Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Iron City Hazing: Lloyd McClendon Relives
an Olde Frothingslosh Hangover  

Those who condemn history to repeat itself, forget it.
-- Unamuno

A frequent bad management trick is to unconsciously or intentionally make someone go though some hazard course that the manager had to go through when he was just a player. This lack of self-awareness and self-examination (third base in the MBB model) It happens in baseball and in non-baseball organizations alike. But in baseball, it's drop-dead obvious.

Baseball Primer is running a team-by-team scouting report and a few days ago, they carried Mike Emeigh's summary of the Pittsburgh Pirates' prospects for the pursuit of the pennant. If you're not familiar with his work, it's really special; he's numerically sophisticated, but his studies grip context and shading better than just about any of the other exxxxtreme math guys'.

Emeigh wrote about a young Pirate player of promise, Craig Wilson, his performance (which is good) and his prospects for playing time (which aren't very good).

Craig Wilson, over the course of his major league career, has hit .322/.414/.595 against left-handed pitching, and .249/.340/.450 against right-handed pitching. Those RHP stats, by the way, are not much different than [his left-handed hitting platoon partner at first base] Randall Simon’s splits against RHP over the last three years (.302/.332/.466), although Wilson’s OBP is inflated to some extent by 35 HBP vs RHP, which nearly matches his walk total (46). Unfortunately, the Pirates also see Wilson’s relatively high strikeout numbers against RHP (about 1 every 3.5 PAs) and look at him as a liability against RHP. The "Free Craig Wilson" movement is in full swing, but it’s not going to happen in Pittsburgh; Wilson is going to be a backup catcher, platoon 1B with Simon, and OF starter when Mondesi or Jason Bay need a rest. As Lloyd McClendon is fond of saying, Wilson will get his 300 PAs –he should be getting more, but the Pirates probably won’t give it to him.

Craig Wilson (not to be confused with Buc SS Jack Wilson) is popular among many sabermetric enthusiasts. He has some power in his bat and has figured out how to get on base enough that his on-base percentage is net-positive, too. Plus he's young enough that if he played regularly, he might have some noticeable chance to be better. He had the highest offensive production rate (OPS+ of 125) of any 2003 Pirate still on the team. As of yesterday, he was having an acceptable Spring, statistically, anyway:

Wilson .393 10 28 8 11 26 3
..0 .4 10

That's a small sample slugging percentage of .929. On defense, he plays right field (just about well enough to be called adequate, but he doesn't get enough playing time so that you could really judge his full potential), first base (just about well enough to be called adequate, but he doesn't get enough playing time so that you could really judge his full potential), and catcher (just about enough....yes, you get it already).

And this is frustrating to Iron City fans who wish he'd get a proper chance. As a right-handed platoon partner, he's going to start in the roughly 3/8ths of the games where opponents start a left-handed pitcher. He's going to move around the field as a sub, and never get established in a position (which conceivably could help his hitting a little, because if he is a barely-adequate fielder as the numbers make it look like he is, he'll not be given a chance to master any position to the point that he's clearly-adequate, and this will probably draw some of his attention away from his batting.

It seems like a sad waste of potential letting a guy who might be the team's best hitter wallow on the bench while manager Lloyd McClendon injects an exaltation of sabermetrically unpopular players into the lineup. If Craig Wilson could help the small market, and long-term struggling Pirates, no one will ever know.


Here's the odd thing, and I think it's not a coincidence: When Lloyd McClendon played, he was the Craig Wilson of his time. Not quite as good a player, but Wilson is a right-handed hitter who kills left-handed pitching and plays corner outfield, first base and catcher. McClendon was a right-handed hitter who killed left-handed pitching and played corner outfield, first base and catcher, and McClendon never really had the opportunity to start regularly. Even when he was putting up All-Star quality numbers, he never put up All-Star quality numbers because he got used as a platoon partner and occasional sub. Look at McClendon's career; it's hauntingly similar (not exactly the same: the manager's playing career started later, and his really good years were punctuated with poor ones).

But McClendon was the Pirates' lefty-killer sub extraordinaire of his day, and the way then-Pirate manager Jim Leyland used him is the way it appears he's insisting on using C. Wilson. In his two best years, 1989 and 1991, he was used for 200-350 plate appearances, and annihilated lefty pitching (numbers courtesy of Dr. Grant Sterling, philosopher, baseball researcher, Tolkien scholar, commissioner).:

        avg  obp  slg  AB    H  2b  3b  hr  rbi  w  hbp  k
vs. L  350  429  547 117   41   5   0   6   19  14  2   17
vs. R  130  200  239  46    6   2   0   1    5   4  0    6

vs. L  339  432  554  121   41   8   0   6   22  22   0  11
vs. R  239  310  413  138   33   4   1   6   18  15   1  20

McClendon's 1989 had splits much like the numbers Emeigh cites in the section I reprinted above. Great against lefties, about league average against righties.

I believe Lloyd McClendon is doing one of three things.

Possibility #1: He's intentionally making Craig Wilson relive the manager's own career limits (McClendon didn't do well enough against right-handed pitchers -- as in the 1989 example here -- to benefit his team, but on the other hand, it wasn't like he ever was given a great chance to play enough against righties to succeed or fail clearly). I call this a management hazing ritual -- sort of "I had to suffer through it all, and now you will to". Awful, but possible..

Possibility #2: He's intentionally using Wilson the way he was used because he falsely believes Wilson really is his doppelganger, that is, without any malice at all, he has come to believe that he himself never could have achieved more, that when he was effective, he was being spotted as a lefty-killer, and he's protecting Wilson's ego and career by using Wilson the way Leyland used him. Sad, maybe even right, but not good management.

Possibility #3: He's unintentionally using Wilson the way he was used; he doesn't even realize why. Really awful management.

Wilson is truly trapped in the Olde Frothingslosh hangover of McClendon's playing career. He's inexpensive enough to keep around as a bench player (last year's salary was $327,000), and at 300 plate appearances, will not likely rack up enough playing time to harvest big enough numbers to be able to sell himself as an expensive free agent, which may have him hanging on in this existential job description. And like Olde Frothingslosh (The Pale Stale Ale With The Foam On The Bottom), Wilson is a real product whose career may be short-lived and a source of bitter humor later on.


Outside of baseball, you see these managerial behaviors (all three of the possibilities I mentioned). This is actually one of the rare management failures that's as prevalent in small organizations as large ones.

Sometimes it's intentional.

As a college work-study job, I worked as an "agent trainee" at William Morris, a leading talent agency, in New York. It was the beginning of the career path that virtually everyone in the company had shared. The actual work was mail-room clerk, substitute receptionist, foot messenger, go-fer. And occasionally, you got to ask one of the agents a question or share an idea with him or her. And I once got to deliver a fat manila envelope to Melina Mercouri herself, which I thought was cool.

More than anything else, it was a total hazing experience. Like older boys in a British boarding school, many successful agents who survived this system suffered emotional damage during their years of endurance. They came to believe that the hazing they received was an important part of their training (after all, why would they have chosen to endure it rather than leaving -- a subtle logic trap). So they abused the agent trainees the way they had been abused.

Sometimes it's unintentional.

That's especially prevalent in American management. Because management itself is not seen as a profession in this country, but merely something gets promoted into for no (or vaguely) related reasons, American managers tend to just imitate managers they've had themselves (who, in turn, probably developed their managerial behavior portfolio the same way). If one does this consciously and with a rigorous and systematic approach, it's a wonderful short-cut to adequacy. But if one does this as a last resort, merely imprinting on a previous supervisor as "this must be a template for the way I'm supposed to act", it almost guarantees failure. Since 85% of all managers (business, government, military, non-profit) are mediocrity or crap, 85% of the people who one imitates are mediocrity or crap. (Actually, closer to 80%; 5% are so awful, they out themselves to their mediocre supervisors, who can't help but notice and actually do something about it).

My wife had a supervisor, let's call him "Vern Rapp", a very fine line worker, who was promoted to supervisor in social services unit. He was an English major, a cool guy, but w/zero management training. Without realizing it, he used his own father as a template for what an authority figure should do, and conflating "authority figure" with "manager" was the first howler of a mistake. Authority figure merely rule, and play off competing factions to maintain authority, while managers have to actually deliver results.

Vern Rapp's father was an overbearing, dictatorial man who protected his authority by maintaining secrecy. His decisions and instructions were delivered without explanation, without context. He maintained his authority by keeping family members on edge, uncertain, and concerned about their standing by never praising-when-merited, only criticizing-when-merited. Rapp's dad wasn't just a Falangist scumbag -- he had some good attributes, too. That secrecy, for example, meant that the family didn't know about every challenge they faced because he'd just take care of it. And he'd defend any family member to the death against anyone not inside the family.

So when Rapp became a supervisor late in life with no training, he managed his unit the same way. And this worked to a large degree as an authority figure. He won the loyalty of his staff because he would defend them to the death when they messed up, which they did more often than they should have because he wasn't managing them properly or teaching by example or helping the weaker individuals build up skills. His portfolio of managerial behaviors was constrained to his dad's.


I'm not promising McClendon is actually hazing C. Wilson, I don't have secret insight into his thinking/feeling process. But the parallels are so close it's breathtaking. This Scotsman would bet you a nickel he's right.

In your own management practice, do observe yourself regularly, examine your decisions and motivations, imitate the productive. Don't make someone else relive your Olde Frothingslosh hangover.

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