A Conversation with Joe Maddon

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A Conversation with Joe Maddon

Chicago Cubs

Analytics is defined as the science of logical analysis. Simple, right? Not a scary word, right?

In baseball, though, analytics – and its place in the game – can be harder to define. The discourse regarding its place in the game is one of the most complex and intriguing dynamics, with the lines often blurred beyond recognition.

Obviously, analytics has a place in baseball. Its inclusion has sculpted the modern method of building a baseball roster. It’s streamlined scouting and player development systems throughout the game at every level. The benefits of it are undeniable, and no smart baseball person will tell you any different.

But where does the line between analytics and feel get appropriately drawn? The word itself has become a singular word boogeyman of sorts for some people, and the question has divided the baseball world and has even cost people their jobs.

Joe Maddon may well be one of those people.

Maddon, who has recently written a book about his time in the game, believes there’s plenty of room for analytics in baseball and doesn’t deny the benefits. But for him, the line gets drawn somewhere between the luxury suites and the field. Still, Maddon’s appreciation for analytics is evident, and he has a very sensible way of defining its role. His desire for the right to lead by feel and instinct is unwavering, despite the imperfections it sometimes leads to.

“I love imperfection,” Maddon explained as I spoke to him today. “In Anaheim, you know, Troy Glaus, our third baseman for years, I love Troy. I would tell him when he was struggling, ‘yeah, had a tough day but remember one thing, perfection is a boring concept.’ There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of imperfection here and there.”

“I think that [imperfection] does, just like we’re doing right now, it creates controversy, it creates dialogue, it creates conversation,” Maddon continued. “And that’s good for the sport, too, so if you wanted to define it more clearly, I’m not going to argue against it, but I also believe conjecture and discussion. Different perspectives are good.”

So, What Happened in Anaheim?

Joe Maddon was fired on the heels of a 12-game losing streak for the Angels this summer, but the problems run deeper than the losing streak, which Maddon believes served as a vehicle for Angels GM Perry Minasian to make a change.

I asked Joe Maddon what the divide was in Los Angeles between the dugout and the front office, one that eventually cost Maddon his job.

“Well, it’s just methods. I mean, ’cause first off, all I want people to know – and I’m not attacking anybody. I like Perry [Minasian] a lot. Really bright, Is going to have a long, illustrious careers as a general manager. I don’t like [the] methods. That’s what I’m talking about. It could have happened to anybody, anywhere. And actually, there’s a lot of other managers in other cities that feel the same way that I do right now and I get, I get all these texts and messages. President past, even GMs.”

“It’s things, for instance, like coming down for the game and telling me who which pitchers that are available or not, as an example of that,” Maddon explained. “That’s been going on for a couple years now and I don’t like it that. All I need to know is from the pitching coach or the bullpen coach, that they talked to the pitchers on the field before the game, when they’re playing catch, that’s a that’s a typical ritual with every Major League team. So all I need to know is how somebody’s doing on a specific day. That’s it. I know when it’s too much. I know when the guy needs a rest, and with a veteran player, I want them to tell me if they need a day off. That’s that’s just how I’ve done it forever and most everybody else has so something like that as an example.”

Maddon said that Minasian went as far as to call the dugout to weigh in on pitching changes and tactical decisions during games.

“I did get upset when Perry called down to the dugout, but again, we got over that, that’s not the issue there. It’s just, uh, it’s methods. It’s methods employed, it’s the pregame meetings, it’s even practices somehow that are dictated by front offices. That has never been that way before. So there’s things like that that I didn’t agree with. I don’t even know if that’s the overarching problem or not. I think the 12 game losing streak, you know, led to Perry doing what he did. And like I said, I don’t begrudge that to Perry wanted to do what he did.”

Maddon Believes that Analytics Have a Place in Baseball

Should analytics tell you when a pitcher needs a day off? They can certainly assist. But should they overrule the human element in the equation? Should a GM, who in his own right is a very competent and intelligent baseball person, call down to the dugout to tell a manager who is and isn’t available to pitch in that given game?

These are the questions that complicate the balance between the two methods of thinking in baseball. I’ve seen Joe Maddon labeled “anti-analytical.” He’s seen and heard it, too. He’s not the only manager in baseball that has had the same label placed on them. But he, like so many other managers that don’t fall precisely in line with the analytics-driven movement in baseball, and professional sports as a whole, actually embraces its presence, in the right capacity.

“I want it. I want all this information. I want the best analysts available to be on my team, no question,” Maddon said. “But I want them to accumulate what they need to accumulate and then present it to the coaches. Coaches should be the superior in this, in this relationship, not the inferior. We have coaches answering to young men that have never done this before, and are very good at math and accumulating, and putting information together. Which again, I think is necessary, so I would like that to occur. I would like the information, then in conjunction with the coaches, put together and then the coach brings it to the clubhouse and to the player.”

“If the coach needs any other kind of clarification, he gets in touch with the dude, they put it together and then they understand,” Maddon said. “I want the coaches to be empowered. They are there for reason. They’ve earned the right to be there. Part of my concern, too, is that people that are in big league clubhouses and haven’t earned the right to be in a Major League clubhouse. I really believe that.”

Maddon believes that coaches should coach, front office people should, well, front office. He wants the information, but he believes that it’s his right to present it and present it in a fashion that he feels will be best received and retained by his clubhouse. That’s the key there, it’s his clubhouse. And by definition, he’s right, it is his clubhouse.

Maddon is a baseball lifer. A player, a scout, an instructor, and coach, and finally, a manager. The time he has spent in those capacities since 1981 when he started in Idaho Falls as the manager of the Angels Rookie League team, has cultivated the instincts and methods that he brings to the table, the same methods that helped him lead the Tampa Bay Rays to their first World Series appearance and the Chicago Cubs to their first World Series Championship in 108 years.

The line is much simpler for Maddon than for many of us on the outside looking in. Maddon wants baseball people to teach baseball and non-baseball people to inform the baseball people.

“I want baseball people to teach baseball. I want baseball ops or analytical people or analysts to accumulate information, pass it on, and I want analytics or analysts to serve baseball, not baseball to serve what they put together.”

Especially When it Comes to Roster Building

I asked Maddon what the difference was between his time with the Angels, and his time with Tampa Bay, baseball’s poster child for analytics in baseball, and Maddon said that the Rays used analytics to build their roster, not dictate how he goes about deploying it.

“Well, with Tampa Bay there wasn’t a whole lot of involvement in dugout decisions,” Maddon said. “A lot of what was done in Tampa Bay was primarily rooted in acquisitional process. You know as an example, the winter that Andrew [Friedman] called me and says ‘I really like Carlos Pena,’ and I said ‘well so do I,’ and then he started reading off why they like Carlos Pena, before Carlos Pena became Carlos Pena. I kind of saw the same thing independent of analytics that Andrew and the boys saw. Let’s go, nice pick up, right?”

Maddon has other examples from his time with the Rays.

“Another guy was Logan Forsythe, where, I don’t remember which year, whatever the year was that he came on board. Andrew used the phrase to me, ‘exit velocity,’ I’d never heard of before. Another word for a line drive. When you’re able to measure players in Triple-A there, how hard he hit the ball determined that Logan was hitting into a lot of bad luck, and we liked Logan a lot because of that or the air. [Friedman] called me up and I’m in in Long Beach again in the offseason. ‘What do you think about Fernando Rodney?’ And then also, ‘What do you think about Joaquin Benoit?’ Now think about it, I mean, Fernando [had an] illustrious career. Benny really came on strong. But nobody wanted them at that time.”

As Maddon was explaining this to me, I couldn’t help but replay the scene from the movie Moneyball where Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) was explaining to Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) why analytics would help the A’s find talent that others can’t see. This is a perfect example of the good that analytics has done for baseball. But that’s where Maddon believes it should serve its purpose.

“I mean that’s the thing that doesn’t get talked about enough. Everybody talks about [how analytics] impacts the game so much on a nightly basis. It doesn’t,” Maddon contends. “Players impact the game on a nightly basis, and of course, a managerial decision can either benefit or be a detriment to a game on a nightly basis, but it’s not analytics necessarily.”

Some would argue that Maddon is not entirely correct in that assessment, and there are probably degrees here to which reasonable minds can differ. But you can have analytical evaluations of players and player tendencies as part of the in-game strategy without completely ostracizing a manager’s feel for his team. That’s the delicate balance that the baseball may not have been able to come to an agreement on yet.

Maddon’s Departure from Chicago Still Doesn’t Sit Right with Him

Joe Maddon was a cult hero in Chicago until he wasn’t. His stewardship of the Cubs came at the most exciting time for a fan base starved of success, and culminated with a World Series Championship during his second season in the Cubs dugout.

His exit from Chicago was almost as ugly as his arrival was glamorized, and Maddon still believes that he and the core group of players should have been afforded more time to repeat the magic of their 2016 season.

“Yes, yeah. I mean, I thought we should have stayed together a little while longer, the entire group,” Maddon said. “Did I did think the window was closed? I’m not into that stuff. I think you should always fight to win on an annual basis. I don’t understand this not trying stuff. But, yeah, that group right there had a chance, and they’re showing it, to be successful over a long period of time.”

“Anthony [Rizzo] is still playing at a very high level. Of course, Willson [Contreras] is still there. [Kris Bryant has] been banged up a little bit, but I think Javy [Baez] misses that whole group and that vibe that existed. I would have loved to have seen that group staying together longer. I think I mentioned that in the book also and that’s one of the items that for me, I just I didn’t quite understand.”

According to Maddon, his downfall in Chicago started after the 2018 loss to the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card Game.

“We had, what was it, 2018? We lose to the Rockies in a playoff and a Wild Card game,” Maddon said. “After this really, absolutely insane schedule at the end of the year, and then 2019, even that last month, we were not in bad shape and then everybody got hurt going down the stretch drive. There’s were so many good things happening there, in every department of that organization. So, I really wish that we had been able to stay together a little bit longer. But it just seems after we lost in 2018, things changed. There were player meetings at the end of the year, and I was called back in and made aware that some of the things I was doing, the players were not liking as much, or even the front office wasn’t liking as much. And I had to change and understand the Millennial player better. So, it kind of caught me off guard ’cause I had not really seen it that way.”

“But also, I thought OK maybe I am wrong here, because I want to do this longer and I like these guys a lot. I like being here, so I made an attempt to make some adjustments, but we got into 2019. Even in Spring Training, I do something called ‘the bulls.’ I was to pick the lead bulls, the most influential guys on the team, to create team policy. But then all of the sudden, that had to be done through a vote among that players, and that wasn’t my idea.”

By Spring Training of 2019, Maddon had lost much of his say over the way that the team operated, something he believes he should have stood his ground on more in hindsight.

“In season I had different methods. I don’t like hitting a lot on the field for a day game after a night game. And you know, of course we played a lot of day games, so my concern was always keeping the guys fresh. But a lot of that method was taken away from me. Even bus times on that road, and how early they wanted guys at the ballpark. My whole program. The things that I’ve done were kind of blown up, and then, by the middle of the season, I realized maybe I wasn’t wrong. Maybe, you know, the stuff that I had been doing, I should have stood for more firmly than I did.”

Maddon Wants to Return to the Dugout if the Right Situation Presents Itself

A return to the dugout is something that Maddon told me he wants, but only if that elusive balance between analytics and feel, and more importantly, the boundaries between the front office and the dugout can be established and maintained.

“I do [want to manage again], but it has to be philosophically aligned again. It has to be where analytics takes a backseat to human beings, and players coaches become empowered again. Uh, there, there’s actually more fun involved. Realize that when hitters don’t hit, it’s not the coaches’ faults, it’s, and that’s where I really get upset, when coaches get fired because hitters don’t hit because guys are throwing 100 miles an hour – they know exactly where to throw the ball and they got all these advantages. The defense is standing in the right spot. Things like that bother me. There’s got to be a more realistic approach to the whole thing.”

“But philosophically, yeah, you get the right guys and you get real baseball being played again. Fundamentally sound baseball being played again, supported, supported by analytics and not dominated by it, I’d love that.”


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Author: Patrick K. Flowers

Patrick is a Staff Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @PatrickKFlowers.