CHICAGO — There's one thing you can say about Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon. If there is any challenge to be made to conventional wisdom, he’s going to be out in front leading the charge.
A lot of things have evolved in baseball over the years, especially as more data has become available and the methods of analyzing them more advanced. That certainly holds true for lineup construction, which some analytical types dismiss as mostly irrelevant. Not so for Maddon, who is always quick with a verbose response to any question posed to him about a lineup decision.
Maddon was at it again before Tuesday’s game against Miami. He gave star third baseman Kris Bryant, who has been batting second lately, the night off and inserted rookie Willson Contreras into the second slot. It marked the first time Contreras has started a game batting higher than fourth.
“I’ve always liked a guy who can really power the ball in the 2-hole,” Maddon said. “The only thing I’m not doing is putting the pitcher in the 8-hole and another hitter in the 9-hole to really feed it. Because the lineup has gotten longer.
“The guy in the 7-hole is going to be cheated by having the pitcher [behind] him in the 8-hole. That’s where I’ve been hung up this year, honestly.”
Maddon is definitely a lineup tinkerer. Through Monday’s games, the Cubs have used 72 different lineups this season (not including the pitcher’s slot), ranking third in the National League behind Atlanta (86) and St. Louis (83). The league average is 64. For context: Last year’s title-winning Kansas City Royals used 73 lineups during the entire season.
“It’ s just where you come from,” Maddon said. “Some people are bothered by that kind of stuff, which I don’t understand. It really reads well. It really permits us some better opportunities late in the game.”
The overall results have been good — the Cubs rank fourth in MLB in OPS. When you drill down into the individual batting order positions (ignoring the 9-hole), you see the Cubs rank in the top half of the league in most spots and the top five at Nos. 1, 4 and 5. The weak spots are at No. 2 (20th) and No. 7 (25th).
“We’ve got a longer lineup [now],” Maddon said. “Better hitters throughout, not trying to break in Addison. So I’m leaning to the point where KB (bats second). Normally, in the 2-hole I would like somebody in the 9-hole to feed into him. But I like the idea of getting [Bryant] up there more a lot more often.
“And that puts [Anthony] Rizzo back up. We’ve done that since [Dexter] Fowler got hurt, and I like it. I think it’s been very productive. They’ve been getting plenty of opportunities, both KB has and Rizzo.”
The 7-hole has most commonly been filled by Addison Russell, who has since moved up in the order as his numbers have improved. The 2-hole has been the domain of Jason Heyward, who has battled a season of slump and hard luck. Lately though, the slot has been fixed by simply moving MVP candidate Bryant up a notch.
Bryant has posted a .913 OPS in 142 plate appearances as the No. 2 hitter. After batting second just once through June 23, he has done so 28 times since. Easy fix, right? Meanwhile, Heyward has been showing some positive signs of late batting in the lower part of the order.
Once upon a time, the 2-hole was the domain of the bat-handlers, guys who played defense first, could make contact on a hit-and-run, bunt, and provide at least the threat of a stolen base after reaching base. That has changed.
“Years ago, you wanted Dick Groat hitting in the 2-hole,” Maddon said. “Or possibly Dal Maxvill in a good season. Or let me go Glenn Beckert, I’ll go with the Cubs, I’m sorry. It’s changed now.”
Smith arrives in Chicago
Joe Smith joined the Cubs on Tuesday, one day after being acquired from the Angels before Monday’s trade deadline in exchange for minor-league pitcher Jose Castillo. The side-arming Smith will likely be used in a specialized role against righty hitters and to induce ground balls when the Cubs need a key double play.
Smith, a native of Ohio, said he was glad to be back in the Midwest, especially to join a Cubs team positioned to have a historically significant season. And he showed a quick knack for ingratiating himself with Cubs fans.
“It’s pretty cool to be here,” Smith said. “Close to home, close to family. A really good team and one of the best cities in the world.”
Maddon said Smith could be used at any time in a game, but would likely be used in early- to mid-game spots.