Starlin Castro’s turnaround might be the most impressive thing Joe Maddon has done

For most of the season, Starlin Castro was an untradeable malcontent. With Addison Russell ready to take over at shortstop, it was only a matter of time before the storm clouds festering around Castro and the Chicago Cubs burst. As late as August 12, Castro was batting .235. He was playing awful defense, not hitting the baseball, and showing poor attitude on the field. Castro’s eight-year contract looked like a sunk cost.

That’s where Joe Maddon comes in.

Maddon has been phenomenal in his first season in Chicago. He has the team ahead of schedule and in the playoffs. Some would even consider the Cubs the World Series favorites from the National League. As usual, Maddon has pressed all the right buttons in getting what was a 73-win team in 2014 to 97 wins in 2015.

Maddon yanked Castro out of the starting lineup, turning him into a role player in August. Though Castro would not be an everyday player, at least for the duration of the regular season, Maddon always made it clear that he was not giving up on the former All-Star. He was prodding, cajoling, and motivating the 25-year-old Castro. The move to the bench came at the right time, and lit a fire under the slumping shortstop. Additionally, removing the pressure from Castro to hit everyday allowed Maddon to utilize his infielder in matchups that were more favorable to helping him bust out of his slump.

In the two months of the season that Castro was not an everyday starter, he batted .335 with 14 doubles, six home runs, and 25 RBIs while only starting 36 games. Castro drove in 21 runs in only 20 starts in September and October. Earlier in his career, Castro had shown an ability to hit for a high average, but had never hit the ball with quite this much power. Defense is always going to be a question with Castro, but the Cubs knew that when they signed him to his lengthy extension. The defensive miscues were just not as magnified when the Cubs were playing bad baseball. The move to second base should allow Maddon to hide Castro’s flawed glove.

Baseball managers are called managers for a reason. Baseball is the only American sport in which the guy calling the shots is referred to as a manager and not a coach. The manager’s job is different from the head coach’s. From the dugout, the manager is not necessarily involved in every play of decision on the field. Sometimes, his role is reduced to running the best lineup out on the field and allowing it to produce. Managing egos and personalities in the clubhouse can become more important over the course of a 162-game schedule that drags on from February to November if you count Spring Training and the postseason. Knowing when a player needs a firm kick in the backside is almost as important at times as studying lefty-righty splits, and no one in baseball does a better job with that than Maddon. The bespectacled sage was, after all, the only manager who was ever able to even come close to harnessing the many talents of B.J. Upton.

Maddon’s personality is a perfect fit for the young Chicago team. At 25, Castro is actually an old hat on a roster with rookies in many key spots. Although Castro has been in the league for six seasons now, he still needed his manager to get him through a tough spot this year. With trade rumors swirling and his performance declining, Castro needed a manager with a firm hand to snap him out of his funk while still supporting him. That’s what he got in Joe Maddon, a manager who never openly savaged him to the media as some managers would have. With Maddon’s support, Castro is producing once again like the three-time All-Star he is. The player, who many fans were ready to leave for dead, could play an integral role in bringing a World Series title back to Chicago.

Quantifying the impact of a good manager is impossible, but Joe Maddon’s handling of Starlin Castro should be ‘Exhibit A’ when attempting to define how a manager can control the intangibles to improve his team’s play on the field.

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