Friday, November 28, 2003
As the momentum for sabermetric and other field-fact-based analyses is becoming more widespread in the front offices of major league teams and publicized through work like Michael Lewis' Moneyball, the movement is gathering enough power to attract what I call an "immune response" from the dominant status quo types. This happens just as frequently outside of baseball, but isn't always as clear when it's happening because an observer can confuse the root cause of it for many other things that are going on at the same time.
The front offices that have adopted a more scientific approach to manage personnel decisions and in-game strategies know you can't make an innovation operative with just intentions or saying "Make it so!". That's as true in baseball as it is anywhere. They have to get buy-in from the field manager or, as apparently happened in Oakland last off-season, they have to move him out. And it seems (I'm not totally confident of this assertion, but it looks to be true), that the number of sabermetrically-sensitive field managers is lower than the number of franchises that are moving in that direction and are looking for one. So what is becomes likely to happen in those situations is the front office hires a guy who is not dealing from a position of negotiating strength (a proven, recent winner) but more likely those who don't (never managed in the majors, managed in the majors without apparent success).
Having hired such a person, the front office doesn't want the manager to have much range of choice beyond the objectives the front office is aiming at. But the new field manager, if he has a cadre of loyal coaches, might have the gumption to resist. A lot of the success in change management is getting people with positions of influence to either buy into the change, or at least see it as inevitable (so they end up working to make it as positive as possible, in contrast to opposing it). If you have a cadre of loyal deputies, you are less likely to feel the change is inevitable.
So the new, creeping trend is for front-offices to choose most coaches, stealing that deicsion away from the manager. And that in turn creates antibodies -- a counter-reformation from the status-quo.
One fine symptom of this is Ken Rosenthal's piece last month in The Sporting News, a plea for the Bitgod (back in the good old days) approach to coach recruitment -- when managers got all the open slots with one exception. There are good reasons for the old approach, especially in more treacherous organizations (see Constructive Cronyism, 11/24 entry). But Rosenthal is arguing against the very point that's the good reason for it -- that the scientific front-offices will then effect more change if this is allowed to happen. It's an argument akin to the telemarketers arguing agasint the "do not call" list by saying that if they couldn't call people who didn't want to be called, the economy would tank because people whouldn't be buying as much stuff they didn't want from people they didn't want to buy from.
Rosenthal here is being the conduit for the opinion of many of the key contacts he counts on for his reporting. Disingenuous, but understandable.
Beyond baseball, though, this tendency to lock newly-hired managers into a tight set of decision constraints is usually caused by pure politics, and not change management/innovation management practice.
Have you ever noticed how often it happens that staff are hired around the time HR is interviewing for a new manager in that hire's department? Or how often the new manager gets to come in right after the budget is finalised? Or worse, just as the budget process is in motion? The last seems less egregious, but is truly more sinister. Not only is the new manager seen as raw (people are likely to discount her thoughts), she's being asked to make decisions she doesn't really have the background for. She's liable (she can't say "this budget was wrapped up before I got here"), subject to predation (the manager in the adjacent department who wants to get rid of a tar-baby project and rationalizes it into the new manager's group), and loses the magic first three weeks of a new managerial position, the most high-impact chance she'll have during her whole time in the position, to a mildly-relevant process she shouldn't be involved with.
These kinds of decisions and constraints around them are the stuff of the games of "Risk" or Diplomacy" many people played in high school or college. It's going to continue, at least for a few years, to be an obvious trigger point in the reformation of baseball management, and the counter-reformation movement of the Bitgods. You can watch it unfold, follow it in the papers, which is more than you can do in most of your own organizations. But it's happening there, too.
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
One of the most readable baseball writers with flashes of brilliance is Derek Zumsteg. He wrote a thoughtful piece for Baseball Prospectus yesterday on the sabermetric passion for plate patience (a key ingredient of the Oakland As Beaneball approach) that presented logical reasons why it might not be as much of a Holy Grail as neo-statheads feel it is. His argument is not that plate patience is useless or a bad idea, just that its effect can only be felt in a minority of games for most teams, and that overall, it's not a significant factor.
Here's the essence of Derek's argument.
One of the reasons patience at the plate is encouraged is that it wears out opposing starters, allowing the hitters to chew into the soft underbelly of middle relief where they can really score some runs. It sure sounds attractive, and it seems to make sense.
But it's almost a trivial advantage. The range in pitches seen per plate appearance runs from 3.6 (Devil Rays and company) to 3.9 (Red Sox, Oakland).
Take an average AL staff. Every nine innings, they give up nine hits, three walks, strike out six, and watch one lucky fan get a nice souvenir. Look at a nine-inning game pitched by an average staff against the most and least patient teams:
9.30 H + 3.16 BB + 27 outs = 39.46 batters/game (by average staff in average park against average hitters)
So 39.46 PAs * 3.6 P/PA = 142 pitches to get through a game against the most-aggressive team. And 153 pitches to get through a game against the most-passive team. [snip]
Eleven pitches a game isn't that important. An average start last year went six innings. Average events/inning for AL starters: 1.06 H/IP, .32 BB/IP...it's only 4.32 PA/IP, or 16-17 pitches an inning depending on the opposition, and the pitcher's out in six innings right around 100 pitches (96-102). Taking more pitches alone isn't significant enough to get a pitcher pulled early. [emphasis mine]
When you read some neo-stathead discussions, you'd think taking pitches, earning walks were the most important features batter can have. But that's turning a tactic into a strategy, a clever workaround into an organization mission, conflating a tool with a goal. In business, you frequently see this when departments set targets. Especially under pressure, most people will give extra attention to a set target (that's a survival strategy), and some will work primarily to the set target. Depending on how critical that target is, depending on how management handles the other measures of work, this target can become a distraction that diminishes the effectiveness of the group.
I was responsible for one of these failures once. I was running a big chunk of the marketing department for a computer networking hardware/software firm. Margins, normally astronomical for this quality-obsessed company, started shrinking, and the sales department (focused on gross, not net) had no idea how to change our course. But marketing "owned" the small, direct marketing effort: direct mail, telemarketing, advertising, public relations. If you co-ordinate those in a "Integrated Marketing" effort (run a targeted advertisement, send direct mail to those who are being advertised to, follow-up the mail with a telephone call a few days later) success tends to be relatively very high.
The company's most expensive product was also its highest margin one -- a beautifully bundled set of network software management tools and utilities. The price tag justified telemarketing. My passion for margin drove my team to put together a perfect storm of a plan, running the Integrated Marketing effort to our existing customers (minus those who'd already bought it) and it really worked as one would hope. BUT.
But, alas, the product had bugs, bugs that development wasn't hot to talk about. I didn't do my homework -- we didn't know. We really pitched off Sales (who had been unable to sell any), and stuffed imperfect product into customers' hands, burning them in the process. And increasing the load on technical support. Ugly, perhaps my ugliest piece of mismanagement ever.
The neo-statheads are chasing plate patience the way I was chasing margin, ignoring the context. Yes, I increased margin for the two months the program ran, but a side-effect was it was strip-mining goodwill (internal and external). Yes, it makes sense to acquire players with plate patience, all other things being equal because you can usually get that extra benefit without paying an additional price for it, but not if the batter isn't getting hits, too. It just, by itself, doesn't make enough difference. Don't confuse a clever bit of gadget-play with a life's purpose. Don't let a target steer you away from your purpose. Or as Derek said about the plate patience issue:
If a team's intent is to seize on the minor advantage of facing middle relief, it's important to realize that getting more pitches is never more important than hitting those pitches. And that's what good hitters do: work the count in their favor, so they can reach a favorable hitter's count and whack the ensuing fat pitch. The best-hitting teams are the ones that pile patience together with batting ability. Sounds simple, yet too many teams still struggle with the concept.
So do most non-baseball organizations.
Monday, November 24, 2003
The last entry lambasted cronyism as undermining achievement potential, and mentioned that there were exceptions...where cronyism could work out acceptably or even well.
Dick Williams would tell you that is can make the difference in a political environment between survival and extinction.
Williams, an enfant terrible but with good managerial success already under his belt, was offered the California Angels' managing job by the owner for the 1974 season. The general manager, Harry Dalton, didn't like Williams. In the skipper's words:
Dalton was not a fan of mine, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it was something I'd said in the newspaper one time, maybe something I had done on the field. In this game of constant tightrope walking, one action is all it might take to turn somebody against you forever. Possibly Dalton didn't like me because I'd played with Baltimore back when he was first hired -- as an office boy, by answering a newspaper ad. In disbelief, I had watched him rise meteorically to the top, seemingly through no fault of his own. In other words, Harry knew that I knew he didn't know shit. (No More Mr Nice Guy, HBJ, p.179)
In a situation like that, Williams needed to be able to choose his own coaches. In that era, it was common for a manager to choose his own coaches, though less so now (reasons another time).
Williams later went on to the San Diego Padres where his G.M. (Jack McKeon) started cutting out Williams' chosen coaches and inserted one of his own, Harry Dunlop. McKeon planted him as a spy to keep a scorecard of bad behaviors, sort of like "writing him up" from the day he had started. According to Williams:
Williams could never relax in his job because of it. That meant he could never do his best. (There is a perverse streak in American management thinking that suggests only those under pressure/fear can produce excellence, which is about as sensible as suggesting the only way one can enjoy physical intimacy is unprotected with strangers. There are a handful of people who respond to that, but for many related reasons, they cannot be competent managers).
A manager should be able to surround himself with his own people, if for no other reason than to protect his back in the clubhouse. [snip] A guy selected by the general manager might not be so willing to protect you. After all, he is your boss's buddy. And soon he could influence the players the wrong way. If this coach is telling the players that his buddy the general manager doesn't agree with the manager, why should the players agree with the manager? [snip] Maybe the coach will be a good guy, but if he's not your pick, you never know. In this regard, Dunlop proved to be a walking worst case scenario. Because Dunlop, I leanred a couple fo years later, was McKeon's spy. (No More Mr Nice Guy, p.245-6)
When this happens outside of baseball, it's just as ugly, and this Permafrost Economy exacerbates it. You get a management assignment in a new place, people are anxious and grumbling about the last layoff or pointless re-org, and you're alone. In that case, finances permitting, it's important to have a crony, a person with some of your key points of view you can bounce things off of A person who can listen to others in the ranks and relate some of your past successes (market you a little), and who can get to sympathize with and bring to you issues you're missing.
In a political environment, most managers will need someone to cover their back, or at least take the place of someone who will stab you in it. Ask Dick Williams.
Saturday, November 22, 2003
One of the most damaging bad habits in American organizations is cronyism, the selective hiring and/or promotion of people based on a false karass. Surprisingly, there are specific cases where a level of cronyism can help (I'll get to those a little later). Baseball is a great looking-glass into cronyism. It's no more prevalent in baseball...in fact it might be a little less so, because performance is so measurable and that creates a gravitational field that reinforces the opposite of cronyism: merit-based personnel decisions.
An obvious bit of baseball cronyism took place yesterday: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays traded for first-baseman Tino Martinez, a Tampa native who will be 37 years old by the time the season starts. The driving force behind the D-Rays personnel moves has been Lou Piniella, a crony-lover of major proportions. (His cronyism is compounded by his managerial equivalent of borderline personality disorder -- players are either totally in his dog house or he's in love with their play, and he's slow to let actual results undermine his passions -- though not immune to reality). Half his coaching staff are men he brought with him from his last managerial assignment (Seattle), and that was more than half, but his drag-along pitching coach resigned. Tino Martinez is from the same neighborhood as Tampa native Piniella, and Piniella knows his family. When Piniella was in Seattle, he leaned on the front office to trade for his cousin Dave Magadan, an adequate, if not effective for Seattle, utility man. (A Dali-esque note about this -- the Ms got him mid-season from the Marlins for Jeff "Unnatural Selection" Darwin and a player. At the end of the season, they traded Magadan. To the Marlins. For Jeff Darwin and a little cash).
There's another kind of baseball cronyism going on here, and Piniella is not responsible for it. The Devil Rays and other teams seems to like to accumulate home-town or home-region guys, from Wade Boggs at the early part of the franchise's existence, to Martinez now. The press likes it (lots of human interest stories), it seems to sell a few extra tickets, it's easier to get the players involved in community activities and it's probabalistically likely the player will be more "at home" at home. Finally, front-offices know they can get a bit of a price discount in most cases from a player who's coming home. I suspect that final motivation is the primary one. The Seattle Mariners, for example, traded for the most inappropriate back-up outfielder they've, perhaps, ever had, Brian L. Hunter, and it was apparently because he had come from southern Washington state. But acquiring players for the feeling you get from the discount is almost guaranteed to undermine your overall talent quotient. Giving affirmative action points for home-town or genetic tie to someone inside the organization is not a guarantee of failure but in a highly-competitive system like baseball or business where failure is a much likelier outcome than success, who can afford to undermine productivity for the name of the state on Dude's driver's license or his frat pin? And it gets worse. As I mentioned in the previous entry on Giants' trade, when you have multiple decisions to make and you need to fit them together, blend them as a recipe (like a baseball or other organization's team), every decision tends to limit options on the others, bending them to fit the crony's attributes.
In non-baseball organizations, like I said, the cronyism is just as rampant, just less obvious, because the affiliations might be less obvious. I've consulted to organizations where all the managers were male, or where all the managers were women, or where all the managers were "white". I worked for an organization where the president put into place by outside funders started purging managers who were of a different religion than he was, replacing most of them with people who were of the same religion he was. I know of a Western U.S. city government that hired most of its upper managers from one of two Ivy League colleges. The most blitheringly incompetent company I ever worked for was run completely by MBAs from Wharton and Harvard, and that wasn't affirmative action -- where individuals who meet certain criteria get preferences, it's what I call deformative action, where only individuals with specific criteria get to make the cut, regardless of merit.
In general, this degrades the performance of an organization. Any time you winnow the recruiting pool by some non-merit consideration ("race", gender, religion, et.al.), you condemn yourself to fewer meritorious choices from which to select and unless you're also really excellent at recruiting, by odds, your talent quotient is going to sink. Perfect baseball example: the Brooklyn Dodgers of the late 1940s and early 1950s became brutally competitive quickly by cherry-picking "black" players. They didn't have serious recruiting pressure, so had more good talent from which to choose from, a classic Branch Rickey technique (more quantity will yield more quality options).
The Wharton/Harvard MBA-run company I worked for didn't fail because Wharton and Harvard are bad business schools. It failed first because the graduates they hired they hired because they were cronies of each other and because no one was hiring on merit; they were, as my friend Alexis Laris says, "not exactly the best and brightest". It failed also, though, (and this is critical) because there was a monoculture of thinking and because when bad decisions are made in a crony environment, the monocultured peers find it harder to see what's wrong (they tend to approach problem solving with the same tools and biases and cultural presumptions), and as the "us" in an "us versus them" crony view of the world, they are less likely, even if they see the flaw, to call a fellow-crony on his mistake.
Some Exceptions: Tino Martinez and Beyond Baseball
In spite of the almost uniform disdain for him among my sabermetric brethren, Tino Martinez is likely to be one of those exceptions I mentioned earlier. I think he'll be adequate for his situation.
In general he's a medium hitter; this year he was medium-low, a slightly better than average defender (which belies his appearance -- he must have the most ungraceful moves I've seen in a first-baseman since Dick Stuart). He gets more than his share of "big hits" in games. He is a senior guy with a relatively benign, steady-but-determined attitude who has been on winning teams, and I believe if you line this up, you do actually get the oft-cited (less oft-delivered) "veteran leadership". Martinez' veteran leadership has higher value on the Devil Rays, one of the youngest teams in the Majors, than it would on many teams. And the coup de grace is the team he played for last year will pick up all but $500,000 of his salary this year, and that has additional value for the D-Rays' tight approach to money..
In sum, Tino is an aging but not bad, inexpensive contributor to a bad young team that's trying to get better longer-term. He's a crony hire, but he'll be gone before he's clogging the roster or blocking some good young player from getting there.
Beyond baseball, there are some places where cronyism and the resulting unidisciplinary approaches can actually benefit an organization - they're rare, but there.
In large organizations with no direction, it's most frequently true that any coherent, cohesive direction is better than none at all (even if the direction isn't very good). And there's a subset of these organizations that have been in this zone for so long, they resist any direction because the players have come to feel justified in the inaction by coming to believe action is dangerous. In the former, and especially the latter, getting a team on-board with a unified, or easily unifiable direction, common vocabulary and grammar of problem solution, trust (even based on false karass) can be the only thing that will jump start the process of a big org taking a direction and working at it. Once a management core starts that process, some people who were resistant peel off immediately (not wanting to be left behind). That puts pressure on the remaining passives, and as they become fewer, the pressure to participate, appear to participate or leave builds. Resistances diminishes. People realize the organization can take a direction and that means a bad direction is something you might change.
Most cronyism is destructive, especially when it's based on deformative action. But it has spots where it can work. Like Tampa Bay.
Thursday, November 20, 2003
In the last entry (directly following this one), I explained how most American managers confronted with multiple situations requiring attention (usually action) tend to one of two, binary extremes. I also pointed to the San Francisco Giants' Brian Sabean's recent trade as a good example of using variance as a factor in picking from among which situation among multiple ones to deal with first. If this technique is something of interest to you and if you haven't read the previous entry, it stages the set for this one. To restate the Giants' front office challenge from Baseball Prospectus:
Since the target 2004 payroll is $75 million, that leaves the Sabean only around $7 million to fill the holes at first base, shortstop, right field, catcher, and the starting rotation.
Limited resources, & at least five "problems"/opportunities for solutions.
In choice-rich environments where there are many decisions to be made, and the variance is likely to be high or astronomical (for example, hiring day labor, the beginning of a fantasy draft, picking stocks, staffing a call centre) it makes most sense to deal with the highest-variance components first. For those of you who particpate in roto or fantasy schemes that don't have dollar budgets, but just a draft, I think you know this already. If there's a second baseman, say, Alfonso "The Butcher of the Bronx" Soriano, who is so significantly superior at offensive production than any other at his position, while at first base there are a large number of essentially similar options, you go for the high-variance position first, because the degradation that comes from going deeper into the pile for the first baseman is much smaller than the value shear-off that comes from going deep into the pile at second base.
Either way, though, you're faced with a set of decisions that have to do more than just be good on their own, but fit together in a complementary way. Unlike a fantasy drafter, Sabean needs to mix different kinds of talent for his recipe, left-handed and right-handed, with an attention to defensive competence and complementarity (if the left fielder is losing range, the center fielder needs to be a player with solid or better range, etc.).
In a normal situation, I'm biased towards attacking the most critical determinant (high-variance) situation first. Among the "top 50", according to ESPN's site, free agents, eleven are corner outfielders, (eleven and a half if you add Juan Gonzalez), ranging from Vladimir Guerrero, probably the best position player among this year's free agents, down to generic (though major league) talent like Rondell White. But in a resource-hungry situation (like Sabean's 5+ positions to fill, $7 million or so to do it with), it makes some sense to attack the lowest-variance and get it out of the way, leaving energy to focus on the more complex choices. Sabean traded with the Minnesota Twins for an essentially somewhat better-than average catcher, A.J. Pierzynski.
His OPS is .824, higher than average for a catcher. His defensive ratings are middle, on balance (Zone Factor -- flaky at catcher -- is high, Range Factor -- also not writ in stone for receivers -- average, and his ability to throw out baserunners -- an interplay between his arm, a pitcher's holding intentions and the patterns of other teams' steal attempts, poor statistically) is average or perhaps a little better than. He's a good fit for the Giants' China Basin home park, a left-handed hitter who doesn't get a lot of his value from hitting HRs (the park kills lefty HRs except for those batters who have attained transcendence). And as a Twin, Pierzynski hit better on the road than at home last year, not a bad sign.
The noteworthy free agent options at the position were Pudge Rodriguez (way too expensive), Javalina Lopez (way too expensive), and a bunch of gap-toothed trailer-trash QVC fire-sale junk. This was an easy decision on the acquisition side. Perhaps he gave up too much in the exchange, but if he did -- and I'm not saying he did -- part of his payback will be he now has one fewer dependent variable with which to contend. And another advantage of Pierzynski as the quick fill-in is his balance. While he's not a scary hitter, he hits from the left, which the team defintely needs. He does have a lefty's platoon split; he hits right-handed pitching better than left-handed, but the skew has not been so extreme that you wouldn't pencil him in against some lefties (.785 OPS versus lefties this year, .840 against righties). Depending on a manager's theory of line-up construction, this could be an advantage or a disadvantage, but by acquiring this balanced player, it hasn't limited Sabean in his acquisition of a corner outfielder or a first baseman. If the catcher he'd chosen was, for example, a right-handed hitter who had an extreme platoon split favoring his hitting against lefties, it would put an incredible amount of pressure on Sabean to make his next acquisition a left-handed hitter, limiting his range of choices on the more important position by half.
Shortstop might be easy (with his budget, the choices are essentially low-variance). Right field and First base are lush with options and variables. He shaved off the simple problem and now has focus and attention for the more challenging, high-variance ones. Specific choice aside for the moment, I think it was the right problem-solving approach.
How would you handle multiple challenges with limited resources?
Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Brian Sabean, he of the November 13th entry on his 2003 Baseball Executive of the Year award, this week executed the only trade at an annual teams' meeting. The press made a lot out of the fact that it was the only trade, but ignored (that's a euphemism for "had no frelling idea about") how it affected every other action Sabean has to make this offseason (and he has to make many).
I'll use Sabean's action to explain a problem-solving technique that can be very valuable, especially to managers beleaguered with tons of interrelated decisions and finite resources. If you know a manager who isn't very good in this area (A Tom Foley: one who freezes up and lets most things just take their own organic course; the binary opposite, An Alamo Defender: one who believes all target problems are equal and frantically tries to attack all things simultaneously because it's easier than evaluation, An Alan Greenspan: no matter how complex or multivariate the problem is, always attack it with one tool/one solution, even when that tool/solution hasn't worked in over a decade), I'm going to share with you a technique you use to help him or her and I'll use Sabean's trade as a boffo example thereof.
For the moment, let's call this the Sabean Tool: Focus your energy on high-variance areas. Use lowest-variance areas as anchors (that is, either resolve them quickly if you can, or leave them for later if they're not easy right now because they probably won't get much worse because they're low variance). If you look at your host of challenges to solve with this filter, you simplify the problem, creating a set of priorities to evaluate.
Managerial problem-solving technique itself has always been an area of high variance between various individuals. As a consultant, the areas of highest variance and the areas of very lowest variance are things to observe and use.
You start with high variance, because it's easier to make significant progress by improving a currently-15th percentile skill than someone with a currently-50th percentile skill. This is The Preston Principle, named after former Seattle School Board member and National School Boards Association officeholder Michael Preston. He realized that if you wanted to really improve a pattern of success, you worked on getting the lowest-performers to average first,, because it most rapidly changes the composite performance of the whole, and moreover, has beneficial "soft" side-effects on morale, because these changes are highly observable and give the team a clear sense of progress.
Managers' problem-solving skills are hard to fix in most cases (it's just about impossible for the big cookie-cutter consulting houses, because they always come to the table with a fat three-ring binder that has up to two possible solutions, Model T and Model A, if you know what I mean and I think you do). The challenge is most managers don't think systemically and then they get overwhelmed with many simultaneous problems.
According to Baseball Prospectus' PTP for November 13:
Since the target 2004 payroll is $75 million, that leaves the Sabean only around $7 million to fill the holes at first base, shortstop, right field, catcher, and the starting rotation.
A perfect Alamo or Tom Foley situation. Sabean's got low resources, at at least five significant holes to fill, each different. Let's take a simplified look at each position/decision-making challenge.
First base: Tons of guys who can hit because every good hitter who's cruddy in the field is pulled gravitationally there where it's conventional wisdom to believe their bad fielding is somewhat less exposed..
Shortstop: Many guys who can field but not hit, a few who can do both.
Right field: A hitting position, interchangeable with left field in many instances, although specifically here the Giants with their "big" challenging outfield really need someone with some range and an arm.
Catcher: The most diverse-skill position (Game calling, chronic negotiation with umpires who rotate out every day, chronic negotiations with a pitching staff, crisis management, head-on collision fu, arm strength, much more). To find a guy with enough brains to play this position winnows the field greatly by about AAA. So if you can find a guy who passes that test and he can either field adequately or hit adequately, he can play, and if you can find a guy who does one adequately and the other decently, it's not exciting, but you can put him in your roster.
Starting rotation: A fertile area with tons of choices (your own farm system, guys who are currently relievers not in key spots, the many free agents and other easily-available arms in a big pool) that conventional wisdom believes is hard to judge as accurately as other positions.
Okay, the set is staged, the stage is set. In my next entry, I'll dissect what Sabean did as an example of this problem-solving technique.
Tuesday, November 18, 2003
Reversing my normal direction, first the management tip, then the connection.
The act of coaching or training automatically provides the trainer a learning opportunity almost as great as that the trainee receives.
In normal organizations (that is, the norm, the average...normal doesn't mean healthy), managers don't like to spend time training their staff. Most would rather get their immediate work done. Because training is aimed at gaining long term, repetitive advantages in exchange for an investment that draws from the present, the immediate-gratification approach of managers undermines willingness to invest in training and education. The reasonable excuse, that the managers and executives above the managers-who-are-expected-to-train expect just as much work now whether the manager is investing in training or not, is a good excuse to erode the future in exchange for a little easier present..
And as Angus' First Law of Human Systems states: All human systems are self-amplifying.
Here's why: in the future the lesser-trained employees' flatter performance growth eats away at the manager's time, keeping her incentive up to keep grinding in the here-&-now and not investing in training. The more a manager ignores tending to performance growth potential, the more he's tied down trying to make up for it and the less likely he is to correct his past behavior. Death Spiral. (There are a lot of other applications for the First Law of Human Systems, but I'll leave those for other times).
I have seen many organizations eat themselves alive this way, a cell or two at a time.
¿Where's the Baseball?
Organizations that want to succeed invest in participants' potential. Baseball organizations are stellar examples of personnel development, with plans (some teams are prescribed, some ultra-rigorous, but all have development plans). Baseball is a better nurturer of talent, and a better trimmer of low-potential than large non-baseball organizations are. If a minor leaguer gets to a certain age without mastering some measurablee skills (usually off a checklist), they let him go. More investment, more winnowing, more effectiveness. I'm not arguing, btw, that baseball organizations don't mess up all the time, trying to promote someone who ends up never succeeding, or refusing to promote someone who's performing but is chronologically older than the checklist allows.
The event that brought this to mind was yesterday's e-mail exchange with Chris Hand. When he sent me the Steve Busby pitching lines he'd found on Retrosheet after I'd already invested time on that site but couldn't find any, I asked him if he'd be willing to explain what path he'd taken to get there. Like most effective researchers, he knows how he got there, but doesn't automatically have a number-list of steps in his immediate memory. So out of the spirit of collaboration, he went back to document it for me, and while stepping through his research path, was writing it down for me (not reprinted here) and bo and lehold! when he did, he found an additional path he hadn't considered...in his words:
I could've also gone from the team page to the roster page to Busby's page. And now in redoing it, I completely forgot about:
http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/PX_busbs101.htm which lists his "Top Performances." And upon looking closer I got one 200 pitch game tracked down that I completely missed the first time around, because I was only looking at 73 & 74.
Kansas City Royals IP H HR R ER BB K BFP
Busby W(11-5) 12 12 0 2 1 3 6 50!
The act of documenting for me (training) slowed him down (turned him away from research/exploration, and put him in a descriptive, precise zone). Once there, he found a path he'd forgotten about. And we both benefited, because he increased his own craft (remembering), increased mine (with the training I received), and added to the content with a game that's more certain than the others to have gotten to the now-probably-not-apocryphal 200 pitch Busby game alluded to by Bill James in raking Jack McKeon.
And how do I know this game has a great chance of having gotten to 200 pitches? Because someone else wanted to teach me something. Dave, who is the modest operator of the Baseball Graphs site I go to to look up Win Shares (Bill James latest measure -- about which I'm still agnostic -- but in which I'm very interested), had seen Chris' game lines and wrote to me to point out TangoTiger's page on pitch estimators (warning: for my less math-oriented readers, you probably don't want to go there), which I had forgotten about. TangoTiger's basic pitch count estimator (he has another, more involved one I don't have the data at my fingertips to apply) estimates Busby would have thrown 203 pitches in that Trail of Tears. So it's about as likely as not that McKeon left Busby in a 1975 game to throw 200 pitches.
Now Baseball Graphs Dave hasn't gotten anything out of this yet, unlike Chris and (especially) me. Let's hope he does. Maybe he gets to work for one of those abnormal (that is, healthy) organizations that will invest in training now to get continual small (or bigger) returns in the future.
Monday, November 17, 2003
In Saturday's entry on McKeon (below, on this page), I mentioned McKeon's first major league managing stint and his immolation of the franchise's best pitcher, saying: James claims he had Busby throw over 200 pitches in a game, but I think it may be hyperbole
I had spent some time trying to find the game James had been talking about, but failed. Thanks to Chris Hand, who kindly sent me the info, I can share what McKeon did in his demented and dissolute Manager-youth. His note, snipped only at the end, reads as follows:
Thanks to the kind folk at Retrosheet:
Kansas City Royals IP H HR R ER BB K BFP
Busby 11 13 0 2 2 1 8 47
Using a conservative 3 pitches per batter, it comes out at 141, going up to 4/batter, 188. Not a stretch to think that it could've been 200+ pitches.
Kansas City Royals IP H HR R ER BB K BFP
Busby W(14-9) 9 8 0 2 1 7 8 43
While Busby faced 4 less batters that in the game of 5/25, those 7 walks would raise a red flag for me, the minimum amount of pitches needed to get through this game is, 28+24+28=80. If Busby averaged 4 pitches for each hit or out (112), adding the minimum of 52 pitches needed to walk or K everybody else comes to 164. Again, not a stretch to think it could've gone over 200.
Kansas City Royals IP H HR R ER BB K BFP
Busby W(15-15) 9 10 0 2 1 3 6 40
I like your blog, keep up the good work, but when the research is readily
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Chris added his leger-de-hand calculating possible pitch counts and I'm thinking his thinking was solid, except while I'm convinced that Busby might have thrown 200 pitches in any of those games, I'm not confident he actually did. I saw Busby pitch when his arm was sound and post-McKeon effects when it was a floppy tube of steak tartare. While he was not a Rick Reuschel kind of pitcher (here's a first pitch low in the strike zone for a strike...hit it and my infield will take care of it), he threw that way to some hitters all the time, and that lowers average pitch counts per batter. When Hand says about the first game "not a stretch to think it could have been 200+ pitches," he's right, but it's not a stretch to think it wasn't, either. (and regardless, an inexcusable application of a pitcher, even one you hated and might never need again). His one walk in 11 innings suggests his control was good that day (or the ump liked what he was throwing and calling strikes), and that would tend to reduce his pitch count because walks tend to be longer at-bats and once batters realize the pitches you're throwing are called mostly strikes, they don't wait deep in counts lightly and are more likely to swing early. And eight strikeouts in 11 innings is not extremely high (strikeouts are also more pitch-intensive than other plate appearances).
I think there's a stronger case for that second game having a shot at 200 pitches. As Hand notes, seven walks (again, it's not just the walks but the signal to the hitters they don't have to swing on marginal pitches as much in some situations).
Thanks, Chris Hand. And, of course, this let's me point out again what a wonderful resource Retrosheet and its amazing, generous honcho, Dave Smith, are. Anyway, McKeon did, apparently, learn something from his abuse of Busby (now nicely documented).
I normally don't go off-topic, but Chris Hand's address reminded me of one of my favorite movies about management. I recommend it if you haven't seen it: David Mamet's Heist w/Gene Hackman, Delroy Lindo, and the usual supporting cast of any Mamet movie. It was shot in Montréal (at least some crucial early scenes). It's the finest thesis on contingency planning ever made and an entertaining two hours, too. The Hackman character would be an awesome baseball manager or project director. And because there was another film being made in Montréal at around the same time, The Score, Mamet inserted two visual puns in Heist that pointed back at The Score (an unremarkable movie, btw, except for the three male lead performances and Angela Bassett looking great as always, but not given much to work with).
If you're in a job where you always need a Plan B to go with your Plan A, check out Heist.
Saturday, November 15, 2003
Here's the next installment of going through the 2003 management awards baseball gives out and discussing what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved?
The N.L. Manager of the Year was 72 year-old "Trader Jack" McKeon (who led the promising-but-no-one-but-Don-Malcolm-picked-'em 2003 Florida Marlins to a wild card berth and marched them to the World Series. He inherited the 16-22 (.421) from Jeff Torborg and under his skippership, they turned it around (75-49, .605). This has been his pattern in managing 13 seasons: three of his best four performances came when he was inheriting a sub-.500 team mid season. He did that with the 1988 Padres and the 1997 Reds as well as this year.
His success comes, I believe from one direct and one indirect result of his advanced age.
The direct result is experience. McKeon has been a manager who appears to get better with experience. This is common-sensical in the general case, but frequently untrue. In Bill James' book on managers, there's only one index entry for McKeon, and that's a disparaging one about him in his first managerial stint in 1973-75 with the Royals. James correctly dings him for burning out the arm of the most promising starter the franchise had ever had, Steve Busby (only pitcher in ML history to throw no-hitters in each of his first two seasons), by overusing him. James claims he had Busby throw over 200 pitches in a game, but I think it may be hyperbole. James also cites McKeon's decision to use aging, never-could-hit-very-well Paul Schaal at third base and let a young George Brett fester, waiting for a chance to play.In his first managing gig, McKeon was just not as good as the average manager. But he learned early-on (and in later jobs) lessons he accumulated and later applied.
Last week I wrote about Paul Richards and using your predecessor as a Counter-Disciple, basically tracking everything he did wrong and tracking everything he did that didn't work out and trying to find a new, different approach. McKeon wasn't just a counter-disciple to managers he'd played for, he was a counter-disciple to himself. Relative to other managers, he understood the cost of blowing out young pitchers' arms and he understood that the young guy on the bench who's unproven might turn out to provide star moments or even a star career. So when Marlin manager Jeff Torborg, notorious in sabermetric circles for using pitchers, even young ones, heavily and without a strong belief in pitch count limits, was fired, McKeon, with ties to the organization, was an obvious counter-example.
The indirect result is Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). When you're 72 years old, you have two choices. To go gentle into that good night game, or to act as though every day, every game, every inning, might be the last you ever get to be out there. I believe this is McKeon's fuel and that it has sharpened his focus and intensity. And once his team made the playoffs, his approach was a bigger advantage, because in the playoffs, virtually every out is a big honking deal. Other managers who are excellent at sustaining excellence over the long haul, Earl Weaver included, become mortal in short series because their strength, managing for the long-haul, loses most of it's comparative advantage.
During the season, it meant McKeon was aggressively experimental with talent and with moving players around. The franchise suspected young Miguel Cabrera would be a fine long-term contributor, but McKeon reacted to injuries by using Cabrera aggressively (learning from his underuse of Brett). Cabrera was a wonderful injury replacement, and proved to be a valuable clean-up hitter in the playoffs.
It appeared that not only was he not afraid of being second-guessed (who worries about being fired when they're financially adequate and seven years past the age of retirement?), he relished it. His aggression bubbled up like a violently-shaken 2-liter bottle of Tahoma Glacier Water Lemon Zest. Like Edmond O'Brien's character in the movie D.O.A., he's got limited time, serious work to do and must get it all done before the egg-timer of infinite doom clangs. A man on a mission with little to lose, and eternal baseball glory to win. [insert more platitudes here].
So when the Marlins entered Game 6 of the Series needing to win only one of them, he threw Josh Beckett on three days rest. Personally, I had thought he was full of crap on this subject, because like Weaver, I believe in playing the percentages mostly, and that over time, that has the highest return. And if whoever he put out there didn't win game six, he could use a normally-rested Beckett in Game 7. But McKeon didn't give a bat's lash about percentages. He didn't want to play a game 7 against the Yankees, he thought Beckett looked relatively ready to go and better than any other starter he could throw that day, and he focused on the short-term, realizing if Beckett's arm was extra-sore as a result, he'd have at least twelve weeks to recover. This last point takes great managerial strength, because while learning the Busby lesson had to have been hard, most managers become knee-jerk in response to getting burned. That is, he first had to understand that abusing young pitchers is a bad idea, and then he had to learn that sometimes you can abuse a young pitcher's arm in a specific situation where the environment dictates the benefit/cost is pretty high. Very evolved, and it surprised me.
Outside of baseball, there are two bucket-categories of management approach: managing to avoid risk (that is, it's better to do nothing than to make a mistake) and seek opportunity (it's better to makes some mistakes than to miss opportunities). Inside baseball, the risk-averse types are not very observable; they don't last very long in most environments, especially if there's any change going on. Outside of baseball, management is dominated by the risk-averse type for reasons too long to detail in today's entry, but in a phrase, "the Dictatorship of Finance".
Baseball brings into crystal-clear focus the inevitable comparative disadvantage over time of risk-aversion compared to opportunity-seeking in organizational management. If you doubt me, consider Jack McKeon's career and his 2003 N.L. Manager of the Year honors.
Friday, November 14, 2003
Here's the next installment of going through the 2003 management awards baseball gives out and discussing what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved.
The A.L. Manager of the Year was Tony Peña, an former catcher for the Pirates during his lively heyday and five other teams afterwards. He had a swell, long career that most people won't remember, but he made a point of being different. The following may seem off-topic, but I'll reel it back in. His crouch, for example, was like a comfortable dog position, legs splayed, knees forward. The advantage any catcher would have in that position is bad pitches right at you can't get through you. The disadvantages are (1) bad pitches to either side (less frequent) are very hard to get to, and (2) it's hard to get off a good throw to try to beat a would-be base-stealer. Pena, though, figured out a way to be laterally mobile, and his gun was so strong, even sitting down he had a very good delivery down to second. His baserunning was unusual, too, with a lot of decoy moves. He was a funky trickster with some skill.
I think that's what earned him the award for his management of the 2003 Kansas City Royals.
Tony Peña inherited the weak-start 2002 Royals at 13-23, and the rest of the season for him they went 49-77, the same winning percentage as before he started, limping along under him like Droopy Dog. More than anything else, the rookie manager wanted to fix that one thing he knew he couldn't change once the season started. He reacted to that experience and addressed it forcefully. According to todays' Kansas City Star (tedious, offensive registration required) he started stoking the fires in spring training. Teams generally benefit most in spring training by letting everyone play, letting them warm up to the season slowly, work different players in different situation and experiment a little with players you don't know too well to see what they can do.
The 2002 Royals season was basically like that (as the 2003 Detroit Tigers season was, too). So Peña had already racked up that experimentation. He mostly ignored the by-the-book application of Spring Training, and convinced his team to play to win every game. For many teams this would be wasting opportunity, but Peña wanted his players to be confident and charged up, which they hadn't been when he inherited them.. It is a funky trick, because the standard operating procedure of other teams (it's not the win or loss, it's the training) played right into his confidence-building team. After all, it's easier to win when your own team is playing to win and your opponent isn't.
Peña kept fueling this approach with incessant optimism, cajoling, reinforcing, back-patting-fu, shoulder-patting-fu, positive thinking. They went 9-0 to open the season and 16-3 through 19 games according to the Star story. And this process feeds on itself, as y'all already know. Add in the fact that his optimism had him using all his players, letting no one sit too long, and that meant when the team had injuries, he had players who'd racked up at least some playing time before they were thrown in as injury replacements. And it's easier to be optimistic when you're getting to play.
Outside His Control
He had some advantages that were factors outside his control. They play in Kauffman Stadium, a park that has changed as an environment since the fences were tweaked two seasons ago. After years of being an offense-neutral park, it's become a real hitter's park, producing about 17% more runs than average when you factor in teams' home and road performances. Visiting teams didn't seem to adapt to this change as readily, favoring the home team a little. Moreover, the home team in Kansas City was built on a lot of speed and aggresive play, and this kind of park rewards that more than most offenses. The Peña exuberance was rewarded by the park, and he used it to help his teams win games.
He had a young team, too. Because incessant optimism only really contributes when you're winning, over time, this style of management wears out in most environments with ups and downs. Older players have a more jaded cognitive setting; they've seen this approach succeed and fail. Younger players havn't learned its limits yet.
Overall, I'm nor sure Peña is a great manager, but he deserves credit for a wonderful year of managing this season. If he can adjust himself, as all managers must, to changing conditions (a veteran team, a plate-discipline-and-power team, a team that plays in a pitcher's park) he'll prove himself a star.
Beyond baseball, managers have to master this, too. Personnel changes, budgets change, strategy changes, technology changes, customers evolve. About 85% of American managers will never be good, except through luck or a cozy position. About 10% can succeed in a gig that plays to their strength (the way the 2003 Royals did to Peña's). Only 5% can repeat success in multiple environments. Earl Weaver could. Sparky Anderson (crud, I hate to admit this) could, Dick Williams could. Dusty Baker just did. And that's the trick of change (Home Plate in the MBB Model), the highest, rarest management accomplishment of all.
Thursday, November 13, 2003
I thought I might go through the management awards baseball gives out and discuss what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved.
This year's recently announced "Executive of the Year" is Brian Sabean, GM of the San Francisco Giants (link thanks to Baseball Primer). A good, belated pick for a guy who's head of a team of front-office types who have built a remarkably persistent winner. Belated because his most marked accomplishments were made several years back when he was one of the first to adapt effectively to a changing labor pricing model. His task was particularly challenging (that is, trying out a new model where success was strongly expected) because:
- The Gigantes financed their stadium differently from the generic public-funding deal,
- The team's payroll is disproportionately weighted to one (transcendent) super-star
- The division they play in has no super teams, nor super-terrible teams, creating a gravitational field that makes ownerships strive for competitive adequacy instead of big-winners (because you can win the div with 92, why spend-up to build a 100-win team?
- The local press is particularly nasty, competing in the blood-sport competition of questioning/trashing every move.
In his first year, he traded Matt Williams, arguably the Giants most popular and second-best player for salary and balance reasons. He was reviled, but the team he inherited won 68 games and was buried in last place, and after his moves won the division with 90 victories.
According to John Shea's SF Chronicle article I linked to above: Still, 2003 presented a massive challenge for Sabean, who overhauled a team that lost a manager, ace pitcher, closer and four everyday players and still won 100 games. Quite a rebuild to accomplish.
He succeeds by applying a model he apparently invented as a response to the labor market shift that started occurring in the two years before he got the job. It's shopping for underpriced talent not on the Oakland As statistical model, but based on putting together pieces that are both underpriced and that fit together in complementary ways. He's more willing than most to churn guys, especially in the rotation and outfield where he'll get a player who's underpriced for a year or two and then let him sign elsewhere. And the front office is willing to roll in young players from the farm system. They kind of have to do this more than most teams to cover Bonds' prodigious salary. And he's been doing this with consistency decent-to-very-good results.
You can see a flipbook of Giants rosters by going to the 1997 Giants page on Baseball-Reference.com and advance it a year at a time by finding the (Franchise Index: 1996 / 1998) bar near the top of the page and advance a year at a time. To see the transactions the Giants made each year, there's a transactions link near the bottom of the page.
In his offense (things he may not have done as well), he's had a manager (Dusty Baker until this year) who has been popular with his players and seems to be good getting performances out of guys who were lesser elsewhere, and some of the credit of the plan's success has to go to field management. Ownership has defended him in the bloodsport press, and that's made his job a little less of a challenge.
I think he built his plan before he got the job -- by tracking what big shifts were occurring that he might exploit if and when he got a GM position, a classic strategic technique I recommend to all prospective managers outside baseball.
One other thing worth emulating that he does well: He shares credit with his whole workgroup. Again from the Shea article: "The sweet part is, it's a just reward for the whole organization, from ownership on down," said Sabean, who gave thanks to, among others, Ned Colletti (assistant GM), Dick Tidrow (vice president, player personnel), Ted Uhlaender (special assistant, player personnel) and Pat Dobson (advance scout).
There are at least two good anModel), one in people management (Second Base in the MBB Model), for managers outside baseball.
Tuesday, November 11, 2003
It's only the
Big Inning, It's only just the start...
-- Chicago Transit Authority
One of the things I most often try to counsel managers to take seriously is the importance of the first three weeks on a new job. The press gives the President of the U.S. an imaginary "100 days", but just as the Prez' paycheck and perks and personal security are a lot higher than yours, his 100 days is a period you'll never be given.
Paul Richards is one of baseball's management giants with a lot of lessons for managers of non-baseball organizations (see Lessons From Paul Richards Part I, October 31, for more details on his career if you're not familiar with him). Richards understood quite a few things that new managers will find worth copying.
1. One of the strongest
instant-hero things you can do on a new gig is to spot a key
mistake of omission your predecesssor made and then fix it.
Sometimes you see these yourself, especially if you've been working within a department you're now managing. But every manager has blind spots or relative-weaknesses. If you don't see anything right out of the box, start looking. The shortcoming might have been budgetary, or human interface, or operational foresight. I always encourage clients to have private one-on-one sessions with every staffer below them in a hierarchy, every peer-manager whose department touches on your new group and ask what hasn't been working, or what could make a difference if we could just do it. Line staff, especially, have a parade of unmined insights that improve operational effectiveness, and not only will they generally be happy you made thier vision come true, when you share credit publically with them, you've won the chance to have many others step forward and offer up their insights, too.
It's important not to trash your predecessor in this process (politically bad because if you prove to be better than someone you've already convinced everyone was a "2", all it means is you're a "3").
2. You can be what Richards
called a "Counter-Disciple" & use bad managers from
your past to help, too.
Richards told leading baseball writer Leonard Koppett he had learned more from the mistakes made by managers he had played for than from their good points. Koppett explained Richards kept a notebook of good and bad things managers he played for did. By concentrating on what not to do, he told Koppett, he evolved theories of what might work. He called this being a Counter-Disciple. Obviously,m those of you who have worked for a lot of boneheads are at an advantage here.
3. When you're starting, don't
hold back on asking for what you want.
As I mentioned in the October 31 entry, Richards went to a stingy ownership that wanted to win and he (budgetarily) asked for the moon. It shocked them into rethinking their whole approach, a revolution they wouldn't have had if he had been working within their old model. And this is important...you may want, down the road, to work in the old model, and if you don't trash it to executive management, you can go back if it works out it was better. But if you stick with the old model, and you want to change it, it'll be a much harder fight later on, one you probably can't win.
4. Experiment aggressively early
and and observe results rigorously.
When Richards inherited his first management gig, the 1951 Chicago White Sox, he stimulated one of the most aggressive set of changes ever. The team released aging hall-o-famer Luke Appling, drafted four veterans from other teams, and traded two of their best-known pitchers. And that was just December. During the season, he moved 13 players through trades or sales, all in an effort to get the recipe he thought he needed. He brought up minor leaguers and gave them a serious chance to prove themselves, something few managers in baseball do, and fewer outside the game have the guts to try..
I'm not suggesting here you need wholesale staff turnover. The Richards moves I discussed here were a real-life metaphor for the kinds of changes you should be prepared to try. Baseball is, to an overwhelming degree, the talent on the roster. Outside of baseball, the people you have are still the most importnat asset you'll manage, but in early changes you'll want to see how much you can get out of what's on your roster and how you can tune your processes to optimise their value before you start firing and hiring. But his aggressive experimentation with young talent does translate well. The people who have most torque to add (in any organization) are the ones being currently least-used effectively...that's just simple logic. Every organization has staff being underused, you you can get a quick productiivty hit unleashing any underused talents they have once you talk with the employees and find out what they are.
Early experimentation with processes and operational designs and patterns and staff deployment will yield a lot, especially if you are open with your staff and enlist their help and make them more optimistic about the future than they are comfortable with the status quo.
Of course, Richards never stopped experimenting...that was his hallmark. When he insisted on (and got) both the general manager and manager jobs in Baltimore in 1954, he immediately pulled off the most populous two-team deal in major league hsitory: a 17-man swap with the Yankees. But with Richards, it was about more than personnel. It was techniques, equipment, stretching the rules (he was sort of a Bobby Valentine in that regard, and was probably responsible for inventing the fake injury near the end of the season that would allow a team to carry an extra roster spot late in a season).
TIP: You'll never be able to have as friction-free an opportunity to mold your surroundings to your strengths and contribute to an organization as when you start your management position. Make the most of it; think and act like Paul Richards.
Monday, November 10, 2003
Because most people are uncomfortable with change and because most people with healthy egos like (or need) to believe in themselves and their ways-of-being and personal value, it's hard to escape a level of nostalgia for one's own past that distorts one's view of the present. In all organizations, there's a tendency to look back and produce "memories" that don't match the historical reality well. And so when these nostalgic Bitgods (Back in the good old days guys) compare the past to the present, the present always comes out much weaker in contrast. Ironically, this is almost the same impulse that believes without evidence that things are always getting better...whatever it is now, the concept of progress assures us it's better now. They're identical simplistic concepts, but reversed, like the negative of a photo.
The Bitgod mentality in baseball is a wonderful example of the tendency in general. In part, it's because there are statistics to disprove myths, making the Bitgod assertions more clearly absurd. And in part, it's because baseball playing careers, even successful ones, have a much shorter lifespan than described-as-successful government, academic or corporate careers (that is, you can yack about Carlton Fisk's or Nolan Ryan's longevity, but just compare that to Strom Thurmond's or The Pope's or Jack Welch's). As a result, retired players have a long time to be active Bitgods as commentators on radio and television.
Joe Morgan, an extraordinary second baseman of the 60s and 70s is now a television and ESPN commentator, and this week on ESPN's site he wrote a gargantuan piece of Bitgodliness called MLB talent too diluted. Here's the distilled essence of his Bitgodawful argument:
After a fantastic season, baseball's postseason came down to the final four teams -- the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs (in the NLCS) and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (in the ALCS). But while these were supposedly the four best teams in Major League Baseball, each team had glaring weaknesses.
I never thought I'd need to say this, but I believe the reason is that there isn't enough talent to go around MLB today. There aren't enough bona-fide major-leaguers available to fill every major-league roster.
Was there a team this season that you'd compare to the great teams of the past?
With the decline of the Yankees' most recent dynasty -- if you can call reaching six of the past eight World Series a decline -- MLB has lots of good teams with weaknesses but no great teams. It looks like we're in an era of greater parity. Was there a team this season that you'd compare to the great teams of the past? You'd have to combine two of these final four teams to field a great team.
MLB has seriously considered contracting franchises in recent years, and contraction would solve part of the problem (although it would create other problems). Too many No. 5 starters are weak, and too many position players -- five or more per roster -- are basically minor-league players. The bottom line is that there are too many teams today for the amount of talent that's available year in and year out.
MLB's best players are still as good as ever. But the talent toward the bottom of each roster is lacking, in my opinion.
Ignore for now Morgan's plaint that there is too much competition ("greater parity"). Ignore the fact that the great teams he played on (The Big Red Machine teams of the early 70s) were not balanced teams but had only C or C+ starting pitching most of their great years.Let's take a quick statistical look at the probabilities that rosters are weaker than their counterparts of Days Gone Bye. In 1940, there were 16 teams, in 1970 there were 24 teams, and in 2000 there were 30 teams.
In 1940, the U.S. population of white people from which baseballists might be drawn (you have to exclude people who were called "colored" in that year's census since baseball didn't allow them to play in the Majors then) and add Mexico, you get 138 million (MM) people, and amortized over 16 teams meant each major league team's "share" was 8.6MM people.
In 1970, baseball was integrated, allowing men of any color to play (though excluding women), and the U.S. population with Mexico and Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic thrown in was about 261 MM, and amortized over 24 teams meant each major league team's "share" was 10.9MM people (about 25% more people to choose from per team).
In 2000, drawing from those same nations (and ignoring the dozen other countries which now send players to the Majors but which didn't back in 1970 or 1940) provides a base population of 393.9 MM, and amortized over 30 teams meant each team's "share" was 13.1MM people (about 20% more pool per team than in 1970, and over 50% more per team than in 1940).
Unless nutrition and training regimes and training tools and equipment have decayed since 1970, it's mathematically improbable that you could increase the range of choice by 20% and have lower performance "toward the bottom of each roster". I don't believe any of those have decayed with the possible exception of nutrition among certain sectors of the baseball-playing world's population.
Think of any endeavor you know well. Little league teams - increase the pool of available kids by 20%, the likelihood is you'll be a little better, but it's almost impossible the best roster you can pull from the bigger pool will be weaker. Bank loan rates - increase the number of estimates you get by 20%, it's likely you'll find better terms, and it's almost impossible that it'll make terms worse. Army recruiting - raise pay and benefits to get 20% more applicants, the likelihood is you'll be able to fill out your requirement with a little higher quality of recruit, but it's almost impossible the best selections you can pull from the pool will be worse.
Does anyone really believe the 4th outfielders, utility infielders, back-up catchers and long relievers of today's major league rosters are any worse than their peers in 1970 or earlier? Morgan's point defies probabilities in a such gargantuan way that it becomes a glaring spotlight on the natural foolishness of Bitgod missives in, and outside of, baseball.
You see The Bitgod Fallacy at work sometimes. You see executive teams that grew up together or grew older together freezing the strategy or processes or compensation for the rank-and-file or simply their cultural assumptions, drifting into ineffectiveness by the process of change in their environment but resisting internal changes that might (or might not...they don't assess, they just resist) start to turn things around for the organization.
Bitgods in baseball are no more Bitgodawful than those outside baseball. They're just more obvious. And not as well-compensated.
Sunday, November 09, 2003
Saturday, November 08, 2003
It doesnt happen very frequently in big organizations (its one of the competitive advantages of smaller organizations), but frequently the difference between being mediocre and being on top of the world is just one thing, just one process, just one employee, just one piece of equipment. In project management, they call the single factor holding you back from optimal progress a constraint. I like that term, but I prefer a different one, more in tune with my more evolutionary-anthropology view of organization behavior: Limiting factor. The limiting factor (theres always one) is the single ingredient that, at this moment, that limits the effectiveness of an individual organism or limits the size of a population. Unblock the current limiting factor, you get a different one; it may be less significant, it may allow you more success before it limits you, but there is always <i>some</i> factor that is the limiting factor.
In baseball, its more obvious when theres a single human whos the limiting factor, although its no more frequent than it is in any other 40-person shop. Its more obvious because events/actions/wins-&-losses are much clearer, outcomes more frequent and definitive. Each game is a sub-total line, a daily performance summary. That clarity is a nifty beacon for non-baseball organizations guidance.
The Phillies just traded for Billy Wagner, the 3rd or 4th best reliever in the majors last year, according to numbers Keith Wolverton puts together for Baseball Prospectus. They are tabling their own marquee-nightmare, the infinitely implosive José Mesa. (You remember as a teenager reading those Stranger than Fiction books with weird stories where people would be walking down the street minding their own business and suddenly burst into flames and be reduced in a matter of seconds into a small pile of malodorous ash? Mesa managed to do that not once, but again and again, game after game, season after season).
Before I detail some differences (big enough you could fishtail an Abrams Tank through) in the two relievers, let me set some context to why the difference is important.
An Organization With A Single Big Weakness
The Phils had the third best offense in the National League last year according to numbers put together by Baseball Prospectus Clay Davenport. Their relief staff, even with the falling-off-the-table Mesa, ranked 6th of 16 NL teams, pleasantly above-average. Their starting staff was 10th of 16 NL teams, basically average/not-quite-average. Given that high offense and average pitching, they went 86-76, although given the number of runs they scored and allowed, they would have been expected to go 91-71, which would have garnered them a trip to the playoffs.
The way closers are used (theres a great and interesting debate about the standardized rigid use of closers, a model devised by Tony LaRussa in the 1980s, and this article wont take sides in whether its a good model or a bad one for most teams merely acknowledge it exists), they almost always pitch in games the team has a chance to win but hasnt locked up yet. That is, overwhelmingly games in which their performance has a strong chance to make a difference between winning and losing.
This year, when Mesa pitched, the composite average hitter facing him produced .295/.375/.445 (thats batting average/on-base/slugging), about like Bernie Williams, but a little better. I like to phrase that as an analogy like this: Mesa turns opponents into Bernie Williams. It gives a clear picture to a listener who knows something about players and their accomplishments.
This year, when Wagner pitched the average hitting performance against him produced .170/.235/.265, about the batting ability of John Smoltz, a better-than-average-hitting pitcher.
So at key moments in games, Mesa turns opponents hitting into middle-of-the-lineup sluggers for a contending team, and Wagner turns opponents hitting into that of a better-than-average hitting pitcher.
Because the at-bats closers tend to pitch are highly leveraged, its not hard to imagine Wagner helping the Phils shave off a third of the difference between his blown saves and the Phillies blown saves, and that would have bought them 5 extra wins. Since the only player from their major league roster the Phils gave up to get Wagner was a little-below-average starter for them, its easy (oversimplification, really) to swap out one performance and swap in the other and imagine the Phils winning more games than the Marlins. But the probability is, they would have had everyone other Phillie performed as they did.
For the Phils, They came into the off-season with an obvious, larger than David Wells appetite, constraint, and before the World Series was even out of the rear-view mirror, they attacked it in the strongest and most purposeful manner, acquiring the employee who probably will not just erase that weakness but turn it into a strength.
In big organizations outside of baseball, as I said, most limiting factors are not so obvious as a single important person who is so clearly net-negative, but it happens, and its not always a person. Have you ever worked for an organization that was able to overcome internal politics and the programmed fear of the H.R. department and just let a human wind-drag. Or tear out some putrid network infrastructure that was built for the convenience of IT and to the detriment of every end user?
Most big organizations are struggling with multiple limits, but dont allow yourself to be paralysed because its a lot of tricky work. Most managers arent good at attacking multiple problems systemically, and if youre part of the majority, dont worry. Think one step at a time and start somewhere. I suggest you think like Phillies G.M. Ed Wade, and attack the most obvious limiting factor, address it aggressively, and then see what that does to the overall system youre running. Analyze the new, revised system, find the limiting factor and when youre sure what it is, attack that next.
In management, as in biology, theres always a limiting factor, theres no final rest. But take heart .if hes on your roster, you can deep-six José Mesa think of what itll do for team morale.
Thursday, November 06, 2003
You win pennants in March -- Earl Weaver
The most important decisions any organization makes are those around personnel; who to hire, how to build teams from them, who to invest in and how and who to let go.
With all the lush "free agent" choices available in the Permafrost Economy's unprecedented unemployment numbers, providing an infinite smorgy of options and fire-sale prices, you'd think organizations would make deeper investments in tools and time to hire the exact right people. And while some do, most seem to be in a panic, overwhelmed by the range and depth of choices, frozen in indecision, even complaining. One of the more common, and existentially laughable stories that has been appearing in the business press has been corporations complaining about getting too many resumes for positions, how much it's costing them to process. Which is like a guy winning a Powerball lottery and complaining about his taxes.
A lot of the complain comes because most H.R. departments are devoid of real tools to help them analyse overall organizations needs, departmental needs and ways of thinking about how to blend the "recipe" that makes for success. Of course a limiting factor in most organizations is that they don't do a good job of measuring the abilities, aptitude & output of the people they already have, so they don't know what they really need and how best to blend newcomers with incumbents. Baseball to the rescue again.
Baseball front offices use many tools. Succession charts, scouting evaluations, statistics. Some teams really do little with this. The late 1970s San Diego Padres had a very primitive view of how to apply their tools. They just tried to buy a recognizable name at each position, kind of like the organizations that hire based on resumes. The Padres failed miserably, not just because the recruiting was based on apparent credentials (as opposed to accomplishments), but it ignored the whole recipe (balanced blend) component of team-building.
One of the tools that has become popular among baseball sabermetricians is the positional analysis. It's a tool that if filled-in properly and then thought about properly, and then applied skillfully, helps a team figure out what it has and what it needs. Various annual volumes will present one for each team. The format has become widespread, but just using the template doesn't guarantee wisdom.
One serious and thoughtful application of a positional analysis is on Jeff Williams' blog, The Wrigleyville Giant. As a Giants fan, he's only looking at that team's existing personnel and potential acquisitions for fit with their current resources. So far, he's done only the outfield, but he lays out his thinking clearly and in the right level of detail, perfect for the task at hand. Here's one player's worth as an example (but got to his site & look at the whole outfield product, the way he makes it fit together contextually):
Jose Cruz, Jr. RF - $4 million mutual option, $300k buyout
304/405/519 vs LH
233/353/379 vs RH
272/346/467 vs LH
252/335/462 vs RH
Good luck in your future endeavors, Mr. Cruz.
After his great display of poor clutch hitting and disastrously bad defense in the NLDS, its easy to say that Cruz should not be brought back. The fact is, it would have been hard to justify putting Cruz in RF next year even before the playoffs began. The 2003 postseason aside, Cruz is a very good defender in RF. Unfortunately, he doesnt bring enough with his bat to justify sticking him in a corner outfield spot. While Cruz does take a lot of walks, he has shown over the course of his career that he doesnt hit for a high enough average, keeping him from being the OBP machine Id like to see. That combined with his mediocre power numbers are enough to keep from bringing him back next season. In no way is Cruz worth $4 million.
Williams' intelligent approach is one almost any organization would benefit from. Look at the way he boils down all-possible-data into a compact set of information, both textual and numeric, balancing accomplishments and salary and potential. At the way he organizes keepers, possible keepers, and then moves on to possible acquisitions and analyses their "match" to what's already on the roster. (I'm hoping he'll have time to maintain his weblog; apparently a day job is getting in the way).
I wish every H.R. department and every hiring manager would get half of Williams' insight. Can you imagine tweaking positional analysis for your own hiring/retention/team-building decisions?
Tuesday, November 04, 2003
The 2003 Houston Astros had an excellent bullpen and a 50th percentile starting rotation. They announced yesterday they had traded their consistently strong (7-of-8 seasons) closer, Billy "Der Meistersinger" Wagner, top the Phils for a promising but he's-been-ordinary starter, Brandon "Eiderdown" Duckworth and a couple of prospects. Oh yeah, as a side-product, they traded Wagner's $8 MM salary for Duckworth's $325K. Duckworth's 2003 would have fit into the Astros' starting rotation last year, but wouldn't really have improved it by replacing a lesser starter's innings with superior performance.
Wagner believes he was traded because Enron Field's team is in search of "competitiveness", not "excellence", or because he campaigned last season for the team to acquire another proven starter to support their pennant hopes, or both. I've written earlier entries where I talked about teams that aspire to competitiveness at the lowest price possible to achieve that state, where they can sustain a rational argument to the market (season-ticket buying fans, advertisers, acquirers of team logo souvenirs who hail from outside their immediate geographic territory) that they are trying to win it all.
The argument on Wagner's side, and it's a good one in my book is, you don't weaken your strength while not upgrading your weaknesses and expect to compete more effectively. The freed-up money might go towards acquiring better starting pitching or it might go to the owners' bottom line. The argument on management's side is that the benefit/cost ratio of winning, perhaps, 91 games a season could potentially be higher than the benefit/cost ratio of being assured of getting in the playoffs. That is, put a good-not-great product out there, and maybe you'll get lucky.
Wagner popped off to the Houston Chronicle's José de Jesus Ortíz about his perceptions, and it's worth reading. The story leads with a side-story, but a sad one...apparently Astro management never called Wagner to tell him he'd been traded or just to say adios to an employee who'd been with them his whole career. That's surprising on three counts: 1) it's easy to do, 2) The Enrons market themselves as a family-like organization that tries to acquire "character" players and this act, if true, is the opposite and would therefore create a reverse gravitational field that would tend to push players like that away from the team, and 3) A consistently-good closer is the rarest commodity in baseball and it would make re-acquiring him the future if they wanted to highly improbable.
What is Present Is Prologue
Too many organizations do this, choosing one of two extreme models for people who have "left to pursue other opportunities". They either make a big shmaltzfest out of it, or try to pretend the contributor never existed, sort of like sending him to Coventry.
If Wagner's position is right, the Enrons needed to cut payroll while still playing adequately enough. Many organizations market their layoffs as "downsizing" as "doing more with less". And in this Permafrost Economy (nice three-month exception...let's see how long this lasts...Christmas looks set up to be a bloodbath, but anything can happen) many organizations are looking for survival, not accomplishment, underinvesting in planning, strategy, R&D and other perceoved as non-essential efforts.
Sadly, I don't think in a competitive, struggling environment, organizations can't afford to strive for just-getting-by. The adminsitration is not going to achieve its aims in Iraq by trimming coalition deaths to two or three a day or just throwing money at the problem while trying to find an approach that works. Manufacturers are not going to create any long-term impetus for themselves and thrive when the Permafrost finally thaws by staking out a good-enough-to-work position with adequate-not-very-good products at a medium price.
If you strive for excellence you have a chance to achieve it. If you strive for adequacy, you have a chance to acheive it, but not much more (unless you're the 1987 Twins, or a small handful of other rare cases).
Philadelphia, already competitive, just gave up on their weakest link, Joe Table as their closer, and replaced him with Wagner, the most consistently-good closer in the National League. Will the Wagner get to perform in an October Ring Cycle?
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