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June 1, 2011

Painting the Black

Manage like Maddon

by R.J. Anderson

If Dusty Baker’s reputation is that of a pitcher killer—albeit without recent cause—then Joe Maddon should be known as a slayer of rigid rules and tired traditions. Heaping superlatives on the Rays skipper is nothing new among the sabermetric set—earlier this year, Steven Goldman laid praise at Maddon’s feet for his careful shuttling of Ben Zobrist between second base and right field—but the reasons for the kudos are different this time around. That’s only fitting, since after the Rays lost Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and numerous relievers to free agency, Maddon told his remaining players they would have to find another way to win ballgames.

Maddon has taken that “another way” motto to heart, and in his sixth season as Rays manager, he too is mixing things up. So far, the results have been positive, if not always pretty. At 29-25, the Rays are within a nose of first place despite losing Manny Ramirez to retirement and Evan Longoria to injury for a month’s time. This Rays team isn’t the most talented model that Andrew Friedman has put together over the last few years, but Maddon has done well to put his players in positions to succeed.

In doing so, Maddon has circumvented obstacles by thumbing his nose at unwritten rules.  A common slam against Maddon in the St. Petersburg area is that he thinks he is the smartest man in the room. It is an unfounded criticism, but one that comes with Maddon’s territory. His quirks are either the best or the worst thing about him, depending on one’s perspective of his performance as manager.

The two minor revolutions spearheaded by Maddon this season have come recently. Longoria had been mired in a slump, hitting just .135/.233/.189 in the 10 games between May 16 and May 27. Those dates may appear arbitrary, but they mark the period before Maddon decided to move Longoria around in the lineup. Most managers move struggling players down in the lineup to calm their nerves and defuse some tension, but not Maddon, not with Longoria.

Maddon’s solution to fixing Longoria’s approach and restoring his confidence was an unusual one, as he placed him in the leadoff spot in order to emphasize reaching base. Three games of leading off later, Longoria had reached base nine times in 15 plate appearances, with two extra-base hits to boot. Timing is crucial in storytelling, humor, and lineup changes, and Maddon might have lucked into some particularly good timing here; after all, Longoria might have replicated those numbers in any spot in the batting order. Still, Maddon’s willingness to try something new—something unusual—to address a problem is part of his charm.

Maddon acts in an unorthodox manner only when doing so serves his purposes, and with Longoria’s confidence apparently restored, he quickly returned the third baseman to the cleanup spot, where his skills are better leveraged for driving men in—naturally, he hit a home run in the eighth inning to give the Rays the lead. (Again, timing is everything when it comes to looking good with lineup changes.)

The other problem Maddon has been charged with solving involves his bullpen. After the great exodus over the offseason, the skipper was left with a new collection of relievers to evaluate and deploy. His most trusted options have become Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, and Cesar Ramos (albeit only against left-handed batters), while J.P. Howell attempts to work himself back into high-leverage circles. The other choices at Maddon’s disposal are Juan Cruz (who has walked more than he has struck out this season) and Adam Russell (now consigned to low-leverage mop-up work).

That scarcity of dependable arms has made it difficult for Maddon to pick his battles if the bullpen is called upon during the sixth or seventh inning. Should he throw Howell into the fire and hope the free spirit can prevail? Should he try to squeeze one more out from Ramos, even against a right-handed batter? Maddon’s best answer lately has been to hand over the reins to Farnsworth and Peralta earlier than normal.

Maddon’s willingness to adapt to his roster has sometimes been taken for granted. Last season, the skipper had five set relievers. In the sixth inning, he could turn to Dan Wheeler or Randy Choate based on the batter’s hand. In the seventh, he could call upon Grant Balfour, then Joaquin Benoit for the eighth and Rafael Soriano for the ninth. In 2011, inning-dictated roles for relievers have gone out the window. Peralta and Farnsworth are the end-game relievers, and Farnsworth is racking up saves, but Maddon has asked Peralta to start the seventh inning on a few occasions, and Farnsworth to come in and finish the game once Peralta leaves.

On three occasions over an eight-day stretch, Maddon turned to Peralta and Farnsworth to get more than six outs. The Rays won two of those games, with the other lost on a walk-off walk from Farnsworth (fueling the schadenfreude of Yankees fans). Some credit goes to the relievers for not complaining about atypical tactics, but much goes to Maddon for breaking the mold. The alternative—handing the ball to another reliever and hoping he doesn’t take a propane torch to the team’s chances of victory, rather than attempting to get more out of a relatively reliable arm—is one played out far too often in baseball.

One of the sabermetric principles pounded into all of our heads through the years revolves around loss aversion in bullpen usage. By letting Peralta and Farnsworth run up their pitch counts during one game, Maddon risks having one (or both) unavailable for the next night; should a close situation arise in a subsequent contest, he would be forced to orchestrate another escape route from near-certain doom. However, Maddon knows he can count on David Price and James Shields for the occasional eight-inning gem, which lessens his need for a well-rested relief corps—a fitting reminder that much of a manager’s innovation depends on having the right personnel in place.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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