Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon uses defensive alignments and metrics more than most managers in major league baseball. It’s clearly working: The Rays are one game out of first place in the AL East. (Gail Burton/AP)

Tampa Bay Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s name always comes up during conversations about the best managers in baseball. It probably should, given that the Baseball Writers’ Association named him American League manager of the year twice in the last five seasons.

But Maddon wouldn’t want anyone to take their word for it. The man known for quirky clubhouse tactics and unconventional in-game strategy makes a living questioning things the tradition-reliant baseball world often takes for granted.

“I think some managerial types get stuck in what they’ve heard, and not necessarily what they think and what they know,” Maddon said at Camden Yards this week before a game against the Baltimore Orioles. “I really encourage you to come with what you think, not what you’ve heard.”

So if you’ve heard Maddon is one of the best managers in baseball, he’d ask you to think about that.

If the standard is wins, Maddon qualifies. Tampa Bay has spent the least money in terms of payroll dollars per win ($624,448) of any team in baseball — and won the third-most games of any team in that time. Only the Yankees ($2,126,839 per win), and Phillies ($1,505,659 per win) won more games.

But Maddon said wins and losses are reliant on the quality of a manager’s players, injuries, and other “superficial” factors.

“I think the thing that sets managers apart is truly the atmosphere you create, the attitude you create within your clubhouse,” he said.

Maddon seems to do all right on that front, too — in part because of (or perhaps in spite of) his themed road trips and special clubhouse visitors that have included a 20-foot python.

“I don’t like snakes, so I didn’t really like that,” third baseman Evan Longoria said. “But I think it just allows guys to be themselves. Some of it’s over the top for me, but I think a lot of it is needed in teaching guys the ‘Ray Way’: How to be yourself in the clubhouse.”

That “Ray Way,” Maddon said, is what he wants to separate his clubhouses from the rest.

“I think for me [what makes a good manager is] you want to create that situation where everybody wants to walk into that room every day and they feel like they can be themselves,” he said as he showed off the navy blue T-shirt he had made for his team that says “Be Yorselv” on the front and “WOW” framed in neon green on the back.

“If you’ve made an environment where everybody can be themselves and bring them to the door every day, you will then get the best of what those people can possibly bring you.”

The Rays have let Maddon be himself in terms of his baseball strategy, too. An expert in advanced metrics, Maddon employs more defensive shifts than almost any manager in baseball, asks switch hitters to hit right-handed against right-handed pitchers and even intentionally walked home a run in a 2008 game against the Texas Rangers, when he opted to walk Josh Hamilton with two outs and a 7-3 lead in the ninth.

“Making the first and third out at third base is always taboo in baseball, not throwing a change-up after a curveball or curveball after a change-up. There are certain things people were taught coming up in this game,” Maddon said. “The difference here is it’s pretty wide open. . . . We’ll research it. We’ll try to figure out if it does in fact hold water.”

Maddon’s calculated quirkiness just works. The Rays are a game out of first in the AL East and lead the wild-card race despite losing top line starters Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and David Price to injuries for large portions of the season.

ESPN analyst Doug Glanville said Maddon does as good a job of handling on-field and off-field issues as well as anyone in the game. But the best manager in baseball? That’s a complicated question.

“You think of like a Tony LaRussa, who’s maybe an X’s and O’s guy and has success . . . but maybe a manager’s great when people go into the locker room every day and are happy to be there,” said Glanville, who played for Buck Showalter and Dusty Baker, among others, in his nine-year career. “I know there was a year we had guys who got along great but were second to last. But I do remember talking to Ozzie Smith and he said, ‘You know how to spell chemistry? W-I-N.’ ”

If his T-shirt is any indication, Maddon probably has his own ideas of how to spell “win,” and as long as his position players run hard to first and pitchers field their positions — Maddon’s main points of emphasis — he’s fine if his players don't see it the same way.

“I encourage individuals,” Maddon said. “You have to bring yourself to your job, and if it works, then it’s going to work for a long time. And if it doesn’t work, then you probably need to do something else.”