Commentary

Why will Rays win? Because Maddon will consider anything

Originally Published: October 26, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- For the record, Joe Maddon says that although he's never used a six-man infield, he would consider it.

"If you had Chad Bradford pitching, you could go with it because he throws that many ground balls,'' the Rays manager said after his team lost Game 3 of the World Series in the bottom of a very strange ninth inning.

"I'd probably have left Carl Crawford in the outfield because B.J. Upton has played the infield and he'd be better to bring in. Then you just pick a side for the last outfielder, depending on who was hitting. I've thought about it. Then you would just move the guys around in the infield. If the guy was a big pull hitter, you would load that one side. And if you have Chad throwing that big sinker, it's hard for the hitter to do anything with it.''

This is why Maddon is my favorite manager. You don't often find a manager with Dr. Seuss quotations, a chess set and a wine rack in his office, but Maddon isn't your conventional manager.

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It's not that he'll consider anything as a manager, but he will consider anything as long it makes sense and might work.

A five-man infield, such as the one he tried in Game 3 when the Phillies had the bases loaded and nobody out with the score tied? He did that twice in the regular season.

A three-man infield? He used that against Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard during an interleague game in 2006.

Infield shifts against Howard and second baseman Chase Utley that would be more extreme only if the fielders were in foul territory? He's implemented those this series.

All [Maddon] is doing is using his intuition and being creative. It's just that not many other guys do it, so it's a little bewildering to everybody else looking in.

--Rays rookie Fernando Perez

"It's based on information, all the stuff [our scouts] were able to acquire during the course of the year,'' he said. "If you look at a spreadsheet and you notice that balls are not hit in a certain area, why do you cover it? And you see ones that are inundated with red lines, why don't you cover it more?

"You utilize all this stuff to attempt to put your guys in the best position, to make a play based on the high-percentage chance of where he's going to hit the ball and, furthermore, make him look at [the shift].''

Although the five-man infield didn't work out in Game 3, that's not because the strategy was wrong. Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz hit the ball to, as pitcher Jamie Moyer said, "the only spot they didn't have covered.''

[+] EnlargeJoe Maddon
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarJoe Maddon's break with convention doesn't always work, but at least he tries.

"If it's hit in a firm manner, we're in pretty good shape right there,'' Maddon said about Ruiz's slow roller toward third. "It's just unfortunate the way it came out.''

Fernando Perez, Tampa Bay's Ivy League-educated rookie outfielder, had faith in his manager's decision. "I didn't even think twice about it; I just figured it was going to work somehow," he said. "All [Maddon] is doing is using his intuition and being creative. It's just that not many other guys do it, so it's a little bewildering to everybody else looking in.''

Maddon's unconventional manner extends to the bullpen. Although it occasionally costs him (his choice not to bring in a lefty to face David Ortiz in Game 5 of the ALCS proved disastrous), it more often works in his favor. He isn't afraid to use his closer for three or more innings (which helped him win Game 2 of the ALCS when Boston manager Terry Francona yanked Jonathan Papelbon after only 18 pitches) or bring him in well before the ninth inning. He also isn't afraid to let a kid with five games of major league experience pitch the crucial final innings in the postseason.

The biggest responsibility for a manager is to put his players in situations in which they are most likely to succeed. The manager must build up their confidence, make them feel good about their role and keep everyone pulling in the same direction. What happens after that is usually up to the players. A manager can make all the moves he wants, but if the starting pitcher gives up six runs in the first inning or the cleanup hitter grounds into three double plays, he can't do much about it.

So if Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria (a combined 0-for-22 with 10 strikeouts) don't start hitting, or if the Rays don't find a way to score without making an out at the same time, none of Maddon's unconventional moves will matter much.

But if this series turns on a play here or there as these things often do, Maddon will be the difference.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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