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Constant lineup tweaks paying off for Maddon

Constant lineup tweaks paying off for Maddon

In an ideal world, Joe Maddon would walk into his office, take a look at his lineup card and fill in two names.

The Rays' manager would have seven spots set in stone each day, and creating the batting order wouldn't be the meticulous process it's been this season. It would simply be a matter of whether the opposing team was starting a right-handed or left-handed pitcher.

This year, however, Maddon has not been able to find that perfect lineup, despite getting plenty of different looks. Seven players have hit in five or more different spots in the order, with three (John Jaso, Sean Rodriguez and Ben Zobrist) having found themselves in seven different spots. Four others have been slotted in four or more spots, while only one (Carl Crawford) has batted in the same position all year.

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Some might consider Maddon's constant mixing and matching to be madness, but the manager is actually taking advantage of the advanced statistics he receives, using them to create a lineup that will give his team the best chance to win on a daily basis in lieu of the elusive predetermined batting order.

Given Tampa Bay's 57-37 record, it's hard to argue with the end result.

"There's so much ready information now that was not available a couple years ago -- and even if it was, I don't know if everyone wanted to read it or understand it or try it," Maddon said. "The fact that I get so much good stuff from upstairs, it permits me to look at these things and feel somewhat confident about doing them.

"Being able to look over information like I'm able to now and have it be so involved and accurate, it gives you a little more confidence when doing these types of things."

Maddon has made plenty of decisions that conventional baseball wisdom might deem unusual. He slotted Jaso, a "slow" catcher, at the leadoff spot in 14 games because of his high on-base percentage and has used a few players, quite literally, all over the lineup.

This season, the Rays have had six leadoff hitters, five cleanup batters, 10 players in the five-hole and a whopping 12 in the sixth spot. Zobrist has batted everywhere but eighth and ninth, Rodriguez everywhere but third and fourth and Jaso everywhere but second and fourth.

There are now only two sure things in Maddon's everyday lineup: Crawford in the No. 2 spot, where he's been in all 85 games he's played in this season, and Evan Longoria hitting third -- and even he has spent half the season batting cleanup.

With as many moving parts and versatile defenders as the Rays have, their lineup is truly day-to-day for the rest of the team.

"We try not to let it affect us," Zobrist said. "The effect that it could have if you let it is you could get frustrated thinking, 'Well, maybe I could hit better if I stayed in the same spot.' I think all those are excuses. If you're in the lineup, you face the pitcher just about the same times as anybody else, so I think the best reaction to it is roll with it."

Maddon said filling in the bottom half of the lineup card takes a little longer than it used to, and he starts the process in the morning. He gets on his computer and looks up the relevant statistics -- the opposing pitcher's tendencies and recent outings, how his players are hitting against that type of pitcher and so on -- and goes from there.

Seeking to take advantage of whatever edge his batters have over the opposition has allowed Maddon to give a team with offensive limitations (such as the fourth-lowest batting average in the American League) the second-greatest run differential in the Majors (+112, just one run behind the Yankees).

"His job is to make the lineup. Our job is, whatever spot we're in, to hit," Zobrist said. "It's simple. It really is, if you look at it that way. No matter what spot you're in, if you help the team win from that spot, it's a good spot for you."

While Maddon has certainly used some unconventional methods this year, like on June 2 when he loaded his lineup with righties and had all his switch-hitters bat right-handed against Toronto right-hander Shaun Marcum. The Rays wound up winning, 7-3. But, he said, he doesn't do any of it based purely on hunches or gut feelings.

"There's something to back it up," Maddon said. "If I say, 'I just feel like if you did this, we might be better off,' that doesn't carry as much weight.

"All these things matter, if you're willing to use them. Some people are going to scoff at that. We mock what we don't understand, so I don't worry about stuff like that. I really believe all these things can be utilized, and numbers can actually give you a mental picture of what you need to do physically to make an adjustment."

So as critics continue to question his seemingly never-ending lineup changes and unorthodox choices, Maddon will continue to mix and match and use the numbers he's given to create the ideal batting order for each day.

Until the day arrives when he only has to fill in two names on the lineup card, that is.

Adam Berry is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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