Looking for a Heartbeat: Maddon’s Greatest Strength is His Understanding of Statistical Limitations

This is the third straight year the Cubs will play October baseball under the tutelage of Joe Maddon. The mindful manager, however, has not been immune to scrutiny from players, media, and fans alike. Former Cubs playoff hero Miguel Montero went as far to criticize Maddon immediately following the World Series parade. Local radio hosts couldn’t help themselves the day after the Cubs celebrated in Cleveland by discussing Maddon’s peculiar bullpen usage. And fans to this day still question whether Kyle Hendricks should have gone longer in Game 7 of the World Series.

We know Maddon’s strengths: He’s personable, empathetic, and understanding. Perhaps most know him best for being able to work with the stat geeks. But for me, these aren’t even the 12-year manager’s greatest traits. Maddon’s surpassing strength is that he understands the limitations of baseball statistics.

“I think in our game today, the way it’s run on a lot of levels, it’s more about math than people sometimes,” Maddon said back in spring training. “I want our guys to understand that we understand the heartbeat around here, so don’t forget the heartbeat.”

The above words are from a man who literally described his lineup card as one “dripping with analytics.” Usually, math and qualitative evaluation are perceived as mutually exclusive, especially in the baseball fandom community. They aren’t, as the latter might drive the former, or so Maddon believes.

“I believe in intuitive thinking,” Maddon said during his post-hiring press conference. “But I also believe that your intuitive thinking is the product of all this other stuff that you’ve accumulated over a period of time, including the analytics that you just picked up two days ago. Or maybe it was the session I had at Gene Autry Park (in Mesa) in the back field with Mark McLemore in 1985.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the math when making baseball decisions, but there is always a level of uncertainty even in the unbiased nature of numbers. Tom Tango, the godfather of baseball statistics, uses the following quote as his Twitter bio:

“The sabermetrician’s credo: I’m not sure, this is why I’m not sure, and this is roughly how not sure I am.”

Baseball statistics are justifiably glorified. Access to gobs of public data has changed the way I appreciate the game, watch it in real time, and write about it both predictively and forensically. At the same time, the more I do my own analysis and the more I listen to the pioneers of the numbers revolution, the more I realize how messy it is. Sometimes, the decisions aren’t as obvious as they seem.

Pulling Kyle Hendricks seemed like a mistake in game seven of the World Series. I admit that I thought it was at the time. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Hendricks was dwindling and Maddon picked up on it. After talking with David Ross, who was warming up with Lester in the pen just before both were called upon in the 5th inning, the Cubs catcher told Maddon that Lester’s “s*** is coming out really good.” The lefty went onto to give one of the most memorable relief appearances in MLB history.

Intuition — or understanding and identifying the level of uncertainty in the numbers — may be Maddon’s greatest asset. I’ll continue to manage the game from my couch and sometimes disagree with the Cubs manager. You probably will do the same. Realize, though, that we only see a small snapshot of the context, and the numbers we use have a finite degree of confidence.

Like any human, Maddon will still make mistakes. But more often than not, he’ll put the Cubs in the best position to win.

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