Friday, October 31, 2003
The Baltimore Sun is doing a retrospective series on Oriole baseball, and their recent piece on Paul Richards, while by no means scratching the surface of the guy's management acumen, is a good read and replete with some fun details.
Before he petered out, Richards built a strong organization in Chicago and then turned Baltimore into a long-term very competitive franchise, both in the 1950s. He did this by combining a determinedly experimental mind and the cojones to try out his ideas without regard to how others might feel and without spending serious time worrying about whether it might be what my buddy Dave Perkins calls a CLM (Career-Limiting Move). As many of you already know, most big organizations punish managers' experimental innovation; if a manager faces a situation and uses the standard operating procedure and it fails, it's not her fault. If her peer tries an experimental innovation in an identical situation, it's her failure and the organization will stick it to her as a career-long tar baby. So to implement changes in most big organizations, you have to care more about results than career enhancement. Paul Richards was the poster boy for that.
COOL PAUL RICHARDS FACT: He has the best & most appropriate middle name of anyone in major league history. For a guy with a razor-sharp mind and aggressive goal-oriented operational persona, he was lucky to have the middle name Rapier.
There are a lot of great and good management lessons from Richards, but one of them was featured in the Sun article so I'll elaborate on it today. He realized that sometimes executive management can have a strategic approach that's both a proven failure, and at the same time unquestioned as a course to follow.
When Richards came to the Orioles in 1955, they were long-term league sad-sacks recently moved from St. Louis where they'd played as the Browns. The Browns were poor enough to need to move. Except for a pennant during WWII (when all the rosters were wacky and peppered with guys who would have been lucky to play if a war hadn't siphoned off a lot of prime talent), it had been decades since the franchise fielded competitive teams in back-to-back years. Ownership thought of themselves as stewards of bad baseball that had to be bad because you didn't have a lot of money to spend. So the teams were bad, attendance was weaker than it would have been with stronger teams (St. Louis and Baltimore were, and St. Louis still is, incredibly strong hotbeds of baseball interest & knowledge per-capita). As a team accountant recounted to Sun reporter John Eisenberg:
The franchise had been a dispirited, penny-pinching loser in St. Louis and was on its way to losing 100 games in its first season in Baltimore when Richards was hired in a dual role, replacing Jimmy Dykes as manager and Arthur Ehlers as general manager.
"We had operated very conservatively that ['54] season," Hamper [the accountant] said. "The mind-set was clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox had the big bucks, and we were not in that category." The Orioles owners and club president Clarence Miles were neophytes who had pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to win, but they didn't know where or how much to invest.
Richards showed them. As the major leagues' first manager/GM since John McGraw, who ran the New York Giants from 1902 to 1932, he took liberal advantage of his unchecked authority to deal and spend. "Overnight, we went from a conservative organization to a very aggressive and, in some respects, reckless organization," Hamper said. "It was a complete change in philosophy and a nightmare for those of us on the financial side, but the end result was the mentality that we were competitive and weren't going to back off."
The article mentioned that lot of Richards' experiments didn't work out, but what later came to be known as The Oriole Way, a mix of strategy & tactics that were only neutralized by widespread imitation, was Richards' formulation.
This happens in business, too. Economies evolve quickly and big organizations don't.
Frequently a company that was a success in a specific economic and cultural milieu comes to believe it was successful because it is, itself, successful. But it's not. It's successful in that environment. In the early market for microcomputers dedicated to business uses, IBM became very successful in both margin & in sales volume. They thought of themselves as unbeatable. But their success was a combination of image (most non-computer-savvy finance people...the ones cutting purchase orders...thought of IBM as computers the way most people think of Jello as the entire cornucopia of gelatin-based dessert substances.). When companies started offering imitations for less, imitations with extra features for the same or less, they made small inroads. When people got used to desktop computers, the mystique evaporated as quickly as a World Series rally hinging on an Alfonso Soriano at-bat. It wasn't that IBM was, as an organization, a success in microcomputers, it was that they were a success in that environment.
The reverse can be true, too. A company, like Radio Shack, that learns to compete on price and selection, can miss out on high-margin opportunities because they are constrained, like the St. Louis Browns/pre-Richards Baltimore Orioles, into thinking they are a low-cost reseller of stuff made in Red China. Another example: My partner & I used to have a lot of building insulators as clients. They tended to have niches based on types of customers, not types of jobs that required specific supplies, equipment and expertise. Many of them wouldn't compete outside their self-prescribed list of job types, and when things went bad in their niche (warehouses, old homes for retrofit, recent homes for upgrades, for example) they couldn't see that the other jobs were potential work, too.
Frequently the response of an environment to pressure or resources you apply is not linear. Sometimes you need a critical mass to achieve your goal...run a few ads, no response; run twice as many, no response; run twice again as many, some response; run the same number again, flood of buyers. A lot of models work like that example. Which is not an argument, btw, to just throw money at things and hope it works out.
Richards changed the mind-set of Oriole executive management and created a long-term powerhouse, in part by getting them to see themselves in a broader light and to see that they could do More With More. Is your organization's "leadership" missing opportunities to see themselves in a different strategic position. Could they, for example, do More With More and possibly succeed where they have been trying to do more with less and falling consistently short?
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Now that the games are over, a very popular topic for sportswriters, especially those in New York's metro agglomeration, is to start writing about the business angles of baseball. Not a lot of management grist there, mostly just money, which itself does have some impact on management styles and choices, though the stronger the management in an organization, the lower the ratio of management style money dictates.
But the Yanks now-inevitable re-tooling is now a prime focus for ink on paper, blather on blither.
During the Ed Barrow days of Yankee management (Barrow was the Boston manager who "invented" Babe Ruth, taking him out of the starting rotation where he was a all-star caliber pitcher and sticking him in the outfield so he could get his bat in the lineup every day), the Yankee (Barrow, really) theory was to fix a situation before a competitor could identify it as a problem. This is the reason the Yanks were able to trade players for their apparent value, not their real-value-next-season.
This off-season, the Yanks won't be able to do that, because they've already told the world that this 101 win team is a problem. Yeah, I know it isn't, it's a very good team, just a team that had a bad three-game stretch. But even very good teams have to look to the future. The sportwriters are rebuilding this team on paper as though they were the GMs of a team with endless resources (okay, we'll get Vladimir Guerrero & Gary Sheffield, talk Roger Clemens out of retiring, blah, blah, blah). And the Yanks have both lush resources and a controller who's willing to invest or even over-invest to get results, but they're not limitless.
Whatever plan the Yanks put forth, presuming their GM Brian Cashman is still around, will have succession-planning in mind. That is, it's not enough to make moves to fix today's "problems", but to work an overall plan with the future in mind. Who is good now but will be losing mojo in 2005? What teams have a player I need now for a player at a position I don't need now? What guy in the minors can be adequate to be a strong possibility of replacement for this guy another team is demanding for the guy on their team I really want? And how much will I have to pay another team to take Jeff Weaver's contract off my hands?
Beyond baseball, we call this project management, as the high ratio of readers who are professional project managers already know. Very few journalists or jock-talk guys have project management aptitudes, the key one being what I call sequencing. However, trhere is one writer who has touched on this subject (and I hope will continue to), and that's Doug Pappas. On his indispensably fine Doug's Business of Baseball Weblog, he wrote a recent entry that touched on the Yankee retooling subject with a key project management tool, a table of contract commitments to individual players over time. That is to say, of all the ink (and electrons) dedicated to this "analysis", Pappas' alone has started with an actual management approach to the task. Which how John McGraw built the New York Giants dynasty in the late teens and early twenties, which is how Ed Barrow learned to do it and make the Yankees a regular contender from 1920 through the 1950s. Decent succession planning makes problems vaporize before they happen. Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT) or Management By Just Doing Something Right Now (MBJDSRN) doesn't make problems vaporize before they happen.
It's not enough to throw Vlad the Impaler at this "problem". It's also a question of resources over time.
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
the universe is constant except for change.
And change changes in direction and rate, constantly -- from Anaximander
Yesterday's entry was about the inevitable changes being forced on the Yankee organization from the owner. His repulsive personality and criminal record aside, his knowledge that change is a necessity is essential in baseball success and to organizations outside baseball.
Take the Oakland A's, for example. Most of the readers who write to me have read Michael Lewis' Moneyball (see my link in the left-hand link bar if you wonder how my views differe from his). And Lewis' nifty book was a beautiful snapshot of the way the A's were designing their approach at a moment in time, that while recent, is still past. They have mutated their strategy. The documented offensive theory of patience at the plate and a total disregard of defense and speed as overpriced components has mutated into patience at the plate, isolated power, and a ratcheting up of defensive value to low-not-zero was the approach they were taking by the end of this year.
Beane and DePodesta tweaked their approach, because they had to. First, it would do them little good to pursue a theory that had been made public, since imitators would start bidding against them, even if only to prevent them from getting what they needed. Second, they "listened" to the feedback their approach was making. Defense is not a linear function. Their defense was so bad, it cost the team games it didn't need to lose and did need to win. They took care of that and it worked pretty well. According to Keith Woolner's Defensive Efficiency report, the A's were the second most defensively-effective team in the American League this season. Beane didn't let his Moneyball poor-mouthing of defense as a skill worth paying for get in the way of tweaking his team to improve it.
If you're in a competitive environment, you have to change, even as your competitors are deconstructing what you are doing now. That's truer in baseball than any other endeavor, but Joe Ely's Learning About Lean blog has a perfect, informative example (Oct. 25th) of this in manufacturing. Toyota has a plant in Indiana that they open for tours, and Ely's been a couple of times. The Toyota management and work force appear quite open about what they're doing to improve their processes, refining their approaches, tweaking their methods. And they're not afraid of giving away their proprietary advantages to competitors who might come on a tour, because by the time the borrower implemented the advantage, the Toyota plant would have changed and refined it anyway.
If you need to cope with organizational change, follow what the Yankees are doing (quite publically) during this off-season. Ignore the viviparous personality crud, the vituperation and vitriol, and instead watch what they do to try to improve. Scout out what the A's are doing; it's less public, but you can see who they draft and what moves they make and ask yourself what direction they seem to be trying to move in -- are they tweaking, re-tooling, trying something completely different? And read Joe Ely's fascinating Toyota write-up. If you're not in manufacturing, you probably can't replicate Toyota, but you can parallel what they do in an organized and structured way.
Most organizations won't allow themselves to do it, especially publically-owned ones (politics, fear, institutional shareholders). Many that try it fail because they "go binary", that is, they lose their ability to repeat successes because they won't document anything, assuming this environment is about pure fluidity and lack of process (it's not).
Steinbrenner acting as though he was a sociopath is not a necessary ingredient in the recipe for constant prevolution. But the recipe is mandatory. Anaximander knew that over 2000 years ago.
Monday, October 27, 2003
"Abraham "Kill Me your Son"
Abe said, "Man you must be puttin' me on"
God say "Huh?", Abe say "What?"
God said, "Man you can do what you want, but
next time you see me coming. man, you'd better run."
Abe said, "Where you want this killing done?"
God said, "Out on Highway 61".
--Johnny Winter via Bob Dylan
Anyone who saw Yankee owner Geo. Steinbrenner's face during the final World Series game, or who saw any of the pictures fished out of the files by New York papers in their game wrap stories "know" there is about to be a bloodbath in the Yankee dugout and front office. And the New York sports pages (here's one and another)are full of Live Autopsy grist, as well. After all, the team won only 101 regular season games and then advanced through a couple of rounds of playoffs and split the first four games of the Series before going down. They'll be remembered as being the second-best team this year, better than merely 28 out of the 30 teams that started the season with an apparent chance to win it all.
The bloodbath is a ritual in certain organizations, though it's only in a small a subset of what I call "Theory XYY" organizations that relish bloodbaths after very successful periods. Theory XYY shops are run by (usually) men, always with "family of origin" issues. They grew up in homes where the dominant parent, usually the father, believed people who got approval would slack off, so the parent would pit the children against each other, belittle them to their faces and to each other behind the victim's back. It's MBT (Management By Terror).
I worked for a boss who was programmed this way. For him, (I don't believe this is true of all Theory XYY types) there was sexual component as well. He liked to pick a victim and set her or him up for a firing for a few weeks or a month. As it became apparent to each of the rest of the staff that they were not the next victim, he'd watch them closely to see who showed the most fear, helping him pick his next victim. This turned him on, and he'd end up having sexual relations with someone, sometimes a staff member, sometimes a supplier to the company, and then publicize it.
Over time, of course, people who aren't managed well by Theory XYY approaches tend to drift away from this, the organization reflecting a selection for other kinds of people. Two interesting things to me (as a people manager) are this: First, that some people perform better with a Theory XYY executive, and the second is that some of the managed are immune to this. When I first observed instances of Theory XYY organizations, they were crippled and not very competent. I came to believe Theory XYY organizations were doomed to mediocrity at best.XYYankees
But the Yankees do quite well. They are competitive, even in this environment. It would be hard to call them mediocre. They are, imnsho, the most consistently-excellent organization in baseball over the last 23 years, and especially since the Joe Torre ingredient got plopped into the recipe. Torre acts as graphite rods in the nuclear pile that is the indicted felon who owns the team. But while you can belittle the owner as a despicable person, his technique has not caused the team to fail. And I think the team has done a fairly good job of collecting players who, while they don't thrive in Theory XYY, are in that group who can just ignore the bloodletting and resulting social effects.
Theory XYY is obnoxious and it's practicioners reprehensible and the employees who thrive in it pitiable. But it's not a prescription for failure. The three great religions of the Middle East that dominate the World's faiths and are very strong shapers of its intellectual traditions all come from Old Testament roots with a sometimes-Theory XYY deity (just ask Abraham).
I'm confident the Yankees won't be "worse" next year. They may not get to 2-2 in the World Series, but the organization with its current Theory XYY ownership can continue to deliver excellence in terms of ROI and regular season record and post-season success. Freaky, isn't it.
Friday, October 24, 2003
I think I wasn't clear enough yesterday in my connection between internally toxic environments based on second-guessing and Yankee manager Joe Torre's choice to leave 2003's Punching Bag of the Year Jeff Weaver in to pitch the bottom of the 12th. I got a note yesterday from Gordon Whitesmith asking me to elaborate, so I'll try.
A highly-politicized big-organization environment where every decision that doesn't work out becomes grist for rumors, subversion and erosion of other managers' credibility quickly generates the next logical step: active campaigns every time a decision does work out. Soon, managers are swapping testimonials or other favors to have peers pitch a decision they made to the executive consumers of such storytelling as "genius" or "brilliance", or shamelessly (for those that have the lack of self-restraint required) doing it themselves.
The corporate/military/academic society in which this occurs starts becoming like Pravda or Fox news or the old ABC Wide World of Sports: there are "heroes" and "villains", "geniuses" and "dolts", "winners" and "losers". Simple dualities packaged for simple propaganda techniques. This simplifies consumption for the consumer of such info (in this case, executive management) and that diet slowly (sometimes quickly) converts the consumers' palate to such easy-to-digest pablum.
This binary evaluation results in the death of evaluation itself, at least as something functional. For baseball reporters, it guarantees a readable headline and a story with bite: "Torre Blows Bullpen Decision" or "McKeon's Genius Strikes Back". But in the big organization world, it's a quickly spreading cancer that devours the usefulness of evaluation, and eventually serves to promote those who can best (most-simplistically) package their accomplishments to their executives. And that will be those who either take on the simplest work, or those who take on the work that's hardest to actually measure, or those who have the most time on their hands for self-promotion, because their work is least-demanding.
Eventually, the big organization (I keep saying big because small organizations don't usually generate enough overhead to attract people who thrive in this social system; & a mom-&-pop grocery store with two clerks is always going to know who does their work how well) completely loses its ability to evaluate people on anything that matters. They become the Sports Page of an afternoon paper.
It's the death of evaluation as a benefit.
Thursday, October 23, 2003
The Yankees lost last night. They've gotten all the way to a World Series, they're tied at 2 wins each, and they hold the home field advantage. If you read sports columnists' jeremiads, you'd think Joe Torre, the 5th-winningest (percentage) baseball manager of all time, was a frelling moron.
The Yankees lost last night. Playing in Miami, they came back late in the game to tie it, held the Marlins through 9, and went into extra innings against the home team. Home teams have specific tactical advantages. Like the debate team that goes last, they can tweak their approach to the situation and respond to whatever the first team did. This is why every season the home team will win ~.545 - .550 of the games played. If the home team enters the bottom of the 9th with the game tied, their chances of winning smash through that range, because unlike the rest of the game, a single run guarantees victory. Strategies that are net-negative for winning a game when you look at their composite value (sacrifice bunts, many kinds of hit and run plays, sending marginal baserunners for an extra base on a hit, swinging for the fences on every decent pitch) become net-positive because the conditions for winning get stripped down to one simple objective: acquiring a single run.
The Yankees lost last night. Going into extra innings tied, they were at a terrible disadvantage to the Marlins, who could swing for the fences, or play little ball, or run the bases like drunken sailors on a last shore leave before being shipped out to the Middle East for a couple of years. Torre had used his best reliever, Mariano Rivera, for a couple of innings the night before, and if he'd entered the bottom of one of those extra innings with a lead, would have used Rivera up some more to protect it. But the Marlins kept slipping through Yankee half-innings. Torre first used Jose Contreras for a few innings. Contreras didn't have his best stuff, but was good enough. And Torre pinch-hit for Contreras in the top of the 11th during a rally the Fish finally aborted without yielding a run. Torre brought in the Yanks' least-successful starter of the season, Jeff Weaver. And Weaver looked like last year's Weaver. He was throwing hard breaking stuff for strikes and mowed down the Marlins in order in the bottom half of the 11th. And when the Yanks didn't score in the top of the 12th, he rolled Weaver out again. And the first hitter, Alex "Sea Bass" Gonzalez, swung for the fences and hit a homer. Which can happen to any pitcher, including Rivera, in the home half of an extra-inning game.
The Yankees lost last night. Based on some of the NY press response (most ignorant example being this one, courtesy of Baseball Primer), you'd have thought Torre had lost the game. All that superstition about destiny and mystique has gone to their heads, perhaps, and they'r forgetting about the vast home team advantage in extra-inning games. And in their heart-thumping fear of losing (take some Paxil guys, alright?), they create a toxic environment for a manager.
In toxic environments where every managerial choice or action is subject to 20-20 hindsight (corporate, military, non-profit are most frequently subject to this one) any choice that doesn't work out will be dragged around the building for a couple of days, like Achilles' corpse at the walls of Troy, till it's a stinky minute steak. The attackers usually aren't people who have to make decisions themselves, in fact, the people who start this behavior tend to be people who consciously avoid positions that require committing to a decision. And once this ethos takes hold and is rewarded by executive management, everyone, even people who don't like to play that toxic waste-spraying game, pretty much have to play to stay afloat.
The social standards for evaluation mutate in that environment. Actual analysis fades as a technique, and a simplistic binary evaluation emerges: managers become "winners" and "losers" and become so on the basis of a recent decision that worked out or didn't. Managers become "geniuses" or "dolts" based on one tactical move (for the obverse to the goofy New York column I referred to previously, check out this goofy Philadelphia/San Jose column). Rats imprisoned in Skinner Boxes show more sophisticated cognition.
The New York sports news and fan environment is extremely toxic in this way (the owner himself contributes an extra helping), and Torre has done a nifty job over the years in buffering his players from it. But he's still going to take a lot of hits himself. If he had used Rivera on this consecutive night, he'd have been taking the exact chance Grady Little had taken using Pedro in the game last week...you go with your best even when you're overusing him. That Little maneuver didn't work out. Either choice can work and either can blow up in your face. That's management.
TIP:In your own organization, absorbing the toxins yourself to protect underlings will work to some degree. But you really have only two choices long-term. If you care about doing a good job and delivering a group's good work, you can 1) evacuate the toxic waste dump you work in, or 2) fight to convert the social reward system of blame-attachment. You do the latter by calling the blamegamers every single time, not by blaming them for their own decisions that didn't work out.
I recommend the first choice. It's easier. And toxic organizations don't deserve good managers.
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
me ways to lose I never knew existed
-- Casey Stengel on the early New York Mets
Sometimes when an employee fails to achieve the results you both hoped for, it her fault. But more frequently it's one of those "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug" moments, where she did her best under your direction and things didn't work out. In these cases, bad managers will make the team member a lightning rod to avoid any responsibility himself. Good managers will take on responsibility themselves while pointing out the random factors involved. The best managers master misdirection and deflection, owning up to the failure, but neither trashingt he player nor absorbing the full hit himself.
Baseball has some illustrative examples of the technique. Casey Stengel is by far the best.
Stengel was always a screwball as a player, patroling the outfield for more than half the National League franchises He was a good-enough, not very good player. But he was incomparable at using humor or an odd gesture to confuse his critics and redirect attention to something else.
According to researcher Sam Person, writing for the Baseball Library, Stengel was booed by the fans the first game back in Brooklyn after having been traded away, then back. According to Person, "Casey secured a sparrow, placed it under his cap, and removed the cap the next time a chorus of boos greeted him in Brooklyn. It is reported that when the bird lifted off from his head, Casey turned the boos to laughter. Conceivably, in so doing, a pattern was set for many situations that would happen at Ebbets Field over time, as the Dodgers became loveable losers."
He applied this lesson many times as a player, and when he became a manager, used it to defuse situations with the hot-house New York sports press, making himself the wit, the buffoon, the Pagliacci. When a player would collapse and take down the team in a game, he trained reporters to come to him for some bon mot they could use in the first three paragraphs of their story, instead of tormenting the player (with longer term consequences, like the installation of additional fear-of-failure).
He was informative and amusing enough that the talk of failure was diminished (not eliminated), And the by-product of his showmanship and wit was he became the story, promoting his own image. He actually marketed himself to peers and executives and the general public though others' adversity, while taking heat off them and rarely taking them down in the process.
In a totally unhealthy organization, you can't get away with this technique. In a totally unhealthy organization, the permanent attachment of the Tar Baby of blame is a sport in itelsef, as competitors for attention & glory make sure they can get ahead of you by pointing out all shortcomings. I call this Roller Derby Style society (the only way to score points is to leave someone on their ass or hanging over a rail).
In a somewhat healthy organization you can succeed with Stengel's approach. Collect and try to invent your own turns of phrase to use when someone in your group has been diligent but failed.It doesn't mean you ignore the problem or deny it, but make your wit the focus of attention and don't let the sharks take a bite out of your diligent players when things just didn't work out.
Stengel was both inventive on the spot, and a storehouse of little things he put away for later. Here a few choice ones from Steven Goldman's nifty column this week for YES Network.
The French have a wonderful phrase for that moment after an argument is over when you think of all the things you should have said when it was going on. They call that moment l'esprit de l'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." For my money, English sorely needs its own word for this and the German schadenfreude to really qualify as a major league language.
So that Grady Little and Dusty Baker can avoid staircase moments in the future, here are the seven best things Casey Stengel said to a pitcher who didn't want to leave the game:
7. To Tracy Stallard, 1963: "At the end of the season they're gonna tear this place down. The way you're pitching, that right field section will be gone already."
6. To Roy Parmalee, who had just been struck by a line drive: "Make out like it's your pitching hand. I want to get you out of here gracefully."
5. Asked by a pitcher why he had to come out: "Up there, people are beginning to talk."
4. To Tug McGraw, who said that he got the batter out the last time he faced him: "Yeah, I know, but it was in this inning." **
3. To Ray Daviault, who said he had made a perfect pitch: "It couldn't have been a perfect pitch. Perfect pitches don't travel that far."
2. The pitcher said he wasn't tired: "Well, I'm tired of you."
1. To Walter Beck, who wouldn't leave on Stengel's second trip, July 4, 1934: "Give me the damn ball, Walter."
** - I changed Goldman's text of the quote here to the way I've always heard this one. His original may be right, or mine may be.
Monday, October 20, 2003
Don Malcolm is one of the most controversial baseball analysts who persistently breaks new ground in applying numeric analysis to the study of game. At least one of his inventions makes a powerful analogy you can transport from the study of baseball to the study of the performance of any individual, organization or system. I'll explain the way this metrics mentor applies contextual analysis to starting pitcher performance with his system.
First, though, you need to know he picked the Florida Marlins to be the big surprise team of the year. A fair number of people, me included, thought they could be very interesting this year. I had thought they could be very competitive for streaks. But according to an infographic on a televised playoff game, the Marlins actually had the best record in baseball this season after May 23rd (I haven't verified this number; I've found this un-named network's numbers to be in error a surprising number of times; they have a "We make it up as we go along...you just nod, Buckwheat" ethic). The only commentator outside of South Florida who dared predict a high level of competitiveness for this team was Don.
Malcolm's interesting public baseball commentary surfaced in his collaboration in The Big Bad Baseball Annual, a weighty yearly book that covered trends for every team and supported the commentary with metrics both new and inherited from previous Annuals. The book suffered the fate of much of the deliquescing book business in The Permafrost Economy, but the work goes on, appearing, when Don has time, on the book's website.
His masterpiece this year IMNSHO was a series called Fish Fry, a periodic buffet of analyses of the Marlins performance over a week. His 8-to-5 work got in the way of his regular writing after June, though there are a few entries after that. There are a couple I consider exemplary presentations of contextual analysis, including this one. And this link points at the first in the series, a table-setter. His writing is drizzled with amusing popular culture references and acerbic assaults on other baseball researchers and pundits he considers knee-jerk or shallow adherents to what he calls neo-sabermetrics, a school of study best embodied by the guys over at Baseball Prospectus.
Anyway, if you click on this Google search, you can find links to all of Don's Fish Fry analyses (look in the supporting text of each entry to see which Week number the entry is...there are a number of duplicate hits).
My most frequent finding of shortcoming in metrics presented as "truth" or "insight" is a lack of context. From averages that ignore equally-important aspects such as level of consistency and confusing the utility of counting stats (RBI, gross sales $, units-failed) with that of rate stats (slugging average, net margin, percentage-failed), the single most common presenter failure is that of including context. In Malcolm's world, he calls this aspect shape.
So while other researchers try to find a single number to define a starting pitcher's performance in a single number (for example, the Game Score metric I referred to recently), Don uses QMAX, a two-dimensional matrix. On one dimension, he grades a start by "Stuff", a measure of the rate of hit-prevention ability in that start. On the other, "Command", a measure of the rate of walk-prevention. Once the starter's stint is complete, you can file his performance in one of these p.o. boxes. The table here is from his site, and it shows what the aggregate ERA in 1994-96 was for starters.
There are zones on the QMAX chart...the two with the greatest success shaded in this table. This matrix is an example of one thing researchers or anyone presenting metrics should always do: test the assumptions of the numbers before presenting them. If you look at this chart, you can see the underlying "meaning" or level of effectiveness. Malcolm's taken a commonly-known measure of starting pitcher effectiveness, ERA, and shown how it works against his more compound system. And yes, it seems to work...that is, the two shaded areas in the upper left, the success squares correspond to lower ERA numbers than the others. He then builds up an entire set of regions on the table that describe specific kinds of performances (with known aggregate results).
You can show the results for a team or an individual player (or a team or a league), by entering the number of starts that fall into each pigeon-hole, and they quickly indicate the shape of the pitcher's performance over time. This page shows a pair of tables of 13-game stretches of Greg Maddux starts. The two contrast well. You can actually see, given a couple of minutes examining the method, that he collapsed late in the season and how. If you just tracked ERA for example, it would have been harder to notice because by halfway through a season, there's so much data already stored in the number, each start can only change it a little. And ERA only indicates generally what, while QMAX provides indications of why.
If you're interested in performance metrics, spend a little time with QMAX. Here's a glossary that explains the evaluation system, the shaded regions and names for them. If your numeracy is very low, this might hurt to look at, but I suggest if your numeracy is very low, you shouldn't be in the metrics game.
I can see a lot of applications for this kind of presentation. Sales people, for example (one axis for ranges of size of sale, and the other for ranges of net margin). You would figure out what your goals are (revenue? weighted by the strategic importance of the product line? net income?) and make a QMAX equivalent. QMAX doesn't have to be two-dimensional, it could be three- or more-, though it would be complex to work with. But this has a ton
Finally, don't forget to test your assumptions before you institutionalise your system. In the case of QMAX, Malcolm aggregated ERA into the matrices boxes, then shaded specific areas and named them. In the same way, you need to test what each box means in a measure you know to be important before you start assigning a "value" to it.
If you're interested in performance metrics, Malcolm's mastery of context is a great model to emulate.
Saturday, October 18, 2003
An important aspect of managing both processes and people is internalizing and analyzing the historical performance of them in the contexts they played out in to try to better judge what to do now and in the future. A little under half of American managers do this, and they generally perform significantly better than the ones who don't. It takes talent, a decent memory, systemic thinking ability and persistence. It's work. It's essential to success in any competitive system.
The shorthand term I use for that work is "pattern recognition".
On the other hand, Grady Little met his Hiroshima in the deciding game of the A.L. Championship series because of pattern recognition. He took a chance on leaving his gutsy starter in when it was obvious to him and everyone else watching that his tank was empty & he was down to fumes. To most observers, including me, it looked like one of the most ill-timed brain cramps in the history of playoff baseball. How could that have happened?
Thanks to my buddy Steve Manes, we have a more rational explanation. He solved this riddle for us. Little was applying pattern recognition in the truest sense. Usually when we apply pattern recognition, we are using a partial analogy, or cobbling together a pile of parallel or somewhat-alike past events. Sometimes we luck out and have an exact or almost-exact duplicate of the situation. The more identical the past situation is, the more faith we put in our recognition, even though random factors can cancel it out, especially with people. Sometimes the identical factors we recognize don't guarantee the same outcome or even probability of outcome.
Duck & Cover
Grady Little was cursed by his good memory, because on the 58th anniversary of the nuking of Hiroshima, August 6, 2003, Pedro Martínez pitched a regular season game against the Angels that unfolded almost exactly like Thursday night's. The starter was breezing with six strikeouts and yielding five hits through five innings, and he was staked to a three-run lead. Parallel to the first Thursday homer to Giambi in the 5th, Pedro got rocked for a single run in the 6th of the Hiroshima Day on a pair of hard-hit doubles. In the Angel game, he came back and got the next two outs without any trouble, and in the Thursday game, he mowed down the next two Yanks with Ks.
Angel game: Hit hard for a run but quick recovery.
Yankee game: Hit hard for a run but quick recovery.
Angel game sequence:
-A Kennedy flied out to deep left center.
-B Molina singled to shallow right.
-R Quinlan struck out looking.
-D Eckstein doubled to deep left, B Molina to third.
-D Erstad grounded out to pitcher.
Yankee game sequence:
-H Matsui grounded out to second.
-J Posada lined out to center.
-J Giambi homered to right center.
-E Wilson reached on infield single to first.
-K Garcia singled to right, E Wilson to second.
-A Soriano struck out swinging.
The difference was Giambi's second home run, on the one hand indicating Pedro's additional vulnerability, but on the other hand, there was Enrique Wilson's "infield single" which wasn't an actual hit but a bad hop combined with an error on the first baseman (errors are politically hard to call for official scorers -- a great topic for another entry). But the parallels are striking. Pedro was stirred, not shaken, though he was clearly some pitches beyond his best command. And against the Angels, Little left him in for the 8th inning:
Angel game sequence:
-T Salmon struck out swinging.
-G Anderson struck out looking.
-S Spiezio struck out swinging.
-J Davanon grounded out to pitcher.
-A Kennedy safe at first on error by first baseman D McCarty.
-A Kennedy to second on fielder's indifference.
-B Molina popped out to shortstop.
-R Quinlan singled to center, A Kennedy scored.
-D Eckstein doubled to deep left, R Quinlan to third.
-D Erstad hit by pitch.
-T Salmon struck out looking.
It appears to both Steve and to me that Little remembered that Angel game sequence. Even without his best stuff, Pedro with a 4-1 lead whiffed the side in the 8th, faced adversity (the error and then the pilfered base without an attempt to stop it), gave up some hits, lost much of his control (the hit batsman), was way over his normal, post-injury pitch count limit (about 120 at that point), and still protected the lead with a dramatic strikeout. In brief, Pedro was gutty and even without his best stuff and way over a logical pitch count was able to protect a small lead. In the Angel game.
So when Little walked to the mound and asked Martínez if he could protect the small lead without his full control and now over his normal post-injury pitch limit and Martínez, predictably, said 'yes', Little went with a general understanding that Martínez is the best pitcher in baseball, his hopes (Management by Wishful Thinking) backed with what appears to be a single strong historical precedent (all the factors just cited) for this particular situation. And in the Yankee game, it just didn't work. The Bosox got Hiroshima-ed.
Little's pattern recognition didn't work out this time. Was he "wrong"? Tough call, sort of a lose-lose. If Pedro had had a little more good luck or the Yankees a little less good luck, the outcome could easily have reversed and Little's pattern recognition skills would have been applauded by many as a gutty move. Like the intelligence agencies' inaction before 911, it's really straightforward in retrospect to look at the data that was available and connect the dots, but it's much harder to do in the here-and-now. In retrospect, we can make strong arguments about how the situations were different: The Yanks are a better-hitting team than the Angels, Pedro was pitching on six days rest against the Angels, etc. But there are always differences in the baseline situations you use in pattern recognition, always differences people can use to hammer you with when the good (or not) decision you make doesn't work out
But either way, this particular Little Hiroshima is a fine cautionary example of one of the most dangerous tactical errors in the application of the pattern recognition skill: the closer to being identical the current situation is to one you've already experienced, the higher the confidence in simply duplicating the solution. With machines (at least those not running under a Windows operating system), this tends to be effective. With people and small samples, the illusion of identicality can overwhelm other, independent factors.
TIP: Use pattern recognition. Experiment with your people and your processes. But don't be fooled by a situation that appears "identical" but may not be.
Friday, October 17, 2003
use relief pitchers like the good guy uses a six-shooter.
He fires it until it's empty and then he throws the gun at the bad guy" -- Dan Quisenberry
There are two things I hate worse than hearing an adult male telling me he thinks Britney Spears is great entertainment: 1) being really wrong, and 2) using the same epigram at the top of two essays.
I just used the Quisenberry quote in yesterday's entry, but it really was perfectly appropriate for today. As far as being wrong is concerned, in my last entry, I delivered a conclusion about Grady Little's resource management approach that was supported by all available evidence...and was wrong.
In last night's seventh and deciding AL Championship game, Grady Little rolled out Pedro Martínez to start the game and for six innings Pedro ripped through the Yankee line-up like a chainsaw through butter. Eighty pitches by my count. All year, the Bosox have protected Pedro's injured arm by spacing out his starts more than most pitchers', and by limiting his pitch count when he does appear. Eighty, 90, and rarely 100 pitches per start has been the pattern and his starts where he's had to labor to 100 pitches have been most of the ones where he struggled.
Where Wednesday night, Little finessed a lesser starting pitcher to get to Pedro, and cobbled together his whole staff to get through the game to a winning conclusion, in the final conclusion, it wasn't about preserving resources, it was about preserving resources until he could get Pedro, the best pitcher in the major leagues, and then letting riding that horse until that horse couldn't walk no more. Eighty strong pitches through 6 innings. A healthy but not insurmountable 4-1 lead against a talented gritty team that's tough in the playoffs.
In the seventh, the Yanks woke up and started hitting. A home run and a couple of well-hit balls on pitches that didn't hit the spots Pedro was aiming for. With less control, he was using a lot of pitches in this inning. He was clearly not the guy he was for the first six innings. And then one of those flukey plays the Yanks black magic works on opposing defenses, a bad hop the first baseman actually got to but then tripped on his way to a (once-fielded) easy out. Still, he was lucky enough to face the overrated Alfonso Soriano, and whiffed him to end the inning. Red Sox 4-2, and a nice way to exit the game.
Little rolled him out for the eighth. The horse broke down, having exceeded the distance he normally goes and having shown all signs he was in the midst of breaking down, and Little allowed him to let the Yanks back in. It doesn't matter that Pedro is the best pitcher in the world, because Pedro after the 7th inning wasn't Pedro. He was tired, throwing pitches that were good to hit, and getting worked by the hitters that knew how to wait for a good pitch to hit (that is, not Soriano). Little had everyone in his bullpen and a couple of good starters (Wakefield) to protect the lead, and most of them would have respresented, at that moment in that game, a higher-performance probability, but once he got on this horse, he was gonna ride it to the end. And he did. His team's season ended last night. The Yankees won.
What I interpreted as a resources conservation model was just a Blind Faith in Totem model -- if Little could just get to Pedro, that was all he wanted to do. I was wrong.
In your own management, it's easy to ride the best people, the best processes, the best methods, the best technology, the best ideas, to death. In any given situation, what is "the best" (overall) might or might not be the best. It's tempting and pretty immune to second-guessing to stick with "the best" when things are looking rocky. But nothing is "the best" in every situation, context, moment. Management is all about knowing, or guessing well, what is, and having the courage to use all your resources, not even your best ones, to get you to the organization's goals. That's what Grady Little had done Wednesday evening.
In college, I knew a guy who brushed his teeth at least a dozen times every day. He girlfriend was a friend of mine, and when he stayed over at her house, he'd brush his teeth there five, six, seven times. She kept running out of toothpaste and she'd complain about it (even to me). I'm a notorious Scot...squeezing value out of stuff before I throw it away, using paper grocery bags until they look like they'd been through the Tienamien Square Massacre before I recycle them. But she was so desperate and freaked out about her toothpaste situation, her neurotic solution was to take the squeezed out tubes, cut them open with a scissors, use a toothpick to scrape out toothpaste residue and paint her toothbrush with it. This isn't Scots behavior, this is Grady Little Using Pedro on Thursday Night Behavior, and it has nothing to do with the acumen he'd displayed the night before.
Crud, I hate being wrong
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
use relief pitchers like a six-shooter. He fires it until it's empty
and then takes the gun and throws it at the bad guy" -- Dan Quisenberry
This has been an exceptional year for playoff games. The level of drama has been operatic (and the level of Greek tragedy has been Sophoclean). More great games to watch than any year I can remember: see-saw lead games, one-Pudge Army single-handedly turning things around games, freaky Hollywood-movie inning games, sweating bullets games, and a scarcity of blowouts. And one other thing, something that provides non-baseball managers an interesting scenario to study and show tactics under pressure.
This was the first year in baseball history where it took the playoff competitors in both leagues seven games to decide the pennants. Now, there weren't always playoffs. And even when they were instituted, it wasn't until '85 that the leagues expanded the playoff to best-of-seven from best-of-five. Nope, the losing teams have never shown, nor even had to show, so much collective gumption and sticktoitive-ness as in this unusual season.
Best-of-Seven is really quite different from Best-of-Five, especially when it comes to handling pitching. If he's been lucky to have clinched going into the last week of the regular season, a respectable manager can line up the first-round best-of-five game playoff rotation so his best pitcher starts game #1 and is available for #4, too, while his second best is available for #2 and #5. And if the two best starters have good outings, the bullpen can get recharged over 5 days of relative rest (two days between end of season and first playoff game, two days of playoff games, one day of travel after the second playoff game). If the team is battling to get into the playoffs, they aren't usually lining up for the future, they're firing off all their guns at once and exploding into space, as the 20th Century poet John Kay wrote, and that can have their pitching somewhat spent entering the first round.
By the time you get to the second round's best-of-seven, nothing is really lining up well unless you've had a cakewalk in the first round and swept your opponent. This didn't happen this year. Both series have gone to the wire. The underdogs in each series were both faced with life-or-death resource allocation decisions today. They took opposite approaches. They both won.
Jack McKeon: The Future is Now
Marlins' manager Jack McKeon today started Mark Redman, a crafty lefty. With the series against Chicago tied at 3 games apiece, he just has to win this game. It's reinforced for him personally because he's in his 70s. He didn't start this year as a manager, he was an in-season replacement that was an easy choice for a franchise that didn't think they were going anywhere this year because of their youth and because McKeon was already in the organization. But McKeon may not live forever, and he knows it. As my buddy Martin Marshall would say, Carpe Diem.
So to win today's game, he put every pitcher except yesterday's starter on notice they could be called upon. This keeps everybody's head in the game, and the Marlins have been thriving on this tight-team everyone-keyed-up approach since mid-May...it's what got them from nowhere to the seventh game of a Championship Series for the pennant.
When the Marlins starter got beaten up some early, he switched quickly to Brad Penny, a guy that had been punched up pretty heavily during the playoffs. The Fish notched some runs, and when they got a lead they wanted to protect, McKeon called on his best starter of late, Josh Beckett, for relief. Beckett had started and won a complete game 115-pitch (a full helping) game on Sunday (that is, he had two days rest). And McKeon left Beckett in for 4 innings and that was long enough to get the team to the ninth inning where they could use their reasonably effective closer Urgueth Urtain Urbina who did his job.
Though their rotation is not optimized for the World Series, Marlins win the pennant using every resource available.
The Jack McKeon Approach: Scrape up every available tool and apply it at the most likely moment, but leave no resource unapplied. It's an old-fashioned military theory (no longer fashionable among this country's military strategists). Worry about the future later.
Grady Little: Conservation for Maximum Total Effect
The Boston Red Sox' manager Grady Little has:
- One superb starter who seems burned out for the year, but even on fumes is a formidable competitor (Pedro Martínez).
- One quite good starter who's been inconsistent this year (Derek Lowe)
- A tireless knuckleballer who can be adeityy one day and dog-dirt the next (Tim "The Vicar" Wakefield)
- A gutty veteran but one who only puts up an average-or-better start half the time (John Burkett)
- A late-season acquisition who was better-than average in only twoof hiss ten starts (Jeff Suppan)
In their series against the Yankees, his team down 3 games to 2 going into today's match. They have to win both today in New York and tomorrow in New York.
For somebackgroundd, here's a list of the work his starters have had in this series:
Game Date Pitcher Quality? Use? 1 Oct. 8 Wakefield A- Light 2 Oct. 9 Lowe D Average Day Off 3 Oct 11 Martínez C- Average Day off 4 Oct. 13 Wakefield A- Light 5 Oct. 14 Lowe D+ Heavy
Little needs to win two games, not one. Average thinking would opt for the best chance for today, and leave tomorrow for tomorrow. That would argue using Martínez today for the best chance now and then, if you won, scraping together what you could for a 7th game. But Pedro is tired, he pitching on fumes. His velocity is down and he's been hittable, and he hasn't been pitching on 3 days rest (what he would if you started him today), or 4 days rest. In fact, through a big part of the season, he was pitching every sixth day to conserve his Pedro-osity for the playoffs.
Little pulled what bridge players call a finesse. His thinking is to really win (the championship) he doesn't need to win today, he can only do it by winning both. So rather that shoot the moon with a tired Martínez followed by a mediocre Burkett, he decided to roll out a rested Burkett today (he's not going to get better with one more rest day) and have a probability of a better (more rested) Martínez tomorrow.
The Grady Little Approach: Bring to bear the maximum value over time without regard to optimizing against any one event. It's the healthy agricultural model, that aims to keep yields high year after year, even if that approach misses out on a single bumper harvest.
In Your Organization...
...You'll face back-against-the-wall situations where you have to apply resources to achieve the optimum yield. Personally, I usually favor the Grady Little approach (life is a marathon, not a sprint), although I use the McKeon approach when I have no choice. But I always consider both approaches every time, think both through, before picking one to apply. Neither is always right. Tomorrow, Little will be in a 7th game and he'll be in a position where he might have to use McKeon's approach. McKeon won, but he only has two days off before the World Series and his rotation is dis-optimized which can be costly against the caliber of team the Marlins are going to face.
Both approaches have virtues and vices. Apply them thoughfully.
Tuesday, October 14, 2003
Baseball has so many excellent lessons for team-building because it's central (long-term success in the game depends completely on it), and conspicuous (it's all right out in the open). Well, conspicuous to some degree. Reasons for some moves are obvious, but others seem cryptic.
Baseball Prospectus' Jonah Keri has been conducting very smart and pithy interviews with major league teams' G.M.s. This week, though, he outdid himself with a two-part interview of Kevin Towers, the San Diego Padres' general manager.
The Padres have a weird past. Nepotism in the front office, some of the ugliest uniforms ever unleashed on an unprepared public, firing one of the best managers in history, Dick Williams, for no apparent reason after a winning season and just a year after taking them to their first World Series, and a cornucopia of incoherent player signings. That's the past, but Towers is the present.
Towers has been looking awfully sensible building the team over the last couple of years as it prepares to move into a new ballpark. His approach, made explicit in the Keri interviews, reveals some great foundation for team-building in your own organization.
TOWERS LESSON ONE: Know the competitive and environmental landscape you expect your team to play in.
Keri asked him how he thought the new park would play. His answer in part was:
Kevin Towers: I hope it's a pitcher's park. We studied clubs going into new parks over the last few years, and we found that a few clubs, Seattle and San Francisco especially, had some success in pitcher's parks. There are factors we won't know for sure until we get in there of course. The wind direction we won't know for example. It will be tough to hit homers to the gaps, and will probably favor left-handed pull hitters: It's 410 feet to the right-center field gap, with a short porch in right field at 325, plus 395 to center, 385 to the gap in left-center. It's 330 down the line in left, with a building--the old Western Metals building--in play there. The two corner outfielders will probably have to be pretty good athletes, considering how big the gaps are, plus there are quirky spots in the corners. There's only about six to eight feet of foul territory in spots, so if you're in a dead sprint toward the line you'll have a hard time stopping before you crash into wall.
It's obvious he's given a lot of thought to the place his team will play half its games. He's thought about what kind of players he needs, and the defensive demands of a couple of positions. He's scripted scenarios based on the environment, and thought about ways to prevolve to meet what the environment gives his team and what it tends to take away.
TOWERS LESSON TWO: Prepare a plan with a clear ideology, but be flexible in its application.
Jonah asked Towers about acquisitions, specifically his mid-season trade for star left-handed outfielder Brian Giles. His answer:
I mentioned that the park is going to favor left-handed hitters. I'm a big believer that you can never have enough left-handed hitters or left-handed pitchers. Players with pull power should get the biggest advantage out of the new park; somebody like Kotsay with gap power may struggle a bit more. But Giles and Klesko, it should favor them because they have pull-type power. I'm a little concerned with moving Klesko to a corner spot though because of how difficult we expect it to be to play outfield defense in left and right. What we'd like to do is get into the park in December, see which outfield position is more difficult, put Giles in that corner, Klesko in the other.
Through he's convinced Giles is a better outfielder than Klesko, they're going to experiment in the actual park...they're not going to let preconceived notions of the two outfielders' skills dictate who plays where.
TOWERS LESSON THREE: Be realistic, don't manage by wishful thinking, everyone has weaknesses, so know them and work around them without rancor.
Towers' words here are fantastically mature and something that makes for an exceptional manager in any organization.
Overall I think we've improved our outfield defense with Kotsay and Giles out there, but with Klesko, left field or right will be tough--it'll be a struggle for him defensively. An option would be to trade someone like Klesko, but we don't want to give up that offense from our lineup. With Giles-Kotsay-Greene-Burroughs we're a much-improved ballclub (defensively). With Loretta-Nevin-Klesko we're below-average there, so hopefully our pitchers will try to prevent opposing hitters from pushing the ball to the right side.
He has the guts not only to recognize some of his players have specific "weaknesses," but he presents them as "realities", without rancor. He even has the insight to recognize a player like Mark Loretta, with a decent rep for his defense, is actually not very good at it. And he's willing to just say it. It's realistic but courteous, the kind of exposure that allows team members to hear their evaluation and at the same time, to strive to improve themselves.
TOWERS LESSON FOUR: Aim high, but do your homework and wherever human beings are involved, be prepared for results different from what you planned. Blend the statistical and the human factor analysis, and ignore neither.
The trade for Giles was a big deal for the smaller-market Padres. Pulling the trigger on that deal puts a G.M.'s neck on the block.
BP: When you looked into trading for Giles, you were talking about a player already 32 years old, with multiple years left on his contract. What types of studies or research did you look into in terms of players with similar profiles aging well?
Towers: The beauty of the contract is that it just takes him until he's 34. Age 32 in our research is when players start to drop off. But for the remaining two years of his contract, we felt the protection we could put around him, with him coming home and feeling comfortable, he had a chance to put up comparable or better numbers for a few more years.
Towers and his front-office team did their homework, looking at both the statistics and the human factors in deciding to add this individual to their team.
TOWERS LESSON FIVE: Be hopeful but realistic about team members without a lot of track record. Monitor them, give them chances to succeed, but don't overlook their weaknesses or hesitate to move them out of the picture eventually if they don't perform well enough.
The Padres started the year with rookie Ramon Vazquez getting a shot to play middle infield. The Padres gave him a chance, but after a season, they realize his limitations and are looking to give Khalil Greene, a highly-touted prospect, a shot at the job.
BP: You've got the young pitchers to work into the mix, but you're going with some young position players as starters too. Looking at someone like Khalil Greene, his numbers from any given level don't necessarily jump out at you. What is it that you like about him that makes you confident he can do the job starting at short as soon as next season?
Towers: His defense is his biggest plus right now. We've had some problems with players with horrible range factors. Khalil will be our number-eight hitter next year; he'll eventually hit, but he may not fulfill his full potential with the bat for a couple of years. What he can do with the glove already though--he's got tremendous range to his left, to his right, he can turn the double play. Khalil can be a .220-.230 guy for now, maybe hit up to 10 homers, and improve as he goes. I see Ramon Vazquez more as a very good utility player. Vazquez lacks range, and he doesn't have power.
Again, no rancor. Towers isn't mad at Vazquez for who he isn't. Towers sees in him a set of aptitudes that offer the team some opportunity (that is, his low salary and actual abilities make for a good, useful utility player).
I don't know if Kevin Towers and his front-office team will contribute to the Padres having a great upsurge in their quest for a title. But I do know he's thinking, and talking, about it like an exemplary manager. His lessons make tremendous sense to anyone building a team in a non-baseball organization.
Monday, October 13, 2003
I was overly-critical of the lack of critical thinking around the Yankee-Red Sox brawl in yesterday's entry. Thanks to Baseball Primer, I found Bob Raissman's biting and well-organized critique of the the way the Yankees' own television outlet was spinning it.
It was ironic - and pathetic - that anyone connected with the Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network crew would express concern for Don Zimmer following Pedro Martinez's Saturday takedown.
Remember, all the YES voices working on what seemed like an endless postgame show following ALCS Game 3 - Michael Kay, Bobby Murcer, Suzyn (Georgie Girl) Waldman and Paul O'Neill - stood by silently in June when George Steinbrenner ordered YES suits not to show Zimmer on any Yankee cablecasts.
Where was their concern then? Guess these voices had a sudden case of amnesia Saturday night when they offered their take on the Zimmer-Martinez tango. Demonizing Martinez was in the Yankees' best interests. Now YES - with Steinbrenner no doubt loving it from Tampa - was all-Zim-all-the-time TV.
Kay, from the start, was obsessed with one question: "Why didn't one Yankee come to Zimmer's aid and hammer Martinez after he flung Popeye to the turf?" Murcer tried explaining what goes on when dugouts empty. So did O'Neill. The discussion had its merit. What they all neglected to address was the wisdom of Zimmer taking it upon himself to play the enforcer role. In their effort to crucify Martinez, Zimmer got a free pass.
If the YES voices wanted to take that route, they should have made a tiny effort to strike some balance. Instead of saying, "Pedro should have sidestepped him (Zimmer)," Kay should have asked Murcer or O'Neill: "What would you have done if some enraged lunatic - even if he was 72 - came running at you loading up to throw a left hook?"
As Yankeecentric as that discussion was, it was objective compared to what came next. All pretense of YES being a network providing two sides of a story went out the window when Waldman, and Yankee prez Randy Levine, turned YES into Al-Yankzeera.
Waldman asked "an angry" (her words) Levine what he thought of what transpired at Fenway. Levine, in a performance that would've made Baghdad Bob jealous, launched into a tirade that went unchallenged by Waldman. Levine (think he was under orders from Steinbrenner?) seized total control of YES and used it to spew pinstripe propaganda.
Waldman lost her cool, joining Levine in piling on Fenway security. She also put out bad info saying: "We all know this guy (the groundskeeper). He's been in the bullpen all year. His name is Dave." Waldman obviously did not "know this guy" intimately because his name is Paul Williams.
It's a fine piece. Read the whole thing.
It's welcome, but alarming, that the two most sensible press voices on this are both from New York. Maybe it's the "Only Nixon Can Go To China" or "Only Clinton Can Dump Welfare" rule, but reading this makes me wish Raissman wrote for my local daily.
Sunday, October 12, 2003
I have forsworn writing randomly about baseball topics that weren't management-related, but a playoff-mêlée yesterday triggers a couple of things that I need to say about bad human judgement. This is only vaguely related to management and significantly on the way events get spun inside all kinds of organizations.
Yesterday in the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game, several preliminary torts led to thrown ball whizzing over a Yankee batter's ducking head which triggered a dugout-emptying Man Dance. Yankee coach Don Zimmer, now that he's no longer a sub-competent manager, and has become a very useful complement to Yank manager Joe Torre's advisory team, has transubstantiated from his old press image as a mediocre Mr. Potato-head to a Lovable Old Genius. Back when he was managing, his lack of verbal acuity and total inability to manage different personalities (Torre's greatest strength) or in-game pitching decisions and beady-eyed ultra-suspicious, public nose-picking behavior made him a favorite target of the press. Now though, his personality has lightened up, he has a bit of authority and no responsibility and his greatest managerial strength, in-game tactics, comes in very handy to the organization the national press considers the most important team of all. He's colorful -- he has a plate in his head from a beaning he suffered while a minor leaguer. So he's useful for quotes, and pretty harmless, and has a lot of Bitgod (back in the good old days) stories, and everyone loves a guy with a plate in his skull who had the courage to keep playing the game though any knock could have been his last moment on earth. Reporters eat up that Bitgod stuff (they need filler all the time). And reporters love a good Made For TV Movie plotline, like good-v-evil, because it doesn't require either the writer, the editors, or the readers to do much actual analysis or thinking. Which leads us to back to yesterday's game.
Anyway, the Lovable Old Genius made a terrible mistake during the Man Dance, and got himself hospitalized. And all the national baseball press seems to think he's blameless for the mistake. Which he has to be because he's Lovable. And the person who teamed up with him in the mêlée is being held to blame. Which he has to because he's Irascible to the press and English is his second language anyway. And he's pretty swarthy, which might be a contributing factor in the gestalt of Lovable Old (White) Guy As A Victim Of These Terrible Times.
When the Man Dance started, the 72-year-old Zimmer charged the mound, inhabited by one Pedro J. Martínez. Zimmer weighs in at about 235 or 240, Martínez at about 160 (though he claims 170). Martínez, charged with adrenaline, sees a guy who outweighs him by 45-50% bearing down on him at a (slow) rate, and pushes Zimmer away in a judo-like way that was relatively gentle (no fist) though definitely intended to put him down on the ground and out of the picture. Not nice.
Press reports have jumped to the Lovable Genius' defense. He's 72! He's Lovable! He Was Justified!
Baloney. What's a 72-year old lardbutt with a plate in his skull doing charging the frelling mound with his fist raised during a heavily-populated mass-rumble? What's wrong with that guy? Did he think he could tackle/hit/pummel/push/spit-on/whatever an opposing player and not be messed up in the process?
For those readers who are binary-thinkers (there has to be a good guy and a bad guy so if Angus is saying Zimmer was being a moron, he must believe Martínez was justified and "good"), I don't think Martínez was "good". But think through the problem. What are his choices?
Run? That video would play on every opponent's scoreboard screen for the rest of his career. Everyone who saw Max Alvis run from a giant rat all the way from his defensive station at 3rd base and completely off the playing field of Cleveland's Memorial Stadium never let Alvis forget that for the rest of his career. In fact, if you say "Max Alvis" to any fan of the 60's Indians, their first thought is always "chased like a sissy out of Memorial Stadium by giant rat"
Let himself get hit by a charging guy who outweighs him by 70 pounds? Uh, irresponsible to his teammates, since he's the best pitcher in baseball, and his team's second-best pitcher is unpredictable.
Recruit Jimmy Carter to get a mediator and negotiate their differences?
What the pitcher did was not "good", but there were no available "goods" once Zimmer was allowed to complete his charge to the mound.
The national TV and sports press were uniform in their excoriation of the Boston pitcher, though none suggested an alternative approach to resolving the mound-charging that didn't involve someone getting hurt. One New York reporter, Newsday's Shaun Powell, had the wisest assessment of the situation. It's interesting because Powell, even as a member of the Yankee press crew, and apparently too young to have interviewed Zimmer in Zim's beady-eyed, public nose-picking days, was able to look at the situation in a clear-eyed way.
Beyond baseball, this happens, too, and for a reason I haven't isolated yet, most often in academic and military settings. A teacher (non-com) who is a troubled man or woman who has made life miserable for consecutive waves of students (soldiers) for many years announces retirement, and suddenly everyone gets dewy-eyed about their past antics, romanticizes their leadership and performance.
It isn't necessarily a bad thing to institutionalize the good things that bad ex-managers have done, because most bad managers will have done some good things. But it's equally important that the organization remembers what the outgoing teacher/non-com did that was dysfunctional, and call it that, because the opportunity to replace that miapproachppraoch with a more functional one must hindered hinded in a dewy-eyed lovefest for the Lovable Old Genius. Rites of passage are important in changings of the guard, and you should always tear aside the veil of predictable cultural responses and simplistic emotional folklore to analyze the real fabric of what the outgoing boss did and what needs changing.
Friday, October 10, 2003
To repeat...Innovation is a process that turns surprises into (generally) unknowable trends.
This is the final part of my discussion of the recent Cincy Enquirer story about the Reds' future direction as a response to recently-publicized innovations, and the Three Knowns of Innovation. Today, I'm finishing up with the third "known".
Knowable #3: Attempts to Innovate in a Large Organization Almost Inevitably Triggers the Most Intense Politicking.
The Enquirer writers start their interesting story like this:
When Reds chief operating officer John Allen said this week that one of the main criteria for hiring the next Reds general manager would be to find the person who can find "baseball players," he was speaking in code.
And the "code" can be broken by anybody who has read the best-selling book Moneyball about the Oakland A's methodology for winning games with a comparatively small payroll. Allen is looking for a general manager capable of applying the Oakland A's and Minnesota Twins models of being able to do more (i.e. win) with less (i.e. a bottom-quartile payroll).
Both teams have moderate payrolls, in line with the Reds' 2003 payroll when the season started. And both have been successful, though using slightly different strategies. The question: What can the Reds take from those organizations and apply in Cincinnati?
Allen didn't return a call for the portion of this story about Oakland, but conversations between the Enquirer and Reds insiders Johnny Almaraz and Brad Kullman indicate the Reds already had begun guiding themselves toward being a leaner, smarter organization before general manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired in July.
When the writers of a daily newspaper article start a story with the key actor (in this case, Allen) but soon tell you he didn't talk to them for this story, they're speaking in code. Anyone who's worked for a newspaper for a while can break this code for you. Either Allen used the writers to float a case to try and convince his superiors (building enthusiasm from season-ticket buyers and other influencers, all while maintaining deniability), or the real informants (in this case, Almaraz and Kullman, who did speak to the writers on the record) are floating their case to the same audience in an attempt to point Allen in the right direction because they haven't been able yet to persuade him through the traditional internal means.
The Reds are one of the noteworthy disappointments of the National League. They opened their new ballpark but got no apparent kick out of it...they are still struggling as a medium-bad team. They've blended a lot of young talent with a couple of veterans and a former superstar and basically have drifted sideways for several years. Personally, I think their biggest cause of failure isn't something that was their "fault". Their former superstar, Ken Griffey Junior, has deliquesced since they traded for him. He was always a more-fragile than average player, but since he's come to the Queen City, he's put up fewer games every year (from 145, to 111, to 70, to 53 this season). As Junior tries harder to make up for lost time, he's pushing his body harder than it can take and breaking it again and again. When he plays, he's pretty good (no longer superstar calibre). When he goes down, a big hunk of their payroll is sitting on the disabled list, and that's often.
It looks like people in the Redlegs' organization are looking for a system to get them out of their difficulties and are campaigning in the Enquirer to overcome internal resistance. Pitching to influencers is a typical, and frequently successful, part of a political campaign for or against an innovation. It's particularly fertile right now because the Reds fired both their manager and general manager in July and are likely to replace both interim solutions in place now. Whatever theory wins the day is likely to get a good set of roots down, so the stakes are high, both for the innovators and the defenders of more traditional methods.
Attempts to Innovate Trigger Defense of the Status Quo
Whether in or out of baseball, any attempts to seriously rework existing systems trigger an immune response from three sets of steak-holders...(a) those who benefit from the status quo, and (b) those who fear change, and (c) those who don't understand the proposed innovation value their personal comfort with the status quo more than the health of the organization suffering from the status quo's ineffectiveness. The more success a big organization has, the higher the resistance, but even organizations that are imploding and know it can have a very difficult time getting everyone in line. In very competitive organizations, there are some players who would rather have the whole place go down in flames than allow a rival to succeed, although that's not the norm.
The big-organization politics around innovation will exceed the total of the all the following combined: the dire nature of the current situation + the virtue or weakness of the proposed innovation + the demand from customers and suppliers for the innovation or its products.
The Reds, ultimately, will be making changes in the way they do business. Their ballpark didn't prove the windfall ownership believed it would be, and their main owner is a competitive person who wants results. The Junior situation is ugly enough that it's likely the organization will do something to change the situation. They do have a large cadre of promising young talent.
The question is, can counter-innovation forces hold off change for a season or three more? As interesting as it will be to see what particular system the Reds try to adopt, the public war for the hearts and minds of the influencers will be as interesting to those who like to study the sociology of organizational innovation. If you are interested and don't currently make a habit of reading the Cincy sports pages, it could be a real feast as it unfolds for the next few weeks or even months like a game of Risk or Diplomacy. Would it be any different in your organization?
Thursday, October 09, 2003
Innovation is a process that turns surprises into (generally) unknowable trends.
For the last couple of days, I've discussed the recent Cincy Enquirer story about the Reds' future direction as a response to recently-publicized innovations, and about the three "knowns" of innovation. Today, I'm continuing on the second "known".
Knowable #2: Halfway Innovation
Is More Likely to Half-Drown You Than Half Rescue You or
There Are Few Giraffes With 4-Foot Necks.
When a general manager with a strong team-building ideology takes over an organization, it's rare that the team reflects his views very quickly. The Major League club has a roster that usually doesn't reflect the new guy's point of view (because it's unlikely a team would fire a G.M. to pave the way for a soulmate). Even the farm system is stocked with the previous regime's design. Yes, G.M.s do retire and teams will sometimes hire a deputy or ally of the incumbent, but more often than not, the new guy was brought in to invent something different.
The Reds, if you can believe the Enquirer story I linked to above, are planning to draw their new theory from what the A's have done and what the Twins have done, two pretty different strategies both designed to address being competitive with a small budget.
The A's are using a modern sabermetric analysis to identify components of the game that are (a) successful at producing runs on offense or limiting runs on defense, and (b) undervalued in the marketplace of baseball scouting, so they can (c) reap a concentrated harvest of players who don't cost much but reflect the successful aptitude pattern. The A's end up drafting a lot of players other teams' scouts think are funny-looking and more frequently, un-athletic compared to other teams' averages.
The Twins appear to me to operate by drafting athleticism (rewarded in their pinball-machine of a home park), building up the asset value of players by putting them in the majors early, and then trading excess talent for inexpensive resources of others that improve on areas of weakness.
Both theories seem to be working for now (Oakland has made the playoffs four years in a row, Minnesota two in a row). But they're different theories.
Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger, Kills You
The basic theory behind progressive evolution argues giraffes were once horses, but there was a competitive advantage among a breeding population for longer necks so the horse-like organism could eat off higher sources of food, such as tree branches. Over time, the environment rewarded longer and longer necks until voilÃ¡, horse-like creatures evolved into giraffes with 12-foot necks. But if that logic were true (this is argued in a book called Neck of the Giraffe), the fossil record would contain the intermediates...horseaffes or something in-between, say, a horse-like pre-giraffe with a four-foot neck. But the fossil record doesn't. Intermediates have no advantage since horses would have a relative advantage eating off the ground (giraffes rarely do this, but it's really fun to watch them when they do...scary, like a giant folding card-table collapsing in slow motion) but they wouldn't be tall enough to reap the fruit of higher branches.
Intermediates suffer in evolutionary competition, in baseball, and in non-baseball organizations. Trying to do both what the Twins do and what the A's do is a blend of two successful systems...that probably won't work. Yes, you can draft for athleticism. Yes, you can draft for the on-base and isolated power potential the As look for. But prospects with both are valued, and more likely to be signed by teams with bigger resources -- they're just not many undervalued prospects with all of those aptitudes simultaneously.
This is less synthesis than it is syncretism, or to make a different analogy, less a solution than an emulsion. The two are not brought together to make a system, but more a Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies.
If the new Reds front-office team is really smart and systemic, they might selectively draw individual traits from the Twins and the A's that fit together (say, the A's identification systems with the Twins' coaching methods), but it would be hard, because over time systems shape their components to complement or match their other components.
This is why so many behemoth enterprise software systems that looked so cute in the box caused such meltdowns when deployed. The ERP software vendor had a whole systemic way to run every aspect of the purchaser's business. The purchaser already had a way to run their enterprise. The software won't work in a pure version of the purchaser's model. The purchaser either had to convert all their business models and social mores to match the software-makers ideal (virtually impossible, because the enterprise would spend virtually all its energy just converting every shard and shred of its behavior to a different context...almost no examples of success with this...the closest being what the Taliban tried to do in Afghanistan). So the end result is syncretism..cobbling together some behaviors, methods and mores from the software's model and some from the purchaser's old model, with the most likely survivors from the purchaser's model being not necessarily the most appropriate but the best-defended political bailiwicks.
Other innovations don't face quite such bloody choices, but if you think about innovations you might have tried or seen tried in just one department, you know the gravitational field pulls that way.
Innovation works best when there's a clear vision that managers get to pursue long enough and in a pure enough way until it works. Cobbling together little Lego pieces of others' success is, more often than not, breeding giraffes with four-foot necks.
I'm hopeful for the Reds and my two dear friends Dave Perkins and Michael Dineen who have both been suffering the Skyline Chili Five-Way heartburn special over their favorite team for too long. But I'm skeptical. Successful synthesis is hard.
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