joe maddon

2015 Predictions

Despite my complete failure to predict anything correctly last year, I’ve decided to roll out another set of predictions this year, apparently because I am a depraved masochist.  While I referred to my 2014 predictions as “bold”, I make no assertion about the boldness of this year’s predictions.  I no longer care about my perceived boldness.  I just want to get one right.

1.  Each National League division winner from 2014 (Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers) will repeat.

While the 2015 American League looks like a complete crapshoot, with various upstarts on the rise and traditional powers on the decline, I don’t expect much to change at the top of the NL.  The Nationals started with three excellent starters in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, and then over the past year have added 40% of what used to be the best rotation in baseball (Max Scherzer and Doug Fister from Detroit).  The Dodgers are still the best team in the West on paper and have the means to add whatever they need over the course of the season.  The Cardinals, on the other hand, do seem to be vulnerable in the Central after a rather underwhelming 2014, but I’m not sure their division rivals have made quite enough strides to overtake them this year.  Which leads me to my next prediction…

2.  The Cubs will be a massive disappointment.

Everyone seems to love what the Cubs have done over the offseason, from signing Jon Lester to poaching Joe Maddon.  Add that to the best group of prospects in baseball, and many are picking the Cubs to experience a huge turnaround.  In fact, fans and bettors are so excited that the Cubs are leading World Series odds in Vegas, now at 6 to 1.  I’m sorry, this is just insane.  This is still a team that finished in last place in 2014, and the success of the team is largely tied to the development of youngsters with little to no major league experience, such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler.  I have no doubt that the Cubs are headed in the right direction, but those counting on big things for 2015 are going to end up being very, very sad.  I mean, we’re talking about the Cubs!  Have we learned nothing from the past 100+ years?

3.  Two of the three longest postseason droughts will come to an end.

Only three teams have failed to make the playoffs in the past ten years: the Blue Jays (21 year drought), the Mariners (13 years) and the Marlins (11 years).  All three are improved for 2015 and have major sleeper potential, and I expect at least two of these teams to finally break through and return to the playoffs.  Honestly, I hope it’s not the Marlins, because I despise this franchise and their scumbag ownership, but the bottom of the NL East (Atlanta and Philadelphia) looks terrible and the Fish should get fat playing those teams 19 times each.

4.  Baltimore will win the AL East.

The Orioles look mediocre on paper and are generally not highly regarded by the advanced stats community.  This has been true for the past three years, but the O’s have posted three straight winning seasons, averaging 91 wins a year.  And while they have lost some key contributors from last year, like Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller, one must remember that they dominated the AL for significant portions of 2014 without Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis.  Sure, the rotation is nothing special, but the same can be said for nearly all of their AL East rivals.

5.  The Yankees will have a losing record for the first time since 1992.

The post-Jeter era in New York has begun, and it does not look pretty.  Sure, Jeter’s statistics were in sharp decline over the past few years, and he was barely a shell of himself during his farewell tour in 2014.  But people tend to forget that statistics can only measure so much…and that Derek Jeter is magic.  Without magic, there is no life to the Frankenstein’s monster of the Yankees roster.  All you’re left with is a bunch of inanimate rotting body parts sewn together.

6.  The Giants will miss the playoffs.

Like clockwork.  It’s an odd year.  This will mean that this “dynasty” (I shudder at this word) will have made a total of three playoff appearances over a span of seven seasons.  What a joke.

7.  The Tigers will not win 90 games.

This is the same prediction I made as last year, but it’s significantly less bold this year, as many see the Tigers as on the verge of falling off a cliff.  I wanted to go out on a limb and say that the Tigers wouldn’t make the playoffs at all, but I can’t do it.  Or rather, I don’t want to.  With all the parity in the AL and two wild-cards, who knows.  Plus, unlike their emerging division rivals, the Tigers are clearly in all-in mode, and can go for broke at the trade deadline if they are anywhere close to contending.  But, even with some good breaks, I think 90 wins is the ceiling.

8.  The Nationals will be the best team in 2015…and it won’t matter.

I’ve lost all faith in the playoffs.  They are a complete crapshoot, and the more the playoffs are expanded, the more crappyshooty they will be.  I think the Nationals are the best team in the majors, but since when does the best team win the World Series?  Or even a good team?  Whatever.  I think I’ll just root for a Beltway Series, that will be fun.  May the best team win?  Not likely.

Playoff predictions:

NL East:  Nationals
NL Central:  Cardinals
NL West:  Dodgers
NL Wild Cards:  Pirates, Marlins

AL East:  Orioles
AL Central:  Indians
AL West:  Mariners
AL Wild Cards:  Angels, Tigers

NLCS:  Nationals over Dodgers
ALCS:  Orioles over Indians

World Series:  Orioles over Nationals

Brad Ausmus, Managerial Reform and the Great Spring Hope

For the second straight postseason, Jim Leyland completely botched the management of his bullpen.  But after no playoff appearances in 19 years, the Tigers have made the playoffs four times in eight seasons since Leyland took over.  Also, by all accounts, the players adored and respected him.  He wasn’t going to get fired, period.  So when Leyland announced his retirement this offseason, man, was I relieved.

But where’s the relief in getting rid of a strategically-challenged manager only to replace him with another one?  With candidates like Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Lloyd McClendon being mentioned for the job, I have to say that I agree 100% with the choice to hire former catcher Brad Ausmus.  Because even though Ausmus has no managerial experience and we have no idea what to expect from him as a manager, the unknown is better than the known garbage.

The hope is that Ausmus turns out to be a superior in-game strategos while also commanding the same respect that Leyland enjoyed.  And that’s how I would break down the primary roles of a baseball manager:  Strategy and People.

  • Strategy: This includes all of the manager’s roles as the field captain (i.e. determination of lineups, substitutions and rotations; managing bullpens; making calls for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, defensive subs or double switches; defensive alignment).  Strategy gets the most scrutiny in the media, because it’s the most visible.  We see Grady Little decide to leave Pedro Martinez in the game in the 2003 ALCS and we all have an opinion as to whether or not it was the right decision.  (For the record, I think it was a justifiable decision.)
  • People:  This role regards the management of human capital.  This is where the term “manager” makes the most sense, because in this aspect the baseball manager’s role isn’t any different from the manager of any other kind of business.  The manager needs to be able to understand and connect with his personnel.  He needs to maximize the results of the team by understanding how to motivate his troops.  When the media refers to a manager that has “lost” his players or a clubhouse that is out of control, this usually reflects a perceived failure in the People portion of the job (e.g. Terry Francona with the 2011 Red Sox or Bobby Valentine with the 2012 Red Sox).

Both roles are crucial to the performance of a manager.  But few managers actually appear to be competent at both.  As most managers tend to be former players and/or older men who are, uh, perhaps, more set in their ways, they tend to make in-game decisions relying on either a.) not enough statistical data (i.e. rely on their guts) and/or b.) the wrong statistical data (e.g. small sample size batter vs. pitcher data).  With all of the information that is becoming available to us through more and more advanced statistics, it seems like we are getting closer to understanding the ideal choice in nearly any game situation.  But given the level of mathematical inclination required to truly understand advanced stats (much less develop newer and better models than your competition), it almost seems too much to ask for one man to be responsible for both Strategy and People.

So how about having co-managers, one for each role?  Alternatively, each team should employ a strategy guru that would be on the field and have discretion to make most on-field decisions, while ultimately reporting to the manager or the front office.  Look, I can tell you right now that I think I could handle the Strategy role for a major league baseball team; but from the People perspective, I don’t know if I could command the respect of a clubhouse with no baseball experience whatsoever.

But then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.  I do think the People role is important, but how much does it really matter?  Is there any way to quantify this in terms of wins and losses?  Most people would say that Leyland was good at the People part of his job, but I would say that his Tigers teams of the last few years have underperformed, despite the playoff appearances.  We have enshrined Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame as managers, but we still don’t know definitively whether they were great leaders of men or just lucky enough to have been carried to championships by amazing players.

Do we even need field managers at all?  Honestly, they kind of look bored most of the time.  Can’t all of the Strategy decisions be handled by someone like the general manager, who can make those calls from a luxury box?  Can’t one of the players, like a team captain, handle the People portion of the role?  The demise of the player/manager role in baseball makes me slightly sad; I remember getting a Pete Rose baseball card when I was a kid and saw his position listed as “1B-MGR” and my mind was blown.  He’s a player…AND a manager???  How cool is that?!

Ultimately, stats have come a long way in determining the value of what players do on the field.  And it seems like we are getting closer, at least, to understanding the value of what managers do on the field (check out this paper from MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference).  But we’re still a long ways away from being able to quantify the effect of good managers on an organization off the field, much less figure out which managers are actually good and which are bad.  I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but it’s pretty hard to prove that because Joe Maddon brings magicians into the Tampa Bay clubhouse the Rays actually win more games.  Maybe these effects can’t be quantified.  And if that’s true, I guess that’s fine.  I’m okay with the mystery.  I’m okay with not knowing anything about how Brad Ausmus, the manager, will perform this season.  Because it’s spring, and because hope is the answer to every unanswered question in the spring.  Everything is going to be okay.