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How Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon Has Become MLB's Best Small-Market Manager

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How Tampa Bay Rays' Joe Maddon Has Become MLB's Best Small-Market Manager
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Had things gone a little differently, Joe Maddon could be managing the Boston Red Sox right now.

Yup, that almost happened. When the Red Sox were looking for a successor to Grady Little after the 2003 season, Maddon was one of the candidates they interviewed before they settled on Terry Francona.

That worked out pretty well for them. And ultimately, Boston's decision to pass on Maddon in favor of Francona worked out pretty well for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Maddon has been managing the Rays ever since 2006, leading the team to two AL East titles and a wild-card title in 2011. The Rays went all the way to the World Series in 2008, a year in which they dispatched none other than Francona's Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.

And Maddon has done all this, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts, despite never having a payroll over $73 million in a given year. In fact, the Rays' average payroll during his tenure is right round $50 million.

There's no doubt about it; Maddon is the best small-market manager in Major League Baseball right now.

How does he do it?

That's a complicated question to answer. Maddon does a lot of things to help the Rays win games, but the kind of person he is also counts for a lot.

What we need here is an immediate discussion.

 

He's Resourceful

If they decide to make another Moneyball film, it shouldn't be a sequel about what happened to the A's after 2002. It should be about what went on in Tampa Bay following the 2005 season.

That was when team owner Stuart Sternberg effectively wiped his front office clean and found new people to run the team. The man he hired to be in charge of personnel was Andrew Friedman, and the next move the club made was to hire Maddon as its manager.

The Rays haven't really changed the way they've done things all that much in the last six years. The philosophy is the same as ever.

What changes all the time is the team's roster. Few teams experience as much turnover from season to season as the Rays do, and they tend to make a ton of moves during the season as well. Friedman and his staff are always tinkering.

Every manager has to take what he's given and figure out how to make all the different pieces work out on the field. Due to the hyperactivity of the Rays' front office, though, it's a lot harder for Maddon to figure out how to make all the different pieces work together in harmony.

He certainly doesn't make it look difficult. Every year, Maddon finds a way to get the most out of undermanned rosters.

It helps that he has a good eye for how he can best put his players to use. One player in particular is a walking, talking testament to this special talent of Maddon's.

This player, of course, would be Ben Zobrist.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Only Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera have higher WARs than Ben Zobrist since 2009.
When Zobrist first started seeing time with the Rays in 2006 and 2007, he was strictly a shortstop and not much of a hitter. Frankly, he looked to be a classic Quadruple-A player with a questionable future in the majors.

Everything changed in 2008. Maddon started playing Zobrist all over the place: shortstop, second base, right field, center field, wherever. In the lineup, the only place Zobrist didn't bat in 2008 was in the No. 5 spot.

And because he only played in 62 games with the Rays in 2008, Zobrist was basically never in the same place twice.

Zobrist finally became a full-time player in 2009, but Maddon didn't stop moving him around. Zobrist continued to play all over the field, and this time Maddon made sure to bat him in all nine spots of his lineup.

Despite the constant movement, Zobrist went on to have a better season in the majors than anyone not named Albert Pujols. Per FanGraphs, Zobrist finished second in the majors with a WAR of 8.7 in 2009.

Here we are in 2012, and Zobrist is still a baseball nomad. He's starred at three different positions this season and batted in six different spots in the lineup.

Zobrist understands his lot in life is to be Johnny on the spot for Maddon, and he's cool with that. Here's what he told Sports Illustrated recently:

For our team and for just value in general as a player, I think it's just valuable for our team that I am able to play a lot of different positions. It gives our team a lot of flexibility late in the game to make moves that maybe we wouldn't be able to make if a guy isn't comfortable playing different positions.

The Rays have been pioneers in that, giving me an opportunity to do that on a regular basis.

One wonders if Zobrist knows just how valuable he really is. Does he know that, according to FanGraphs, he has the same WAR this season as Josh Hamilton?

Zobrist isn't the only player who has blossomed under Maddon's watch. Another player who comes to mind is Matt Joyce.

Joyce was a platoon outfielder with the Tigers when he first broke into the big leagues in 2008, and he likely wasn't going to be much more than that on the Tigers given the kind of names they had at their disposal.

Joyce joined the Rays in 2009, and he's turned into one of the more productive outfielders in the league ever since 2010. He's battled injuries, but his .820 OPS since the 2010 season is equal to that of Jayson Werth and just a few ticks below Andre Ethier.

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Rodney leads all AL relievers in WAR in 2012.
Maddon's top reclamation project this season would be none other than Fernando Rodney. In parts of nine seasons before this one, he compiled a pedestrian 4.29 ERA and a downright ugly 1.46 WHIP. He couldn't hold on to the Los Angeles Angels' closer job in 2011, and at one point he was so frustrated with his lack of playing time that he asked the team to trade him.

Rodney now ranks second in the American League in saves with 39, and he has a microscopic 0.75 ERA.

This is what Maddon does. He has been able to enjoy star players like Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and David Price over the years, but he's also made a few stars of his own.

Not that Maddon needs stars to win games. He just needs all the right pieces in all the right places, and he arranges things to fit his will better than any manager in the league.

This is because he has the one thing that tends to be in short supply among managers: 

Creativity.

 

He's Creative

Some managers are lucky enough to come to the ballpark every day, take out their lineup cards and just set it and forget it. 

Not Maddon. Nobody in his clubhouse can get too comfortable.

In addition to constantly moving his infielders and outfielders around, Maddon is also constantly experimenting with his lineups. It's been his M.O. for years, and he certainly hasn't lost his edge in 2012.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, Maddon has used two different lineup variations more than any others this season, and he's used those two lineup variations just three times each.

To date, Maddon has used 10 different hitters in the cleanup spot and 11 different hitters in the No. 5 hole. That's a lot of turnover for two spots that tend to be occupied by the same players day in and day out on other clubs.

It gets better. Maddon has used 16 different players in the No. 6 spot, 18 different players in the No. 7 spot and 18 different players in the No. 9 spot.

The amount of movement going on from day to day occasionally results in weird occurrences.

Like, for example, Drew Sutton batting cleanup.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Sutton has 13 RBI this season. That's a career high for him.
That happened for the first time (not the last) on May 23 in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays, mere days after Sutton had been traded first from the Atlanta Braves to the Pittsburgh Pirates and then from the Pirates to the Rays.

Naturally, Sutton went 2-for-4 with a double and two RBI, and the Rays won the game 5-4 in 11 innings.

Maddon eventually explained his decision to bat Sutton fourth that day to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, and he made it sound like it was an easy call to make.

Honestly, among the guys that we had, he was the best suited to make contact after (Matt) Joyce. If the first three guys were to get on base, I felt against that pitcher, (Ricky) Romero, that he’d have the best chance to move the baseball — period.

...

Furthermore, watching Sutton the day before (in his Rays debut), I liked the way his whole approach was. Without getting too technical, he just really followed the ball well. And he has had a history of looking over a pitch. He doesn’t expand the strike zone. All those different reasons came into it.

The hell of it is that it was just a day before Sutton hit cleanup that Maddon made another highly unorthodox lineup decision. On May 22, he batted Carlos Pena, a man with no speed and a tendency to swing and miss a lot, in the leadoff spot against the Jays.

Any other manager surely would have paid the price for batting a hitter such as Pena in the leadoff spot. Maddon was rewarded with a three-run homer that loomed large in an eventual 8-5 victory.

That's how things tend to work out for Maddon when he tinkers with his lineup. There's no real secret to it. In fact, he doesn't seem to care all that much about his daily batting orders.

"But to me, (the lineup) is the least interesting part of the whole thing, anyway," he told Rosenthal. "The most interesting is your defense and your pitching and your bullpen.”

Ah yes, the defense. Maddon has a lot of fun with his.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
A relatively normal shift put on by the Rays in the 2008 World Series.
More and more managers are starting to use infield shifts on a regular basis, and Maddon is largely to blame/thank for that. He pioneered the use of infield shifts, and they work better than you probably think.

According to BillJamesOnline.com (subscription required), the Rays led all of baseball by a wide margin in infield shifts with 216 in 2011. With all that shifting going on, the Rays proceeded to lead the league in DRS (defensive runs saved) at plus-85, according to FanGraphs.

The next-closest team finished at plus-54.

As of the middle of May, the Rays had already shifted 171 times and were on pace to shift close to 700 times by the end of the season. That goes to show just how much Maddon has ramped up his defensive tomfoolery in 2012.

Is it working?

You bet. Despite the fact the Rays rank towards the bottom of the league with a fielding percentage of .981, they still rank sixth in baseball with a DRS of plus-31.

For Maddon, there's nothing sacred or anything even all that complicated about infield shifts. They come about because the Rays do their homework. Maddon, Friedman and the team's eggheads study the tendencies of other hitters as much as they can, and their shifts are the result of their research.

As Maddon put it in an interview with The New York Times: “None of it’s by the seat of our pants."

As far as pitching goes, Maddon's not afraid to defy conventional wisdom with his use of his bullpen. For example, he will use lefty relievers against right-handed hitters, something that's typically a big no-no as far as most managers are concerned.

You'd never be able to tell why from looking at the Rays. J.P. Howell has faced more righties than lefties this season, and he's holding them to a .195 batting average. Jake McGee has also faced more righties than lefties, and he's holding them to a .107 batting average.

Thanks to the fact that his rotation has been largely untouched by injuries over the last two seasons, Maddon hasn't had to get very creative with his starting pitching in either 2011 or 2012. 

This doesn't mean Maddon hasn't gotten creative with his starting pitching at any point in the last two years, mind you. On the contrary, he got creative at a time last season when most managers would have been afraid to get creative.

When the Rays entered the postseason in 2011, David Price wasn't an option to start Game 1 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers because he pitched in the regular-season finale. James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson had also just pitched.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Moore is 10-8 with a 3.58 ERA this season.
Maddon decided to start Matt Moore, a rookie who at the time had a single major league start under his belt.

You remember what happened. Moore pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up just two hits and striking out six. The Rays won 9-0.

Again, that's just how things tend to work out for Maddon.

I would say that other managers should try to be more like him, but, well, that's impossible. He's him, and they're them.

 

He's Not Afraid to be Unconventional

By tradition, managers are supposed to be vanilla. They're all supposed to be as boring as Bruce Bochy and as calm under pressure as Joe Girardi.

Some break the mold. For every Tony La Russa, there is an Earl Weaver. For every Dusty Baker, there is an Ozzie Guillen. For good or ill, the unconventional managers are just as memorable as the boring ones.

Joe Maddon, however, is his own kind of unconventional. 

Maddon can rant and rave as much as the Weavers and the Guillens of the world, but it's the perspective he has on baseball and the way he gets his points across that are unusual.

Take his spat with Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson from earlier this season, for example. Johnson drew Maddon's ire when he got Rays reliever Joel Peralta ejected from a game because he had pine tar on his glove. Maddon made no secret of his displeasure with Johnson, to which Johnson responded by telling the media that Maddon should "read the rulebook."

Maddon's response: 

I totally understand that. Davey's right. I'm incapable of reading the rulebook, and there's also reading between the lines in some situations that needs to be looked at, too. He's been around long enough; he knows better than that.

Translation: Never mind the written rules. It's the unwritten rules that Johnson is guilty of violating.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Maddon's point was that pine tar use is rampant in Major League Baseball, and that every player and every coach knows this. Players continuing to use pine tar isn't bush league, but calling them out for using pine tar is bush league.

Essentially, what Maddon admitted was that he's fine with certain forms of cheating. It's just not every day (see "ever") that you hear a manager say something like that.

And Maddon doesn't necessarily restrict himself to expressing his opinions out loud in front of a bunch of reporters if he feels that he needs to get something across. He doesn't mind spelling his thoughts out in 140 characters or less for the Twitterverse to see.

Maddon is one of the only managers in baseball who is active on Twitter. You'd think a man in his position would shy away from generating controversy on Twitter, but Maddon apparently has no filter between his brain and his fingers. 

He proved that much with this tweet, which he posted following a contentious game with the Red Sox in May:

One supposes it may have been this tweet that ultimately led Johnson to refer to Maddon as a "weird wuss" and a "tweeter" during their little war of words. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine certainly didn't take kindly to Maddon's criticisms (which he also aired to the media), saying that Maddon's coaching staff acted "very immature and out of control" during Tampa Bay's scrum with the Red Sox.

Maddon isn't afraid to cause a fuss after the games are over, and he's not afraid to cause a fuss during games either. 

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
When Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez had a perfect game going against the Rays on August 15, Maddon started arguing balls and strikes with the home-plate umpire in the seventh inning and got himself run. He didn't leave before he got his money's worth, causing a delay that lasted a couple minutes.

Hernandez went on to finish the perfect game, anyway, but Maddon's apparent icing attempt became a point of contention after the game was over.

According to The Seattle Times, Mariners manager Eric Wedge took exception to Maddon's antics. So did second baseman Dustin Ackley. As he saw it, Maddon's argument with the home-plate umpire was a "stalling thing."

Maddon responded by saying he didn't really care what the Mariners thought (via the Tampa Bay Times):

With all due respect, I don't care about that whatsoever, whether [Hernandez] pitches a perfect game, a no-hitter, whatever. I have no interest at all in the success of the Seattle Mariners. I have zero interest in that. So however it's perceived from the other side, that is a matter of perception, how they're going to look at things.

And for the record, Maddon is not against bunting to break up a no-hitter in progress either, an act considered a cardinal sin by traditional baseball standards.

Sometimes he abides by the unwritten rules, and other times he doesn't. Sometimes he's courteous, and other times he's not so courteous. 

The point is that there's simply no predicting what Maddon is going to do or how he's going to react to certain situations. His temperament is about as predictable as the arrangement of his infield from hitter to hitter.

If there's a method to his madness, it's to call attention to the fact that the Rays are not your ordinary baseball team. The decisions he makes from the dugout are a big reason why the Rays are perennially such a successful underdog team, and he drives the point home even further by wearing the club's underdog label like a badge of honor.

He finds ways to make his players do so as well.

 

He's Not Just a Strategical Genius

A manager can have both a brilliant strategical mind and an outgoing personality, but neither of these things count for you-know-what unless he has the support of his players.

That's not a problem for Maddon. He's known for being the closest thing to a headset-wearing coordinator that baseball has to offer, but he's also one of the great players' managers in baseball today.

Maddon can keep things loose as well, or better, than any manager in the league. Sometimes he does little things like give each player a rapper equivalent or a superhero equivalent, and sometimes he gets a little more eccentric.

The Rays' now-infamous themed road trips come to mind. They did a road trip theme that required everyone to wear hockey sweaters in 2010, and another that required everyone to wear weird golf clothes later that season.

My personal favorite—and indeed, perhaps everyone's personal favorite—was this season's nerd-themed road trip in honor of Ken Rosenthal. At the very least, it should be remembered for the picture that David Price posted of himself on Twitter:

Maddon eventually explained to Rosenthal that the idea behind the themed road trips is pretty simple:

It’s team-building. It’s a camaraderie component. There’s also a certain amount of risk-taking where people dress in a manner they wouldn’t normally dress and feel slightly uncomfortable. They walk into a hotel lobby and there’s a camera in their face and they have to react to it. I like that uncomfortable moment.

Beyond that, I think it’s fun. And beyond that, I’m poking fun at the group that insists on wearing $3,000 suits on chartered airplanes. I’ve never understood how that related to winning in any way, shape or form.

I believe this: There is a lot of discipline to be derived from freedom. When you are working with a highly professional, motivated group that is accountable, the more freedom you give that group, the more discipline you’re going to get in return.

There's no stat that can prove how well Maddon's disciplinary tactics, such as they are, are working. What we do know is that it's pretty important for him to reach as many players as he possibly can, as he doesn't exactly tend to have a set roster from year to year, month to month, or even week to week.

Players come and go, and some don't stay long enough to build any sort of profound relationship with the organization. With that kind of transience as the status quo, getting everyone pointed in the same direction can't be easy.

Maddon must be doing something right. To make the postseason three out of the last four years with the talent he's had is pretty impressive (never more so than last season).

You can't help but wonder how many other managers would have had as much success had they been in Maddon's shoes. 

 

The Grand Conclusion

Joe Maddon is not in a unique position in Tampa Bay. The Rays may be the quintessential small-market team in baseball, but they're by no means the only small-market team in baseball.

The San Diego Padres are a small-market team, and Bud Black faces many of the same challenges that Maddon does. So does Bob Melvin with the Oakland A's, Ned Yost with the Kansas City Royals and Clint Hurdle with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to name just a few. Like Maddon, these guys have to do what they can with what they are given.

Be that as it may, we know for a fact that Maddon does a better job of doing what he can with what he's got than the other small-market managers around Major League Baseball. All you have to do is count the postseason berths. While you're at it, you can count his AL Manager of the Year awards (he has two, for the record).

Yes, it does help that he has a very smart front office at his back. Friedman is one of the best in the business, and he's certainly one of the smartest guys in the room whenever the Winter Meetings roll around. Maddon owes a lot to his front office.

Do you agree that Joe Maddon is the smartest manager in baseball?

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Maddon is so successful with what Friedman gives him, however, because Maddon is also one of the smartest guys in the room wherever he goes. For that, you can take the players' word for it, as a group of 100 of them voted Maddon the smartest manager in baseball in a survey conducted by Men's Journal (h/t Tampa Bay Times).

He hasn't won a World Series yet, but it's probably just a matter of time before he does. Goodness knows Maddon would have probably already won a couple had he been managing a team with limitless resources all this time.

You know, such as the Red Sox.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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