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Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Lessons of Brady Anderson's Magnum Opus  

I once hit .583 for a season in a recreational league. Granted, it was one of those 1887 Tip O'Neill flukes. Only 21 games, there were no walks and you couldn't strike out on a foul ball (a rule I hate that's in so many rec leagues), so I could foul off five or six pitches waiting for one I really liked. But I had this extraordinary combination of seeing the ball really well, being very comfortable at the plate and incredible luck that allowed a fair number of line drives to just miss outstretched gloves. Everything just lined up that season.

So when Brady Anderson, a fairly good but ordinary player who had one breathtaking outlier of a year, gets accused of using illegal substances simply because that year is so many standard deviations from his norm, I 'm confident that the accusation is just whingeing from a bunch of people who don't get the point. But so you understand, here's Anderson's the part of playing record including The Year, and the five years before and after:

Year Ag Tm ..G ..AB ..R .H .2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB .SO .BA ..OBP SLG HBP
1991 27 BAL 113 256
.40 .59 12 .3 .2 .27 12 .5 38 .44 .230 .338 .324 .5
1992 28 BAL 159 623 100 169 28 10 21
.80 53 16 98 .98 .271 .373 .449 .9
1993 29 BAL 142 560
.87 147 36 .8 13 .66 24 12 82 .99 .262 .363 .425 10
1994 30 BAL 111 453
.78 119 25 .5 12 .48 31 .1 57 .75 .263 .356 .419 10
1995 31 BAL 143 554 108 145 33 10 16
.64 26 .7 87 111 .262 .371 .444 10
1996 32 BAL 149 579 117 172 37 .5 50 110 21 .8 76 106 .297 .396 .637 22
1997 33 BAL 151 590 .97 170 39 .7 18 .73 18 12 84 105 .288 .393 .469 19
1998 34 BAL 133 479
.84 113 28 .3 18 .51 21 .7 75 .78 .236 .356 .420 15
1999 35 BAL 150 564 109 159 28
.5 24 .81 36 .7 96 105 .282 .404 .477 24
2000 36 BAL 141 506
.89 130 26 .0 19 .50 16 .9 92 103 .257 .375 .421 .8
2001 37 BAL 131 430
.50 .87 12 .3 .8 .45 12 .4 60 .77 .202 .311 .300 .8

In the new tabloid fascination with supplements legal and illegal, Anderson's 1996 Magnum Opus has been mentioned as a strong candidate for being an indication of steroid use. This kind of thinking is so far off base, I'm not sure it qualifies as actual thinking. The Baltimore Sun ran an article, "Anderson defends his '96 power trip", that lets Anderson talk about his season, and how it fits into his career.

"Because I only hit 50 home runs once, it was, in fact, an aberration. However, it was not a fluke," he told The Sun yesterday. "Nothing can be considered a fluke that takes six months to accomplish. Rather it was a culmination of all my athleticism and baseball skills and years of training peaking simultaneously. This was my athletic opus.

"Hitting in front of [Roberto] Alomar, [Rafael] Palmeiro, [Bobby] Bonilla and [Cal] Ripken didn't hurt, either." [snip]

"I have been alternately amused and perplexed by Palmer's vacillating comments over the last few days," said Anderson, who is raising his daughter with her mother, Sonia Vassi. "I did not respond initially because I sensed he knew he had made a mistake and thought it fair to let him rectify the matter on his own.

"Perhaps what offended me the most was his comment that he knows how hard I trained. How could he possibly know that? Pushing myself to become a better athlete was truly my passion and still is. Many people don't possess the desire to test the limits of what the body and mind can accomplish, and others I'm certain possess the desire but lack the expertise to achieve the desired results."

Anderson never hit more than 21 homers before 1996, and didn't eclipse 24 after '96.

"I know what I accomplished, am proud of it, and know that it was done with integrity," he said. "I'll state this once again: It was 26 more home runs than I hit in any other season, but that's just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity."

Anderson usually kept a container of Creatine in his locker, but the supplement, which serves as an energy reserve in muscle cells, is legal. "That's here to stay. It's a legitimate substance. It's found in food," he said. "Taken properly, it can be very beneficial. But it doesn't replace skill or training."

Anderson, who was tested for steroids in the minors last year, said he has received dozens of calls from friends and former teammates since Palmer's remarks made it into print, many of them outraged or confused by the implications. They remember Anderson as a man obsessed with physical fitness, someone whose training methods were seen as outrageous for a baseball player. They remember him working out privately on the back fields at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, where he would squat 200 pounds while balancing on an exercise ball.

They also observed how his weight never fluctuated much, that his muscular build was the same four years before he hit 50 homers - as evidenced by a poster of him, shirtless, that was a popular sell in Baltimore. They didn't see the violent outbursts common with steroid abusers. [snip] Players used to tease Anderson for bringing his own blender into the clubhouse, unfamiliar with the concoctions he chugged before or after games. Said Ripken: "Now protein mixes are an acceptable part of everyone's diet. Brady always had a much more advanced concept of cross-training and plyometrics and his diet. He was just ahead of the curve."

His timing on fastballs was impeccable in '96. "To me, it was all about him being locked in. He had good swings every at-bat. Bearing witness to it all year, he was a marvel to watch. I don't remember him ever being in a slump," Ripken said.

"Brady always had a fly-ball swing, which he was criticized for as a leadoff hitter, but that year he was right on the ball. He was just in one of those grooves. There were a couple of instances in my career when I seemed to pick up the next day where I left off. It's hard to explain. You wish you could do that every year."

Said Anderson: "The thing that stands out about '96 is, it's not my size, it's my swing. If anyone wants to compare what changed about me, my swing was so much better that year. I couldn't match it, and I don't know why. Later in my career, I was trying to imitate myself. I had a swing that any hitter would have been proud of. The other years, I used to just battle [hard] and be athletic."

If one thinks Anderson took steroids, the arguer would have to answer some simple questions

#1: If he was on steroids before 1996, why were his stats so ordinary?

#2: If he was on {steroids | whatever} in 1996, why is the shape of his stat line the way it is? It's not one single thing...that is, it's clear he was taking a different approach and benfitted. He had 22 HBPs, over twice his typical dram, meaning he was working the plate differently. He ha a lower walk rate and lower strikeout rate and more hits, meaning he was putting the ball in play some more. His RBIs (excluding the ones he got scoring on his own homers) went up 25% while his hits went up 19%, meaning he probably had far more plate appearances with men on base (which provides an additional advantage to a hitter who is facing a pitcher who is more likely to be ineffective or whose attention is divided to some degree, or both).

#3. If he was on {steroids | whatever} in 1996, why is his 1997 stat line so normal for his career in most ways, while still reflecting the approach of the unusual 1996 year? There was no giant tabloid supplements witch-hunt. He didn't injure himself (he played two more games that next season than he had the year before). Competitive people can usually be counted on to keep doing what they are asuccessful at and for which they recieved recognition. If he was taking steroids in 1996, why would he stop?

The suspicion is unavoidable that Brady Anderson just had his Magnum Opus in 1996, a year when everything went just right, he had some extra luck, some extra tranquillity. some extra soup├žon of consistent muscle coordination. And that it was combined with a different approach of crowding the plate to avoid being jammed too often, and that pitchers didn't, as a composite, adapt too well during that season, to his changes, adapting only later.

BEYOND BASEBALL

Outside of baseball, managers experience this alignment of the planets occasionally. It's important to remember this in evaluating performance in in managing your own expectations of people and strategies.

Just as many Orioles fans were disappointed with Anderson, a C+ ballplayer for most of his career who had an A+ year, it's possible to be "disappointed" with the perfomance of staff or managers who are good, and who then do something great when they're locked in or get the perfect situation in which to prove themselves. These zones don't usually last very long in dynamic systems. The odds are, they will regress to their range of normal. That's true when they suddenly fail as sharply in the other direction.

While individuals get hurt by this spearation between reality and expectations, organizational strategies can hurt a lot more. Decent one-year results based on a specific strategy can be the early recongition of a sea-change, or just an Anderson-like change of approach that works for a while, and perhaps benefits from a little fortuitous smattering of co-factors or indepedent events that play into the direction of the strategy. And in the case where it's a Brady Anderson 1996 (a fine outlier where everything just came into synch at the same time), organizations can go nuts and refuse to adapt their approach, sticking to the expectation that somehow, that outlier was normal.

Do you see this in your own organization? Perhaps behaviors that unfairly criticize individuals for living in their 99th percentile all the time? Perhaps strategies that see past results as rules writ in stone? Or like Brady Anderson, can your organization stay as sharp as it can and not let expectations blitz reality and face the immutable fact that sometimes, everything comes together for a contributor or a strategy, and just see that as a positive, useful-when-it-happened blip.


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