Since the beginning of time, man has looked at numbers to quantify his findings, and there is no better example of that than the sport of baseball. With sabermetrics, it seems every component of the game has been broken down ad nauseam. But what if some components of the game defy numbers?
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A case in point can be managerial value. Most prognosticators give very little value to how much effect a manager has on the success of a team. Often times the thought is a manager loses more games than he wins. Using Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs as an example; how much has his patience and understanding of how to manage a young team factored in to their success so far this season?
It goes back to when Maddon took over the Tampa Bay then-Devil Rays in 2006. Tampa was in the unenviable position of playing in the American League East with the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. At the time, there was just one wild-card team in each league. Playing in that division was tantamount to waving the white flag before the season even started for a team like the Rays. The Yankees and Red Sox were always at the top of the spending curve in baseball, while Tampa was saddled with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, along with playing in a subpar ballpark with very little fan backing.
To further exacerbate the situation, with the weighted schedule baseball utilizes, the Rays were playing the two titans of the game almost 40 times a season, making it even more difficult to overcome the built-in disadvantages they faced. Yet despite seemingly insurmountable odds, the Rays managed to win 90 or more games five times, making the playoffs four times in that span, including a 2008 World Series appearance.
How is that possible? You would think the team would be mentally defeated before the season even started. Is it possible a manager is worth more than just the strategic moves he employs during the game? What did Maddon do to get into the head of his Rays players that allowed them to not only compete but thrive in the toughest division in baseball at the time?
They certainly weren’t the most talented team on the field, but what they did do was play baseball the right way. They were aggressive on the basepaths, using the hit-and-run and the stolen base to their advantage. They didn’t beat themselves and utilized new ideas like spray charts to adjust their fielders to cut down opponents’ opportunities.
That was all well and good, but there was one intangible missing. It’s what Maddon did to keep his team loose that circumvented the boundaries of the game like bringing penguins into the clubhouse, or having them dress in grunge for a road trip. He may have looked old-school, but his thinking was anything but. He’s done the same thing this year with the Cubs, recently working his magic bringing in an actual magician to stir up a team in the throes of a down spell.
The Cubs have turned from a station-to-station team to one that takes advantage of the situation before them. Halfway through the season they had almost as many stolen bases as they have had for the entire season the past few years.
Maddon doesn’t ask for much from his players. He doesn’t expect them to arrive early and stay late, following his own philosophy of enjoying life outside the game. He only asks one thing of them and that is to Respect 90. By that he means he wants them to run hard to first once they hit the ball. His belief is if they hustle to first, the rest will follow in playing the game the right way. They’re playing free and loose baseball, taking on the personality of their manager. They’re having fun and the results are showing in the standings. If the season were to end today, the Cubs would be in the playoffs, and not many people were expecting that to happen before Maddon took over.
The numbers can’t measure the intangibles, so is a manager worth just a few games here and there, or can a culture change brought on by someone like Maddon change a team from an also-ran into a possible champion?