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joe maddon speaksAs I write this article, we are just six games into the 2015 Chicago Cubs season. (EDIT: Walk off win!)

As expected, we have seen several creative and distinct lineups from manager, Joe Maddon, early on – there has yet to be a repeat lineup among the eight positional players. I’d like to take a brief look into the lineups and see what we can learn from and about Maddon’s thought process. I thought this was a pretty interesting thing to track, especially given Maddon’s pedigree for creativity and thoughtfulness. But remember: it’s far too early to draw any significant conclusions – and, of course, Kris Bryant could be here any day now, which will further complicate things.

Here are the lineups through the first six games:

April 5April 8April 10April 11April 12April 13
Cardinals Cardinals RockiesRockiesRockiesReds
WainwrightLynnMatzek KendrickLylesLeake
Fowler (S)Fowler (S)Fowler (S)Fowler (S)Fowler (S)Fowler (S)
Soler (R)Soler (R)Soler (R)Soler (R)Rizzo (L)Rizzo (L)
Rizzo (L)Rizzo (L)Rizzo (L)Rizzo (L)Soler (R)Soler (R)
Castro (R)Castro (R)Castro (R)Montero (L)Coghlan (L)Coghlan (L)
Coghlan (L)Coghlan (L)Olt (R)Castro (R)Castro (R)Castro (R)
Olt (R)Montero (L)Szczur (R)Coghlan (L)Montero (L)Alcantara (S)
Ross (R)Alcantara (S)Castillo (R)Olt (R)Alcantara (S)Ross (R)
Lester (L)Arrieta (R)Wood (R)Hammel (L)Hendricks(R)Lester (L)
La Stella (L)La Stella (L)Alcantara (S)Alcantara (S)Herrera (S)Herrera (S)

To get a clearer look at everything, let’s dissect these lineups into thirds, see what’s the same, what’s different and what we can take away.

Lineup Spots: 1-3

Players used: Fowler, Soler, & Rizzo

First thing’s first: Dexter Fowler seems locked in as the Cubs leadoff man. After posting a 13.1% walk rate and a .375 OBP in over 500 PAs for the Astros in 2014, it’s clear that Maddon wants Fowler to see a lot of pitches and get on base – exactly what a leadoff man should do. From there, it comes down to, presumably, the Cubs’ top two overall hitters: Jorge Soler and Anthony Rizzo. Soler started in the two-hole for the first four games, with Rizzo taking the spot in the next two. A couple weeks back, Luis took a nice look at what a two-hole hitter should be (and who on the Cubs met that criteria), ultimately landing on Rizzo as the best candidate. Regardless of who gets the lion’s share from the two-hole in 2015, I’d look for Maddon to maximize PAs for his best overall hitters (whoever they may be, right now it looks like Rizzo and Soler), by keeping them 2-3.

Lineup Spots: 4-6

Players Used: Castro, Montero, Coghlan, Olt, Szczur & Alcantara

The mainstay, in this part of the lineup, is Starlin Castro (honorable mention to Chris Coghlan, since he’s always in this section when he starts). Castro hit cleanup three times and hit in the five-hole three times. Coghlan, when he’s started, has hit cleanup twice, fifth twice and sixth once. To me, it seems that Maddon is attempting to have his higher average (lower OBP) hitters follow up the high OBP guys, in a pretty traditional fashion. Whether Castro or Coghlan (or eventually Bryant) hits 4, 5 or 6 probably depends more on the matchups and individual comfort than anything else. As for Matt Szczur and Arismendy Alcantara, I wouldn’t expect to see any of them hit fourth or fifth any time soon. Mike Olt and Miguel Montero may sneak up to the fifth spot in the lineup every now and then, but probably not very often (and especially not once Kris Bryant starts to sparkle at Wrigley Field).

Rizzo/Soler (or whoever is the best hitter) batting second isn’t too traditional, but the good old, “Get ‘em on, get ‘em in,” adage mostly prevails through the first six spots in the lineup. The last three spots, though, tell a more creative story.

Lineup Spots: 7-9

Players Used: Alcantara, La Stella, Herrera, Ross, Castillo, Olt, Pitcher

It seems pretty fair to say that when David Ross or Welington Castillo are catching, they’ll be batting seventh. Until something changes (a trade, for example), that’ll be when Lester pitches (Ross) or the Cubs play a difficult lefty while giving Ross a breather (Castillo). From there, we see the pitchers in the eighth spot in every game. It’s a strategy Maddon teased us about during the Spring, and one he’s followed through on so far this season. I’d offer specific thoughts on the value of pitcher’s hitting eighth, but Luis already wrote a very thoughtful lineup analysis examining just that. Lastly, we come to the ninth spot of the lineup – a kind of uncharted territory for those of us not used to pitchers hitting eighth. The ninth spot has been primarily held by Tommy La Stella and Arismendy Alcantara. Though Jonathan Herrera has occupied that spot over the last two games, it’s been due to the fact that La Stella has been out with an injury (in other words, I think we’d have seen La Stella there, all things equal). Maddon seems to value OBP in this spot pretty highly. Alcantara and La Stella aren’t exactly thumpers, but La Stella has always gotten on base well and Alcantara has walked at a solid clip early on this year. Additionally, Alcantara and Herrera are switch hitters (La Stella is a lefty), which can help with match ups late in the game when Maddon elects to pinch hit for the pitcher. The ninth hole can be seen as a sort of secondary lead off spot, with a primary goal of getting on base for the top of the order.

Overall Thoughts

  • OBP at the top, followed by the best two hitters (with a affinity for getting on base) to follow.
  • High average/power bats in the middle of the lineup.
  • Worst hitter, excluding the pitcher, is likely to hit out of the seventh spot in the lineup.
  • Pitchers are hitting eighth, for now.
  • The ninth spot for a positional player is new to us, but can be seen as a table setting spot, not unlike the leadoff role.
  • Maddon seems to really value alternating lefty/righty. There aren’t infinite ways to arrange this lineup, but clearly handedness is an important consideration.
  • Despite what we originally thought, Maddon intends to bat every pitcher eighth, as opposed to just ones that may make it further into the game/are better hitters. It’s possible that changes once Jon Lester is more in a groove, but Maddon hasn’t hinted at that in a while.
  • Maddon’s not afraid to change things up. Rizzo is walking more and hitting for less power? Bump him to the two spot. Coghlan has had a hot couple of games? Bat him cleanup. One thing’s for sure: Maddon doesn’t seem to care too much about traditional roles for players. Hopefully, he can effectively communicate those ideas and changes to his players and get them to buy in (a la Rizzo hitting second – the traditional “slap” hitter spot).

  • Favorable matchups and good play will get you into the lineup. If there is a tough lefty out there, expect to see a lineup full of righties, regardless of egos. Similarly, if you play well, you’ll continue to play. Coghlan is a perfect example of being rewarded for having the hot bat and being thrust into the clean-up spot.

Ultimately, I get the sense that the players really believe in Maddon and that he has their trust. We may see some funky, unique lineups, but you can bet that each and every one will have a very well-crafted purpose. It’s nice to have a progressive, creative manager, because the game changes quickly and it always helps to be one step ahead.

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