Will Maddon Matter?

Click here. Ok, now, click here. Uncanny, isn’t it? What are the odds that two Cubs’ figures of historic significance would both be white-haired men who wear black-rimmed glasses? This is further proof, as if any were needed, that forces beyond human ken are shaping the Cubs’ destiny.

Unfortunately, assessing the impact of a manager on a team has also remained largely beyond human ken. There may come a time when we can define a replacement-level manager (like, say, #Yosted), and come up with an accompanying performance metric (Wins Above Yost, or WAY). But that time has not yet arrived, so we must make do with the primitive tools at hand.  These do indeed suggest that Maddon gets it, though, as is often true in using statistics to assess a manager’s performance, it can be hard to separate the manager’s performance from that of the players.

Maddon managed the Tampa Bay (Sometimes Devil) Rays from 2006-2014, so he has a relatively long record to examine.  During that time the Rays accumulated 55,830 plate appearances, 15th out of 30 MLB teams. But Maddon did not allow those PAs to be distributed randomly:


Situation                         Rank

L vs. L                                12

R vs. R                               22

L  vs. R                                8

R  vs. L                                8

Joe knows platoons; the Rays frequently obtained the platoon advantage during his tenure. Carl Crawford partly explains the relatively high L-L rank — Maddon did not platoon Crawford even though his splits would have warranted such treatment after 2007.

Maddon also aggressively used pinch-hitters, a rarity in an era when managers pinch-hit for anyone other than a pitcher with the enthusiasm of a cat taking a bath. During the Maddon Years, the Rays led the AL in pinch-hitting PAs, and it wasn’t even close:

Rays                  1249

Evil Empire       946

A’s                        934

Blue Jays            908

Red Sox               833

The least pinch-hitty team in the NL during this period, the Astros, had 2100 pinch hit PAs, so Maddon wasn’t behaving exactly like an NL manager, but he pushed that envelope farther than any of his DH-league brethren. (It’s also interesting to note that 4 of the top 5 pinch-hitting AL teams hailed from the AL East, though what use one might make of this interesting information is far from clear.) And while activity is often confused with achievement, Joe’s tinkering produced results: the Rays were 8th in wRC+ for pinch-hitters during his tenure.

Baserunning is another area where the manager can exert tangible influence, and this is another area where the Rays score high. From 2006-2014 the Rays were second in the majors, behind only the Mets, in BsR, a metric that expresses stolen bases, caught stealing, and other baserunning plays as runs above or below average.

Team            BsR 2006-2014

Mets                      74.2

Rays                      73.9

Rangers                71.3

Twins                    56.4

Angels                   55.4

As you might guess, Crawford drove a lot of this success. The Rays are just 8th in BsR in the Post Perfect Storm Era (2011-2014), good but no longer elite. And what of that Ebola of hitting, the sacrifice bunt? By and large, Joe let ’em swing — the Rays were 26th in sac hits during his reign.

So as far as the hitters are concerned, Maddon is the model of the modern majors manager. His pitching deployment, however, has a bit more of a retro feel:

Pitchers             MLB innings rank 2006-2014

All Rays                                  15

Starters                                    7

Relievers                                25

“Aha!” you say. “That’s because Rays relievers have needed pine tar to succeed.” Perhaps — from 2006-2014 Rays starters and relievers have amassed nearly the same FIP- (102 for the starters, 101 for the relievers). But on second glance that reliever FIP- does suggest that the Rays should have been purchasing pine tar at Big Lots — it is 5th from the bottom in the majors during this period, while the Rays rank 15th in starter FIP-. In addition, although the FIP- figure doesn’t necessarily demonstrate this, the Rays have obviously had some excellent starters, such as James Shields and David Price, capable of working deep into games.

Maddon’s pitchers have not performed well in high leverage situations, which generally include late, close games:

Leverage           MLB FIP rank

High                          21

Medium                    14

Low                            10

The list looks upside down; most managers would want their best pitching effort when it matters most. It doesn’t appear, based on this admittedly limited data, that Maddon has been able to be as creative with pitchers as he has with hitters, but some of this may simply be a reflection of the Rays’ spotty bullpen quality. On the clearly positive side, Maddon was able to stem the march of Intentional Walk Zombies, with the Rays ranking just 23rd in IBBs during his time in Tampa.

No evaluation of Joe Maddon would be complete without a discussion of defense. He embraced aggressive shifts earlier and oftener than most, with apparently impressive results. Tampa Bay was first in UZR/150 during Maddon’s tenure, and third in Def. The Rays fare less well in Defensive Runs Saved, but still rank 9th during the period. (If you’re curious about how these stats work, I urge you to click on the links — my grasp of defensive metrics is pretty feeble, and the approach I usually take is to use several different ones to answer a defensive question and see if they produce similar results, which in this case they generally do.)

So based on admittedly less than decisive evidence, and bearing in mind that much of any manager’s achievement or lack thereof is down to the players’ talent rather than the manager’s aptitude, it appears that Maddon makes decisions reasonably designed to help his team win games,  His task with the Cubs will differ in many ways from his experience in Tampa Bay. One of the most significant differences is that he’s likely to have a better bullpen, and likely to need it more. Even if the Cubs add two Big Name Horses, the rotation will still have question marks, and this will be true even if Jake Arrieta’s deal with the devil has another year to run. For somewhere around 15-20 home games, Wrigley Field will play like Ebbets Field, a challenge that Maddon didn’t have to deal with in the Logan’s Run-like controlled atmosphere in The Trop, and one that will put his bullpen management skills to their sternest test. He appears to be someone at least as eager to learn as to teach, and the prospect of being known as The Curseslayer will surely be motivation for him to continue evolving.

Maddon’s arrival on the shores of Lake Michigan was not without controversy. There’s little doubt that Rick Renteria got jobbed (or rather, de-jobbed), even though the two players whose regression got Dale Sveum fired (Castro and Rizzo) had excellent bounceback seasons under him. The Cubs’ rank opportunism in dumping Skipperfriend 2.0 for SF 3.0 is matched only by the Rays’ pathetic shakedown dressed up as a tampering charge. A managerial tenure that might end like the EA Sports commercial has begun with several reminders that humans are indeed a predatory species. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In any case, flags fly forever, and few will have qualms about any of this moral relativism if indeed the Goat is consigned once and for all to Cthonian darkness. As far as Cubs fans are concerned, the message for now is: Glasses! Half full.

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