Thursday, January 15, 2004

Angels in the Infield: Dakotan Flambeau  

The California Angels this weekend signed the marquee free agent of the year, outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, a fine pickup. But they already had four should-be front line outfielders in Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Jose Guillen and Tim Salmon, as well as contributing back-up Jeff DaVanon. The opportunity for the team's fairly new owner to make a big splash with the acquisition of an exciting and fine player was just too succulent for the organization to pass up.

To make this work, they've planned on making the steady but slow Salmon their designated hitter, leaving only one outfielder too many, and still no real first baseman. Most non-baseball organizations facing this kind of situation (more skilled people than they need in one position, none in another they also needed) might think of moving the least-effective person in the glut position over to the empty position, or laying off one of their glut position people and hiring someone for the empty one.

The Angels aren't doing that.

They're taking Darin Erstad, their most effective outfielder and moving him to first base. Erstad of the many spectacular highlight-reel diving catches and take-no-prisoners crashing around to come up the the ball at all costs. Erstad's not just the Angels' best jardinero, and their only real center-fielder (outfielder with enough range and assertiveness and judgement to cover the corner outfielders) he's arguably one of the best outfield gloves in the entire American League. And he's barely a league average hitter over his career. And first base is usually a position where you try to squeeze in the best available hitter because if he's barely adequate with the glove & not particularly mobile, that's the place on the field a non-fielder will hurt you least.

Erstad had one very good offensive season in his career, 2000, and since then has been pretty sorry with the bat, 10% to 25% below average in offensive value. He's stayed in the lineup because the Angels paid him a lot of money in a multi-year contract, and because he really is a great outfielder.


It's not surprising that there's been a firestorm of reaction. The Angels' rationale is based on a chain of logic. Erstad missed over the half the season last year because of injuries. Before that, he played through injuries. Those injuries sapped his offensive numbers. If he wasn't playing outfield, he wouldn't be splattering himself against walls and the ground so often, making him less likely to be injured making him offensively more effective.

Here's the essence of what one informed commentator, Rob Neyer, had to say on the plan:

5. Uh, right. This argument -- that Erstad will suddenly become a good hitter because he's not playing center field any more -- strikes me as fairly ridiculous. It's certainly possible, but we're talking about a player who's been a good hitter in exactly one season out of the last four. Does he really have a 776 career OPS because he's been all beat up from playing center field? Or does he have a 776 career OPS because that's how good he really is?

Taking this further, I think we might reasonably argue that the Angels are worse off if Erstad is healthy. As Joe Sheehan observed in his column on Tuesday, if Erstad's playing first base he really doesn't have any value at all, because most of his value rests in his brilliant defense in center field. Take him out of center field but keep him in the lineup, and all of sudden you're spending $8 million per season on a whole lot of nothin'.

Basically, I agree. The chain of logic seems to be based on MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking), and the benefits to Erstad's offense not very likely to come about. And no matter if they do, the Angels have removed the single outfielder who glues the other guys together and replaced him with someone below average with the leather at a key position. All true...


But while it's unlikely the shift might help Erstad's offense blossom, it's not impossible. And the Angels are not likely to be able to trade Erstad's batch of skills without shelling out a lot of money to go along with it because his value is so specialised and his $8 million contract so high in the market of this minute. And if Erstad doesn't come around offensively at some point, his value really will tank even more sharply, as his now-30 year old body ages, isn't likely to retain its extraordinary skill at the fielding part of the game.

It's an amazing piece of risk-taking, more likely to fail than succeed, but it might succeed, and if Erstad comes back offensively (again, possible though not probable), they get the value of his offense along with that of the other outfielders and his trade value goes up so they might actually be able to deal him, even with that contract. Many observers think, based on past history, that this year's depressed-relative-to-recent contract prices will spring back, making a one-year solution to Erstad's value/price asymmetry something the team might be able to live with..


This is a lovely illustration of the kind of moment it could well be worth taking a big risk in your own management environment. Let's go over the condition for this kind of lower-probability decision: It's a situation with no obvious fix at hand, so it calls for an experiment.

I had a client, a specialty architectural consultant, that had good sales and earnings terrible cash-flow problems. The kinds of bids they made cost them a lot to make, and they were generally conservative, not choosing to bid on smaller jobs that weren't very likely to win. But after struggling with cash flow asphyxia for a couple of hard-working years, they just decided to start bidding on everything. They took a couple of their most competent high-billing consultants off billable hours and moved them to business development to come up with a lot of proposal responses and while they were doing that, develop a model to make the bid processes cheaper by cutting corners. Because they weren't real business development people, they weren't attached to the old model, and because they normally worked in the field, they had a pretty good understanding of what things on proposal responses were just pro forma and not likely to be part of jobs and thus, sometimes less-examined in repsonses.

I thought they wouldn't succeed in the effort, but I helped them build some systems for reusing content and collecting knowledge about competitors and customers that would help in the bid process. They did the opposite of one of my general rules, which is to get people who are good at what they do to spend more of their time doing that high-output work while trimming their efforts at what they don't do well. And I was surprised, but they were successful doing it just this way, going against the probabilities.

This kind of experiment can be worth a try, but don't bet the farm on it on it. When you do this in your own organization, have a contingency plan or three in place before you fully commit to a risky experiment like this. Pick a stop-loss point, a clear, measurable set of conditions and deadlines that if you're not making sufficient progress, you pull the plug and move to the fallback, less risky, position. Be cold-blooded, not emotional (neither exuberant nor nervous-nelly), about monitoring progress.

With Erstad, where he's moving from is something he does really well. The Angels are moving him to where they need something he doesn't normally give. It's risky, but it might just "work". And let's hope they know what we do; if they're at game 50 and have a prayer at winning the division, and Erstad's producing a 775 OPS as a first baseman, they'll move on to their fall-back plan and put Erstad back where he should produce what he can produce for his team.

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