Cubs embracing the counterintuitive

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Cubs manager Joe Maddon truly thinks outside the box when he's in the dugout.

      Cubs manager Joe Maddon truly thinks outside the box when he's in the dugout. Bruce Miles | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/18/2015 10:42 PM

If you're planning to spend any time around Cubs manager Joe Maddon, prepare to have your baseball beliefs challenged.

Prepare to have conventional wisdom stood on its head.

 

Maddon has managed regular-season games for the Cubs for a month and a half, and Chicago fans and media are finding out that he's the king of counterintuition, the sultan of swatting long-held baseball notions right out of the park.

He's also such a good explainer of his philosophy and his decisions that you can't help but come away convinced that conventional wisdom was the thing that was wrong all along.

Batting practice?

"I think that it's the most overrated thing that we do," Maddon said last week as he kicked off a string of four straight days without pregame batting practice.

That may sound like baseball blasphemy to some, but Maddon says too much practice can make his players feel like they're "swinging a fence post" while they're swinging for the fences.

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Catch the ball with two hands? That's what your dad and your Little League coach always taught you.

"It's a one-handed game," Maddon said.

Maddon's pregame sessions with the media can last up to 20 minutes, and rarely is there a wasted word from him.

And while many a manager would get defensive about mere media members second-guessing last night's decision to use a certain relief pitcher, Maddon encourages the writers and broadcasters to bring it on. He will then gently explain why that guy was in the game.

This past weekend provided a plethora of Maddon counterintuitive gems:

Making defense sound sexy:

The old saying is that chicks dig the longball. Heck, even guys love seeing their team hit home runs.

Maddon finds excitement in a different part of the game.

"I like when teams feed off defense," he said. "It's not just feeding off of offense. I think offense can feed off defense. When you get big plays and you come into that dugout, man, it is on fire.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Believe me, from where I'm standing, I don't know that anything excites more than good pitching and defense. From my perspective, when a pitcher makes a pitch when he has to, when a guy makes a play on defense, normally winning is right around the corner.

"Of course, you've got to hit, and you like a good-hitting ballclub, but the pitching and defense creates the winning. I know the fans want to see the offense, and that's wonderful. And I do, too. But I'll take pitching and defense every day."

Left on right:

You know the drill. It's late in the game and the other team has a left-handed hitter coming up. So you bring in the left-handed reliever. Or a right-handed batter is on deck, so you get the righty ready in your bullpen.

But in Friday's nutty 11-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Maddon brought in young lefty Zac Rosscup to face the dangerous Andrew McCutchen, a right-handed hitter.

Largely as a result of the sabermetrics revolution, baseball people are finding that left on left and right on right aren't always right.

On top of that, Maddon is a big booster of Rosscup, so in a way, it was a gutsy move.

"I'm not concerned left or right or right or left," Maddon said. "There are guys that are neutral, and there are actually guys that reverse. There are guys who get both sides out well. There are actually guys who get out the opposite side better.

"It's been pounded into our mindset for too long that it has to be righty on righty or lefty on lefty. For me, (Rosscup) falls in that category of getting anybody out."

Going by the gut:

As much as Maddon and his front-office bosses have been on the cutting edge of sabermetrics, Maddon isn't afraid to throw the slide rule out the window now and then.

"You utilize stuff that you've read or you've heard and also, 'What am I seeing right now?' because that's what fluctuates," he said. "The guy's either hot or he's not. I've really had arguments with sabermetricians regarding that, too, because it's not just about that number. That number could be skewed right now."

Forget the rabbit's foot:

Many baseball people, including (and especially) some managers, are a superstitious lot. If you win a few games in a row while wearing your warmup jacket over your jersey, you keep wearing the jacket, even if the weather heats up.

The recent string of days without batting practice prompted me to ask Maddon if he'd keep doing that as long as the Cubs win out of superstition.

"No, not at all," he said. "It's just based on the day and what you think is the right thing to do. When I was a young manager, I was very superstitious. I would wear the same socks and all that kind of stuff like everybody else does.

"But you have to remember too many things if you're superstitious. That really gets in the way of your next day. If you're superstitious, it really puts a lot of pressure on you and your memory. I really don't want to do that."

• Follow Bruce's baseball reports on Twitter @BruceMiles2112

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