Sunday, September 14, 2003

Setting up Your Employees...And Yourself
for Failure  

When a project, or even just a key task, is on the line, it's important for any manager who wants to be at least mediocre to remember loyalty to someone's ego, even an important person's, comes in second to the project. Always. A manager who can't do that will never be good as long as he blows that choice.

In baseball, the way the game keeps statistics makes it easier to make the right choices. In baseball, the televised spotlight makes the failure to do it more public.

In today's (September 14) game between the Mariners and the Angels in Seattle, a textbook example of one of those spotlit decisions came and the manager, apparently, made a choice to protect an ego rather than add to his team's chances of winning. It was as vital a game as one could have played; the Mariners were a ½ game away from the wildcard lead...the chance to make it into the playoffs. It's late in the season, there aren't many games left and any game you can win you should be driving hard to capture. This is even more true because the M's have been stuttering offensively for weeks -- they are just not a very dangerous team at the moment.

The M's went into the bottom of the ninth behind one run and the Angels' Balrog of a reliever, Troy Percival on the mound to finish the game. Percival's very very tough on everyone, but especially the Ms. He throws as hard as anyone in the league and squints quizzically at the catcher, sending the hitter the message that his vision is impaired, making standing in against him about as scary as it gets.

The Mariners catch a little break, though. The inning starts like this:

-E Martinez walked.
-C Meyers ran for E Martinez.
-J Olerud struck out swinging, C Meyers stole second, C Meyers to third on throwing error by catcher T Gregorio.

The net batter due up is Mike Cameron, the team's gifted starting centerfielder. Cameron has been struggling lately (2-for-18 in the last week, 5-for-37 this month). The good news is he hit a homer in the 2nd inning against the Angels' young starter. But now the game is on the line. As the home team, the Ms only need to score one single run to send the game into extra innings. The best hope for that run is a speedy runner on 3rd base with just one out -- a hit will score him easily, but a decent fly ball will give him an opportunity to tag up and score, too, and all three of the Angels' outfielders in the game have sub-par throwing guns. The team needs a fly ball. So should the manager allow Cameron to hit?

A manager should at that point analyze past performance. Easier to do in baseball than most organizations because baseball keeps better records than most do. Here's what was available to the Mariners' manager as the inning started:

  Troy Percival pitching vs. Seattle Mariners
Opposing hitter AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Mike Cameron 9 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 .000 .000 .000 .000

Not so hot. In 9 at-bats, Cameron has no hits and has struck out 7 times. An easy out so far. Nine at bats is not a deep sample. With the game not on the line or in an exhibition contest, you'd let Cameron look at Percival. Cameron is also the Strikeout Guy, with 125 Ks so far in the season, so facing Percival is not something Cameron's has any hope for doing well at.

There aren't many bench options either. Some minor league guys and Mark McLemore. McLemore has had a very poor season. Over the last week, he's been 3-for-12 but walked three times, too, for a .400 on-base percentage, and for this at bat, the best thing is a hit or flyball, the next best is just getting on safely. McLemore, like Cameron, though, is hitless in his 9 at-bats against Percival. But he's struck out just once, meaning he's put 8 balls into play.

This is an easy management call in this situation. Choose the guy who gets on base more in general, and who puts the ball into play more often apparently. Nine at bats is not significant, but the divergence is so large between Cameron's and McLemore's abilities at that, you have to try. Cameron looks like God's Perfect Percival Bait. The Mariners' manager leaves Cameron in. Game over.

-M Cameron struck out looking.
-R Winn popped out to shortstop.
0 runs, 0 hits, 1 error
Anaheim 2, Seattle 1

The traditional baseball excuse for this would be "Cameron's the guy that got you this far, and he's your starter. You'd humiliate him if you took him out with the game on the line". Reality suggests Cameron's ego wasn't boosted by his failure against Percival, a failure he'll likely remember and stack up on his pile of past failures against the fireballer. It's psychologically less likely Cameron will succeed next time against Percival. It didn't help the team, either.

Outside of baseball, managerial passivity that allows a team member to crash and burn in a situation that management knew, or should have known, was one where the member's weaknesses were grossly exposed, is incomptence. Making sure you don't allow this to happen is not very difficult if you're paying attention and you observe, monitor and analyze your team's strengths and weaknesses.

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