Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Dodgertown Dementia: Experiments You
Shouldn't Try At Home. Except...  

Wisdom is knowing what to ignore -- William James

Dodger manager Jim Tracy looks like he's about to try an experiment unprecedented in the last 40 years. It involves focusing on setting expectations as a way to alter behaviors as opposed to allowing history to freeze expectations. I'll describe what it looks like Tracy is aiming to do later in this entry.

If you read this blog even intermittently, you know I'm a strong advocate of experimentation. Devise a new way to do things, test it, if you get negative feedback, erxamine why it didn't work, tinker with it, re-test it. At some point, if it doesn't work (and that will be the frequent result), you can throw it away (but keep your notes). If it does, roll it into the organizational DNA, document the experiments so others in your organization can replicate it in context (that is, you have to provide enough documentation about your attempts/observations/refinements that someone adequately clever can tune the conclusion to their specific setting).

OTOH, some experiments are never worth trying in the first place. Tracy's looks like one of those.

Baseball was very experimental with lineup construction in the first couple of decades of professional baseball (from around 1871 to about 1895). There was little autonomic "this is the way it's done". There was no typologic archetype library for hitters that managers and fans had stamped in their heads like Big, Slow Corner Outfielder With Power & An Arm; Left-Handed, Slick-Fielding 1st-Baseman With Doubles But No Homers; Guy Who Walks but Can't Run; Fast Outfielder Who Can't Hit. So every day was an experiment.

But eventually, forms started to settle out. Leadoff hitters were guys who could run, distract pitchers and infielders. Number two hitters could make contact and hit the ball behind a runner. Number three hitters had to have it all.

Those who have been fans for a long time are imprinted with this. The experiments went on long enough that managers started to build line-ups autonomically when they could, and if they couldn't, lean on front offices to find guys who fit the form to fill in the missing colors in their paint-by-number scheme.

And when something seems to work, managers good and bad benefit by investing energy elsewhere, and not in spending a lot of their energy budget trying to optimize the asymptotically-approaching optimized. Meaning, as Lou Gehrig once said, "If it does not appear to be in a state of disrepair, do not attempt to repair it".

Thanks to Rich's Baseball Beat, we got this story that in Dodgertown, manager Jim Tracy said he was toying with the idea of going against what everybody knows about lineup construction. Instead of what traditionalists think of #2 hitters (contact guy who can bunt and protect a runner), or what sabermetric guys think (guy who can get on base at a very high clip), Jim Tracy is telling the press he might put his worst-hitting starting player at #2 in the lineup.

At first glance, it looks like Russian roulette with six bullets. It's like subcontracting out your business intelligence operations to George Tenet, the Bush Junior/Clinton CIA director who last week suggested the CIA couldn't find in advance the pilot who crashed a plane into the WTC on 911 even though German intelligence had sent an alert to them, because all the Germans had given them was his name and his telephone number.

We all know you don't waste outs, and that the higher up in the lineup you put a guy the more chances he has to make hits or outs and if he's a prolific out-producer, you're just wasting some of the few chances you get to advance runners and score runs. Tracy knows this.

What he's telling the press is:

he intends to move Paul Lo Duca lower in the lineup, possibly even to the cleanup spot, and perhaps promote light-hitting shortstop Cesar Izturis to the crucial No. 2 position.

Cesar "The Lara Lassitude" Izturis is young and has a chance to improve offensively. Which is a darned good thing because over the last three seasons he hasn't hit (BA = .246), walked (OB = .270) or hit for power (SLG=.319). And, as Rich noted, he's not even a contact guy ... that is, for a non-power hitter, he strikes at least as often as you'd expect, perhaps more. In a game of Strat-o-Matic or Diamond Mind or APBA or Statis Pro, this would be a guarantee of having a big hunk of unsightly plaque blocking up the circulation of your offense.

This looks like an experiment never worth trying. Management By Wishful Thinking. Letting the boss' alcoholic son take over your most sensitive important accounts.


But I'm guessing that the allegedly numerate Tracy has a different idea with moving Izturis to #2 & dropping LoDuca, a hitter who on the surface appears to be best qualified on this team to bat #2 in the traditional model (one of the better on-base prospects on the team, strikes out less frequently than average, no home run power wasted in a contact role), down into a power slot.

That idea is expectation.

Because Izturis and LoDuca are people and not Strat-O-Matic cards, like all employees you manage, their performances are affected, to some degree, by expectations. By putting pressure on Izturis to behave like a textbook #2 hitter (be patient, make contact, focus, focus, concentrate, focus), Tracy is making very clear his expection that Izturis has to make a specific set of improvements, those defined by the rôle. The LoDuca move to clean-up is parallel but the expectations are for the man to step up and try to be a clean-up hitter. Unlike Izturis, LoDuca had one swell year of hitting; in 2001, he slugged .540 with a batting average of .320. By putting pressure on LoDuca to behave like a textbook #4 hitter (be patient, wait for a pitch you can drive, stay focused on RBI opportunities), Tracy is making very clear his expection of LoDuca to make a specific set of improvements, those defined by the rôle.

And just as LoDuca has that one year of reasonable power as an indication he might be able to serve as a middle of the lineup batter, Izturis has a little piece of statistical surprise in his record. He hits better over his short career with a runner on first base, meaning there's a chance that he has some aptitude to take advantage of the larger hold on the right side created when a runner is taking a lead off first base, in which case Tracy is trying to take advantage of his little "strength", as oppsoed to just exposing his work weakness.

If he hammers on this idea during Spring Training, it may work, and if he fails, he hasn't lost a lot. If he tries this during the regular season without positive feedback, I'll think he has a death wish.


Baseball is blessed with Spring Training, a time for experimentation and examination. Most organizations won't set aside time to see what advances their individual contributors and systems can make. It is available to all organizations that are not in the thrall of the Cult of More-with-Less. Those latter organizations never generate enough margin to invest in experimentation and without that, they will never advance without incredible luck (possible, but try writing a business plan or submitting a budget where the your justification is "incredible luck")

I don't recommend a move as radical as Tracy's unless, like Tracy, you really are starved for talent in an area with no prospects for significant new staff in the near future. But you can use clearly-defined expectations and experimentation to try to lead under-performers towards the objectives you have for them, and if successful, you can strengthen your team's prospects.

Just don't imagine the boss' alcoholic son can take over your most sensitive important accounts and not implode your prospects as quickly as Cesar Izturis can bring what little offense the Bums have to a grinding halt.

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