It’s sometimes hard to believe that Cubs manager Dale Sveum really does speak the same language as his bosses.
While team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are a couple of highly educated Eastern elites, Sveum is a baseball rat from Richmond, Calif.
Epstein and Hoyer, especially Epstein, can give long-winded answers, placing every word just so.
Sveum, on the other hand, might mangle the king’s English by mixing a metaphor or, egad, ending a sentence with a preposition. That, by the way, is something no one should aspire to.
But when it comes down to the brass tacks of baseball, Sveum can throw around OPS and WHIP with the best of them.
Looking back at the fall of 2011, it’s pretty easy to see why Sveum won out over the host of managerial candidates Epstein, Hoyer and, yes, the media, interviewed.
With spring training under way in Mesa, Ariz., Sveum is beginning his second season as manager of the Cubs after maintaining a steady hand through a disastrous 2012, when the Cubs went 61-101.
“I think there’s no question the winter was a lot less hectic,” Sveum said last month during the Cubs caravan. “Putting together a staff last year, now we have a really good staff. So all that is much easier.”
That Sveum values such stats as on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging) is not surprising, considering who his bosses are.
The Cubs were downright miserable in most of them last year. They were last in the National League in on-base percentage, 14th of 16 in slugging, 15th in walks and 14th in runs scored.
However, Sveum kept his patience and seemed to win the respect of his players. “Dale is the best manager I’ve played for,” young first baseman Anthony Rizzo said at the end of last season.
“He comes here every day with the same attitude and treats everyone the same. He’s easy to talk to, and that’s the best thing for players to go in there and talk to him about whatever. He’s going to be honest with you.”
Taking part in Sveum’s pregame chats with the media, you come away with more than just “we’ve got to keep playing hard.”
Sveum often will talk about getting into good hitter’s counts so that the slugging percentage will have a better chance of being higher. He likes to talk of young players getting a requisite number of professional at-bats before a team or the media can pass judgment on them.
For example, in talking late last year about second baseman Darwin Barney, Sveum expounded on the “scale of on-base percentage.”
“Everybody wants young guys to have on-base percentage,” he said at the time. “It doesn’t come until you’ve had your 2,000 at-bats in the major leagues or 4,000 at-bats in professional baseball. Everybody’s a little bit different, but the scale of on-base percentage is not brought up by one-year players or 22-year-old kids. That’s not where it usually happens at.”
One day last year the Cubs’ game notes mentioned shortstop Starlin Castro’s RBI total. Sveum took it a step further.
“It’s not as much the average as the OPS and the RBIs,” he said. “When you have that .800-plus OPS at the end of the season, there’s a lot of things that went pretty well for that individual, whoever it is.
“The higher that OPS is, that’s where you want to be as a hitter. You know you’re a complete hitter if your OPS is over .800. You mix in the RBIs, that’s what you’re looking for: the OPS and the ability to drive runs in and hit with men in scoring position.”
As far as in-game managing, Sveum was pretty conservative last year. The Cubs ranked last in the NL in sacrifice bunts by their hitters, and the sabermetrics crew will tell you that’s just fine because you don’t want to “give away outs” by bunting too much.
The Cubs were 11th in stolen bases. As far as management of pitching goes, the Cubs were ninth in intentional walks issued, and their starters completed just one game, that by Jeff Samardzija in his final start of the season.
When the Cubs brass met the media in Mesa on Sunday, Sveum seemed ready to put 2012 behind him.
“The biggest thing going into the season … is when does last season stop?” Sveum said to reporters. “I don’t to really talk about it. It’s really over with. There’s nothing we can do about it.
“I think if things would have fallen apart in the clubhouse, you could sit here and say, ‘Yeah, I should have done this, I should have done this.’ But you still had to keep that clubhouse from falling apart.”
The Cubs’ mantra is to compete this year while building for sustained success. Managers are the first ones fired when success doesn’t come. So while being fully on board with Epstein’s and Hoyer’s grand plan, there’s no doubt Sveum also would love to win now.
Much will depend on the health of the starting pitching staff, especially with Matt Garza and Scott Baker on the mend from elbow injuries.
“The one thing that you hate doing is saying, ‘.500 will be good,’ because it’s not good,” he said in Chicago last month. “It’s not 101 losses, but .500 isn’t getting you to the playoffs. Just getting in the playoffs is satisfactory.
“Putting together a team like we have now, if we’re healthy, and there’s an above-average chance we might get 100 percent healthy (with the pitching) on May 1.
“But we have put together that depth, to have Carlos Villanueva and Travis Wood sitting in the wings to keep us above water. Now, in a perfect world, if Garza and Baker are ready to go Opening Day, it’s not a bad staff to have Samardzija, Garza and (Edwin) Jackson at the top and the other guys in the 4-5 spots.
“(Kyuji) Fujikawa in the eighth inning and (Carlos) Marmol in the ninth, there are so many things that are better getting into the season than last year.
“But .500 is still not acceptable.”
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