Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Misapprehension: Patience at the Plate
and Managing to Targets  

One of the most readable baseball writers with flashes of brilliance is Derek Zumsteg. He wrote a thoughtful piece for Baseball Prospectus yesterday on the sabermetric passion for plate patience (a key ingredient of the Oakland As Beaneball approach) that presented logical reasons why it might not be as much of a Holy Grail as neo-statheads feel it is. His argument is not that plate patience is useless or a bad idea, just that its effect can only be felt in a minority of games for most teams, and that overall, it's not a significant factor.

Here's the essence of Derek's argument.

One of the reasons patience at the plate is encouraged is that it wears out opposing starters, allowing the hitters to chew into the soft underbelly of middle relief where they can really score some runs. It sure sounds attractive, and it seems to make sense.

But it's almost a trivial advantage. The range in pitches seen per plate appearance runs from 3.6 (Devil Rays and company) to 3.9 (Red Sox, Oakland).

Take an average AL staff. Every nine innings, they give up nine hits, three walks, strike out six, and watch one lucky fan get a nice souvenir. Look at a nine-inning game pitched by an average staff against the most and least patient teams:

9.30 H + 3.16 BB + 27 outs = 39.46 batters/game (by average staff in average park against average hitters)

So 39.46 PAs * 3.6 P/PA = 142 pitches to get through a game against the most-aggressive team. And 153 pitches to get through a game against the most-passive team. [snip]

Eleven pitches a game isn't that important. An average start last year went six innings. Average events/inning for AL starters: 1.06 H/IP, .32 BB/IP...it's only 4.32 PA/IP, or 16-17 pitches an inning depending on the opposition, and the pitcher's out in six innings right around 100 pitches (96-102). Taking more pitches alone isn't significant enough to get a pitcher pulled early. [emphasis mine]

When you read some neo-stathead discussions, you'd think taking pitches, earning walks were the most important features batter can have. But that's turning a tactic into a strategy, a clever workaround into an organization mission, conflating a tool with a goal. In business, you frequently see this when departments set targets. Especially under pressure, most people will give extra attention to a set target (that's a survival strategy), and some will work primarily to the set target. Depending on how critical that target is, depending on how management handles the other measures of work, this target can become a distraction that diminishes the effectiveness of the group.

I was responsible for one of these failures once. I was running a big chunk of the marketing department for a computer networking hardware/software firm. Margins, normally astronomical for this quality-obsessed company, started shrinking, and the sales department (focused on gross, not net) had no idea how to change our course. But marketing "owned" the small, direct marketing effort: direct mail, telemarketing, advertising, public relations. If you co-ordinate those in a "Integrated Marketing" effort (run a targeted advertisement, send direct mail to those who are being advertised to, follow-up the mail with a telephone call a few days later) success tends to be relatively very high.

The company's most expensive product was also its highest margin one -- a beautifully bundled set of network software management tools and utilities. The price tag justified telemarketing. My passion for margin drove my team to put together a perfect storm of a plan, running the Integrated Marketing effort to our existing customers (minus those who'd already bought it) and it really worked as one would hope. BUT.

But, alas, the product had bugs, bugs that development wasn't hot to talk about. I didn't do my homework -- we didn't know. We really pitched off Sales (who had been unable to sell any), and stuffed imperfect product into customers' hands, burning them in the process. And increasing the load on technical support. Ugly, perhaps my ugliest piece of mismanagement ever.

The neo-statheads are chasing plate patience the way I was chasing margin, ignoring the context. Yes, I increased margin for the two months the program ran, but a side-effect was it was strip-mining goodwill (internal and external). Yes, it makes sense to acquire players with plate patience, all other things being equal because you can usually get that extra benefit without paying an additional price for it, but not if the batter isn't getting hits, too. It just, by itself, doesn't make enough difference. Don't confuse a clever bit of gadget-play with a life's purpose. Don't let a target steer you away from your purpose. Or as Derek said about the plate patience issue:

If a team's intent is to seize on the minor advantage of facing middle relief, it's important to realize that getting more pitches is never more important than hitting those pitches. And that's what good hitters do: work the count in their favor, so they can reach a favorable hitter's count and whack the ensuing fat pitch. The best-hitting teams are the ones that pile patience together with batting ability. Sounds simple, yet too many teams still struggle with the concept.

So do most non-baseball organizations.

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