Saturday, November 1, 2014

Thoughts on Joe Maddon and SABR's Behaving Badly

A somewhat bizarre chain of events culminated yesterday in the announcement that the Chicago Cubs had fired their Manager, Rick Renteria, and hired Joe Maddon, who recently had exercised an opt out clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays.  Joe Maddon, Tampa Bay's manager since 2006, is the current darling of the sabermetric crowd on the internets for reasons that are not completely clear.  The news that he had opted out of his contract in Tampa Bay ignited a firestorm of speculation as to where he might end up with at least 10 teams believed to be at least kicking the tires on him.

The whole saga started about 2 weeks ago when the Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman away from Tampa Bay.  The reason why the Dodgers were able to hire Friedman away from TB for essentially the same position was that he was working with a handshake agreement with the TB owner and had no written contract.  At the time of the Friedman hiring, there was speculation that Maddon might come west with him.  After all, Maddon had spend most of his career in the Angels' organization.  There were quick denials from both organizations that there was any connection between Maddon and Friedman and that Friedman would not raid the Rays organization.

Needless to say, eyebrows went way up a few days later when it was suddenly announced that Maddon had opted out of his contract with the Rays.  There was a story put out that it was the Rays that brought the opt out clause to Maddon's attention along with denials that they were trying to tell him to leave.  The Dodges rushed to announce that Don Mattingly would indeed be their manager next year.  Most analysts quickly pinpointed the Cubs as his most likely destination, but Theo Epstein had just said at his postseason presser that Renteria and the coaching staff had done a good job and deserved to come back next year.  Of course, that all went out the window in a hurry when within a 24 hour period that Cubs fired Renteria and hired Maddon.  Tampa Bay management is now reported to believe that the Cubs may have been behind Maddon's opt out.  They may file formal tampering charges with MLB.

So, just what is it about Maddon that makes Major League Baseball executives react to him like he's the femme fatale at the luxury hotel bar?  That is another bit of a head-scratcher.  Maddon is no newcomer to baseball, spending most of is career and life as a minor league manager and major league coach in the Angels organization.  He was hired to manage the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006, and managed them to an AL pennant in 2008 and 3 other postseason appearances.  Maddon was hailed as a forward thinking,  analytical manager and seemed to take delight in doing unorthodox things in the field.  He was one of the first managers to make obvious consistent use of defensive shifts. On the other hand, a Fangraphs article by August Fagerstrom dated 8/25/2014 pointed out that Maddon had ordered non-pitchers to sacrifice bunt more times and with a lower success rate than any other manager in MLB up to that point and it wasn't close.  Fast forward to the 2014 postseason and the guffawing from places like Fangraphs over Ned Yost's liberal use of the sac bunt in the postseason, which by the way, Joe Maddon was not part of.

Of course, Maddon's run of success with Tampa Bay coincided with the maturation of several high first round draft picks acquired during TB's run as one of the worst teams in baseball.  That pipeline of talent has almost completely dried up as TB's success rate in drafts, starting in 2008 when they took Tim Beckham over Buster Posey, has been pretty much zero.  6 years of bad drafting will tend to take a toll on any team's MLB talent level, let alone one that is in a small market and has a limited budget.

Amid all the ecstasy and euphoria about what Saber darlings Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon may accomplish in organizations with deeper pockets, several analysts have quietly pointed out that they may be getting out of Dodge before the posse takes them away.  Certainly the behavior of Tampa Bay's ownership in all this might suggest that they did not try very hard to get either Friedman or Maddon to stay.

As for what this means for the future success of the Dodgers and Cubs, I'm going to say, probably not much.  Longtime and widely respected Dodger scout Logan White seemed to sense that a Pharaoh had arisen in Egypt who knew not Joseph and took a similar job with the Padres.  If the Dodgers are planning to build and maintain their team from the farm system, letting Logan White go and hiring the guy who has overseen the Rays drafting for the last 6 years would not seem to be the way to go.

As for the Cubs, the sudden departures of Friedman and Maddon from Tampa Bay conjures up memories of when Theo Epstein bailed out of the smoldering ruins of what was left of the Boston Red Sox he built.  The Cubs do have an impressive collection of prospects who should be coming online over the next 2 seasons.  On the other hand, two of their best, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant, sell out for power while carrying frightening strikeout rates, which is exactly the opposite of the approach of most postseason participants this year.  They also have virtually nothing coming on the pitching side which may eventually force them to trade some of their offensive talent for pitching.  Meanwhile, in addition to Tampa Bay's concerns about possible tampering, many baseball executives around the league are reportedly angry over the way the Cubs treated Rick Renteria, who certainly deserved better.


  1. More Sabers in the world going after the same things means only things - what Sabers value becomes overvalued, and what contrarians value becomes undervalued.

    Get ready to shop, Sabean.

    1. This is true to the extent that Sabrs haven't put player value on an objective basis. If Sabrvalue were truly scientific, it would have so high a correlation with success on the field that it would become a reliable guide to probable wins. I think the problem with these metrics is that they're far from being fully legible, so that, for example, teams believe they must work the count and therefore accept their batters' striking out a lot. The Giants have shown that the metrics ought to be revised, since they achieve wins by stressing disciplined aggressiveness at the plate and high contact rates. Sabrmetricians don't have a measure for hitters' streakiness vs consistency, as far as I know, although if streaks/consistency is as central to day-by-day production of wins as I believe it is, Sabrs ought to develop ways of gauging volatility; and till they do, GMs who have an eye or nose for such things can find undervalued players.

    2. The problem with thinking you can achieve objective certitude on these things is that there is an opponent who is working just as hard as you are to counteract any advantage you may gain from studying baseball statistics.

      For example: Let's say as a hitter, you decide that you are never going to swing at the first pitch you see and you are not going to swing at a pitch that is not in your "red zone" until you have two strikes. You hit pitches in your red zone hard and the rest of the time you draw a lot of walks. The perfect SABR formula, right? Well, pretty soon the opposing pitchers figure this out and make sure that first pitch is a strike and the second one is a strike but away from your "red zone." Suddenly, you find yourself in a whole lot of two strike counts hitting .177 or something like that.

      That is essentially what happened to Buster Posey, except that he is a good two strike hitter, but he just wasn't getting enough good pitches to hit when he was deep in the count so he had to make the counter adjustment and start swinging earlier in the count.

  2. DrB, I always enjoy these kinds of pieces from you. When the Friedman hiring was announced, I couldn't believe all of the worship there was from the press. I had predicted the Rays to make the playoffs before the season, and they were a total dud. The Dodgers have spent the last two years throwing money at anybody they could get their hands on, but they will NEVER take the next step if Kershaw doesn't up his game in the postseason. I don't see how Andrew Freidman can fix that. If he's the genius they say he is, his first goal should be to build the best bullpen in the majors.

    As for Maddon and the Cubs... I'm sorry, but that franchise has become so infatuated with being the lovable losers... their roster is nowhere near being ready to compete for a championship. I think it would be great for baseball to have the Cubs competing every year again. Can Maddon spark some life into these young guys? That's the big question I have.

    In the end, all of this wildness makes me even more appreciative that I am a Giants fan.