Wednesday, October 01, 2003

MLB HQ Has a
Master of Change  

"You can never step on the same
home plate twice" -- Heraclitus

It's easy to laugh at many of the management moves that come out of the Commissioner's office. A lot of wacky gimmicks (like turning the idea of some interesting new rivalries and fixing asymmetrical schedules into a full-blown Interleague schedule), shortsightedness (like not having a contingency plan for what you would do if an All-Star game went into extra innings) or chronic mendacity (like lying about their finances).

But in the most challenging management area of all, change, they have an exec I consider a powerhouse, and some numbers have just come out that I believe again indicate this guy is doing a strong job. Sandy Alderson is executive v.p. of baseball operations for MLB with the kind of diverse background that gives a person perspective: Marine, Lawyer, team counsel, G.M. of the excellent Oakland As teams of the late 80s-early 90s.

Like a Marine, he seems to get the special assignments that seem intractable. The internal management structure of baseball had separate hierarchies for each league, a survival of the time when MLB was a confederation of the two leagues and not a single entity (he welded them together). The different league (and different umpire) strike zones. Games with average lengths that on rolling average kept getting a little longer every year when that was turning off casual and average fans. An umpire's guild that could dictate craft aspects of the game to both management and the players.

It's tough to be the midwife for change because every single assignment is different. I think Alderson knows how to analyze the end goal, his current position, and then formulate an operation that will get him from the latter to the former.

Change: Fast or Incremental

In yesterday's entry, I had quoted the Business Week economist who felt the changes forced by the internal tax restructuring of the league weren't working simply because in a slice of time close to the changed rules not all the stated objectives had met with equal success. I didn't argue they were all going to work, but most change takes time to become internalised, because investment behaviors, autonomic business decision behaviors, neurotic management and employee behaviors all have lags before they respond to new environments (and the environments are ever-changing

When it came to smashing the Umpire's guild (a move, btw, I had only minor sympathy for), it needed to be done quickly and decisively. Alderson found the achilles' heel, the ump's volatile and voluble head-man, and let him blunder into a box canyon from which he couldn't escape...a mass resignation of umpires MLB accepted. MLB was able to take back the umps they liked and dumped the rest (a few bad ones and a lot of good ones). MLB didn't fool around. The operation was a blitzkrieg.

More often, making organizational change is a gradual process with structured (but flexible) steps. Alderson appears to have mastered these, too.

The strike zone controversy was something MLB was able to attack more easily after the umpire's guild was gone. While the rule book is pretty clear, each League had it's own drift, and within that, each home-plate umpire had his own subtle (or not so subtle) diferences and the attitude that pitchers and batters just had to get used to it. And overall, the strike zone had become smaller and smaller over the years, making it harder for pitchers to throw strikes, allowing batters to look for and wait on the t-ball-zone pitches, increasing offense, and lengthening games.

Alderson has the MLB using optical technology to measure each pitch against the rule book. The machine doesn't make the calls -- it informs the umps when they've made a "mistake". It's a feedback engine that allows the ump at the end of the game to see which calls he made correctly and which mistakenly and feeds his ability to standardize out some mistakes. I had argued years ago in a note to Alderson that the feedback should be instantaneous...that the umps should have a receivers in their back pockets that indicated strikes and balls to the best judgement of the equipment. Instant feedback is more effective (efficacy is inversely proportional to time), and since some home-plate umps are slow callers, he could, if he didn't see it, wait the half-second for the feedback to be his judgement's tie-breaker.

The equipment is imperfect (hey, Microsoft has been building Windows for over 15 years), but the incremental implementation strategy is the right one. Since umps are a key part of the game, give them a mechanism that will let them improve their performance a little every day. This didn't require a blitzkrieg, it required a forceful but glacial approach, and Alderson implemented it awfully well.

This week it's become apparent another of Alderson's incremental approaches seems to have taken root -- his assignment to drive shorter game times, and the numbers prove his success. As in most smart efforts to squeeze out process time, you start with waste. And in a human-intensive process like baseball, you don't try to wrench it out all at once -- you tweak, see what happens, repeat.

The rulebook says pitchers have to throw a pitch within X seconds, or an automatic ball is called. The blitzkrieg approach would have attacked that obvious rule-based time-user. But that would have undermined the pitcher in pitcher-batter balance, already in this era skewed (compared to historical averages) against the pitcher. Aldreson's take?

``We started to involve some of the peripheral elements, such as video
board, the music, so those kinds of things were dictating the pace of
the game, rather than the game itself,'' he (Alderson) said.

The result: He trimmed overhead, not the game itself. Games of nine innings averaged 2:46 this year, down 12 minutes from their peak five seasons ago. The average time has shrunk significantly every year for the last three years. Television and radio haven't caught up yet (and may choose not to); you still hear the long commercial and when they come back to the stadium, you've missed a pitch about a third of the time. But broadcasters have a short-term economic incentive to stretch games, so this change may leave them, and occasional pitches, behind.

Alderson is quoted in the A.P. piece suggesting they'll keep pushing times down until they get it right. I believe, based on his track record, that he'll do this smartly, at least until he's tapped out of overhead and waste to prune.

There are very few managers who master driving change, maybe 5% and I'm being generous. It's cool that baseball has someone at HQ who knows how to do this.

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