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If you’re ever the manager of a Major League Baseball team — hell, even if you’re just the coach of your local Little League team — and you want to see how bought-in your team is, here’s a quick step-by-step guide on how to figure that out:
- Step 1: Write a player in as the starting third baseman for any given game
- Step 2: Watch that player belt his first home run of the season in said game
- Step 3: The day after, go against what your gut tells you and not write that player into the starting lineup
- Step 4: Pinch-hit that player in the fourth inning of that game for your team’s starting center fielder, and then watch him go deep for the second game in a row
- Step 5: To keep his bat in the lineup, put that player in center field for the rest of the game, despite the fact that he has yet to play that position at that level of baseball
- Step 6: See if the player is happy to do what you say, or thinks you’re a madman
Is that really something a manager would even think about doing?
Yes, folks. Provided that manager’s name is David Ross and that player’s name is Patrick Wisdom, look no further than what transpired over the first two games of the Cubs’ last homestand to see if a player actually buying what his manager is selling.
Wisdom, in the thick of what ended up being a six-game hitting streak that helped him pull out of a 1-for-21 early-season funk, homered from the six-hole in the first game of the series against the Rays on April 18. It was his first homer of the season and brought his average up to .258 on the year.
As Wisdom appeared to be truly heating up, it would’ve made all the sense in the world for Ross to keep him somewhere in the lineup going into the next day’s affair. But understanding players were still getting fully into game shape — and knowing that Tampa Bay was throwing an opener and would thus present better matchups later in the game — Ross decided to have Wisdom in the dugout to start things off.
“I don’t ever want to take a guy out after they hit a homer,” Ross said during last Tuesday’s pregame press conference. “I’ve said that, but I think, like, you might see Patrick in the lineup today. I think today is a unique situation, and as much as I’ve got to hammer this, we’re still trying to get some guys … we’re in one of our longest stretches of games right out of the shoot after a short spring training, and keeping them off their feet (will help them).”
Ross has been adamant all season about making sure players get their rest. Remember, he made the same decision when he had Nico Hoerner out of the lineup the day after he homered on Opening Day (which was also the first MLB home run of 2022). That didn’t cause any sort of friction between manager and player then, and as you could see from last Tuesday’s Wisdom-on-the-bench situation, there wasn’t much disagreement between manager and player, either.
Ross didn’t sit Wisdom the entire game, as he found one of those matchups to bring Wisdom off the bench in the fourth inning. Jason Heyward was facing Rays lefty Josh Fleming with two outs and a runner on third in a three-run game, which was one of those leverage situations Ross is constantly looking for as he searches for ways to be aggressive with playing matchups.
Rather than let his starting center fielder go out there for just his second plate appearance of the game, Ross sent Wisdom to the box. And what do you know? The move paid off as Wisdom smoked a two-run shot to left-center field, immediately validated Ross’ plan.
But wait, there’s more. With Heyward out of the game, Ross could’ve gone with a number of options to replace him in the field. However, in any of those other scenarios, he would’ve lost Wisdom’s bat with five innings left to play. So instead, Ross sent Wisdom out to roam center field.
Yeah, he really did put Wisdom in a position he’d played just once in the minor leagues (back in 2019, when he was in the Rangers’ system) and never in a major league game.
“As the game unfolded, they said, ‘Are you comfortable in center?’ and I said, ‘Of course,'” Wisdom said. “You give me a glove, I’ll go play that position as best I can. I’m thankful they trust me.”
“I talked to Wiz about it yesterday, and he’s like, ‘So if they hit me a pop up, I go catch it.’ I know there’s more that goes into it and it’s not ideal, but I think we can overcomplicate things,” Ross said pregame the next day on April 20. “… Are you getting elite defense? No. But are you trying to maximize your chances to win and being able to mix and match throughout a game of what might come up? Sure.”
Talk about getting players to buy into some of your zaniest ideas.
On the other side of that Wisdom situation was Ross going out early in a game and pulling a team leader, a World Series champion and a player with whom he has a close relationship.
Heyward has already been pinch-hit for six times this season, but that situation last Tuesday was the earliest in which Ross went with a different bat all season (since matched by a fourth-inning substitution on Sunday). Considering how respected he is in the Cubs’ locker room, it has to be tough for Ross to go up to Heyward and tell him that his day is done after just four innings.
“That sucks, plain and simple,” Ross said. “I just tell him that. I know that. I rely on his leadership. I rely on his professionalism, and who he is as a person speaks volumes to how he acts.
“I got pinch-hit for a lot, and I wasn’t even close to the caliber of player that Jason Heyward is. Every time — whether it was the closer and I knew I was an out or I thought I was going to get a hit — every time I got pinch-hit for, it sucked. Every time. So I know that, and I try to relate to that and let him know.”
As Ross said, he and the team as a whole rely on Heyward’s professionalism. If Chicago is going to try to compete this season, doing things like having Wisdom pinch-hit for Heyward against a southpaw mid-way through a game will happen. That’s just how it has to be, and Ross needs Heyward to be OK with that.
It’s not like Ross ever thought it would be a big issue with Heyward, either. Having known Heyward since the now 32-year-old debuted in 2010, Ross knows that he’s all about winning, and having that come from the top of the Cubs’ totem pole sets the example for other players of how to act when Ross has to make decisions that don’t go in their favor.
“The way he handles himself, the way he is there high-fiving Wiz and there to lift up his teammate. He’s all about winning, right?” Ross said. “He has pride. I think we all have pride in this game, but the way he goes about his business, the way he is willing to do what’s best for the team, moving to center field when he’s got five or six Gold Gloves in right field. Being able to do those things without any pushback and (saying), ‘I’m just going to go work and be the best player I can,’ it just speaks volumes to what a true professional is and what we want here in Chicago.”
Not that that should shock anyone, as Heyward has constantly put the team before himself in his seven seasons with the Cubs. Even just looking at that game by itself, the reason Heyward was in that position in the first place was because he had agreed in spring training to take his five Gold Gloves as a right fielder and shift over to center, all so that Seiya Suzuki could play in the position in which he’d feel most comfortable.
That’s what Ross needs from his longest-tenured players if he’s going to get the whole team to buy in, and based on the way Heyward and the rest of the group talk about their faith in Ross’ management, that buy-in seems to be right there.
As Ross answered questions from the media pregame on Thursday, one reporter told Ross about a conversation he had with a certain multi-inning relief weapon Ross hasn’t been shy about deploying.
Reporter: “Quick question about Keegan Thompson: I asked him, ‘Would you like to start?’ and he said, ‘I’ll do whatever they want me to do to stay up here.'”
Ross, interrupting with a smile on his face: “That’s a good answer. That’s what I make them all say.”
If he’s really making them say that, his iron fist must be powerful, because it seems like just about everyone on this roster has said pretty much the same thing. It’s especially true when it comes to the bullpen.
As I wrote about on Friday, the Cubs don’t have clearly defined reliever roles as far as Ross hasn’t given anyone specific titles. He knows where he has weapons, though, and he’s starting to figure out more and more how he wants to deploy them.
One of those spots specifically is in long relief. Ross recently said it was a misused position when he was coming up as a player, but now, he places a high value on relievers who can give him length, who can come in when a starter has an early exit, and who can eat up innings and save some of the other bullpen arms for future appearances.
One of those long relievers is Thompson, who has been on an unbelievable tear to start his second year in the big leagues. He’s pitched 13 2/3 innings without allowing a run this season, the most among all major league pitchers as of Tuesday morning. His 1.3 bWAR leads all major league arms, and his 0.5 fWAR is tops on Chicago’s pitching staff.
At the end of his four-inning shutout performance on Friday, he even led all Cubs pitchers but Drew Smyly in innings pitched (and this was after Chicago had finished three turns through the rotation). And his percentile rankings… well, they’re really, really impressive (per Baseball Savant).
Thompson has hopes of starting for the Cubs, and if anyone has earned that shot, it’s him. But whenever he’s asked a question regarding that idea, he says something along the lines of, “I’m just worried about helping my team however I’m needed.”
Asked Friday about stretching out to be a starter, he answered: “I’m not worried about that right now.”
Asked on April 18 about Ross liking him as a weapon out of the ‘pen, he responded: “Whatever position I’m in, I’m just trying to do the best I can to help the team win.”
He ended last season in the rotation and built up during the lockout and spring training to be a starter again. However, right now, Ross and his staff have figured out something that works, and they aren’t looking to push Thompson out of a role in which he’s thriving.
“I think he has a starter profile, for sure,” Ross said on Wednesday. “(But) I think right now, he’s an extremely valuable piece that we don’t want to lose in the bullpen. The length, I value that. Right now, do I think Keegan could start in the major leagues? Sure. Do I think his value for our setup right now is where he’s at? Yes.”
“You see the value,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy told CHGO on April 19 after Thompson’s 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. “Not only what that does to your team when he’s on a roll, he’s coming in in close games and holding it down, but also what that does for the rest of our bullpen. Now, we used two guys out of the ‘pen yesterday, and our starter went 4 1/3. When you can do that, man, it really makes a difference.”
Again, it’s that buy-in factor that’s giving Thompson so much success in his role. He has no sour grapes about being on the outside of the rotation looking in to start the year. Instead, he sees that there’s an extremely valuable spot for him, one that Ross thinks puts him in the best possible situation to succeed right now, and he’s running with that opportunity.
Those are just a few examples, but you can see that buy-in coming from up and down the roster.
There’s Suzuki, who has taken on the challenge of hitting in the two-hole in each of the past six games — and not just because Ross and Co. told him Mike Trout often hits in that spot.
There’s the back end of the bullpen, where Ross has not yet named a closer but also where David Robinson and Mychal Givens — relievers with extensive experience in that role — have said constantly that they are happy being used in any situation he puts them in.
There’s Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, two middle infielders who could be key pieces to “The Next Great Cubs Team” but who also have their own injury histories, and they both have had no problem with Ross keeping them off their feet more often to start this year.
It takes a lot of buy-in from players for a manager’s plan to ultimately succeed, and with it still being early in the season, it remains to be seen if that buy-in will last.
The Cubs currently own a 7-9 record, they just dropped three of four at home to the Pirates and they now head into road series in Atlanta and Milwaukee before hosting the White Sox and the Dodgers. Right now, despite what appears to be complete buy-in by the roster, it hasn’t resulted in as much success as Chicago would’ve liked.
If the Cubs manage to weather the upcoming storm and come out on the other side in solid shape, though, the players buying what Ross is selling will certainly have played a big part in that.
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