Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Gentleman George Stallings' Epiphany:
Team-strengthening through Platooning  

Something dull and undermining happens to organizations when they get big enough to use job descriptions....they frequently use them by misusing them.

When managers build a department or project team, too often they pull people off piles as though it was a big construction project: "I need 17 carpenters, 2 finisher and a roach coach driver". That presumes every person is roughly identical, a commodity, and therefore interchangeable.

Non-baseball managers could get much higher performance out of their groups and project teams if they followed the lead Baseball has supplied. Consider job descriptions, but monitor all the individuals you manage to measure their strengths and weaknesses. Whenever you apply a person to a job, consider what they don't do excellently that they could use help with.

Finding someone to complement a team member is something managers outside of baseball should do more often than not. It’s not done normally, but it’s an easy innovation that requires only applying the knowledge of the team’s individuals, and keeping in mind which tasks are the most critical (so you can pull someone briefly from a less important task to temporarily partner her with the team member on a more critical task who needs a complement). Seem complicated? Consider how (and why) they do it in baseball, and how it started.

That finding a complementary partner in baseball is most frequently “platooning”: pairing two players who bat from different sides of the plate at a position. The first noteworthy success with this approach was made by manager Gentleman George Stallings of the 1914 Boston Braves, one of the things that led them to their name “The Miracle Braves”.

Stallings signed on to manage the Braves for the 1913 campaign. They were 69-82, and finished in 5th place. His best hitting outfielder, the aging and talkative Silent John Titus, retired at the end of the season, undermining an already below-average offense. Going nowhere fast, and without resources to simply acquire stars, it was the perfect environment to experiment. Stallings must have been carrying the mass-platooning idea in his breast pocket for a long time, but in 1914 he decided to platoon at each of his three outfield positions, according to Bill James. Most games, this meant resting a man against the pitcher who threw from his side (for example, resting a lefty hitter against a lefty pitcher, on the average avoiding a tougher match-up for his batter). It appears a couple of the early platoon partners (one, a 36 year old retread brought in apparently just for the experiment) didn’t work out well, but instead of giving up on the experiment, the team traded for a couple more potential platoon outfielders.

The 1914 Braves finished in 1st (94-59) as a result of several things, including improved offensive contribution from their outfield. They then tore through the dominant franchise of the time, the Philadelphia A’s in the World Series, taking four straight games.

According to James, the eccentric experiment combined with the out-of-the-blue (actually out of the blue and red, the Braves’ colors that year) miracle season almost revolutionized roster construction for the next 25 years – every manager had platooning with successful end results shoved in his face. Basically, James said, it became a given that teams platoon at one or more positions.

Eventually, there was push-back from two factors, one that would affect your ability to do this in non-baseball organizations, and the other, I believe, won’t.

First, there was the natural law of supply. Stallings had no competition for marginal players with one or two very positive aptitudes; competitors were looking for all-around talent. So Gentleman George was free to browse at his leisure through he remainder pile, looking for players who had specific skills that complemented the skills the players already on his roster had. But once others noted the utility of platooning, it was more like Filene’s basement — a lot of stock, most of it useless, but a surprising number of valuable things and a horde of aggressive people competing to get them. That’s a natural law of evolution, and there’s a discussion in depth on this topic in Chapter 14.

That’s not going to be a problem for non-baseball organizations.

Second, and this will be a problem, is resentment and personal insecurities. Platooned players want to play all the time. Early on when you do this, your staff, especially the ones getting help, will want to go it alone. They won’t want to be looked-upon as flawed or weak, and most won’t want to admit they need help at anything. Most organizations punish people for not being Barry Bonds, so you’ll have to overcome this with some politically-sensitive pilot projects and make a big fuss when they’re over to show publicly you respect the efforts of both the helper and the helped. One more thing; plan things whenever possible so the helped person is the helper next time — it eases ego problems and helps everyone on the team recognize that everyone is a contributor.

And when you platoon, keep in mind Earl Weaver’s approach. You don’t remove all challenges from a person, try to denude them of anything they haven’t had experience with or failed with once. You expose them to things they might learn to do well. Yankee manager Joe McCarthy’s use of star catcher Bill Dickey is a good example. Dickey hit left-handed, and like most lefties, hit right-handed pitchers better than left-handed ones. Bill James looked into the scoresheets and found Dickey started 82% of the games where the opponent’s starter was right-handed, but only 42% when the starter was left-handed. Dickey still got to see lefties, but his team (and his own stats) benefited from sitting out against many lefties.

Applying the complementary talents of your team players is a powerful competitive advantage. Baseball is quicker than most organizations to grab tricks like this, but if you choose to learn from Gentleman George, Earl Weaver and Joe McCarthy, you’ll have an edge because your competitors won’t have the good sense (or, let''s face it, the guts) to follow you.

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