Thursday, September 11, 2003

"Branding" is Swinging at Bad Pitches.
Controlling the Strike Zone is Positioning  

"Hitters who force pitchers to stay in the strike zone are productive, and
pitchers who take hitters out of the strike zone dominate" -- Billy Beane, G.M., Oakland As


Thanks to Peter Gammons' ESPN column from 9/8, we harvested some interesting observations about optimizing chances for strategic success. In baseball, it's controlling the strike zone, and that contains some powerful advice for non-baseball organizations. DePodesta-ism, the view of the A's resident sabermetrician elaborated in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, argues that on-base percentage is the key statistic and the way to achieve high OBA is to get additional walks and work pitchers deep into the count. This means a hitter (and a pitcher) need to control the strike zone to optimize the probability of success.

Detail from the Gammons column:

"Hitting is being taught today, better than ever before," Baird said. "Watch the approaches many hitters take today. They're taught to go deep in the count, to get the pitch they can handle, and more and more hitters have learned to not be afraid to hit with two out. The game is so much more aware of on-base percentage than years ago, it isn't funny. Look how well so many hitters can take the ball out over the plate and put it in play hard. Hitters now have video, they are schooled in pitch recognition and visual training, they are bigger and stronger and able to manipulate the bat better than ever. The bats are better, lighter, better-balanced, specifically made for individual hitters."

While the league on-base percentages don't show any real difference from 1989 to 1995 to 2003, it is clear to anyone who watches games that, as Beane says, "baseball has realized that one of the reasons Ted Williams was regarded as the greatest hitter of his time is that he realized all this. What we see today is the Williams-ization of baseball, and that's going to make a lot of good pitchers look mediocre.

"The game is all about control of the 17-inch triangle," Beane said. "Hitters and pitchers. A couple of years ago we broke down every pitch in our games, and we found that Jason Giambi and Edgar Martinez really only hit in half the strike area, never outside it. The great pitchers like Pedro Martinez and Tim Hudson dominate in the strike zone because they throw in it consistently early in counts, but they get hitters out out of the strike zone. Hitters who force pitchers to stay in the strike zone are productive, and pitchers who take hitters out of the strike zone dominate."

Just as this core baseball strategy leads to higher success probability, when you apply it in non-baseball organizations, especially businesses, it give you great davantages over competitors who don't follow it.

In baseball, the popular theory of hitting has been "See the Ball, Hit the Ball". This argues if you have a good view of the pitch and good eye-hand coordination, you can hit any hittable pitch. The business equivalent of that is the "Branding" cult. Branding argues that once you've established a brand and people know it and trust it (or even just know it), you extend it to new products and fields and it gives you momentum. It argues that you should swing at any hittable pitch (do whatever your organization can do that might be successful). Think AOL/Time/Warner or Enron.

DePodesta-ism argues you should not swing at every hittable pitch. It doesn't even argue you should swing at every strike. It argues you should swing at most every strike with which you can have a high probability of success if you make contact. And, of course, this is subtly different for every hitter. The non-baseball equivalent is Positioning. Positioning, best defined by authors Jack Trout and Al Ries in the eponymous book, argues you should go into every business you're capable of going into, making every marketing argument for your product you might make, but focusing to a few simple rules, stripping out the lower probability options and then delivering consistently and clearly on your core products, product lines or messages. Think BMW or Aaron Spelling or James Carville.

Out of baseball, the more different arguments you choose to make to close a customer, the more likely you'll find a place where you disagree. Ergo, Carville telling Clinton, "It's the edconomy, stupid". Clinton the wonk loved all the different policy pieces he might argue; if he argued enough different ones, he would find some areas of disagreement with every voter. But "the economy" was a single area important to a vast majority of voters, widely recognized as a melt-down. He could tell people what he wanted to say, and they would gladly listen to what they wanted to hear (a good match). He was controlling the strike zone, forcing his opponent to engage him in an area that he was naturally strong and his opponent incredibly feeble. Like Jason Giambi or Edgar Martinez, they made the opponent work in a zone they could hammer.

TIP: It's the positioning. Unless you're interested in setting new strikeout records, branding is a low-yield strategy.

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