Sunday, April 04, 2004

21st Century Baseball's Über-Enigma:
The S.F. Giants' Nijinsky-like Anti-Gravity  

One technique widely-used in professional management is MBE (Management By Exception). Usually, organizations use it to identify something tactical that requires attention (Why is our blem rate higher on Tuesday mornings? Why is our net income surging in the Upper-Midwest? Why are cancer rates so much higher in Houston-Baytown metro area?).

It requires a world view that dictates you know what's "right" or "expected", you pretty much ignore most of the possible demands on your attention to focus on the things that are deviations from the right or expected.

Many managers who have engineer personality types or who just have a strong need for simplicity will use MBE as a primary tool, the benefit being one looks only at the numerically-measurable things (aliasing-out ambiguity and soft information) and only at the minority of those that seem "out of range" (like David McCarty slugging .800 or Adam Kennedy slugging .230 in spring training), meaning you look at even less. Given all the things one might have to mess with, it's a simplifying, if simplistic, way to winnow things down to a small set.


I like to use the MBE tool myself on occasion to explore strategic anomalies, for example when a competitor is doing something terribly wrong by most or all key standards of organizational behavior or approach and yet succeeding. If you think about it structurally and thoroughly, you frequently come up with a big surprise or two.

Sometimes it's that the key approach everyone assumes is a foundation of success is merely an artifact that neither helps nor hinders (it's standard behavior to say "god bless you" when someone sneezes, but I'll assert it neither decreases nor increases the frequency of possession by evil spirits). In these cases, you can sometimes simplify or tune processes to take advantage of this knowledge.

Sometimes it's that there are other, not-used elesewhere approaches to success. In these cases, there might be strong competitive advantages in harvesting resources that others undervalue, are phasing out of their repertoire or that no one else has discovered yet.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, Jack Pfiester earned the nickname "Giant Killer" by running up a 15-5 record against one of the strongest franchises of his time and his own Cubs' biggest consistent rival. The Giants over that five-year period played 459-307 baseball, the equivalent of being a 97-win team every year in a 162-game season. Big exception, that Pfiester should have been able to so regularly pound the Gigantes so effectively.

The opposite might be said of current Giants' GM Brian Sabean. In his first big deal as GM, he traded Matt Williams, his second best player (and only other everyday big asset) of a very good year to the Cleveland Indians for proven mediocrity Jeff Kent, promising middle reliever Julian Tavarez, and roster plaque Jose Vizcaino. Everybody, me included, was convinced the man was mad.

Williams never had another great season, Kent turned into an all-star with a bat equivalent to Williams' with five good seasons, Williams turned into a pumpkin, contributing only one good season. And Vizcaino gave them a good year of leather-work at short before becoming a free agent.

That was the first of many moves over the last six years that regularly leave astute observers, both of the sabermetric and traditional bents scratching their heads. Almost universally, his moves seem random or negative, trading lots of young talent for temporary help, signing for more money than what they seem worth as starters guy who seem like they should be 4th outfielders, or getting overvalued players like the legendarily limited Neifi Perez.

As a result, a ridiculous percentage of the team's overall production is tied up in a single, old player, Barry Bonds.

And yet.

And yet the Giants keep on contending, even getting to a World Series.

Everyone piles on. Every year it's the same as intelligent observers criticize what Sabean does and doesn't do. He trades away prospects for short-term ordinary-ness. He pays too much for it. And the team keeps on rolling well enough to contend, even over time when such a strategy, on the face of it, should lead to enervation.

Baseball Prospectus' most recent team update on the Giants, written anonymously, has three sections. The first questions Giant front office passivity in addressing overall roster moves. The second paragraph questions the decision as to who to play in right field, especially in light of inexpensive options that had been available on the market. The third paragraph rakes Sabean for addressing his emmentaler bullpen problem by the acquisition of Milwaukee Brewer rejects. Typical.

Baseball Primer's team season preview of the Giants, by Ken Adams & Don Malcolm (both much smarter guys than I) also offers much documented pessimism, although leaves in the possibility of the team contending again with around 85 wins. They note the team's #1 pitcher is on the DL for an indeterminate amount of time, their marquee closer is injured for a while, that the front office didn't manage to sign the closer's fill-in for last year, and that both the replacement starters he got for this season are proven mediocrities. They do run a chart Malcolm likes to use comparing last year's performance with career peak and average, that that holds out some hope for some improved offensive seasons.

Player         '03 OPS+   Peak OPS+  Career OPS+
Pierzynski        114        114          105
Snow              112        135          105
Durham            111        116          103
Perez              65         85           63
Alfonzo            90        150          111
Bonds             231        275          179
Grissom           104        124           93
Mohr               86        102           91
Tucker             92        117           95

In general, it appears the Giants' fate rests on the relative transcendent abnormality of Barry Bonds' offense, driven by incomparable skill, helium-abuse, edame or whatever.


I've been waiting for someone to make an MBE case study of Sabean's methods. Every year, the exception in what it is he does looms larger and larger, making the obviousness of the case loom larger, too. But no solid guess with a foundation of analysis for fact has come forth.

The closest answer, the one I have to hold onto until someone makes a dedicated study is the Adams/Malcolm hypothesis: That Barry Bonds' offensive performance is so many standard deviations beyond what any one player has produced since Babe Ruth retired that it warps and destroys "laws" that observers presume are natural or normal.

If you look at the Sabean exception challenge, it seems possible that he has managed to find a seam built on that most fragile-looking of bases, the one-man show. It's not a great explanation, just the best current one.

Does your line of work have an organization that spits in the eye of all accepted processes and still kicks booty? Do you methodically analyze their approach to see what you can glean? Are there mad scientists creating weapons-grade lactose out of stale Velveeta or building pennant-contending teams out of Neifi Perez and Brett Tomko?

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