November's just begun, but already the Cubs have made what's likely to be their splashiest off-season acquisition: Joe Maddon, who guided the Tampa Bay Rays to five 90-win seasons in his nine years there, including a remarkable 96-losses to 97-wins turnaround from 2007 to 2008.
And he did it with a small-market team in a bad stadium with an ambivalent fan base, under substantial financial limitations—in Maddon's best seasons with the team, they paid about $450k-$750k per win, compared to about $1.5-$1.7 million per win for the recent-issue Cubs teams.
As a result, he's made a reputation as an intelligent, efficient manager, particularly in the sabermetrics community. But what does that mean—especially when it comes to in-game management, where Maddon will have the most control?
Maddon was dubbed the "King of Shifts" by the New York Times for his team's propensity to weight the defense to one side or the other for dead-pull hitters. A lot:
Already, they have used a shift 153 times this season — including 29 times in that opening series against the Yankees — or nearly twice as much as the team that ranks No. 2 in that category, Buck Showalter’s Orioles, according to Baseball Info Solutions, a research group that provides major league teams with advanced information about defense.
In 2007, Maddon's Rays went 66-96 and gave up 944 runs while scoring 782 runs. In 2008, they went 97-65 and went to the World Series, giving up 671 runs and scoring 774. Some of that was a better pitching staff: Matt Garza replaced the abysmal hydra of Jason Hammel (6.14 ERA), J.P. Howell (7.59 ERA), and Jae Wong Seo (8.13 ERA). Four of their five most-used relievers from 2007 would be out of the majors by 2010.
But an immense amount of credit is given to the Rays' defense. In 2007, they had the second-worst Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in baseball. In 2008, they had the best. Since then they've been no worse than eighth (twice), and otherwise no worse than third. Remarkably, this was predictable, or predicted; long before he was the FiveThirtyEight wizard of politics, Nate Silver and the team at Baseball Prospectus predicted an 88-74 record for the 2008 Rays based largely on their defensive improvements:
It's in the field, though, that the Rays will make their biggest gains. According to BP's Fielding Runs above Average (FRAA), the Rays gave up 72 more runs than an average defense last season. Of that total, 56 resulted from poor middle-infield play as the Rays rotated overmatched utilitymen Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson at shortstop and saw Upton commit 12 errors in just 48 games at second before moving him to centerfield. But the acquisition of slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett in the Young trade and the move of sure-handed Aki Iwamura from third to second (to make room for Longoria) has stabilized the infield. As a result the Rays' defense projects to be 10 runs above average this year, an 82-run improvement, which will allow the improved rotation to work through its innings more efficiently.
Silver called the prediction "audacious"; the Rays exceeded that prediction by nine wins.
Like this year's Royals, an overachieving small-market team without a lot of star power on offense, Maddon keeps his players running:
True to his Angels roots, Maddon encourages his players to take extra bases aggressively — even at the risk of making the first or third out at third, a longtime baseball no-no. “It’s a positive risk,” Maddon said. “I don’t want my players afraid of making mistakes.”
He encourages his players to steal — the Rays led the majors with 116 stolen bases through Friday — and eschews conservative moves like bunting runners over and issuing intentional walks, preferring to let players get the job done with as little managerial intervention as possible.
But it's more than just psychological. The numbers back up Maddon's description of being aggressive on the basepaths as a "positive risk."
Base running is another facet in which the manager can have influence over the game. He can do it through pinch runners (13th — not shown on chart), advancing on the base paths on an out (10th), taking an extra base on a hit, for example, going from first to third on a single (1st), attempting to steal a base (1st) or being thrown out on the base paths trying to advance (8th). Taken together, this reflects the understanding that, all other things being equal, the value of an extra base is not outweighed by the cost of giving up an out and shows an understanding of the Tom Tango Run Expectancy Matrix that is almost spooky. It also reflects that teams with lower payrolls often rely on speed to make up for the lack of power.
The pseudonymous Tom Tango, by the way, got hired on as an exclusive consultant to the Cubs last year.
In trying to reverse-engineer Maddon's mind, baseball writers have identified some of his more subtle strategies. For instance, it's accepted wisdom in baseball that you stack your lineup with right-handers against left-handed pitchers, and vice versa. Jack Moore found Maddon doing the opposite against pitchers with good change-ups, a pitch that works better against opposite-handed hitters; the Rays even had their switch-hitters go same-side. And it seemed to work.
When star third baseman Evan Longoria was mired in a deep slump, R.J. Anderson noticed that Maddon put him at the top of the order, out of his usual cleanup spot and against the usual tendency to drop slumping players down, in order to focus Longoria on getting on base. That seemed to work, too.
In 2011, Rays blogger Steve Kinsella did a deep look into Maddon's in-game tendencies. He found that Maddon was particularly skilled and/or lucky at deploying intentional walks, with the highest percentage of good outcomes and the lowest percentage of bad outcomes.
At Beyond the Box Score, Scott Lindholm found that Maddon's Rays have been largely less mistake-prone than their peers. His Mistake Index, which looks at things like wild pitches, baserunning errors, fielding errors, and so forth, compares teams on whether they make more errors than their opponents, sort of like turnover differential in football. The Rays made fewer mistakes than their opponents in four of the past six years, and when they didn't, the difference was modest. The Cubs, by contrast, made more mistakes than their opponents each of the past six years.
And in a two-part interview with Baseball Prospectus, Maddon gave a glimpse into his mind, which "never shuts off." For example, how he uses data to pick his lineup:
Andrew [Friedman] 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.
Or how he looks for data he doesn't have:
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?
James Click, incidentally, created the park-adjusted defensive efficiency metric when he was at Baseball Prospectus, which began with "doing painfully menial data entry for free" after unsuccessful attempts to intern with a baseball team. Click's interview with DRays Bay is a nice look into his thought process with the team.
Curiously enough, Click's research led him to conclude that managers had no impact on a team's ongoing performance, based on a wide range of factors under their control: "Click was unable to find evidence of a repeatable skill in any one of those five areas for any of the 456 managers he studied. That is to say that, much like clutch hitting, individual performances varied so much from season to season that the results appeared to be as much the result of chance as anything else."
It's a difficult question to answer, but baseball analysts are hesitant to credit managers with more than a couple wins over their peers. And it appears the market reflects this. Maddon's due to make $5 million a year over the course of his five-year deal. If Maddon is worth two wins over the typical manager, he'd deliver somewhat less value per dollar as David DeJesus did in 2013: two wins above replacement at $4.25 million. Or Travis Wood last year: 2.15 WAR, $3.9 million.
So as big a splash as the Maddon acquisition was, it might not be as big a deal as it looks, if you buy the argument that acquiring a top managerial talent is tantamount to acquiring an above-average, relatively inexpensive free agent. Or it could be that a good managers are a market inefficiency, and the Cubs got a bargain.