The Best Manager In Baseball(?)

Put Joe Maddon in the manager’s office of the Padres, the Athletics, the Cubs or even the Red Sox and their record isn’t going to be any different with Maddon than it is with their current managers.

So how can Maddon be repeatedly referred to as the “best” manager in baseball when his style is tailored to fit his Rays’ clubhouse? When his team bonding exercises and lack of off-field discipline wouldn’t work anywhere else?

Saying Maddon is the “best manager in baseball” is based on fleeting criteria that can’t be transferred. It’s the Mike Francesa logic from preseason 2011 as he picked the Twins in the AL Central for no reason other than, “I awlways pick da Twins.”

Is that a viable foundation for picking them or is it laziness based on history that has no connection to the present?

If the individuals comprising that history are no longer the same, then of what value is the history? It’s the same thing as having picked the Rays to lose 100 games in 2008 because they’d lost or almost lost 100 in every year of their existence. History hinges on the participants and what caused the history. If the players were different and better; if the front office was smarter; if the competition was weaker, then why would the predictions automatically be the same?

Reality is based on perception and the perception now—because of the Rays’ success—is that Maddon is the “best” manager in baseball.

Well, he’s not. The mere appellation itself has no quantifiable basis and is formulated from nothing other than a similar belief system between the manager and the person who’s doing the ranking.

The Rays are a unique, almost unprecedented club in that they don’t have money to even put forth the pretense of keeping their players long-term for big money. If those players aren’t willing to do as Evan Longoria, Matt Moore and Ben Zobrist did and take longer term deals well before their arbitration years and have those deals contain options that will take them past free agency, they’ll be traded for younger players to continually replenish the farm system. That a Rays team that has made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years still doesn’t draw fans gives them a freedom from having money to spend and needing to spend that money to keep a rabid fan base and media horde happy. They’re 12th in the American League in attendance this season; were 13th last season and haven’t finished higher than 9th since they became good in 2008.

It works for Maddon because of the situation he’s in. It has nothing to do with being the “best”. It has to do with what’s working in the circumstances. If the team was exhibiting poor behavior off the field and wasn’t hustling then it wouldn’t look as cute as it does while the Rays are winning.

Their defensive metrics, bullpen construction, sabermetrically-inclined front office and funky manager are part of the equation, but the Rays have been as much of a beneficiary from high draft choices and luck as from their clever defensive alignments and ability to find relievers or failed starters who succeed with the Rays in ways they haven’t in prior stops.

In 2012, their bullpen has been statistically middle-of-the-pack and saved by the excellent work done by Fernando Rodney. Their vaunted defense is near the worst in baseball in fielding percentage; is third in errors; is -19 in fielding runs above average (if you’re into advanced fielding metrics that make the Rays do the profound amount of shifting that they do).

If you think they’re making up for their defensive issues with pitchers racking up strikeouts, you’re wrong. Their staff is sixth in the majors in strikeouts. Their pitchers do keep the ball in the park and they, as a team, have taken advantage of slumping opponents to hover around first place.

But it’s not the same as it was when the Rays shocked the world in 2008 and made the playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

They’re not the dominant group of youngsters who catch the ball, throw strikes and hit clutch homers. It’s a different dynamic.

Maddon is a good manager, but his quirky little bits of shtick are only taken positively because the team has won. If he were in another town with a team out of control and 15 games under .500, his new age style would be blamed for it.

In fact, if the Rays fade this season, there’s an argument to say that it’s in part because of Maddon’s defensive alignments and bizarre decisions based on nothing like playing Hideki Matsui because it was his birthday. Of course playing Matsui on his birthday is no more ridiculous than some of the out-of-context numbers that are used to justify things that don’t make sense, but it sounds weird. Sounding weird is enough to make certain factions go critical.

If the Rays stumble, will there still be a “best manager in baseball” chorus trailing everything Maddon does? Or will he be criticized?

Maddon’s gimmicks work because the Rays have won. If they were still the 100-loss calamity they were in his first two seasons as a manager, then we’re not discussing this because he would’ve been fired long ago. The “best manager” stuff is moot because it’s dependent on the players and the front office. A true barometer of the best would require so many categories and caveats that it’s not worth discussing in such a narrow frame. The manager is important, but not to the degree of blind worship without facts as it’s become with Joe Maddon.

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  1. #1 by Patrick on June 13, 2012 - 9:21 pm

    “Put Joe Maddon in the manager’s office of the Padres, the Athletics, the Cubs or even the Red Sox and their record isn’t going to be any different with Maddon than it is with their current managers.”

    Amazing. Four clubs with a different manager and not a game’s difference between them. What in the world supports the finality of this conclusion?

    It seems like the interesting thing to argue is whether or not Joe Madden is a good manager — a difficult thing to suss out, but a topic that makes for interesting baseball talk re: strategies and personalities, re: team performance matched against expectations and talent. And isn’t that what fans do?

    I’m not sure why it’s interesting to take umbrage at “blind worshippers” (duh, that’s bad), while decreeing that Madden is *not* the best manager in a tone that reminds me of… well… people decreeing he’s the the best.

    • #2 by admin on June 13, 2012 - 10:50 pm

      The point—that you clearly missed—is that there’s no possible method to quantify it other than by opinion. There are people who don’t think Tony LaRussa was a great manager. To me, that’s inexplicable and idiotic, but they exist.
      And you can be as snide as you want and take me as literally as you want, but the concept of Maddon walking into the Red Sox clubhouse and having them any better than around a .500 team; having the Padres and Cubs better than 20 games under .500; and the Athletics better than around 10 games under (not an exact number as you seem to demand, but close) is ludicrous. John McGraw wouldn’t do a better job to get those teams to outperform the limits of their talent. They are what they are and the manager is not going to change that. As I said in the posting, it depends on so many factors, you can’t come to any “finality” either way.
      Of course there are managers who are costing their teams games—Fredi Gonzalez for example provided another case study in the Braves’ 6-4 loss to the Yankees—but the Braves are a good team. So are the Rays. The Red Sox are mediocre; the other three are bad.
      I didn’t say he wasn’t the best manager because of anything he’s done or hasn’t done. I said he’s not the best because it’s impossible to determine. Nor did I name anyone else as above him. Blind worshippers are bad because they can’t think for themselves nor are they able to make legitimate assessments on their own as they wait for the anointing and follow a faux argument that there’s a method to determining who the “best” is to begin with.

      • #3 by Patrick on June 13, 2012 - 11:45 pm

        Well, yes, there’s no way to quantify it. Everyone worth arguing with gets that. But “opinions” can be more or less compelling, more or less interesting to float, support as best we can, and discuss.

        You state very definitely that Maddon is not the best manager, and clearly have opinions on some of his tactics — “quirky bits of shtick,” “gimmicks.” You also offer the opinion that he’s a “good” manager, but decree that he would be no help at all to this year’s struggling ballclubs.

        Those are opinions, too, and ones that could be explained and supported. But as they stand, it just struck me as on oddly strident post on anti-stridency.

      • #4 by admin on June 14, 2012 - 12:03 am

        There’s a difference between being a “help” and taking a bad or mediocre team and bringing them to a playoff position. Is Maddon’s defensive wizardry going to fix the Red Sox holes? Is his quirkiness going to enliven a poisonous Red Sox clubhouse with spoiled and whiny veterans used to getting their own way because they had a pushover like Terry Francona who they eventually undermined and caused his firing?
        Would he remake the Padres, Cubs and A’s into something other than what they are? Everyone’s operating from pretty much the same statistical playbook these days with deviations on how they decide on the relevance of the specific stats, but everyone has them. The Rays are more immersed in them than most and part of that is Maddon’s willingness to acquiesce to the front office’s reliance on said stats. I also mentioned that the Rays are unique in that they don’t have to take the crap from their players because these players are not going to be Rays when and if they warrant a massive, Prince Fielder-style contract and the accompanying say-so in the organization that the heavily compensated players have. Maddon’s in charge because the players are, for the most part, short-timers in Tampa. The club has the power. This is almost nonexistent in today’s game anywhere other than with the Rays. Most managers have to come to an understanding with the players; the Rays and Maddon don’t.
        They’re a great match and this would not be so if he were somewhere else. But could the Rays find another manager to do a similar job as Maddon? I believe they could. Replaceability automatically eliminates the “best” designation.
        The “shtick” and “gimmicks” weren’t in reference to his defensive positioning, but his off-field goofiness of theme road trips and overall lack of rules other than be on time and play hard. For some teams and people that works. For others it doesn’t. I’m not a fan of that stuff. If it were me, teams traveling wear a coat and tie on the road because it’s a business trip and I want them to treat it as such and because I don’t want to be aggravated with side stuff like figuring out whether to let my kids play in the blocks or fingerpaint. For Maddon, it’s a fun thing to keep his players loose. I wouldn’t operate that way, but that’s a difference of opinion on leadership.
        And as I said earlier, I said he’s not the best because we can’t say who the best is. It was not a denigration of Maddon himself.

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