Monday, January 15, 2007

Interview with Insight Man -- Part I: Tampa Bay's
Joe Maddon Balances Data & Human Factors  

About a year ago, the never-successful Tampa Bay Devil Rays got new ownership. After scanning the personnel and practices of the staff for value, they cleverly kept most of the line staff and put in place a front-office team that had as its core mission remaking the culture and attitudes of the young team. One of the keystones of the makeover was to hire then-Los Angeles Angels of The O.C. bench coach Joe Maddon to be the skipper.

Maddon is, to my experience, close to unique in baseball. He's relentlessly intellectual, a self-made, self-service info-surfer, while at the same time being a serious lifelong "baseball man" who's respected as a baseball man by baseball men who are neither relentlessly analytical nor intellectual nor who openly give respect to either analysis or intellectual pursuits. 

Further, he's the most quotable manager in the majors. 

Further, he's a blast -- his exhilarating combo of inside wisdom, engagement in learning and acting on what he learns and high emotional intelligence has made him a favorite among the baseball press.

I'd sent him a copy of the Management by Baseball book when it came out and he e-mailed me that he was reading it -- quite flattering to know he chose to invest time in it... given he is not just a baseball team manager (busier, as Ty Cobb said, than a one-armed paperhanger), but managing a new team with extraordinarily ambitious goals and objectives both on and off the field. Last August when the D-Rays were in town, thanks to the D-Rays excellent media staff, especially Chris and Jason, we were able to talk.

This is Part I of the results of that conversation, his thoughts on the application of data and it's place on a contemporary baseball team. As any good conversation will, it raised as many topics for next time as we were able to cover in this talk.

Jeff Angus (JA): Mike Scioscia told me that when you were the Angels’ bench coach, you were responsible for manipulating stats, creating reports and shared responsibility for analysis.

What analysis are you doing here… anything different?

Joe Maddon (JM): I get a lot of stuff printed out for me prior to a series. When I want to augment it and there’s something specific that I want that I know I’m not going to get, I just go on line and look for it.

JA: So is that batter-vs-pitcher match ups or versus right/versus left splits?

JM: Everything. All of it. Like last night we walked Ibanez earlier in the game and pitched to Sexson based on his average batting with two outs and runners in scoring position. Ibanez’ numbers were so much better than Sexson’s. We did it because of the numbers. So later in the game Ibanez comes up with two outs and hits a home run. 

There was a runner on first base at that time. Normally in that situation if first base is open you walk him and if first base isn’t, you normally don’t. But in that situation it doesn’t really make a big difference.

JA: So the last walk that (M’s reliever JJ) Putz issued last night, runners on 2nd and 3rd…

JM: It was not an intentional walk. (Devil Ray DH Jonny) Gomes had a good at bat. He laid off of his splitter in the dirt…very nicely…and then Putz came up to Zobrist.

JA: Cantu swung at somebody’s splitter in the dirt.

JM: Yeah, that ended the 8th. We left 14 runners on base last night. And on the surface it looks terrible. But if you look at our at bats with runners in scoring position, they were good at bats, it wasn’t like sometimes when you have horrible at bats and you leave 14 runners on. Then you had a bad night.

Last night we left 14 runners on and after the game we didn’t even focus on that. It was not even something worth noting because the quality of the at bats were so good. Sometimes these numbers are taken only at face value, and really, they can’t be. Because we created this number in the first place, it might have been in a unique situation. Last night it was one of those unique situations – I thought the at bats were good even though we left 14 runners on base.

JA: You worked (M’s pitcher Jamie) Moyer for a lot of pitches last night…Beyond the number of hitters, you worked him deep in the count a lot…

JM: …exactly…

JA: And usually he doesn’t tire out that quickly. Your team seemed to really have an effect on him.

JM: Yes, and once we got people on base he had to be concerned with the running game also.

That’s what I’m talking about. When you get back to the people who are into Moneyball, they’re going to talk about not stealing bases, and not bunting, and the other tactics…when you don’t do those things, the pitcher has and the defense has a chance to relax a little, and just focus on the hitter; you don’t have to worry about the possibility of those things possibly happening. Just by having to worry about these possibly happening can create better pitches for the hitter, the pitcher burning more energy, missing a part of the zone than he would otherwise hit because if he could just focus on that one spot…there are all of these different issues and sometimes I just want to giggle when some people want to just reduce it to such a basic set of factors.

If that was the case, everybody could do that, everybody would be successful, and the team that’s been most prominent talking about it…Oakland…is one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. The confusion out there is that they have basically done what they have through great pitching, and great scouting of pitching, and great concepts within their pitching staff. But most of the attention has been given to these particular players who get on base well.

If they did not have the pitchers that they had, that would not matter.

JA: I think Beane & DePodesta understood their advantage would be transitory – that as soon as other people got what they were doing, getting Matt Stairs over and over would get harder – how much Matt Stairs can you get on a team? How much Jeremy Giambi? And there’s only so much you can find that’s cheap and available…until it’s not anymore. They knew they were going to be doing something else by the time the book came out. And that was liberating for them in being so open about their strategy.

Many of the people who read the book drank the Kool-Aid the A’s front office wanted them to. Bill James didn’t – the public face of Sabermetrics – never would have assumed it was a strategy that could be enduring…he knows baseball is change incarnate.

JM: I believe that the Red Sox have taken building around on-base percentage to the appropriate level. But then again, there are two freaks in the middle of that batting order that totally skew that situation. They’ve done some nice stuff; I’m not denigrating them; I’m a big fan of what they’ve done, but without Ortiz, they are not what they are. He totally sets them apart.

JA: And perhaps off the field, too.

JM: He’s a unique individual, so that’s a unique situation.

JA: Ramirez, who I respect the heck out of for his hitting…in the field, he’s worse than miserable. They played a game in Seattle last month where Beltre hit a hard shot off the top of the fence that rebounded hard between Ramirez and Coco Crisp. It landed about six feet from Ramirez and about 25 or 30 from Crisp and Ramirez just looked at Crisp and pointed to it. Crisp had to chase it down and Ramirez turned a probable double into an inside-the-park home run.

JM: I saw the tape.

JA: It’s humiliating. That was a game tied late and they ended up losing it, though not on that run, but it affected the outcome..

JM: Yes. He is a great offensive force. And it is annoying at times if you’re a purist. Then again, you could say the same things about Papi because he doesn’t play defense, he’s DH-ing.

JA: He works in the clubhouse

JM: Absolutely. And for me that is my primary goal right now…that the clubhouse is good, the interaction and communication are good. When I came, my #1 goal was to change the culture in the clubhouse and this group.

There was a lot in the conversation about organizational culture, but that'll be in a separate essay.

Maddon is a superb model for managers beyond baseball to emulate. Maddon's strength as a data analyst is that he hasn't specialized yet. He's wide open to new things (more on that below). And he blends professional sources with his own, original efforts and then hands-on synthesis. He's not just a consumer of data, he gets his hands dirty. I think (don't know) that except for Tony LaRussa and Steve Boros, no manager in the major leagues has done this. Art Howe certainly has the background, but I've had no report that he did. Of course, it may be more common than I have discovered, except, as in most lines of work, practices that are generally shunned become hidden and most enthusiasts will hide their attachment to them.

He doesn't just use others' data; he works it himself. It's not enough to just use others' data. In order to get viable information that you can adapt to context, it's essential, mandatory, indispensable (¿get the drift?) to touch the data, massage it. Managers who use others' data without immersing themselves in the raw stuff are begging to be what Ken Lay claimed -- out of the loop when being in the loop would have made all the difference. Delegate some massaging, sure, but don't lose sight of the raw numbers or let someone else decide what you should see and what you shouldn't because there are no rigid rules that work well over time.

He understands not all trends/functions are straight line. To him, hitting outliers like Ramirez and Ortiz aren't just additive to the lineup, when together they transform the Red Sox lineup into something that does more than reflect their personal contributions. In your own analysis, remember the way systems work together is almost never strictly additive, and that most people who analyse data think, incorrectly, that it is additive. The more strctly numeric or financially-oriented the analyst is, the more likely the analyst will fall into the trap.

He knows the standard numbers don't always measure progress towards goals. As he notes in the August 7 game, the team played well and seem to be advancing towards their goal of competitive behaviors -- they still lost the game itself. Too many managers are ready to act on immediate outcomes-as-measured-by-the usual-metrics without measuring if these actions were actually reinforcing the correct behaviors.

He knows human factors affect the numbers radically. Context is partially external (in baseball, factors like ball park effects, weather, a humidor or not) but it's vastly internal (human players as individuals and as part of the team and their individual quirks and personal strengths and weaknesses

He knows the numbers only take you so far and that you have to go farther than that to achieve excellence. Maddon doesn't lose sight of the vast pool of non-numeric data out there...that goes into his pool from which to draw, and you should follow his example if you're not already

In the next entry, we'll delve into a little more of Joe Maddon's use of information and the lessons for managers beyond baseball in his clever practices.

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