Joe Maddon, Sun Tzu, and the Art of Baseball

As a full-time teacher of US and World History, I can tell Joe Maddon is a learned man. He is well-read and speaks eloquently on a number of topics. What I have noticed this year is that Maddon has a certain managing style in that he likes to keep the players loose but prepared. When the year started, I began noticing how he attacks as a manager when he thinks the game is at a tipping point. If he needs his closer in the eighth to face a certain part of a lineup, he brings him in.

However, his attacking style and the way he parleys with his players and the press  is not just some loosey-goosey semi-hippy style of managing. There is a method to his madness and I think elements of his managerial style can be seen in an ancient Chinese book called The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Originally, the book focused more on the mental-preparedness aspects of war. It used to be required reading at West Point. However, in the past 35 years, the book has been adapted to corporate boardrooms and to multi-national business models in the 1990s and 2000s. The concept that The Art of War had effects on baseball was espoused once upon a time by FanGraphs.

As for Maddon, you can see the words in the book come alive in how he manages:

There are five dangerous faults which may affect a general:  

  • recklessness, which leads to destruction
  • cowardice, which leads to capture
  • a hasty temper, which can be provoked by insults
  • a delicacy of honor,which is sensitive to shame
  • over-solicitude for his men, which exposes him to worry and trouble

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. 

baezI think the last line is telling in how Maddon looks at his players. We saw him take an early liking to four players in spring training – Arismendy Alcantara, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Javy Baez. Every day in Arizona, Maddon eloquently spoke about how the kids could help the club at some point in the year. To me, it seemed Maddon loved Baez the most. Baez has the bat, the glove, the arm, the speed, and the versatility Maddon loves and the manager could not stop talking about him all spring.

And in some ways, Baez came to appreciate that as he struggled in camp before heading down to Iowa. Never once did Maddon break on Baez. Maddon was always talking about how Javy could help the team win in ways besides hitting. I don’t think Javy forgot that and that is one reason Baez is doing so well this fall.  Maddon once said, “I know the fans and whomever are expecting a lot quickly, but I just want Javy to come out and try to get better every day and stay in the present tense in working on things.” Stay in the present tense; I like that.

In watching the Cubs play, the hitters tend to grind out at bats to wear down the opposition while pitchers are attacking the zone throwing strikes. That style reminds me of this quote:

If we know that our own men are in a condition to attack, but are unaware that the enemy is not open to attack, we have gone only halfway towards victory.

In your deliberations, when seeking to determine the military conditions, let them be made the basis of a comparison, in this way:

  • which of the two generals has the most ability?
  • on which side is Discipline most rigorously enforced?
  • which army is stronger?
  • on which side are the officers and men more highly trained?
  • in which army is there the greater constancy both in reward and punishment?

Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.

I started noticing in July that Maddon began to pull out all the stops to win every game through the use of the bullpen in critical moments, and by using pinch hitters or pinch runners in key situations. It looked like every game became the 7th game of the World Series. Looking back, that is when the team went on a run and the players began believing in themselves.

In September, I have seen how quickly he pulls Hammel, Hendricks, and Haren. He goes quickly to Richard and Wood lately and it works out. It was almost as though he used to first half of the season to see how he would manage in the second half in crunch time.

“Move not unless you see an advantage” is the key line in this passage. The biggest “move” Maddon made this year was switching Addison Russell to shortstop to make the team defensively stronger. Castro went to the bench for a while and Coghlan admirably stepped in with some assistance from Johnathan Herrera.

When Maddon was signed, immediate reaction to possible trades and free agents began to swirl. The most common name after Jon Lester was Ben Zobrist, who can play multiple positions in the infield and outfield. He was a favorite of Maddon’s in Tampa Bay and the press wondered who would be the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist. Sun Tzu talked about flexibility in the guise of a snake:

“Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.

Carefully study the well-being of your men, and do not overtax them. Concentrate your energy and hoard your strength. Keep your army continually on the move, and devise unfathomable plans.

The skillful tactician may be likened to the shuai-jan. Now the shuai-jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.

bryant 76This is the core of what Maddon does as a manager and what he wanted in a team – versatility. I remember a couple of years ago that Theo said it would take a team that could win in a variety ways to win a championship at Wrigley because of the weather in the spring and fall vs. the summer. Maddon has continually asked to have guys on the roster who are multi-faceted and can come at you in different ways. Kris Bryant has played 4 positions this year, Chris Coghlan six, and Javy Baez is at three for now.

With the bench he has in September, Maddon can go in a lot of different ways during the course of one game. He can start with a power-laden and offensive-heavy lineup in the first inning. He can flood the lineup with lefties or righties. By the eighth inning, four substitutions can turn the lineup into a defensive juggernaut with Russell and Baez as the keys up the middle.

It’s been amazing to watch the Cubs this September as Joe orchestrates the players like a chess match. Joe Maddon is an amazing tactician of the game, but more so of men. He puts his players in positions to succeed and he understands when the game hangs in the balance and what is needed to win. It could be in any inning (and has been the past month), but Maddon can sense the energy of the moment. To me, that is the art of winning.

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