Maddon's 'September Song' validates his methods with Chicago Cubs
Say it ain't so, Joe.
"I'm maturing," Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon said recently in response to a question about fewer gimmicks, theme days and dress-up trips this year.
"We have one (themed trip) coming up. We already had one. The Pedro Strop (trip) was one of the best ever. I think if you pick your spots more separately or not so close together, I think they have a greater impact.
"I'm ashamed to say I might be maturing a bit. That would be awful, but if that's true I would really be disappointed in myself."
That's more like it.
Maddon's methods may be maddening to some, but here's the thing: They work. And they especially work in August and September.
I started thinking about this as the Cubs kicked off and then completed another of Maddon's American Legion Weeks, during which players are instructed to show up to Wrigley Field later than normal and during which pregame practice is cut to a bare minimum.
Sacrilege? To some, maybe, but Maddon, despite being 64, is baseball's modern-day iconoclast.
It's always at this time of year when Maddon conducts American Legion Week, sometimes planting a flag from a Legion post in the media interview room. The idea is multilayered. Maddon says Legion Week is to get players back in touch with the game at its most organic level, when players simply showed up and played.
The other part, of course, is that Maddon fervently believes in giving his players some rest in the dog days of the season before, as he puts it, "September brings its own energy."
"When you get together in February -- and I've always believed this -- that's when you do need to do all this mechanical work and get out the repetition -- repetition, repetition, get this thing right," he said. "As the season progresses, I think it should be more mental work and less physical work, whether it's video, whether it's visualization. Those are the kinds of things I'm more into than physically getting out there.
"Yeah, I do believe that last month brings its own energy. When you're in the hunt like we are, there's just a different method going to the ballpark. You don't have to look for that energy. It just shows up in your face. I love all of that. I think the guys do, also. We're used to this."
Maddon brought his ideas to Chicago for the 2015 season, and the August-September results have validated them.
• In August 2015, the Cubs were 19-9. They were 23-9 in September-October before they advanced all the way to the National League championship series, where Maddon's young, upstart team fell in four games to the New York Mets.
• During their world-championship season of 2016, the Cubs were 22-6 in August and 18-11 in September-October.
• Last year, when the Cubs again advanced to the NLCS (losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers), they went 17-12 in August and 19-10 in the final month.
That's a grand total of 118-57 over the final two months of Maddon's first three seasons in Chicago.
After Friday's 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cubs finished this August with a record of 18-10.
Asked why the Cubs have dominated in August and September, pitcher Kyle Hendricks had a ready answer.
"I think a lot of it is since Joe's been around, how he manages the burnout," Hendricks said. "The not taking BP (batting practice), we're having American Legion Week, I think it's little things like this that just keep you fresh late in the season whereas other teams might be taking BP more often.
"I can't pinpoint one particular thing, but if I had to say, Joe's leadership and how it trickles down to this clubhouse. Everyone knows it's a long season. It's a marathon, not a sprint. And we trust in what we have in this clubhouse. So come August-September, the excitement level rises in here."
At 28, Hendricks is one of the Cubs' young veterans. Fellow pitcher Jon Lester, 34, has been around the block a few more times than has Hendricks. Lester is more of an old-school type, but he said he loves the way Maddon manages.
"I think it's just what we do from spring training to this point," he said. "I think Joe does a good job of not hammering the little things even when we're not playing well.
"I think a lot of teams or organizations when they don't play well, they run to the early BPs and the double BPs through the day. Maybe you'll see a PFP (pitchers fielding practice) thrown in there or whatever. Joe goes the other way."
It's not only in August that Maddon backs off. At many points during the season, the Cubs will not take batting practice on the field, or they make it optional.
Maddon said it's sometimes hard to get coaches to buy in.
"Coaches are trained to do this daily, and they want to do this daily," he said. "They've been taught that they have to do this daily for your team to be successful. And I don't agree with that. As the season progresses, there's a different way to impact the day as a coach.
"Sometimes it's a hard sell in the beginning because it's counter intuitive: 'We've got to work hard. We've got to do this every day in order to be successful. I've got to suffer to be successful.' You don't have to suffer to be successful.
"I think that's the work ethic that's been ingrained in a lot of people. You don't have to suffer. You just have to work smart."
Veteran Ben Zobrist has played for Maddon in Chicago and Tampa Bay. He has seen the methods work and perhaps become even more refined.
"I think he's doing a great job," Zobrist said. "I can see how over the years he's gotten better at that. He's done a great job with this team with as many guys that we have that are both young and old. He's really given everybody a chance to rest and get a breather throughout the season. Hopefully that bodes well for September coming up and hopefully the playoffs."
Now that September is here, we'll see if it brings its own energy.
But has Maddon really "matured"?
"He must be; either that or he's running out of ideas," Hendricks said with a laugh. "I could never put that on him. He seems like the most creative guy I've ever met, but there are only so many things you can do, bringing them into a baseball field. I'm really curious to see what he's got next."