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Is Joe Maddon a good in-game manager?

Is there a way we can more effectively measure the value of managers? Looking at the number of in-game decisions might shed some light.

Cliff McBride

The news came out Friday that Joe Maddon was opting out of his contract as manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, and immediately speculation went into overdrive as to where his next destination would be. There were reports that 15 general managers had reached out to him, and in Chicago the rumors that he might supplant Rick Renteria started almost as soon as the news broke. Part of the discussion turned into just how much he was worth to the Rays as their manager.

I discussed this issue in terms of using Pythagorean Wins as a method of rating manager effectiveness some time back, ultimately deciding it didn't work because there was far too much fluctuation from year to year. I started hearing matter-of-facts statements on sports talk radio that a good manager could be worth between five to seven wins a year, which seems far too high to me. As I was driving to and from a Chicago SABR meeting this weekend, I chanced upon a way that might measure to see how much Maddon might have meant to the Rays, by breaking down those types of in-game decisions managers make and see if he made more or less of them.

I'll begin with the obvious: No one man is wholly responsible for the success or failure of a team -- there's simply too many moving parts. Front offices identify talent that fills team needs and utilize data and analysis to search for trends and patterns that can benefit them. Managers and coaches train their players. This illustrates the difference between strategy and tactics -- front offices develop the strategy and in concert with the coaching staff, develop the tactics, which are then implemented by the players.

This is big-picture stuff, but what of in-game management? By quantifying moves, can we see if certain managers do more to take advantage of the game situation to give themselves a better chance to win? Looking at some of these in-game situations can reveal if some managers make more use of them than others.

2006 1 1 10 2 1 14 9
2007 8 7 14 3 2 8 2
2008 11 10 6 1 10 13 13
2009 11 10 2 1 7 11 8
2010 5 6 1 2 1 4 8
2011 6 8 1 1 11 11 5
2012 1 2 1 1 3 11 9
2013 1 6 1 10 1 7 2
2014 9 9 3 13 1 5 10
Total 1 4 1 1 1 10 8

Off LU=offensive lineup changes Def LU=defensive lineup changes DS=in-game defensive subs

SBO=stolen base opportunities (SB + CS) XBT=extra base on hit Adv=advancing on out OOB=out on bases

The table shows the Rays' American League rank in seven different categories in which managers can make in-game decisions. Consider position changes in the middle of a game. Managers move players around for any number of reasons, but in general to allow a better-fielding player to go in for defensive purposes when the game is tight. From 2006-2014 (Maddon's tenure), the Rays led the AL in the number of in-game positional shifts by a healthy margin. If I remove pinch hitters and focus on position shifts alone, they fall to second, slightly behind the Yankees.

A smart manager adjusts both his batting order and defensive lineup to give him the best chance to win. Handedness of the pitcher or batter, days of rest, and numerous other factors (such as an homage to Tommy Tutone) go into batting order construction, but an expectation would be that a better manager would make more lineup changes. It will also be a two-way street: In some cases, the defensive needs will dictate a change in the batting order; in others, the desire to get a bat in the lineup will require shifts in defense. The Rays were first in the number of different batting lineups they used in this period. I must stress this can also be a bad thing, since injuries or lack of talent can cause a manager to change lineups.

At least in my mind, managers would make less frequent defensive lineup changes. Players don't move from third to first to left field to catcher in the course of four games. Ben Zobrist was the poster child for being shifted from position to position, and even when it appeared Maddon had settled on using him at second, he still moved around. The Rays were fourth in the number of defensive lineups used.

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.

There are numerous other factors that go into successfully managing a game, such as managing a pitching staff or defensive shifts. Even so, a trend emerges with Maddon, showing a man not afraid to tinker with a lineup or batting order who is aggressive and smart on the base paths in order to not give away outs. But trends and tendencies won't always translate to individual games -- while Maddon does the kinds of things that puts teams in the best position to win, his moves won't always work. Sometimes the play with an eighty percent chance of success fails, and sometimes the play with a one percent change of success works.

Joe Maddon appears to be able to take all the pieces given to him and generate success. He joined the Rays in 2006 and had them in the World Series by 2008 -- not bad for a team whose previous high-water mark for wins had been 70. From 2008 until this year, he had a winning record every season. Granted, he was working for a franchise that had no lower than the eighth pick in the first round of the draft to select players like B.J. Upton, David Price and Evan Longoria, but talent needs to be coached into success.

With more playoff slots, every game takes on greater meaning -- in the Wild Card era, one win will likely mean the difference between playoffs and October golf. In such a time, it makes sense to use a manager who will make every adjustment available to him and avail himself of every analytical tool to give his teams the best chance to succeed. Add to that mix a manager who is player-friendly without being a pushover, and you have someone very special.

Far too often I hear the straw man argument "sabermetrics (or "cybermetrics," as Maddon's agent Alan Nero stated twice in a radio interview on Saturday) vs. scouting, as if it's an either-or zero-sum argument. It's not, it never has been and every team uses every tool available, with some being better at it than others. Is Maddon worth 5-7 wins a year? There's no way I can go that high, but while at the Chicago SABR meeting, I met up with fellow Beyond the Box Score writer Anthony Joshi-Pawlowic. He stated he wasn't sure managers could be credited with winning games, but they can lose them, with which I heartily agree. When every win matters, it helps to have a manager who knows how to best make in-game decisions to benefit his team, and in Maddon's case, it seems like he was capable of doing that. This is why his length of unemployment will be totally on his terms.

All data from Baseball-Reference.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.