Carleton: Why Joe Maddon matters

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on November 4, 2014:

When Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Rays two weeks ago, there were immediately rumors that he would be joining up with all of the other 29 teams. (Yesterday, we found out that one of those rumors was true. He’s taking his talents and his back pocket card which drips with analytics to the North Side.) The rumors were understandable. After all, Joe Maddon is a certified genius. He’s gotta be better than that bum in our dugout. (Yes, Joe Maddon is a really smart guy, but so are the other 29 managers. All of them. Yes… even him.)

But then another conversation started that always pops up around this time of year, mostly because there are a lot of managers being fired (and hired) and there’s not much else going on. What is a good manager worth? What does a manager even do that produces value? We know that he makes the strategic decisions for his team, including making the lineup, putting the rotation together, and calling for the sac bunt. But we also know that most managers seem to manage out of the same “book” and while there are improvements over that “book” that could be made, the perfect Sabermetric manager probably clears a win or two more than a standard-issue manager. As Sabermetricians, we’ve spent a lot of time criticizing those strategic decisions, and while mathematically, we’re right, we’ve kinda missed the forest for the trees.

There’s an interesting paper that came out a few years ago in the field of clinical psychology (my home field) which looked at how well therapists did treating people who had panic disorder. The therapists were all conducting their therapy out of the same book. Literally. Panic disorder is one of those disorders that gives itself nicely to treating with a manual. There’s plenty of research saying that these types of treatments work great. Often, the manual specifies what happens in session 1, then session 2, and so on, specifies techniques, and gives standardized “homework” assignments for the client. There was a clinic that was evaluating one of these manuals, and so they recruited several therapists to follow this model in a specialty clinic that worked with people who have panic disorder. The researchers did careful measurement of panic symptoms over time and found that while most people got better, some therapists got better results than others. There was also no correlation between how well the therapists followed the manual and the treatment outcomes for their clients. If a good process is all you need, then it shouldn’t matter who’s administering it, but the researchers surmised (based on other research as well) that results were about much more than process. The relationship between the therapist and the client turns out to be rather important. Might the same thing be true for managers?

I’m fond of the thought that managers have three major jobs. They are in-game tacticians, PR spokesmen, and the guy in charge of wrangling 25 young millionaires who are on a six-month mission where they have to perform nightly. I’m sure the amount of amateur psychology that a manager has to do is staggering. Sabermetricians have focused mostly on the tactical aspect of management, because it’s easily visible and quantifiable. But let’s see if we can find evidence on some of the other work that a manager does. I don’t know that there’s a way to really get at how well a manager handles the media, but as far as his duties in managing the people who wear the uniforms, we might be able to learn a thing or two.

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Originally published: November 4, 2014. Last Updated: November 4, 2014.