Theo Epstein Explains How Changes in Team Dynamics Have Dugout ‘Alive Every Night’

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who notices the Cubs having more fun. Much of that can undoubtedly be attributed to them just being able to play ball, period. Throw in the hot start and the novelty of this weird season, something the whole organization has embraced, and you’ve got a recipe for wackiness. Then there’s the whole fake-it-till-you-make-it concept in which you sort of force the fun until it eventually becomes real.

There are simply too many variables for us to be able to apply credit to any one thing, but it seems fair to say that external factors alone aren’t driving the changes. With full understanding that I am biased in this regard, it would be foolish to discount the change in leadership from Joe Maddon to David Ross. Again, I’ll admit here that I believe the former manager stayed on a year too long and was at least passively responsible for the stagnation of the team from both emotional and performance standpoints.

What I want to make very clear, however, is that I am not discounting what Maddon accomplished for the Cubs and how important his contributions were at the outset of his tenure. But like a piece of Dubble Bubble, his flavor wore off pretty quickly and left little more than the disappointing effort of flapping gums. At that point, you can either pop in another few pieces until you start looking like a member of the 90’s Phillies or you spit the wad out and replace it.

The Cubs did the latter, opting for Ross and a different brand of energy that’s more physical than philosophical. He seems more interested in making sure the fundamentals are executed properly than in regaling the media with esoteric literary references like baseball’s version of Dennis Miller. Ross will probably leave the commercialization of catchphrases to Obvious Shirts.

From the moment their old teammate was announced as their new manager, Cubs players were ecstatic about the chance to work more closely with him again. Kyle Schwarber said it seemed like Ross was born to manage, a sentiment echoed by new addition Steven Souza Jr, and Kris Bryant said he wanted to run through a wall after Ross delivered a motivational speech to open spring training.

“The energy of the group and the camaraderie of the group has really stood out,” Theo Epstein told Jordan Bastian and other media members Tuesday. “You guys can tell by watching the games. Our dugout’s alive every night, and I think that reflects how much our guys are into the season and there for each other, and really trying to turn the 2020 season into something that’s memorable, even amidst all the crisis that we’re all operating under.”

Here’s the part where I caution you not to fall into the trap of reading or hearing a statement that says one thing, then assuming said statement indicates all other things are not true. Epstein isn’t saying that the players weren’t there for each other in the past or that they didn’t want to make other seasons memorable, only that they are being more intentional about it as a group this season.

That sense of unity wasn’t present to the same degree last season, and perhaps before, as players weren’t on the same page as the manager. Epstein publicly decried a lack of urgency and the players had to band together to develop a set of initiatives aimed at increasing accountability. In addition to things like avoiding booze and unhealthy food on the road, they wanted more consistent lineups and a stronger focus on trap games and getaway days.

It’s never a good sign when the players have to force their skipper into being more regimented, and Maddon seemed to view suggestions to be more hands-on and spend less time with the media as passing fancies. While these players are grown men whose intrinsic motivation should carry them pretty far, that extra push was clearly lacking.

“I think when you refer to a sum-of-the-parts issue, as you say, it’s really about the group as a whole coming together and the environment,” Epstein said when asked about criticism of the core players not reaching their potential. “And have we been able to create an environment that can bring out the best in players and put them in a position to succeed, build connection between players and a sense of urgency, so to speak, so that, ultimately, we put our best foot forward as a team. And that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

“That’s an area where we collectively have fallen short, I think, the last couple years. I think we’ve had more talent than the results would indicate the last couple years. You know, that’s why there have been different attempts to change the environment.”

Sans additional context, that reads like Epstein throwing Maddon under the Winnebago. In reality, it’s a simple statement of fact when you look back over all the things we’ve seen from the outside. Internal conversations would certainly lend more color to the matter, but it’s no secret that the Cubs have tried to change the organizational environment over the last few seasons.

Maddon was the right man at the right time for the Cubs when he came aboard in 2015, no one is disputing that. But like getting really lucky and finding a great cut of steak at a crazy steep discount, the wacky manager’s expiry was limited. It still tasted good as hell when, but it had to be grilled up right away and it didn’t taste quite as good when its leftovers were microwaved a couple days later.

“Any time you bring in a new leader, there’s by definition a significant change in the environment,” Epstein added. “Joe had that affect when he got here in 2015. It was transformative, where it created an incredible environment, where our young players at the time could be themselves and develop more quickly than anyone had anticipated. And I give Joe all the credit in the world for that.

“And that’s the nature of change sometimes. I think with David Ross in place as a new leader, it’s been equally as transformative, just in a different way, where I think it’s brought guys together. It’s helped them rally around a common cause. I think everyone feels lucky to be here and together and want to make their mark playing together as a group and for Rossy.”

Bastian’s full Q&A contains much, much more from Epstein on Ross’s impact and the Cubs’ season in general, so go check that out to get additional depth. In a nutshell, it’s just a matter of changing the dynamic and getting a different energy. Sometimes a group being together for so long that lingering issues have gone unnoticed. As such, bringing in someone who’s familiar with many of the players but isn’t blinded by the routine can make all the difference in improving the environment.

Maybe Ross has just as short a shelf life as Maddon and I’ll be back here in five years praising the new guy for re-energizing the team yet again. For now, though, it’s apparent that Ross has his team playing with passion and joy, so we’ll stick to that for as long as it lasts.

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