Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon is known for his unconventional approach to managing. Before embarking on the team's current 10-game West Coast road trip, for example, he had his players don the jerseys of their favorite college football team. In August, he had a 20-foot python brought into the clubhouse because the team needed "a little motivation." He's had a magician, a merengue band and a DJ perform in the clubhouse as well.
Those are all methods to loosen up the atmosphere a bit, a reminder that too much baseball can, well, be too much baseball.
It's more difficult to be unconventional in on-the-field strategies these days, but even there Maddon has found ways to question the norm. The Rays were one of the early proponents of using more defensive shifts, a trend that has spread across the majors. Baseball Info Solutions reports teams will end up shifting about three times as often as they did in 2011. You can thank the Rays' defensive success for pushing that trend.
Maddon used another unique trick in Sunday's game against the A's, utilizing an old strategy that most managers wouldn't have the guts to use in 2013.
Roberto Hernandez would have started for Tampa Bay, but Maddon didn't want to start him for two reasons: (1) Hernandez has a large platoon split, allowing .903 OPS against left-handed batters and .681 against right-handers; (2) With all their platoons, the A's can run out a lot of left-handed bats (the A's are tied with the Indians by having the platoon advantage 70 percent of the time, compared to the league average of 59 percent).
The Rays had already lost the first two games of the series, the offense has been slumping, and the Red Sox were pulling away in the AL East. So rather than throw Hernandez and create a bad matchup on paper, Maddon started right-handed reliever Jamey Wright, who would be making his first start since 2007. Maddon would then shift to lefty reliever Alex Torres, forcing Bob Melvin to either leave in his left-handed batters or pinch-hit early in the game.
It's an old Strat-o-Matic strategy, although Jim Leyland and Dick Howser famously applied it in playoff games. Managing the Pirates against the Reds in the 1990 National League Championship Series, in Game 6 Leyland started reliever Ted Power -- he hadn't started all season -- and then brought in lefty starter Zane Smith, mainly to try to gain the platoon edge against Paul O'Neill, who had been killing the Pirates. The strategy essentially worked, though the Reds won 2-1.
Howser had done something similar in Game 7 of the 1985 American League Championship Series. Al Oliver, a left-handed batter, had been killing Royals relief ace Dan Quisenberry with big hits all series for the Blue Jays. Bret Saberhagen started for the Royals, putting Oliver (and other Toronto platoon players) in the starting lineup. After three innings, Howser switched to left-hander Charlie Leibrandt. When Oliver’s turn came around in the fifth, Toronto manager Bobby Cox pinch-hit for him. Howser didn't have to worry about an Oliver-Quisenberry showdown and the Royals would win 6-2.
It's a strategy that isn't really necessary or usable in the regular season for a few reasons, including:
1. Most teams don't platoon as much as the A’s.
2. Most teams don't carry a long reliever, or at least one that managers want to use for more than two innings at a time. But Torres started in the minors earlier in the season, so Maddon was comfortable letting him go three-plus innings.
3. Most managers would be afraid of burning out their bullpen.
It would have been interesting to see if Maddon would have used this strategy on Saturday -- the day before rosters expanded. Knowing he had a couple extra relievers in the bullpen with the expanded rosters undoubtedly made the decision a little easier.
So it was a creative approach, but in the end the Rays still lost 5-1, their seventh loss in eight games, although Maddon’s strategy wasn’t to blame. Coco Crisp did lead off the bottom of the first with a home run off Wright, who lasted 1 2/3 innings. Torres pitched 3 1/3 innings, allowing an unearned run as Evan Longoria threw away a Jed Lowrie bunt in the third, allowing Lowrie to reach third and eventually score. The A’s added two more runs in the eighth off the back of the Tampa pen.
The biggest problem for the Rays right now is the offense has hit .217 with just two home runs over this eight-game stretch, which dropped the Rays from a first-place tie in the AL East to 5.5 games behind the Red Sox. While we can't ignore what happened two years ago, when the Rays miraculously caught the Red Sox, in just more than a week the Rays went from being part of the best-team-in-baseball discussion to suddenly trying to fight off the Orioles, Yankees and Indians for the second wild card.
Rookie Wil Myers is in a 2-for-27 slump. Evan Longoria is 2-for-26. Desmond Jennings has one RBI his past 22 games. The Rays are 31-35 on the road and have four games against the Angels and three against the Mariners on this trip. After that, four of their final six series against the Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles and Yankees.
Pythons and magicians aren't the answer right now. It's up to the bats to start delivering the magic, or the Rays might find themselves sitting at home in October.