Friday, January 30, 2004

An Accepted Delusion About Willie Mays  

One of the classic saws in baseball is about Willie Mays, he of one of the top ten careers of all time, "just played too long". Some people feel like he sullied his career by lingering too long and building up a silt of mediocrity over his great accomplishments. That feeling is just a flat-out illusion.

But it's an illusion with lots of staying power. If you doubt it, or you never heard this saw, go to a search engine, say Dogpile or Google, and enter the search terms "Willie Mays" "too long" (don't forget the quote marks). Not all the articles will claim Mays played too long, but you'll see lots. The truth has been forgotten under the story.

Mays' career trajectory was in parallel with others who lasted into their late 30s, except he started at such a high level that even deep in his tail off, he still contributed a lot more than most players. Here's the tail end of his career. The key offensive number is at the end of the row: OPS+, that is, his overall offensive contribution as a ratio of the league average player's.

Year Ag PA ...BA *lgBA .OBP *lgOBP SLG *lgSLG OPS *lgOPS*OPS+
1968 37 573 | .289 .252| .372 .310| .488 .355| .860 .665| 157
1969 38 459 | .283 .257| .362 .327| .437 .381| .798 .708| 125
1970 39 566 | .291 .266| .390 .338| .506 .406| .897 .744| 140
1971 40 537 | .271 .257| .425 .323| .482 .377| .907 .700| 160
1972 41 309 | .250 .254| .400 .322| .402 .375| .802 .697| 131
1973 42 239 | .211 .260| .303 .329| .344 .387| .647 .716| 81

In 1972 at age 41, Mays was still producing an OPS+ of 131, that is, 131% (31% more) than an average batter's offensive production.

His single sub-standard year was at age 42, when he was a back-up for the 1973 Mets. And his bat, at 81% of average, was certainly sub-standard, but it was fewer than half a season's appearances. How many ballplayers, or people you've worked with in your own organization, stayed in a job for years and years after they had no contribution to make any more. Mays simply took a role as a sub for a final tour, and made some small contributions while not clogging up his team's accomplishments. The 1973 Mets got to, and then lost in the last game of, the World Series.

Those aren't great numbers he had, but they aren't out of line for fifth outfielders, and for teams that like a defensive gem rather than an offensive contributor on the bench, he might not even be out of line for a fourth OF. The big negative is that manager Yogi Berra chose to use him for 239 plate appearances when his offensive capabilities probably merited no more than 150, but that's having perfect 20-20 hindsight that no-one except Strat-O-Matic and APBA card set buyers get in distributing game time. The appearances he got cost Don Hahn (OPS+=62)and Jim Beauchamp (extra credit if you know how to pronounce his last name)(OPS+=89) some extra work, and it wasn't exactly a block to their careers.

And Mays wasn't even roster plaque that year. He still made defensive contributions. Here's his stat line for that final season.

Year Ag Tm Lg Pos G.. PO A E DP FP .lgFP RnF. lgRnF
1973 42 NYM NL OF 45 103 2 1 0 .991 .977 2.33 1.96
...............1B 17 143 4 3 9 .980 .992 8.65 8.40

lgFP .= League Average Fielding Percentage
.. = Range Factor
lgRnF = League Average Range Factor at that position

At age 42, his range factor (how many balls did he get to per 9 innings) was 2.33 versus the league average 1.96 (about 18% better than the average center-fielder, a top 10-percentile effort). We can choose to dismiss that his fielding average was markedly higher than the league average's (991 to 977) because official scorers can control for that, and esteemed heroes like Mays can get a break in that category. He filled in at first base for 17 games and acquitted himself at a position not his own (he wasn't great, but he was well within the range of a sub).

Moreover, in 1973, Mays' team The New York Mets, went to the World Series, and in the playoffs and the Series, Mays hit 3-for-10 (all three just singles) with a couple of RBI. Not star quality, but not very costly. In his sole game appearance in the playoffs, with the series knotted at 2-2, Mays pinch hit and knocked in what proved to be the winning run that won the pennant..

The worst you can say about Mays' end-game is...pretty much nothing. He left the way most of us would want to; a long very successful career ending with an easy year of special projects in which he contributed to a winning team.


Beyond baseball, there are a lot of fine managers (and execs and line staff) who overstay their welcome, who don't have the good sense Willie Mays had. Succession planning is a nightmare, even for competent H.R. departments, especially if the one who doesn't know it's time retire is the head man (think Jack Welch, who plaqued-up his company's succession way beyond the time he had anything new to add and whose simplistic strategy was wonderfully effective at maximizing corporate returns, but like any corporate management strategy, has a point of failure when the shift to the next thing comes too late).

So what do you do about it? Think Willie Mays. Find a spot where the skilled but needs a change or to retire manager can contribute some given his or her current talents, a position that makes some difference and where a good effort will add value. If you can't find that in a big organization, you're not looking hard enough. Every team needs a fourth and fifth outfielder.

And what if the person is not at retirement age and has successes in the past, but has been lingering in the same position in a vortex of mediocrity for too long?

Then it's time to assess the aptitudes and skills they have and find them a new position whether they're going to cooperate or not. A new position can awaken the latent talent within. Sometimes that won't work. Sometimes the person is depressed (and sometimes that's for reasons outside of work). If the person has been or can be a contributor, you owe the effort to try to help. In big organizations, HR departments frequently have Employee Assistance Programs to provide for people with life problems, though my experirence with people in depressions for a long time is that part of the condition is to deny they have a problem.

I've worked with a depressed marketing manager who insisted on denying and trying to ride it out while taking down her entire department forever (she was fired, department outsourced). I consulted at a shop where the depressed person was a key contributor (not a manager) and she chose to get some help, and once she got some equilibrium, had the perspective to realize the job was making her nuts, and she changed positions within the agency, becaoming a key contributor again.

Willie Mays stayed just the right amount of time. With a little observation and management, you can make sure most people do.

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