Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Motor City Mayhem: I-Rod
As Human Egg-White  

How often have you seen (or even worked in) a functionally incompetent department and the executive team brought in a manager who was going to "fix it all"?

Mostly it doesn't work. Mostly when it doesn't work, it's because the expectations for the new manager are excessive and the resources made available are too low.

Sometimes, though, it does work, and when it does, it tends to work for a pair of reasons: 1) the hired manager happens to have the exact aptitudes required to attack the problems that are the depatment's current limiting factors, and 2) something that in baseball they call "chemistry", that is, whatever attitudes and talents the new manager brings to the recipe change the attitudes and intensity and team-abilities of the individuals in the group.


The Detroit Tigers, they of the totally miserable 2003 (legendarily bad, actually) have signed Ivan Rodriguez to a high-end salary, four year deal.

There are ton of reasons why this was not a good deal for the Bengals. Without elaborating at length or arguing either side,

  1. He's at an age where most elite catchers start to tail off sharply, so a long contract is a tar baby.
  2. He's been in decline offensively since 2000, though last year he flattened out and didn't decline further.
  3. His defense, formerly way over the top, looks as though it's now middle or high-middle.
  4. The salary given was high given this year's free-agent market, and if the market keeps going down (an unsafe presumption) the length of it could make it a "worse" application of money.

From a statistical point of view, the deal as finalised is pretty unsightly.

Old-line baseball men might defend the deal. They like to believe in "character" and "chemistry", not-measureable intangibles that affect outcomes. They hold to a belief that certain guys who, in and of themselves, do tangibly little to help their team win actually do create a better chance of winning through their way of being.

Mostly, that's an excuse for intellectual laziness or innumeracy. BUT...


BUT...the team lost 119 games last year. We know statistically that in the general case, if you don't have good players, you can't have a good probability of winning. By adding a B-/B catcher to an F- team, well, to lift a Chuck Palahniuk quote, "You might as well try to paint a house that's on fire."

That's the general case.

I believe though that in this specific case, that if I-Rod doesn't go suicidally depressive between the weather and the losing, he's potentially more valuable to the Bengals than he is to most other teams. And, no, it's not his "winning character". It's something I believe doesn't have very much value in the general case: It's chemistry, literally.

All our systems, our sims, tend to greatly-distort or even break down at the extremes. The Tigers last year were at such an extreme (3-5 Rule V guys, >110 losses) that typical statistical analyses may not (or may) be reasonable. They were just too many standard deviations from the norm to conform to general rules.

On a team with some "veteran leadership", adding more is a low-yield strategy, yes, but on a team where most of the guys would get carded entering a tavern and with no-one who's a legitimate chance to be elected to an All-Star team, a single I-Rod type guy can have a disproportionate additive value, like an extra egg-white in a cake recipe.

I-Rod could be an extra egg-white, an ingredient while not tasting like much or weighing much itself, changes the chemistry of the recipe, and makes the whole thing rise more than it would have otherwise.

It's not magic. It's simply human behavior. Bring in a guy with a career the other ballplayers respect and look up to, and when he offers his own lessons, the set he's mastered, he's likely to get listened to more. If the team was a third place team with a bunch of jaded vets, he's not going to turn it around much at all. But the liklihood of his being listened to, "followed" to some degree, goes up, becuase the situation is so bad virtually everyone knows they must be open to change and learn to do things better.


This is a lesson you can apply outside baseball. I frequently encourage young managers I'm mentoring to take on the really ugly assignments if they want to make a mark. There are a couple of guidelines I like them to lay down, though.

First, everyone should already know the department really sucks, and be able to admit it. If management is harboring illusions or even just doing the CYA thing of acknowledging privately but puffing publically, it's no good.

Second, the higher-ups have to be made to realize that if you take a terrible department and make them medium, that's a vast step forward for the organization, because that's a big delta.

Third, dire situations require broad authority. Don't let yourself get into a power-sharing role where you can't make things happen quickly, or happen at all.

And fourth, and this is optional, campaign to be given serious resources (enough to turn your department into a real winner) if you can get performance up to some acceptable measured level.

A single person can make a heck of a lot of difference. It's easier to make a heck of a lot of difference when you're taking over a department that's already gone cherry-pie time, because mere adequacy is a Mark McGwire home run distance from where they started, and because people are more likely to be willing to learn what you have to teach. And because if you don't succeed, you're less likely to be judged harshly, if that matters to you.

You could be like Ivan Rodriguez, just be being good and being in the recipe and working hard, altering the outcome, making the whole thing rise more than it would have otherwise.

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