Baseball is back! Well, sort of. Or at least it will be on July 23…maybe. Barring a worldwide pandemic having its final say…or murder hornets…or landsharknadoes, the Boys of Summer will finally provide fans with a much-needed distraction from 2020. Nobody can honestly know what to expect (unless one owns a tricked-out Delorean), but it is safe to say that the 2020 MLB season will be different.
Perhaps lost in the discussions of the universal DH, taxi squads, extra-inning rules, and so on are the men charged with deploying all of the above. Though MLB is largely evolving into a data/analytics-driven sport, there is still one person sitting in the dugout who is responsible for making the decisions that can make or break a game–or season for that matter. Who is the one getting raked over the coals after a bad loss, the reliever who threw a hanging slider to the number three hitter, or the manager who pulled the starter who just maybe had a few more bullets left?
Now, entering an uncertain season with only 60 games to earn a coveted spot in the postseason, where every bad loss could mean an early offseason, managers are handed a new rule book. Who will sink or swim in the hot seat may prove the difference in this wacky season. Perhaps more than it would have in an alternate universe sans-COVID, the spotlight will shine exceptionally warm on the Chicago Cubs rookie manager, David Ross.
I have oscillated back and forth between seeing his rookie status as a plus or minus. On the one hand, Ross was already going to be learning the job on the fly. Sure, he has an abundance of playing experience under some arguably legendary managers such as Terry Francona and Joe Maddon, but studying a manger and being the manager are two very different things (ask Dwight Shrute).
On the other hand, Ross does not have years of habits to unlearn that another manger may be facing. What follows are a few things to consider when trying to predict how David Ross will fare as the Cubs rookie skipper, starting with the potential negatives and finishing on a positive note.
- David Ross has no grace period for learning on the job
It could be argued that MLB provides perhaps the safest cushion for an inexperienced manager. Take the NFL, for example. A rookie head coach has (currently) sixteen games to determine a team’s fate. If the team gets off to a rocky first month, the postseason could literally be unreachable. In baseball, a poor showing in a typical April can be overcome. After all, they will still have in the ballpark of 135+ games to right the ship. This season’s 60-game schedule will provide no such cushion. A bad August for a supposed contender means an awkward press conference following the regular season’s final game. The Cubs have their flaws, but most see them at the very least as a potential contender for a playoff spot. How will David Ross fare under the pressure that the first month will bring?
- The Cubs are coming off two consecutive disappointing endings
This again speaks to the pressure David Ross will feel entering this abbreviated season, but beyond that, the players are feeling it as well. Will Chicago fans be forgiving if they fall out of contention or fail in the Wild Card game yet again? Ross has to manage his own pressures, but he must also manage his players’ personalities. Add the recent history on top of it, how will Ross guide a flawed but earnest roster through expectations, justified or otherwise?
- David Ross has no experience to lean on
Nobody can question Ross’s expertise in the game itself. He has played a key role at the highest levels of the game. He has loads of experience playing the American League and National League flavors of the game. As stated earlier, he was an understudy to some exceptional baseball minds, yet, despite the move toward analytic-dictated decision making, a manager still sometimes has to pull from his gut. Having not been placed in these do or die situations as a manager before this upcoming season, Ross does not have the experience to say with certainty whether or not he should trust his gut. It could indeed be argued (and it will be in a moment) that this could be seen as a good thing, but it begs the question, how will Ross handle situations where managerial experience would have lent a hand?
Now the positive.
- David Ross was (very recently) a player
This 2020 shortened season will be especially hard on players, young and veteran alike. They step into a pressure cooker on Opening Day, and it won’t let up. On top of this, players are facing genuine dangers brought on by this pandemic. Many have high-risk family members. Many will be cut-off from said family members. Yes, they are paid insane amounts of money, but they are still friends, lovers, dads, husbands, and somebody’s kids. The further a player gets from his career, and perhaps more important, the longer they’ve worked for the “business” side of the game, the easier it is to forget those unique pressures and challenges. How much of an extra edge will Ross, and the bevy of other recently retired-turned-managers, have in managing the clubhouse?
- David Ross has loads of experience in both the AL/NL
It’s hard to predict how much the game will change with the DH in the National League, but having spent years on both sides can only help. A manager with far more experience with the “old” National League style will have some tendencies to unlearn. Will the universal DH favor managers such as Ross, who have spent several years seeing how it affects the game, particularly bullpen management?
- David Ross has no experience to lean on
No, this is not a typo. While the argument could be made that lack of experience is a potential negative, it may actually help him in this strange season. As mentioned several times already, baseball has moved to an analytics-driven model. Now, I have been unashamed in my love for Joe Maddon. He is, by far, my favorite manager in the history of the game. I will never apologize for that. As much as I love him, he went with his gut quite often, and his gut was not always right. (Let’s not bring up pulling Kyle Hendricks in Game 7, please. My nerves still aren’t ready to go through that discussion). Good or bad, Ross does not have habits to fall back on. Managing a DH in the National League, navigating the new three-batter minimum for relievers, or extra innings beginning with a runner on second base is new for everyone, but everything is new for David Ross. Will David Ross trust the analytics process more due to loss of experience? Will this vindicate the modern game, justify the process, and lead to more W flags flying above the Friendly Confines?
So many questions, so little time this season to answer them. No one knows what to expect, but assuming the games are played, it is hard to deny that this season will be, at the very least, entertaining.
Featured Photo: Chicago Sun-Times