Saturday, November 15, 2003

2003 Management Awards Part III:
What Wouldn't McKeon Do?  

Here's the next installment of going through the 2003 management awards baseball gives out and discussing what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved?

The N.L. Manager of the Year was 72 year-old "Trader Jack" McKeon (who led the promising-but-no-one-but-Don-Malcolm-picked-'em 2003 Florida Marlins to a wild card berth and marched them to the World Series. He inherited the 16-22 (.421) from Jeff Torborg and under his skippership, they turned it around (75-49, .605). This has been his pattern in managing 13 seasons: three of his best four performances came when he was inheriting a sub-.500 team mid season. He did that with the 1988 Padres and the 1997 Reds as well as this year.

His success comes, I believe from one direct and one indirect result of his advanced age.

The direct result is experience. McKeon has been a manager who appears to get better with experience. This is common-sensical in the general case, but frequently untrue. In Bill James' book on managers, there's only one index entry for McKeon, and that's a disparaging one about him in his first managerial stint in 1973-75 with the Royals. James correctly dings him for burning out the arm of the most promising starter the franchise had ever had, Steve Busby (only pitcher in ML history to throw no-hitters in each of his first two seasons), by overusing him. James claims he had Busby throw over 200 pitches in a game, but I think it may be hyperbole. James also cites McKeon's decision to use aging, never-could-hit-very-well Paul Schaal at third base and let a young George Brett fester, waiting for a chance to play.

In his first managing gig, McKeon was just not as good as the average manager. But he learned early-on (and in later jobs) lessons he accumulated and later applied.

Last week I wrote about Paul Richards and using your predecessor as a Counter-Disciple, basically tracking everything he did wrong and tracking everything he did that didn't work out and trying to find a new, different approach. McKeon wasn't just a counter-disciple to managers he'd played for, he was a counter-disciple to himself. Relative to other managers, he understood the cost of blowing out young pitchers' arms and he understood that the young guy on the bench who's unproven might turn out to provide star moments or even a star career. So when Marlin manager Jeff Torborg, notorious in sabermetric circles for using pitchers, even young ones, heavily and without a strong belief in pitch count limits, was fired, McKeon, with ties to the organization, was an obvious counter-example.

The indirect result is Carpe Diem (Seize the Day). When you're 72 years old, you have two choices. To go gentle into that good night game, or to act as though every day, every game, every inning, might be the last you ever get to be out there. I believe this is McKeon's fuel and that it has sharpened his focus and intensity. And once his team made the playoffs, his approach was a bigger advantage, because in the playoffs, virtually every out is a big honking deal. Other managers who are excellent at sustaining excellence over the long haul, Earl Weaver included, become mortal in short series because their strength, managing for the long-haul, loses most of it's comparative advantage.

During the season, it meant McKeon was aggressively experimental with talent and with moving players around. The franchise suspected young Miguel Cabrera would be a fine long-term contributor, but McKeon reacted to injuries by using Cabrera aggressively (learning from his underuse of Brett). Cabrera was a wonderful injury replacement, and proved to be a valuable clean-up hitter in the playoffs.

It appeared that not only was he not afraid of being second-guessed (who worries about being fired when they're financially adequate and seven years past the age of retirement?), he relished it. His aggression bubbled up like a violently-shaken 2-liter bottle of Tahoma Glacier Water Lemon Zest. Like Edmond O'Brien's character in the movie D.O.A., he's got limited time, serious work to do and must get it all done before the egg-timer of infinite doom clangs. A man on a mission with little to lose, and eternal baseball glory to win. [insert more platitudes here].

So when the Marlins entered Game 6 of the Series needing to win only one of them, he threw Josh Beckett on three days rest. Personally, I had thought he was full of crap on this subject, because like Weaver, I believe in playing the percentages mostly, and that over time, that has the highest return. And if whoever he put out there didn't win game six, he could use a normally-rested Beckett in Game 7. But McKeon didn't give a bat's lash about percentages. He didn't want to play a game 7 against the Yankees, he thought Beckett looked relatively ready to go and better than any other starter he could throw that day, and he focused on the short-term, realizing if Beckett's arm was extra-sore as a result, he'd have at least twelve weeks to recover. This last point takes great managerial strength, because while learning the Busby lesson had to have been hard, most managers become knee-jerk in response to getting burned. That is, he first had to understand that abusing young pitchers is a bad idea, and then he had to learn that sometimes you can abuse a young pitcher's arm in a specific situation where the environment dictates the benefit/cost is pretty high. Very evolved, and it surprised me.

Outside of baseball, there are two bucket-categories of management approach: managing to avoid risk (that is, it's better to do nothing than to make a mistake) and seek opportunity (it's better to makes some mistakes than to miss opportunities). Inside baseball, the risk-averse types are not very observable; they don't last very long in most environments, especially if there's any change going on. Outside of baseball, management is dominated by the risk-averse type for reasons too long to detail in today's entry, but in a phrase, "the Dictatorship of Finance".

Baseball brings into crystal-clear focus the inevitable comparative disadvantage over time of risk-aversion compared to opportunity-seeking in organizational management. If you doubt me, consider Jack McKeon's career and his 2003 N.L. Manager of the Year honors.

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