DL: Your team, offensively, leads the American League in strikeouts right now. How concerned are you with that?
JM: I don’t like it at all. Now, I know that some of the numbers guys might say that’s OK, but strikeouts come into play in a lot of situations. You look at what we’re doing with runners on third base and less than two outs–we’re the worst team in all of baseball. That goes for American League, National League, and I believe all of Triple-A and Double-A. A lot of that is strikeouts, because we expand our zones too easily. I think if you can change your two-strike approach, and put more balls in play, you’re going to have an opportunity to score more runs.
DL: How much does the specific game-situation matter to you when you look at the impact of strikeouts?
JM: Sometimes I think the numbers are skewed a bit, because there’s the first three innings, the fourth through the sixth, and the seventh through the ninth. There are so many different segments to the game, and they include times when you might want to bunt. You can’t just blanketly take all of this information and say that it covers innings one through nine. I think you have to segment the game, according to what’s going on, including your hitters versus their pitcher and who is on deck–what could possibly happen if we move the runner up here. Regardless, for me, the strikeout is the most useless out there is. I’d like to maintain a higher on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and still do a better job of not striking out, because that contributes to better offensive production. I have specific ideas on how we can achieve that within the organization.
DL: Can you make those changes, which presumably include hitters cutting down on their swings, without sacrificing slugging percentage?
JM: I think you can, I really do What I’m talking about is that when you get to two strikes, you go to what I call “The B-hack.” For me, what that means is making a mental alteration as opposed to a distinct physical one. The “B-hack” consists of maybe choking up a little bit, looking away first, and thinking fastball first. I think that too many guys, by staying at the end of the bat, lose control of the head of the bat. I think that by not looking fastball, and thinking soft instead, when you get something hard you basically have no chance. I also think that when you’re looking middle/in, and the pitcher goes away, you basically have no chance. However, when you’re looking away, and he throws it in, you do. So, I’d like to set these parameters for hitters to work with. Something I want to do is a study on the number of doubles and home runs we’ve hit with two strikes, as opposed to what happened when we simply put the ball in play with two strikes. There are a lot of different ways to score runs, so where was there more benefit?
DL: Curtis Granderson was recently quoted as saying that he feels it’s important to catch the ball out front rather than stay back and let it get deep. What are your thoughts on that?
JM: I agree and disagree, and I’ll tell you why. When he says, “catch the ball out front,” I think there’s a bit of a misconception and you don’t want your body to leak to catch it out front. To me, the closer the ball is to your body, the longer your swing is, and the farther the ball is away from your body, the shorter your swing is. Because of that, the farther the ball is from your body, the deeper you want to let it get. Conversely, you can’t let it get deep if it’s close to your body. For everybody, when you’re hitting, your strike zone is basically a diagonal.
DL: Is there such a thing as a closer’s mentality?
JM: Yes. To me, that’s a guy who is good at that moment, and he enjoys that moment. He is able to maintain his “slowness” despite all of the stuff that’s going on around him. Of course, a closer has to have at least one better-than-average pitch. It’s also important that he has a short memory.
DL: Does that same mentality apply to hitters?
JM: The better hitters for me–yeah, they have short memories. It is one at-bat at a time, and an 0-for-4 doesn’t bother them. Furthermore, they have this mental ability to grind out each at-bat. Chad Curtis and I used to talk about a mental batting average, and our goal, when he was in the minor leagues, was to have it be at least 90 percent–that he was fully prepared for at least nine out of ten at-bats. When he got closer to the major leagues, we wanted it to be closer to 100 percent. When you’re talking about a minor league hitter–God bless–if you’re talking even 70 percent you’re doing good. If a kid is doing well, he’s going up there with a good awareness of everything that’s going on, plus a good thought-process, including the team situation and his personal situation. There are a lot of things that go into an at-bat, and for me your mental batting average should be at least 95 percent at the major league level.
DL: If the front office sends you a player and you find that he’s closer to 70 percent than the 90-plus that you expect, how can you fix that problem?
JM: You sit him down. It’s the old Dante Bichette theory, and we’re actually doing it now with Dioner Navarro. When I had Dante down in Double-A, for about five minutes before the game I’d ask him how he was going to beat this pitcher: what did he know about him, how does he attack hitters, what is his go-to pitch? I got him thinking about his game plan. Right now, with Dioner, who is a catcher, we’re sitting him down to talk about that night’s pitcher, or maybe about one mechanical thing. Or it might be something like how we’re going to attack David Ortiz that night. It’s about five minutes–just a short burst of information–and it can make all the difference in the world for some guys.
DL: What can you tell us about the “Ortiz shift” that you’ve employed?
JM: Well, last year we employed it–this year we’re not. He’s changed dramatically since last year, and we based it on information. Last year we employed four outfielders against him, because there was nothing on the ground to the left side; nothing. There were no pop-ups either. But he was able to go down the line, and up the gaps, so we defended against that.
DL: Why don’t you do it with more hitters?
JM: We have done it with Jim Thome and Travis Hafner. We did it for a while with Jason Giambi too, but we don’t anymore. It just depends on where they’re at, and we always have updated stuff to tell us that. Going back to Ortiz, he has a lot more ground balls to shortstop this year, and we’ve actually turned a couple of double-plays against him in those spots. It’s a matter of what a player is trying to do, and that shifts yearly, if not monthly. The numbers help us determine that. Of course, part of it was visual, too–we wanted him to see something.
DL: So, it wasn’t just based on spray chart information–there was also psychology involved?
DL: B.J. Upton struggled at shortstop last year, both offensively and defensively. Just how important was it to for you to get him settled, position-wise, especially from a mental standpoint?
JM: Last offseason, when we were trying to figure out how to do that, my suggestion was to make him a super-utility player. I wanted to de-emphasize his defense, because I felt that a lot of what we were seeing offensively was a result of him coming to the ballpark concerned about making errors. I told him to not worry about what happens on defense; I just don’t care. I wanted him to bear down and concentrate on his hitting, and by doing that I thought he’d end up making fewer mistakes on defense. We started him out at second base, right field, and center field in spring training, and while he initially made some errors at second, he settled down after that. I think that he can still be a second baseman in the future.
DL: Do you feel that the pressure he felt at shortstop was primarily responsible for his struggles?
JM: Absolutely. The throw from shortstop is more difficult, and there isn’t as much room for error as there is at second base. At second, you can bobble the ball for an instant and still have time to make the play. That extra leeway is like a little mental cushion. If you watch B.J. throw in the outfield, he has a great arm. He is like dead accurate from the outfield, because he knows that from that distance, if he’s not accurate, it’s OK. At shortstop, he felt he had to be accurate all the time, which made him inaccurate. Then, at second base, it’s a shorter throw, so all he has to do is make the short flip over to Carlos [Pena] and not worry about it. I think with all players, you can work with them on all of the physical things that go into making plays, but until someone is comfortable between the ears, none of that stuff is going to matter.
DL: You majored in economics in college. What role do economics play in the baseball world of Joe Maddon?
JM: Honestly, I was not a very good student. With economics, “ubiquitous” was probably my favorite term. I guess that the number-crunching is something I liked. I’ve always been into that. I’ve always like analyzing statistical information, even before it was fashionable. When I was back in the minor leagues, as a roving hitting instructor back in the mid- to late ’80s, I probably had a more simplistic perspective, but nevertheless I saw the value in it. But my economics days at Lafayette College were probably a case of having to declare a major more than anything.
DL: Last one: How would you describe Joe Maddon?
JM: How would I describe myself? How about if we just say that self-definition is really boring?