Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Reds: Mining the Pre-Cambrian
Strata for Comparitive Advantage  

Nobody goes there anymore...it's too crowded. -- Yogi Berra

It's the silly season for baseball reporters. Having gotten an assignment that requires them to get paid to go to a warm climate and cover baseball, they have almost no actual news to report.

So they make up deals (e.g., Griffey Junior to Seattle -- no way, btw, if he's going anywhere, he's going to the Yankees who now need a slugger to replace Gary Sheffield temporarily and someone who can can play center field while contributing with the glove and bat, which Junior will do wherever he plays until he gets injured; yeah, I know about Junior's animosity towards the franchise, but it'll be a rent-a-player situation...he won't be there that long and the cash the Red'll get back will enable them to keep him around once the Yanks ship him back). They paraphrase the article they wrote about bats last Spring. They obsess about nutritional supplements. They write big-think pieces, trying to apply small-think brains besotted with sun.

When we're lucky, they write about anything unexpected, as Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer did today (thanks, Baseball Primer & the inimitable Repoz). Reds batting coach Chris Chambliss, a great situational hitter in his day, is faced with a team that last season didn't just lead the league in strikeouts, but blew away the field, whiffing 27% more than the rest of the league.Understand, as a composite, strikeouts are not instrinsically worse than any other kind of outs...within limits. And especially when combined with a lot of walks as an offensive approach, can expose the weak underbelly of some teams' middle relief corps by probabalistically ginning-up a better chance of wearing out starters with the extra effort strikeouts and walks entail. But the Redlegs were 11th in walks, trailing the rest of the league with 3% fewer free passes. Any ingredient in the recipe that's way out of context upsets the balance, and this very very high strikeout, low-middle walks strategy is not a sure winner.

So what does Chambliss do? According to Daugherty, he exhumes the Pre-Cambrian fossil pastime: Pepper. The drill, in case you haven't seen it, is a game where a batter hits (not slugs) the ball to a group of players gathered around closely, and when they snare the hit ball, they throw it back (not really hard, but as quickly as they can). Digging up abandoned fossils can have value outside baseball, too, but first let me explain a little more about pepper. The concept is the hitter is making contact with balls coming from a myriad of angles and spins, and using the wrists and arms to react quickly. The fielders and trying to snare balls hit at them from very close range and that requires not only quick hands and weight/balance changes, but hones the ability to predict the direction a ball will take. That's the way it's supposed to work

Over the last twenty years, and especially since the ball was juiced for the 1994 season, the incremental value of fielding has inched down, and as the frequency of power hitting has gone up, the incremental value of putting a ball in play without a lot of mustard (that is, a ball you focus on hitting squarely at a specific angle rather than swinging through with power) has gone down too. This is true in the composite and in most individual situations.

There are exceptions though.

The 2003 Cincinnati Reds are the poster child for the inability to hit situationally (just try and meet the ball on certain counts like 1-2 or to a lesser degree, 2-2, instead of taking your most Canseco-like cut) having a different, higher incremental value than it would for the average team. And a potential side benefit: Pepper is designed to quicken reaction for defenders, especially in the infield. The Reds were dead last in fielding percentage in '03, and fielding percentage is one small, partial indicator of defensive ability. Baseball Prospectus' more sophisticated measure, Defensive Efficiency, rates the '03 Reds as 26th out of 30 teams, that is, they were execrable.

Pepper, this discarded technique, if there's some physical or physiological benefit to it, could be an important bit of comparitive advantage to the Reds, especially since every other team thinks of it as being as passé as Mondale for President bumper stickers, and that means any advantages that accrue to the Reds are not as likely to be diffused to other teams as quickly.

¿Will it work to diminsih strikeouts enough to bring the team into some level of balance? ¿Will it improve Reds fielders' ability to snare and process effectively some additional balls that would have been hits and convert them into outs? I don't know. But I do know it's worth dredging up the ancient, disposed-of past when the situation begs it.


The Chambliss Maneuver, turning something so old that it's new, works well outside of baseball, too, especially when well-chosen. And I do insist well-chosen. Just because it was once useful doesn't mean it still is or even should be. You have to consider and examine the context: is is extinct because it was dysfunctional and still is (like some sacrifice bunts early in games), because it was replaced by soemthing better and cheaper, or was its extinction merely part of a cycle.

Marketing is filled with examples of efforts that go through cycles. In high-tech marketing, for example, there was a tradition of giving away t-shirts, and early in the cycle, that worked decently, especially if the t-shirts were cool. But then everybody was giving away t-shirts, and most potential recipients valued them less, so there was escalation: long-sleeve tees, sweatshirts, hooded sweatshirts, fleece vests, each costing more than the previous. So now, no-one gives away t-shirts. I got my first t-shirt in about three years last month, and in the past that would have been an incredible yawn. But I actually found this one useful and attention-getting. It's so Pre-Cambrian, it's avant garde.

It cycles through commodity prices, too. When long-time ingredients get replaced with newer ones in manufacture or food processing, the price of the older one tends to decline until almost no-one wants to produce it for sale any more. But frequently, there are a few providers who keep on manufacturing it out of either stubborness, foolishness or dedication to a product they know they can make better than anyone else. And I've had clients who were able to buy a constituent or ingredient they had switched from years ago because it was too expensive, find that it's so inexepensive now from lack of demand that it makes sense to go back to it. And competitors, committed to the present, forget the (now cheaper) virtue of the extinct.

As as a management consultant, I let tools go that I carried around for decade, but while I remove them from my toolbox, I never expunge them from my memory. I periodically go back though old projects, and review how I worked problems when my tool set was different. Occasionally, I find one that I retired and realize it might work for someone I'm working with now. Sometimes, it's merely habit that keeps us going at things the way everyone else is, and sometimes it makes sense to pull a Chambliss Maneuver.

As noted management consultant Yogi Berra might say, It's so empty, people can go there now.

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