Saturday, February 21, 2004

You CAN Mess With Texas. Every Time  

You might have noticed a little coverage lately of the Alex Rodriguez-to-the-Yankees deal. A couple of readers asked me to post some management take on it. That means I need to ignore Alex, Stonebender, and the Yanks' 2004 roster.

That means we need to talk about the Texas side of the equation, because that's where all the juicy management lessons are.


...a quick tidbit, courtesy of Baseball Primer. According to a story in the NY Post, the Yankees have been trying to trade Soriano for years, part of an ongoing strategy of bring up bright young talent, buffing them up for the press (the press is a willing co-conspirator in this endeavour, because New Yorkers in general, and Yankee fans in particular more than most New Yorkers, have a need to believe every Yankee system prospect is better than any other system's prospects), and once the baseball universe buys into it, monetizing that added P.R.-component of their value by trading the hot shot away. Think ex-Yankee hotshot Gerald Williams who was collecting a paycheck last year at age 36, having had his last net-positive season in five years earlier.

Here's a snippet from that story, which, given it came from the Post, may or may not have any element of truth in it (I love the Post, btw, and I would have taken their headline-writers to work on my stories any day, but the standard of news reporting there is one stratum below the National Enquirer).

It is interesting now how close the Yanks came to trading Soriano before this. There had been a completed deal to Houston for Moises Alou in 2001, but Alou invoked his no-trade rights. Before the 2000 season, Yankees officials were bitterly split about turning Soriano into Jim Edmonds. The Yanks agreed at one point to a three-way trade that would have netted them Matt Clement and B.J. Surhoff before it fell apart. They once nearly moved Soriano to Seattle for Jose Paniagua and Brett Tomko, held serious discussions about sending Soriano to Toronto for either Kelvim Escobar or Roy Halladay...

As a Seattleite, I have to wonder how the Mariners might have brought themselves to give up both Brett Tomko and Jose Paniagua (Joe Bread-and-Water, as he was known here) for A-Sorry.


But all the coverage has been of the New York side. Surprise.

For every black hole in the universe, there's (allegedly) a white hole. It's been assumed that New York harvested all the benefits, Texas is just lead-bait, like one of those Indians in a John Wayne movie, just waiting to absorb a bullet and fall off his horse back and to the side, with an "Aiyee" and a fleshy thump. Perhaps, but unlikely. Let's look at a few things from the Texas end.


People who are good at investing other people's money tend to not be good at investing their own. Tom Hicks, the owner of the Texas Rangers, generated most of his wealth using other people's money and working sweetheart deals for public subsidies and working kickback-like favors running pension operations. That is not to be dismissed as a skill. It requires brains and panache.

But owning and operating your own business in a competitive area away from patronage requires a different set of skills. I frequently ask the question of managers assessing or considering the hiring of other managers at any level (including CEO). The question is, "If [candidate] was the assistant manager of a 7-11, would he do a great job, an okay job or would he be a failure?". I call that The Assistant Manager of a 7-11 Test. Tom Hicks wouldn't pass the test (and neither would about 40% of the CEOs at the helm of half-billion dollar and bigger corporations in the U.S.). C-level execs like to pretend this stuff isn't important, that what they do is "different". And while it's different, you have to master the Assistant Manager of a 7-11 skill set to have any chance at all of succeeding higher up.

Hicks drove that original Alex Rodriguez deal, and he got the second best player currently in the game, and a delightful public presence (though perhaps more Eddie Haskell than the Leo Buscaglia Rodriguez pretends to be). But he wasted anywhere from $40 million up by raising the ante after there were no other bidders. And you can do that when it's the public's money, or your friends in high places can recover that for you with a grant or some sweetheart deals. But not as the owner of the Rangers.

That contract made it challenging for Hicks' operation to do other things that needed to be done to keep the team competitive. Not impossible, but challenging. The Rangers are not a terrible organization, nor a terrible team (just a not-particularly-good one). But Hicks is not a real entrepreneur/manager/businessman; he's all hat and no cattle, a Potemkin hacienda-owner. His talents lie elsewhere.


I'm not a big Alfonso Soriano fan, but he's not exactly Gerald Williams either. Memories of him now are mostly hyperfocused on his comically disastrous performance in the last World Series.

What did Texas get on their side of the deal in acquiring him?

1. They got a guy who was an unremarkable-fielding shortstop in the minors who was moved to second base, a position at which he is simply dreadful, and watching him play there is redolent of the last reel of the second Alien movie. Texas won't likely play him at second base most of the time, increasing his net value.

2. They got a guy who kicks serious grass in the Rangers home stadium.. Given that, it's gonna boost his home stats significantly:

A-Sorry at Arlington 2001-03
By Stadium AB R
Arlington  41 11 16 7
..0  3 ..8 5 ..1 .10 3 .0 .390 .468 .780 1.248

Data from ESPN.COM

Scary numbers, though a fairly small sample. But do you think people they'll complain about his low walk rate rate if his on-base percentage at home is .465? Those doubles are very impressive, and the homers nothing to sneeze at.

Technically, given A-Sorry is playing half his games in that park, they might have a guy who is competing for a batting title, and putting up good power numbers, too (that is, he could look a lot like Alex Rodriguez as a set of numbers to casual observers). Those are better numbers than the other middle-of-the-lineup stud (well, Viagra stud) R. Palmeiro put up playing in Texas (though Palmeiro's sample was 19 times the size).

A-Sorry is simply worth more to the Rangers than the Yankees, because of the environment and the teams' existing rosters. Management lesson here is that some things are worth more to the person who got the asset than the one that neogtiated it away.


There's a somehwat overblown legend about Boston's Fenway Park and its short, high left-field fence destroying good hitter because it was so tempting (and seemingly easy) to pop balls off that wall for doubles. It was very true for certain hitters, who would distort their approach to try to take advantage of the opportunity for easy pickings, and fail.

A-Sorry is going into a parallel situation. He's moving to the American League park which in which he's put up the best (by a big margin) numbers in his career.

And given his lack of discipline, he could exacerbate his Achilles Wheel, his orgone-drenched passion for swinging at cruddy pitches. Over the last three years, he's only walked in about 5% of his plate appearances, about half of the frequency considered low. In his small Texas sample, he struck out 22% of the time, very high, but not legendarily so.

If some of those strikeouts turn into hits, or even of he keeps it at that very high level, he could succeed. But if his lust for putting the ball into play hard amps up with a little better success, he could disappear entirely into the cloaca of his strike-zone dementia, disappearing below the Event Horizon of his own lack of discipline like Maxmillian Schell at the end of The Black Hole. Emotionally mature players can resist the siren call of the tater. A-Sorry hasn't yet shown he's mature, so this one is still up in the air.

Beyond baseball, you see this a lot. A company that has, for example, very effective direct mail, finds it hard to use other techniques, like advertising, or internet marketing. If they move into a zone where they've always had good success with their strength, they can hyperfocus on that and miss the required balance. And it happens with personnel, too. I worked for a company that had the most fantastic engineering department. When the company got an influx of cash, they just hired more (really fine) engineering guys, because it was their strength. They didn't need more engineers, even really good ones. They needed operations skills and some creativity in the financial side and a bit of luck, but they came off the tracks in a haze of passion for their passion.

For every black hole, there's a white hole. Which one is Texas?

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