Figures of Attendance, Part I–the Mets, Rays and Marlins

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In today’s NY Times, amid the accolades doled out on R.A. Dickey for another superlative performance, the attendance situation surrounding the Mets is discussed. GM Sandy Alderson all but said he’s keeping veteran outfielder Scott Hairston in spite of his attractiveness on the trade market as a power righty bat off the bench and as an occasional starter because wins help credibility and he might help the team win a few extra games.

It’s very easy to criticize the decision and say that once a team is guaranteed of missing the playoffs that there’s no difference between winning 76 games, 66 games of 56 games. Apart from the requisite jokes of a team being so terrible that they lose over 100 games, there’s some logic in the theory. Specifically, in his book The Extra 2% about the Rays, Jonah Keri said that the Rays new ownership and management team knew they were awful and shunned the idea of wasting money and resources to bring in players that would likely have helped them win 5 or so more games, but wouldn’t have done much of anything to help them in the long term.

The Rays could do that because they were such a perennial laughingstock and no one knew what to make of the financial guys who’d taken over the team. Given the moves they did make—changing the name, appearing to be afraid of making a mistake in trades to the point that they were frozen in time—there was much to ridicule. But bolstered by the high draft picks; some truly savvy trades; clever long-term contracts and service time sleight of hand; and more than a little luck, the Rays have become the case study of building a winning team under a strict budget.

That the Rays have made the playoffs in 3 of the past 4 years and have a chance to make it again this year doesn’t alter the fact that their attendance is 13th out of 14 AL teams in 2012; was 13th last season; 9th in 2010; 11th in 2009 coming off their pennant in 2008; and were 12th in 2008. In 2007, they lost 96 games and were last with almost 1.4 million fans coming to Tropicana Field. They’ve gained around 400,000 people a season since they started winning. That’s not good.

The Marlins have a new ballpark and went on a spending spree to try and win. Non-baseball-related amenities and attractions were installed in Marlins Park with the undertone of ownership not caring why people were coming to the park; whether they were there to watch the game, go to a restaurant or nightclub, get a haircut or just look at women mattered little. Attendance hasn’t risen to the levels they desired and the 51-61 Marlins are 12th in the National League. That’s after being last from 2006-2011 and next to last in 2005; 14th in 2004 (coming off a World Series win); and next to last in 2003 when they did win the World Series.

If the Rays think a new park in St. Petersburg or wherever else in Florida they can find the space and get the approval to build one is going to help, they need only to look at the other Florida franchise to see the truth. And good luck after the way the Marlins ballpark was built with the subsequent investigations into the shady practices that were its genesis.

With mercenaries; corporate entities; team bosses who think their installation was based on merit and not on marrying someone; and questionable ethics and morals, the Marlins are getting what many think they deserve. It gets worse from here.

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The Best Manager In Baseball(?)

All Star Game, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Cy Young Award, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, Hall Of Fame, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, MVP, Paul Lebowitz's 2012 Baseball Guide, PEDs, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, Umpires, World Series

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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