“I want analytics,” Joe Maddon said at one point.
“Information is good,” Maddon said at another point.
“So I’m not arguing against analytics and information,” Maddon said at yet another point.
But with every word he speaks publicly these days, the one-time avant-garde manager of the Cubs, Rays and Angels is casting analytics and information in a different light than he did once upon a time, back when life was simpler and he was at the forefront of new-age info.
So on the latest Starkville edition of “The Athletic Baseball Show” podcast, Doug Glanville and I asked Maddon to explain how the world has shifted: His world. Baseball’s world. And the rapidly evolving world of info and analytics.
Whoa. Better grab a Richter Scale, because Maddon is guaranteed to make your room shake. This was a riveting, insightful conversation. But more than that, it should make everyone take a deep breath and think hard about where baseball is heading.
We’ll present some eye-opening excerpts from that conversation in a moment. But let’s start with this important reminder:
Joe Maddon isn’t one of those old dudes who wants baseball to go back to looking like it did in, like, 1967. He’s an innovator — and always has been. He’s a thinker — and always will be. So if we suddenly live in a world where no one is saying more forcefully than him that the game is out of whack, isn’t that a sign that baseball should be paying attention?
“I want all this information. I do,” Maddon told us, less than three months after he was fired by the Angels. “I just don’t like … the way it’s implemented.
“It gets to the point where the pregame is a meeting every day. And it’s an elongated meeting. And players don’t need all this information, quite frankly. They need nuggets. They don’t need essays.”
He then launched into an illustration of the onslaught of data that players now receive from their ever-helpful analytics department. Suffice it to say it was a lot more complicated than: “Get a good pitch to hit.” It sounded more like somebody reciting from a physics textbook.
“But you just need a nugget,” Maddon said. “You don’t need all this. People want to tell you how to build a watch. I just need to know what time it is.”
So what time is it? Time to present the highlights of Maddon’s visit to Starkville – live from outside his hometown of Hazleton, Pa., where he’s hitting lots of golf balls these days, but watching almost no baseball.
These quotes have been edited for clarity and length.
On how the world has changed
Maddon: “I still love the information. I use the information. Information is good. It’s the imposition. I mean, it’s to the point now where actually, our general manager had an analytical guy dressing in the coaches’ room. I mean, that shouldn’t occur. That’s an imposition.”
But it’s an imposition Maddon has no interest in signing up for again. If he gets to run another team, “I want analytics,” he said. But he wants that data presented to the coaching staff so the staff can implement it. And that, he warned, is not how the game is trending.
Maddon: “I want analytical people on my staff. But I don’t want them in the dugout. I don’t want them in the clubhouse. I want them to do their job, give the work to the coaches, let the coaches then teach the players. I don’t need presenters in the dugout, I don’t need presenters in the clubhouse. … It’s getting to the point where their impact or authority is exceeding that of a coach. And that’s what I think is wrong.
“So I’m not arguing against analytics and information. I’m arguing against the methods and the imposition with coaches. Because at the point it is right now … every day we’d get ready for the game and Harry and Alex would come in and they would start talking about how I should use the bullpen that night. Like I haven’t done that for the last 40 years. When you do that, when these people do that, the game becomes cloudy. You’re in the dugout, you know what you’d like to do. But these people have come downstairs prior to the game, and they load you with stuff that’s not necessarily helpful.”
On how the manager’s authority has faded
Not so long ago, managers were among the best-known characters in the game, but they were also among the most powerful people in the game. The biggest decisions, day in and day out, were their decisions. The games were run the way they wanted them run. But those days are fading. And is the sport in a better place? We now know what Joe Maddon thinks!
Maddon: “You don’t have the same kind of authority or autonomy that you’ve had in the past. I mean, back in the day, these guys would never walk into Gene Mauch’s office, or into Billy Martin’s office, or into Earl Weaver’s office, and try to tell you how to utilize your players and then how to manage the game as it was in progress. That would never have occurred. So that’s what I’m talking about. There’s this interference and this method that’s being perpetrated.
“Because these groups — the baseball ops group — to me, their primary objective should be acquisition of players. It’s getting good players in your room. When you get good players in your room, any kind of analytics looks good.”
On life after Andrew Friedman
For nine seasons in Tampa Bay (2006-14), Maddon worked with one of baseball’s most innovative thinkers, Andrew Friedman. That was back in the early days of the analytics revolution. But as Maddon described their working relationship, he painted a very different portrait of how managers and front offices worked back then.
Maddon: “Andrew was really into all this stuff, (but) he permitted me to do my thing. And we would argue. It was good. He and I would argue about stuff, and it was healthy. And then even with the Cubs for the first couple of years. And then, towards the end, it got away. And I had my conversations with Theo (Epstein) and Jed (Hoyer), particularly Theo. And now this year (with the Angels) occurred, and you saw what happened.
“And I’m not here to beat up on anybody. But it’s not just the organizations I’ve been with. It’s just a trend. And it’s not going to reverse. It’s not reversing anytime soon. Because it’s this competition among front offices, to get the credit for having the most advanced, progressive methods and have them work and then be copied by others. I think that’s part of the competition.”
On the evolution of Maddon and Theo
The more I listen to Maddon speak his mind these days, the more this irony strikes me: Not so long ago, he and Epstein were two men at the forefront of using analytics and information. Now they’ve both grown increasingly vocal about the need to push the game back in the other direction. So I asked Maddon about that irony and tie to Theo that neither of them would have predicted a decade ago.
Maddon: “He’s into analytics, and so am I. But you need real baseball being played … and you need real baseball people having a louder, stronger voice. You know, for years now, I used to talk to my coaches that I worked with in the minor leagues. And I told them, coming up in the early 2000s, ‘You guys really need to understand all this analytical stuff that’s going on. Otherwise, if you do not, you’re going to deem yourself unemployable.’ And that was exactly the line I used to try to counsel them with.
“But what’s happening now, what Theo is talking about, and I know what I’m talking about — I think we’re on the same page — is, again, (people are) just relying on numbers, and the human element is being subtracted. I’ve talked about data versus art for the last several years, and that is really overrunning the heartbeat. The art of the game is really being held secondarily, where it’s the numerical component that everybody wants to promote. And with those that are promoting this — this is with all due respect — it’s that they just don’t understand the game as much as they understand math.”
On whether it’s still possible for baseball to evolve back
Far from Maddon’s former office in Anaheim, the baseball powers that be seem like they’re listening. All the minor-league rule-change experiments in progress are a sign that Major League Baseball sees a lot of what Maddon sees. So is there a chance enough of those changes could combine to nudge the sport back toward a more balanced place? Or is the trend Maddon described irreversible?
Maddon: “I think it’s going to continue. I don’t see it going anywhere. I do not. Even the players. When it comes to all this information, the players, when you’re (throwing) your bullpen, it’s not about throwing the pitch (or) how did it feel to execute the pitch? …It’s (about running) right to the machine. What was the spin rate? …
“So it’s the actual execution of the game that is being diminished. And listen, I’m into that stuff. I would want that. But I would want that where I get the information primarily, and the player just gets bits and pieces of that. …I’ll be here to help you with that. But to totally rely on that all the time, to me, you’re taking away from the essence of the game, the ability to play, the ability to make adjustments, the ability to feel what you’re doing out there. And I think they’re all into that.”
There was so much more discussed, of course. Once Maddon got rolling, that bottomless well of thoughts just poured out of him. So to hear the full conversation — Maddon on the Angels, on Albert Pujols, on Shohei Ohtani, on his forthcoming book (“The Book of Joe”), on Rob Manfred, and on why he hasn’t watched a game since he got fired — listen to the latest Starkville, which you can find everywhere you get your podcasts.
(Top pic: Rick Scuteri/USA Today)