The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Can Joe Maddon revive the Los Angeles Angels?

There have been eight managerial vacancies created after the end of this season.  Several long-time skippers have lost their jobs or retired, which will once again cause a major change in the managerial landscape.  One of those veteran managers, former Cubs skipper Joe Maddon, has been named the new manager of the Los Angeles Angels, a team with whom he previously worked in various capacities.  He gets another shot at running a club, when in the past few years most teams have been hiring the new style of managers who bring a heavy reliance on sabermetrics but have little to no prior managerial experience.

Maddon was once considered the new-style manager--a “players’ manager,” a master motivator in the clubhouse, an early disciple of advanced analytics.  When he got his first job with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006 and then as he moved to the Chicago Cubs in 2015, his style of leadership became more likened to that of a cult leader than the traditional baseball man in the dugout and clubhouse.

The Angels fired Brad Ausmus after his only season as manager to make room for Maddon.  In one sense it didn’t seem fair to Ausmus, but the team lost eight more games than they did the year before, when they were only .500.  Apparently Maddon’s prior connection with the team overrode any sense of fairness to Ausmus.  His hiring was the second time he uprooted an incumbent manager after only one season—in 2014, the Cubs fired one-year manager Rick Renteria.

What is it about Maddon that causes teams to make decisions like that?  Let’s take a look back in history with Maddon.

When Maddon was hired into his first permanent managerial position with Tampa Bay in 2006, the Rays had the worst record in both leagues, winning only 61 games.  They weren’t much better in 2007 with 66 wins.  But 2008 was a completely different story.  The Rays won 21 more games than the prior year, capturing their first-ever division championship and going all the way to the World Series.  It was a classic “last-to-first” accomplishment for a small-market team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game.

Admittedly, the Cubs had just completed their roster overhaul when they hired Maddon in 2015, but the Cubs won 24 more games that year than they did with Renteria at the helm.  Then in the following season the Cubs won their first World Series since 1910.

Maddon’s results with the Rays and Cubs are why a team like the Angels want him.  Their past relationship may be desirable, but the team really needs Maddon’s experience and leadership to break out of the funk they’ve been in since 2014, the last year they went to the playoffs.  The last year the Angels won a playoff game was 2009.  The franchise needs desperately to revert to the winning days of the first ten seasons of the new millennium, when they went to the playoffs six times, including winning a World Series championship in 2002.

The Angels have the best player in baseball in Mike Trout; but he’s hasn’t had much of a supporting cast and thus has had only one appearance in the playoffs during his nine seasons.  One of Maddon’s biggest challenges will be working with a roster of relatively weak talent outside of Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Kole Calhoun.  The Angels’ pitching staff is one of the worst in the league, recording the lowest WAR and the second-lowest Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP).  The team didn’t have an ace, or even a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter in the rotation after Tyler Skaggs died of a drug overdose at mid-season.  No Angels pitcher started more than 18 games.  Only Trevor Cahill pitched more than 100 innings.

The Angels organization has several young minor-league players who put up some big power numbers last year, but it remains to be seen whether their performance will translate well to the big leagues in the near-term. Twenty-year-old outfielder Jo Adell is their top prospect in the farm system, but he is still probably a year or two away from a permanent roster spot.  Their pitching at the Triple-A level was atrocious, as they posted a 6.78 ERA and 1.752 WHIP as a team.  Don’t look for any immediate help there.

A good thing about Maddon is that he’s familiar with working with a young roster. He likes having versatility among his position players so that he can juggle his lineup as needed.  Unfortunately for Maddon, Albert Pujols still has two more years on his contract worth $59 million, and Justin Upton has three more years at $72 million, so he’s stuck with two aging veterans that are providing marginal value and not much flexibility.

The offseason for the Angels has to address pitching as its first priority, both the starting rotation and the bullpen. (They need to be in the hunt for Gerrit Cole's services.)  Ohtani could provide an upgrade to the staff if his arm is healthy next season.  They’ll need to settle their catching position, as they used five different ones last year.  They could use more power from their infield positions.  And they’ll need Trout and Ohtani to stay healthy.

The Angels aren’t noted for their use of advanced analytics, but this is another strength of Maddon.  He was among the first managers doing innovative things with baseball data as far back as his tenure with Tampa.  If there’s value to be gotten from utilizing the numbers for lineup and game strategy, Maddon will find a way to leverage it.  With his prior experience, Maddon might be giving directions to the Angels’ front-office analytics staff, instead of vice versa.

It will be interesting to see if Maddon will continue to use whacky teambuilding tactics like having the players wear pajamas on travel days or dressing up in the clubhouse like theme characters of the latest animation movies.  It’s been part of his approach to building the cult-like following with his previous teams and gaining a reputation as being a manager the players like to play for.

I don’t expect great things from Maddon for the next couple of years, due to the lack of player talent.  But I think Maddon’s relationship with the Angels’ ownership and front office will come into play.  They’ll give him some slack during those first few seasons, while they re-position the roster; and they’ll trust him to get the most out of what is available and to start to build a winning culture in the meantime.

Don’t be surprised after a couple of years to see the Angels as a relevant team again—just like when Maddon was with the Rays and Cubs.  That’s what the Angels ownership is counting on.

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