When Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer assumed control of the Chicago Cubs front office in November 2011, and fired incumbent manager Mike Quad almost on the spot, you knew they were going to find their kind of guy. In taking over a club so fraught with problems and so far from contention, Epstein and Hoyer had an opportunity to put their signatures on a franchise and build from the ground up with a whole new set of principles and ideas about the game. They were going to be the faces of this new team, not any middle-management prima donna.
Their search led them to Dale Sveum, and after his first season (admittedly, a tough one in the wins and losses columns), it’s clear they made a sound choice.
To illustrate why Sveum is so delightful, and why I so enjoyed the way he ran the team in his first season, we need to go back and look hard at the (mercifully brief) Quade era. Thanks to The Bill James Handbook 2013, all the tools we need to do so lay next to me on the couch right now.
Okay, not all of them. I need to begin by noting a few grating things about Quade that don’t show up in the statistics.
1. On a hot day in July, in a game I was at, in fact, against the Phillies, Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro converged on a pop-up – then watched it fall unharmed. The Cubs were already losing, but that broke open an inning for Philadelphia, and the game turned into a blowout. Quade may have been feeling his back already pressed up against the wall, or he may have been overheated, or he may just have been frustrated, but he handled that situation poorly. He railed against the loss of focus on the parts of his two young middle infielders to reporters after the game, really flayed them for it. Thing was, it didn’t seem to be a lack or lapse in focus, to me, and even if it were, that wasn’t the problem. They weren’t the problem. They were miles from the problem. Quade should have downplayed that gaffe; he scapegoated two important players for it instead.
2. Matt Garza hated Quade. So did Carlos Zambrano. The pitching staff just despised him, whether because of his personal handling of them, his demeanor, his attitude or the cut of his jib. You have to have pitchers on your side as a manager. There has to be huge trust there. Quade had nothing with the pitchers on that team.
The second of those things, though, leads into one of my major (quantifiable) beefs with Quade: He was just an awful handler of a pitching staff. He threw a starting pitcher out there, and as far as he was concerned, his job was done. He would come back if his guy was bleeding or if the opponent hit blackjack. Barring that, you stayed out there until a pinch-hitter took your third plate appearance. Quad ran up 56 Slow Hooks in 2011, basically meaning 35 percent of the Cubs’ starts ranked in the top 25 percent of the league’s total starts in terms of pitch count and what they gave up while they were out there. Only 30 Cubs starts came in at the bottom end of that spectrum, thereby to be counted as Quick Hooks. In 35 starts, Quade pushed his starter past 110 pitches.
An especially egregious boner came June 10, 2011, in Philadelphia. Carlos Zambrano trailed 3-0 and had thrown 109 pitches through six innings. After allowing him to bat for himself with two outs in the top of the seventh, though, Quade sent Zambrano right back to the hill, and had no one warming.
Five batters and 19 pitches later, James Russell had hurriedly gotten ready, and Quade made the switch. It felt a bit absurd, though, in a seven-run game.
Handling starters requires someone who understands his charges’ limits. It does no good to insult a guy by lifting him too soon or not showing confidence in him, but one must be ready to make a change, and have the guts to make one a batter too soon, not a batter too late. Quade left guys stranded out there. He didn’t think things through well. He was both a poor tactician and a poor personnel manager when it came to starting pitchers.
He was similarly sink-or-swim about lineup construction. He used a bunch of different alignments, but rarely employed platoons. Cubs batters only had the platoon advantage to begin the game 50 percent of the time in 2011, solidly below average. About the only active thing about his strategic leadership was his penchant for intentional walks, hardly a beacon of hope.
Sveum did much better. He went 48/46 with Slow and Quick Hooks, and only eight times demanded more than 110 pitches of his guys. He got the right guys into the lineup more often, but stuck to a theoretically optimal ordering of them for the most part. He put far more runners into motion and walked 15 percent fewer players intentionally. He was straightforward but patient with the young players on the team. He protected each individual arm well but knew when he needed to wheedle a bit more from a given starter in order to save the bullpen. Despite missing most of the second half, Garza reported being much happier in 2012.
Sveum is the front office’s best soldier, but still just a soldier, and he knows it. There is buy-in there. He listens. He deploys players the way one assumes the executives hoped he would. Managers are not CEOs; they usually get into trouble when they try to be. The first responsibility of a manager is to do no harm, and Sveum is better at balancing patience with action than Quade was. He seems to be the right choice to lead this team back to contention, even if it takes two more years.Next post: Can We Get Together on Randall Delgado, Please?
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