Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Colorado Rockies' Four on the Floor:
Experiment When You Have Nothing to Lose  

The altitude of stadia at which quality players compete affects many aspects of baseball. And physically, high altitude just wears players out more thoroughly than a frat boy who's struggling to get hammered on a case of 3.2 Coors Light.

Since the Colorado Rockies started playing in 1993, their front office has tried and tossed a ton of approaches to fielding a winning team. The challenge is that playing half your games at 5,200 feet altitude destroys the valid components of conventional wisdom, and every action taken to control one bit of eccentricity seems to open up the gates of hell for a flood of other demonic twists. Thinner air means pitches don't break as much, meaning pitchers try to break pitches harder and break their fine muscles more quickly. Pitches that break less are easier to hit. Balls hit at 5,200' go farther than ones hit with equal force at sea level.

The reaction to all this is to move fences out. But this creates more square feet of outfield to patrol, promoting more extra base hits. Try to get very accomplished starting pitchers. But the physical and mental torment wears them down and then out. Every action has an equally undermining backlash.

With the exception of 1995 when the team snared a wild card slot, they have been medium to poor as measured by wins & losses.


The team's general manager Dan O'Dowd has been a hallmark of experiments. He's tried to stack the offense with sluggers, stuff the starting rotation with tough, expensive pitchers, spray the outfield with speedy guys who could turn potential doubles into outs. Nothing has worked quite the way he and team fans would have hoped. But he's stuck in there, continuing to try things, trying things others wouldn't try while never seeming to be totally random.

O'Dowd has a healthy attitude towards experimentation.

And now that his team is a consensus pick for last place, he and manager Clint Hurdle are embarking on a real contrarian experiment: they're going to try a four-man starting rotation. For most general managers, this would be what my buddy Dave Perkins calls a CLM (a Career Limiting Move), because if it fails, you he'll have no conventional wisdom to point to as an excuse. For O'Dowd, it's far less risky (though not without any risk at all -- no experiment ever is for a non-monopoly) because (a) no one expects the team to be very strong this year, and (b) everyone the team has tried to use as a fifth starter has stunk worse than a thousand pounds of kim chee accidentally left overnight in a sauna.

At least one of the most interesting baseball researchers is enthused. Rany Jazayerli at Baseball Prospectus has long argued the four-starter rotation makes a lot of sense, and he wrote a well-argued essay today suggesting why Colorado was a good place to try it. Read it if you have time -- there's a richness of detail I won't recount here. The one caution that Jazayerli shot up a flare for was controlling the number of pitches the starters should be allowed to throw (well under the 100 that's considered a safe standard at sea level) and of course, like all the experiements I cited earlier, this opens up another potential problem, additional pitches that will have to be thrown by memebers of the Rockies' bullpen. But as Earl Weaver always said, it's easier to find four good starters than it is five.

Personally, I think the Rockies' experiment is a noble, worthwhile effort (for both reasons 'a' and 'b' cited previously), but I think Colorado, because of the extraordinary wear it places on all pitchers, is a scary place to try this experiment. I think it just strings together too many fragile elements to make success likely. That said, I applaud O'Dowd and Hurdle's willingness to try. I've been wrong about a Colorado experiment before -- when they traded for Preston Wilson, a fellow with speed and power who struck out 27.5% of the time, about 40% more often than the league as a whole, I thought by not putting the ball in play often that he'd be seriously undermined, and he wasn't at all.


In non-baseball organizations, you can take the O'Dowd/Hurdle approach when you have little or nothing to lose. For example, you can try out new talent when your project is already very late or guaranteed to come in unsatisfactorily. When a marketing program will clearly not make its targets, you can experiment with different incentives and target populations.

I had a client that regularly produced a parade of beautifully-engineered products. They tended to be well ahead of their business customers with new technologies they offered (the universal price of being creative), and they tended to be optimistic about their products' prospects. So they usually overproduced early production runs of swell, but not well-known products, get stuck with a lot of unsolf inventoru, and that became a chronic problem. Producing lower volumes might have been possible (flew in the face of their optimism, so a hard sell) and rasied the cost/unit.

Their Q.C. manager, of all people, thought up the idea of using unsold inventory of good new products that were clogging up inventory as promotional giveaways to prospective customers. No one in their industry had done that before; there was a single way of dealing with unsold inventory everyone followed. We helped them buy targeted lists and designed an integrated marketing program to blitz many potential influencers in organizations that weren't current customers that looked like they could be good prospects. The program was a moderate success in opening new markets and a significant success on the bottom line.

The worse the current situation, the less likely it will be a CLM, the more latitude you have to try a thoughtful experiment, find out something you always wanted to know. Like left-handed Larry Walker choosing to bat right-handed for the first time as a pro against the terrifying lefty Randy Johnson in the 1998 All-Star Game (he knew he couldn't hit him batting lefty, so what did he have to lose?), don't get cautious when you have nothing to lose -- try out new approaches.

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