Rays skipper Maddon has the ‘it’ factor

He is the “it” manager in baseball, the most innovative, most interesting and one of the most successful.

The Rays’ Joe Maddon writes lineups with obscure journeymen batting cleanup. Builds quality bullpens with unheralded relievers. Shifts his infielders with such manic zeal, it’s as if he can’t stand to see the same defensive alignment twice.

Yet, for all his mad-scientist tendencies, Maddon is one of the most normal managers you’ll ever meet, taking baseball only so seriously, pursuing cycling and other interests, working to build a community center to unite the white and Hispanic communities in his hometown of Hazelton, Pa.

And oh yes, he also fancies themed road trips — the latest of which was the “Ken Rosenthal/Nerd” trip to Boston for this weekend’s series against the Red Sox (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET).

The Rays not only wore bow ties and made a contribution to BowTie Cause — the non-profit company that supplies me with bow ties to raise awareness for various charities and organizations — but several players also donned suspenders, skinny jeans and odd-shaped glasses.

Can you imagine the Yankees doing such a thing?

The Rays lose players to free agency. They lose ‘em to injury. They annually field one of the game’s lowest payrolls. Yet, playing in arguably the sport’s toughest division, they have made the playoffs in three of the past four years, and would qualify again if the season ended today.

The front office, led by general manager Andrew Friedman, might be the biggest reason the team remains elite. But Maddon, the American League Manager of the Year in 2008 and ’11, not only implements the front office’s vision, but also applies his own unique philosophies.

Maddon, 58, is the kind of guy you’d like to sit down with in a bar to talk a little baseball, a little life. We didn’t hit a bar on Thursday night, though that probably would have been his preference. Instead, we sat down on a couch in the Rays’ hotel lobby. I turned on the tape recorder and off Maddon went.

Why the themed road trips?

Before dressing as nerds, the Rays had gone all-black in tribute to the late Johnny Cash on one trip and staged a pajama party on another, and those were only two of Maddon’s inspired ideas.

“It’s team-building,” Maddon says. “It’s a camaraderie component. There’s also a certain amount of risk-taking where people dress in a manner they wouldn’t normally dress and feel slightly uncomfortable. They walk into a hotel lobby and there’s a camera in their face and they have to react to it. I like that uncomfortable moment.

“Beyond that, I think it’s fun. And beyond that, I’m poking fun at the group that insists on wearing $3,000 suits on chartered airplanes. I’ve never understood how that related to winning in any way, shape or form.

“I believe this: There is a lot of discipline to be derived from freedom. When you are working with a highly professional, motivated group that is accountable, the more freedom you give that group, the more discipline you’re going to get in return.”

Drew Sutton hitting fourth? Really?

Sutton, 28, was traded twice on Sunday — first from the Braves to the Pirates, then from the Pirates to the Rays. At that point, the switch-hitting infielder had appeared in 86 games in the majors, 799 in the minors.

The Rays promoted Sutton immediately to replace the injured Jeff Keppinger, and Maddon inserted him in the cleanup spot on Wednesday against Jays lefty Ricky Romero.

“Honestly, among the guys that we had, he was the best suited to make contact after (Matt) Joyce,” Maddon says. "If the first three guys were to get on base, I felt against that pitcher, Romero, that he’d have the best chance to move the baseball — period.

“Luke Scott (a left-handed hitter who batted fifth) would have been a little bit more difficult. Although I like the lefties against (Romero), he probably would have chosen to not really give Luke anything to hit where he felt more comfortable coming after Sutton. And Sutton has had a history of being better against lefties than righties.

“Furthermore, watching Sutton the day before (in his Rays debut), I liked the way his whole approach was. Without getting too technical, he just really followed the ball well. And he has had a history of looking over a pitch. He doesn’t expand the strike zone. All those different reasons came into it.”

Naturally, Sutton went 2-for-4 with a double and three RBI in the Rays’ 5-4 victory in 11 innings.

But doesn’t Maddon worry that people think he’s nuts?

“No. Not at all,” Maddon says. “It’s about trying to do what I think is the right thing on that particular day.”

Ten Rays currently are on the disabled list, including third baseman Evan Longoria and left fielder Desmond Jennings.

“We’re banged up,” Maddon says. “We have a lot of things going on right now. Where people are confused by it, to me it makes all the sense in the world. It’s not taking a leap of faith at all.

“The thing that I have working to my advantage sometimes is that I’ve had the chance to work in the minor leagues for as long as I did (Prior to joining the Rays, Maddon spent 31 years with the Angels organization, joining the major-league staff in 1996. He was the Angels bench coach for most of his final 10 seasons in Anaheim including the last six — 2000 to 2005 — under Manager Mike Scioscia).

“I had a chance to apply a whole bunch of different things based on situations. All this stuff, I’ve done it. You have to be creative in the minor leagues. There are all kinds of crazy things going on. You have to do things a little bit differently, based on personnel, based on injuries, guys that you’ve lost (to higher levels).

“For me, a lot of this stuff that people think is unusual, I’ve tried in a different venue. More people are watching right now. But that doesn’t prevent me from wanting to do it.”

Why all the defensive shifts?

“That’s something I always did with the Angels back in the day, being in charge of the defense with more rudimentary data,” Maddon says. “But the more advanced stuff we’re doing now is driven by data we’re receiving from our advance scouting. I think our advance scouting is the best.

“It’s a nice morphing of ideas. When I got this job (in November 2005), these are the things I wanted to do. Playing four outfielders a couple of years ago, Andrew (Friedman) and the boys were all on board with that. So now we’ve become more sophisticated regarding how we set this up.”

Is it fair to say that the Rays have taken it to another level this season?

“It’s fair to say. We’ve done different things,” Maddon says. “People talk about beating the shift. It happens so infrequently and sometimes when a hitter chooses to do that, it actually works to your benefit.

“We take all that into consideration. People may say, ‘You have Carlos Pena bunt, etc.’ But we have different ways of looking at it from an offensive perspective. We do it at certain times, again based on statistical stuff.”

OK, but would he do the same things if he managed the Yankees?

“Yes and no,” Maddon says. “If you’re managing the Yankees, you have more of a set lineup. So from an offensive perspective, the awkward lineups . . . probably not. They’ve been pretty set with that. But from a defensive perspective, absolutely. From a bullpen perspective, absolutely. None of that would change.

“People want to discuss lineups. It’s whether you have the finances to purchase that kind of a batting order, or if you develop it, then be able to maintain it and not have it leave you. But to me, (the lineup) is the least interesting part of the whole thing, anyway. The most interesting is your defense and your pitching and your bullpen.”

OK, what about the bullpen?

“I’ve always liked a formulaic approach,” Maddon says. “I’ve always recognized reverse splits (left-handed pitchers who can get out right-handed hitters, and vice versa). I’ve always recognized groundball pitchers vs. flyball pitchers. Our scouting department gives me more specifics so I can make more informed decisions as opposed to what I thought I was seeing.

“I still believe the guy who is able to get the last three outs of a game, if he is able to do that on a year-by-year basis, is invaluable — i.e., Mariano Rivera, (Jonathan) Papelbon. They make managing the first eight innings so much easier.

“If you have that guy, you could divvy up the outs you need in the sixth, seventh and eighth much more openly, or without any concern. You know the ninth inning is being taken care of. That’s why I will never underestimate the importance of a solid ninth-inning reliever, a closer.

“Prior to that, it’s about the leveraged moment. And that should be based on how your relievers match up against that part of the batting order.”

OK, what about life? How difficult is it to stay balanced?

“It’s important for me to create that balance. I believe in balance,” Maddon says. “If you want to go off on one direction solely, I think at some point burnout does occur, a part of your existence is going to suffer.

“I really believe by being so balanced it permits me to think like I think on the dugout or field. And furthermore, I’ve always had varied interests. It would be so boring to be nailed down to one thing, my occupation and that’s it.

“Every person, every human should be about more balance in their lives. I’m talking about family, religion, occupation, interests — whether it’s reading, riding a bicycle, charity, whatever it might be. You need to create balance.

“To run away from that, to just say I’m the first one at the ballpark and the last one to leave, I was that person for a while and then I stopped. It was too much. It wasn’t good for me.”

He seems to have it figured out, all of it.

More fun awaits, this weekend at Fenway.