper lasts around four seasons makes the Cubs look almost Steinbrenner-esque.

One problem with putting managers on the same level as players when it comes to replaceability is that evaluating performance in the dugout is not quite cut-and-dried. You might believe that managers, like players, are discrete assets and are not all equally valuable; exposure to the brief reigns of error of Jim Essian or Terry Bevington in Chicago would certainly help confirm that opinion. However, the numbers don’t really support that expectation, so making a change of this magnitude might strike you as a surprise, especially coming from as stats-minded a front office as the Cubs’.

That’s because, as reflected in Neil Paine’s take on managers for FiveThirtyEight back in March, sabermetrics uses familiar metrics and research tools to arrive at a broad, damning conclusion: Nearly all managers are interchangeable mediocrities. I’d argue that’s a simplistic answer to a complicated question; looked from 30,000 feet, everyone winds up looking like an ant. This kind of approach focuses on easily quantifiable results -- player performance -- and less on variables, such as elective decisions about who’s playing, where, when and why. Take Maddon: Using something as simple as expected records extrapolated from runs scored and allowed tells you that the Rays won four games fewer than expected across Maddon’s nine years, or almost exactly as many as they would have with any of Paine’s nondescript mediocrities in the dugout. But that dry result fails to tell you much about what he had to work with and how well he used it, such as finding ways to use a multipositional star like Ben Zobrist or a utilityman like Sean Rodriguez to best effect, where another manager might have decided Zobrist should stay at one position and had no use at all for S-Rod.

Perhaps the best re-evaluation of managerial impact in recent years was Chris Jaffe’s rigorously analytical comparisons from his excellent book “Evaluating Baseball Managers” (2010). Jaffe’s book expanded what we know about managers, both in total and in different areas of the game; he provided the most rigorous breakdown of Bochy’s virtues as an outstanding manager before three titles made them subsequently obvious. But Jaffe was also frank about his methods’ ultimate reliance on managers’ individual circumstances as far as players and teams they got to work with.

The Cubs from these last three years? They didn’t have much to work with. Knowing that was certainly why Ryne Sandberg never got a shot at managing the Cubs as the first hire by the Epstein regime. The first man through that door was doomed to be a crash test dummy, not simply hired to be fired the way any manager inevitably is, but virtually guaranteed to depart unlamented and 70 games below .500 after just two seasons. A key benefit of hiring a Dale Sveum or a Renteria was dispensability; there was no chance of rioting in Wrigleyville’s watering holes over their early, messy fates. But hiring and firing a franchise legend such as Ryno after two years? Or three? That would definitely not play in Peoria.

That’s all about to change. I’d liken the Cubs’ hiring of Maddon to some of the other celebrity manager hires of the recent past, such as the Cardinals getting Tony La Russa in 1996 or Dave Dombrowski getting Jim Leyland to join him in Florida in the ’90s and later return to the dugout in Detroit. With run scoring back down around four runs per team per game, the level it was at during the era of superstar managers back in the ’70s and ’80s, I’d consider the Cubs landing Maddon to be another present-day echo from those days. That was a time when Chuck Tanner could bring you an All-Star catcher in trade (the Pirates got him from the A’s for an aging Manny Sanguillen), and when your team getting in on Dick Williams or Billy Martin could be as important a decision as any other free-agent pickup. A run-scarce environment means narrower margins to work with, less room for error in-game, and perhaps a greater opportunity for the distinctions between the adequate and the good in the dugout to shine.

The other thing the Cubs will get is that Maddon will fulfill the other big role that managers have these days: company spokesman. The other key asset in Maddon’s toolkit is his obvious comfort with the media -- in an age where the manager is the one person who ends up having to spend the most time in front of cameras and mics, every day, for eight months. In an entertainment industry, that’s a valuable asset. Cast as the pitch man for a Cubs public hungry for a long-promised turnaround, he should prove an inspired choice.

Less-soused Cubs fans in their thousands are going to learn relish keeping score in pencil as Maddon spins off in-game gambits with a brio that only the lonely few in Tropicana might have appreciated. But cross-position platoons and using every roster spot to its full advantage don’t fully explain why Maddon should be a great hire. On paper, Maddon should be the ideal dugout partner, the uniformed executor of the grand design for the next contending Cubs team, a guy who’s likely to use everything that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer give him to full advantage.

That’s because perhaps the most important consideration is whether a manager is an effective partner to his general manager. That doesn’t require any real genius; it does require teamwork. It’s one thing to have a plan, and another to execute it within an organization. We should expect Maddon to fit right in from what we know about the Epstein-Hoyer crowd, but it’s worth remembering that other dream combinations have flopped. Anyone else remember how official “Friend of Billy” Bob Geren was supposed to finally give Billy Beane and the A’s a manager who was totally on board with all that the GM wanted to do?

Right now, we don’t know how it’ll work out between Jed and Joe and Theo, and we won’t get to play fly-on-the-wall to see it happen; we’ll only witness the results. If it turns out the way they plan, there may not be a big, happy stat to slap on it that captures Maddon’s value to them. If the Cubs win, I suspect that even this most sabermetric of front offices won’t care.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.