When the Devil Rays hired Joe Maddon to replace Lou Piniella following the 2005 season, they replaced an old-school manager with someone who wakes up in the morning and pores over statistical information on his computer. The former Angels‘ bench coach is more than just a stat geek, though. Maddon may be a card-carrying member of the statistical analysis crowd, but he’s also a strong believer in fundamentals and something called “good old baseball common sense.”
David talked to Maddon about analyzing matchups, interviewing for the Boston and Tampa Bay managerial positions, and more.
David Laurila: In 2005, prior to you replacing him as manager, Lou Piniella criticized Devil Rays ownership for being more concerned with the future than the present. What are your thoughts on that?
Joe Maddon: I’m concerned with both. We do attack everything on a day-by-day basis–we go out and play and expect to win every night–but we know that we’re fighting through some disadvantages. There are obviously some nights where, pitching-wise, the matchup isn’t in our favor. On the field, we have some great skilled players, but the experience level isn’t in our favor. But that doesn’t bother me, because I know that what we’re doing is proper. That’s the present. The future is that I can see, in my minds eye, what these guys will look like two to three years from now. I also believe that when these guys develop, and we figure out exactly what we do have–when the appropriate moment comes–we’ll augment with the right guys from free agency or from trades. As an example, when you look at Edwin Jackson this year, and how he started out, it would be easy to say that in most places he’d be long gone by now. But we’re developing him into what he’s going to be in the future, which is a power pitcher who can throw his 99th pitch at 99 miles per hour. Of course you want to win every game, but we’re not expecting to win the American League East this year, but we’d sure as heck like to be in a position to do that in 2009 and 2010.
DL: When you interviewed for the job, you reportedly presented a detailed plan of how you could turn the team around. To what extent can you tell us what that plan was?
JM: What we’re doing on the field now, specifically, is–I’m really into fundamentalism. We have not been a fundamentally sound team, whether it’s been on offense, or defense, or in general execution. For me, it’s really about putting out the right concepts. I talk about concepts a lot. Even this year, during the course of the season, we’ll come out once or twice during a home stand and make sure we go over things like cut-offs and relays; review bunt plays, etcetera. Offensively speaking, this spring training we had a big drive on seeing more pitches per plate appearance and on working on two-strike batting averages. We also put a big emphasis on getting runners in from third base with less than two out. What I did when I was with the Angels was try to break the game down into little compartments, and create the concepts we need to attack them. What I’ve found here, with our group being so inexperienced, is that when you put out good information it takes time for them to mentally take it in and perform at a major league-level in the heat of a major league game. But, going back to the plan, it was pretty much detailed, not just on the field, but off the field in regards to interaction with the coaching staff, front office, and scouts–just a variety of different topics. It was about analyzing the American League East and what it would take to beat those guys. It’s what I used to do with the Angels, which is to try to cover every topic in trying to figure out what we need to do to get better, and then using our imagination to create concepts, or drills, or ideas, to get better in that area.
DL: You also interviewed for the Red Sox managerial job a few years ago. How did that interview differ from the one you had with the Devil Rays?
JM: The interviews with the Red Sox, with Theo [Epstein] and Josh [Byrnes], they kind of had it scripted a little more. They had specific exercises to perform, like rating things on a scale of one to five. As an example, some of the topics they wanted me to rate in importance were: the most important factors in empowering a coaching staff, how to handle a bullpen, and how to handle the media. There were five or six questions like that, and they asked about how I’d handle certain situations if they came up. With the Devil Rays, it was kind of like that, but it wasn’t necessarily drawn up on a sheet of paper as specific exercises. It was more of a question-and-answer thing, like my thoughts on how to run an offense, how to put together a bullpen, how I handled a coaching staff, interaction with players; what my thoughts were on the communication process. So I think it was similar, yet different. The Red Sox were more specific, and exercise-oriented, while the Devil Rays asked many of the same things but presented them in a different way.
DL: Were there a lot of similarities in how the use of statistical analysis is viewed?
JM: Yes. The Red Sox, with Theo–they didn’t really present to me that much, but I knew where they were coming from based on having played against them. With the Devil Rays, Andrew [Friedman] and Matthew [Silverman] were both there, and they were interested in certain elements, but it was more of wanting to know what I thought. It wasn’t them posing questions in such a way that I’d try to tell them what I thought they wanted to hear. That was something I appreciated. Listen, I’m really–I don’t want to say I’m opinionated, but I feel strongly about what I believe. That said, I think it’s also very important to be open minded, and I’m always searching for new items of information and for new sources. If you can give me a compelling argument of why you think something, and it makes sense, I’m really open to it.
DL: How do you approach the use of statistics?
JM: Andrew and James Click supply me with a lot. I get the regular packet on a daily basis, and I go to ESPN.com and look at what’s presented there. Then, Clicker presents me with this analysis based on groundball and flyball percentages, like, is this guy a groundball or flyball pitcher, and do hitters with a bit of an uppercut maybe have a better opportunity to hit against him than someone who is more of a flat-swinger. This is the kind of stuff I’ve paid attention to in the past, but now the information is there to look at, and it’s backed up by numbers. So I might make a decision of who to play based on whether someone appears (on the printout) in blue, or if they appear in red, which is a negative, or in black, which is more neutral. Then I’ll try to read into it deeper to see if there’s anything I can use to exploit a match-up. Another thing I’ll do is look at the opposing pitcher to see how he’s been doing recently, and sometimes I’ll look at box scores to see how he did in right-on-right, or right-on-left, match-ups against certain hitters I’m pretty knowledgeable about. I’m telling you man, when I’m trying to set this thing up on a daily basis, I’m looking at a variety of sources of information. I’m always looking for an edge. My mind never really shuts off.
DL: Does where your team is competitively, within the division, impact your decision process?
JM: If we were in the playoff hunt right now, I’d be even more extreme with what I’m analyzing on a daily basis. But because we are where we are, there are certain guys who are going to play regardless, and that’s because we need to get a good look at them. I want to create the best matchups that I can, but a lot of what we’re doing now is giving players an opportunity. It’s what I talked about earlier–we need to know what we have as we look toward getting to the next level as a team. But overall, I can’t even tell you how many places I look for information. Sometimes I get up in the morning and go right to the computer to pore over reports.
DL: Can you give us an example of something you might look at?
JM: I’ll look at the opposing pitcher’s breakdown, so I can see his batting-average-against in certain counts, in order to pick the best hit-and-run counts. And I always look at how often teams pitch out, and on what counts. When the other team is hitting, I look at how often, and when, their guys run. Some are negative count guys, while others are almost always positive count guys. What that trend is will help dictate when we pitch-out. We have this tremendous report, that has so many different items in it, and I try to work it out early in the day, and then, about 15-20 minutes before the game, I like to lie down on the couch and go over it one more time, to make sure I’ve absorbed everything.
DL: Do you want your players to be statistically knowledgeable?
JM: No. They just need to go out and play. There are certain guys I might be able to give certain items to, but I’ve always handled players on an individual basis. If I think a guy can handle the information, I’ll feed it to him. If I don’t feel that he can handle it, I won’t. There are some guys where you know it just won’t matter to him–it’s not going to make a difference–because he won’t react to it one way or the other. To my mind, most of this information is for the coaches and the manager. Now, if you want to make a point, that can be different. An example would be Akinori Iwamura–his batting average has been slipping recently, and when he’s hit fly balls he’s been 9-for-62. We told “Ak” that those were his numbers when he put the ball in the air, and if he hit more balls on a line, or on the ground, he’ll get on more and give us scoring opportunities. Another example is Josh Wilson, who has been doing a nice job for us–we’d like to see him do a better job hitting with two strikes. We showed him the numbers, and said, “this is your batting average with two strikes. Why not do something different, because if you continue on this pace it’s going to be harder to hit around .300 or better, because you’re killing yourself with two strikes.” That’s the kind of esoteric little information we keep, and I utilize it when it’s appropriate to do so.
DL: If you have data that indicates you should go in one direction, and your gut instinct tells you that you should go in another, how do you reconcile that decision?
JM: For me–let’s say that a hitter is hot; he’s been swinging the bat well. On the other hand, the numbers show that he should have no success against a certain pitcher. Or maybe one of my pitchers has horrible numbers against somebody, but he’s been pitching well recently. In those cases, I’ll probably let the numbers go and put them out there. The other night, we were facing [Jeremy] Accardo, of Toronto, and I’d been studying his numbers. It wasn’t a huge sample-size, but his numbers are so much better against left-handed hitters than they are against right-handed hitters. So we had two outs in the ninth inning, and I sent Josh Wilson up to hit for Ben Zobrist, which was right-on-right. He got a solid base hit, and we went on to win that game. That’s an example of something that was according to statistics, but nevertheless against the book. A lot depends on where your players are. It’s like whether you let one of your guys swing 3-0 or not. It might be someone who is perceived as one of your better hitters, but he hasn’t been swinging well, so you don’t let him fly. Or it’s one of your lesser hitters, but he’s been hot as hell, so you do let him fly. So, for me, it’s a combination of the written information you have, your mind, your gut, and your heart.
DL: When you talk to old-school baseball guys, like a Don Zimmer, just how much of a difference do you find in how they approach the game compared to younger, more statistically-savvy, guys?
JM: The notion of the ‘old school’–it’s very difficult to get someone from that genre to want to study stats and analyze them as a method of making decisions. Instead, it’s going to be primarily based on previous history, gut reaction, and whatever the book says. That’s where the old school differs, and I’m not saying it’s wrong, but that group just wasn’t used to having all of this information available to make a decision. Of course, that group will make fun of this group, because in their minds the decisions are being made by a computer as opposed to good old baseball common sense. That always makes me laugh, because to me the best way to make decisions is to combine that good old baseball common sense with the information that is available–then you morph into this even better baseball mind. Somebody mentioned to me that they think I’m a pretty good combination of the old and new school, and I think that’s the highest compliment I’ve been given as a manager and an instructor.
Look for part two of David’s conversation with Joe Maddon on Monday