Thursday, September 04, 2003

Offense is NOT Linear.
Neither is Anything You Manage.  

In baseball, most general managers building teams and managers deploying them understand that success depends less on the individual parts than it does on the way you put them together. Like a cooking recipe, you need balance and the right proportions. And occasionally, the effect of increasing or decreasing some ingredient just a little changes the results radically.

Baseball knows this, but most big organizations don't.

Most businesses plan in a linear way. To double output, double the shifts. To have twice as much marketing, double the budget. To save half on labor, lay off half the staff. Most linear planning is foolish. Double shifts reduce effectiveness of labor and equipment. Doubled marketing budgets move dollars to marginally less-effective uses. Laying off half the staff doesn't reduce half the overhead allocated to them. It's simplistic thinking that drives so many of these fools' errands.

Effects in life are rarely very linear. Here's a great example: The Seattle Mariners' offense this year.

The 1990s Ms were power-laden with scary sluggers like Griffey Junior, Jay Buhner and Alex Rodríguez, complemented by get-on-base and doubles hitters, such as Edgar Martínez. If you walk the on-base guys, the homer-hitters coming up can destroy you quickly, so you throw the on-base guys good pitches, so they hit better. Line-ups acquire, at some point, critical mass, a concentration of ability that when reached becomes an exhausting experience for the pitcher. There are no easy outs any more, and there are no little oases of respite in a line-up, or so few it doesn't matter anymore. The effect becomes greater than the sum of its component parts.

The Ms this year don't have a single scary slugger. They have a fantastic and dangerous hitter in Edgar Martínez, and another strong contributor with some pop in Bret Boone. And one mostly-super on-base guy in Ichiro Suzuki. Their other really good on-base guy, John Olerud, isn't performing this season, and since he occupies first base, a position almost every team relies on for key offensive contributions, that's near-fatal. One trade for an on-base guy, Jeff Cirillo, hasn't worked out as Cirillo has struggled at the plate. So after the three functioning pieces, that's where pitchers can stop being hyper-focused. The Ms offense has fallen below the event horizon (to mix metaphors). And this line-up has three pretty easy outs. So young pitchers relax against them and look better.

A sports-talk radio guy wrote about his a couple of days ago in the local paper. David Locke (I've never liked his radio material much but this was very insightful), makes only one big mistake...let me get it out of the way. He falsely asserts:

Baseball seamheads (read: stat geeks) love to talk about how the home run is overrated.

Not true. Stat geeks love the home run, and sometimes I think too much. BITGODs love small-ball, the steals and hit-and-run plays that (truly do) liven up the action, even though on average, they're counterproductive.

Now here's some of Locke's insightful stuff.

Mariners fans have been wondering how a team can be so brilliant for the first half of the season and then become downright average in the second half for two years in a row. Why are all five starting pitchers struggling at the same time? Furthermore, why does a team that never makes defensive mistakes all of sudden start making errors?

The answer is the style of play. The answer is small ball. The Mariners are mentally fried. When there isn't the big bopper in the middle of the lineup, or in the case of Boston, throughout the lineup, everyone must come through. Therefore, every player is grinding every night.

In San Francisco, the Giants know that Barry Bonds will carry the majority of the load and therefore the rest of the players can play within themselves. It is the same in Oakland when Miguel Tejada gets hot or in Philadelphia when Jim Thome is rolling. The Mariners are without that player.

Offense is not a linear function. As you build, at some point, the stress on the pitcher explodes him. As you diminish the number of components and different kinds of offense you throw at a pitcher, you simplify both his strategy and execution making it probabalistically more likely he'll cruise.

Systems in life are rarely linear. Breaking points (in baseball offense or factory output or office productivity or the use of agricultural chemicals or military bombing campaigns) are not very predictable based on composite stats or averages. They each have their own internal functions that mutate based on environmental factors. Because he understands this, David Locke would be a more successful strategist than a corporate hack like Don Rumsfield, who doesn't.

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