Saturday, December 20, 2003

The Mariners' New Xmas Toy Syndrome:
A Classic Management Wipe-Out  

In the past, I've written about the imaginary "first 100 days" the U.S. president gets to establish his term's tone and successes, and how for real managers, that period is about three weeks. I counselled how important it is you make things happen in all the MBB bases (operations, people, self-management and change) in those precious, few moments. But some take it too far, and fall into what I call the New Christmas Toy Syndrome.

They get a new gig and immediately re-org, do layoffs, purge vendors, and change the decor, the flow of work, the brand of coffee. Sometimes (rarely) all this is necessary. Usually, it's one of two things: 1) The new manager doesn't have a systemic or clear vision but wants to establish herself as being "in charge", or 2) the new manager is merely carrying out the agenda of someone who hired him.

It looks to many observers that Bill Bavasi, the new general manager of the Seattle Mariners, is on this particular track. He's been hyperactive in the trade and signing area since he was hired six weeks ago. Not a single one of the deals seem to make sense, and the pattern clearly follows none of the old or new team development models observers recognize, including:

  • Sign a bunch of recognizeable names,
  • Use sabermetric theories
  • Build for power
  • Build for pitching and defense
  • Use succession planning to bring in two very young players per season & let the veterans break them in
  • Replace your lowest/most disappointing performers with those who have a chance to be your highest
  • anything else recognizeable.

These moves consistently change the team little, with one partial exception, address no obvious team weakness (the exception, the Ibanez signing, appears to be a measure designed to halfway address the team's complete previous lack of left-handed home-run hitting; Ibanez could be swell, but he's not a guy opposing teams will change their tactics to try to neutralize) upgrade the fade-prone team at no position, and in all cases seem to spend above-market money to achieve it.

Possible Explanations

I'm not saying there's no theory behind the Bavasi moves. There well could be an innovation we haven't recognized yet and that he's not spilling because if he did (like the Oakland As g.m. did in Moneyball) it would immediately undermine any advantage inherent in the approach. But it certainly looks like there's no method, and that it's madness. I'm determined not to judge Bavasi yet, but I am feeling queasy; the shipping of cash to the Diamondbacks to sweeten their take on the McCracken-Colbrunn deal when we were already taking the lesser player at a position we didn't need another starter and we were taking his over-twice-as-high salary. [insert Jon Stewart pulling his collar out with a forefinger while twisting his head 80 degrees to the right and making a gulping sound here].

Art Thiel of the Seattle P-I suggested near the end of his column yesterday that the unifying principle was warm-fuzzies, the possibility that it is an attempt to assemble a likeable team. This certainly would go far in explaining the proposed Carlos Guillen for Omar Vizquel trade that fell through. Vizquel was beloved when he played in Seattle years ago, and Guillen has the reckless SUV driving scar on his record as well as having contracted tuberculosis (a disease that still carries a Neo-Victorian social stigma associated with homeless alcoholics and heroines of 19th century French novels), a deal that had no other observable advantage to Bavasi's team in price or performance or future value.

The overall ethos has the appearance of the New Christmas Toy Syndrome.

Venture Capitalists & Vroom-Vroom Noises

Outside of baseball, it's fairly common, especially among new managers who either have never before had a management gig at the level of the new job, or who owe their job to an executive that has an agenda they hired the manager to carry out. Because most American managers are given little field-training the way European managers are, while they need to take advantage their first three weeks, they don't really know what to do. Like a three-year old behind the wheel of his mommy's car, he's playing with all the controls, twisting the wheel back and forth and making vroom-vroom noises. Except too frequently, the vehicle is moving down the road in traffic.

I worked for a company that fell into the clutches of venture capital types. They brought in a president who had never had much latitude in his previous executive roles. He had the skills and world view of a bookkeeper/accountant. He took over marketing because he had always wanted to. He did a round of unnecessary layoffs because the other guys at the Young Presidents Club were hot on the fad. He spun off one of the sinking-margin company's high-margin products because...he never actually could articulate why, but I suspect it was because it showed he could do that kind of deal. Vroom-vroom.

Bill Bavasi has been a g.m. before and the team he helped build went on after his tenure, the Angels, went on to win a World Series. Maybe he's just doing the bidding of the team's many owners and trying to carry out their diverse views of what should be done.

My pattern-recognition skill just can't help but hear the distant sound of a three-year old making vroom-vroom noises in the distance.

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