Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays:
Change is Organizational, Change is Personal  

For a conscious being, to exist is to change,
to change is to mature, to mature is to go on
creating oneself endlessly
-- Henri "Boum-Boum" Bergson

An extraordinary number of readers have asked for some comments about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' turnaround. A team that has struggled consistently to finish above last place in every year since expansion created the franchise in 1998, they never have finished above last place. This year (through today), they are a game above .500 and in 3rd place in their 5-team division.


Change is "home plate" in the Management by Baseball model. Change is the ultimate & rarest managerial accomplishment. Baseball teams are an extraordinaily good lens through which to analyse conscious, premeditated organizational change.

What's changed for the Devil Rays? Many things, though from an organizational view, nothing unusual recently. When the Rays started their existence, they tried to compete instantly with older veteran sluggers and a little very young talent. After a relatively expensive bill for unsuccessful efforts, they went very cheap and let their young prospects play. That young talent was a workforce that in most organizations would have been in AAA or even AA minor league rosters. But the hopefuls got playing time without a lot of pressure, and the ones who survived slowly aged into more mature talent.

An early Bill James study showed how successful teams tend to display certain age patterns. Dividing players into three piles chronologically by age: young, prime, old (my words, not his...I can't lay my hands on the study at the moment, but if I can I'll come back with a full citation), you can see a team's distribution of each age bracket. Successful teams tend to have a lot of prime talent, fewer older players, and a smattering of young players. It's not invariable that teams with this distribution succeed or teams without it don't, but there's a strong correlation.

A few of Rays' big anaconda lump of youngsters have grown year by year into the middle category (though it's still a very young roster), and the team has acquired a few really ooooold guys who are native Tampa residents, Tino Martinez (36 years old.) and Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff (40), and solid if ininspiring utility guys Brook Fordyce (34) and Rey Sanchez (36).

The team's construction is basically the opposite of the pattern the Bill James study showed was a correlate for successful teams. It has bulges among the very young (on the roster there are guys who are 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, and 24), and the geriatric-for-baseball. This doesn't mean the Rays will tank, but they are more likely to play below-.500 baseball the rest of the way this season than above .500. Even now, they have surrendured more runs (338) than they have scored (361), a ratio more prevalent among losing teams than winning ones.

As with an Anna Nicole Smith performance art piece, the combination of Gravity and Lack of Developed Talent tends to overcome Ambition over the long haul.


While change is "home plate" in the Management by Baseball model, personal self-awareness (understanding how your own personality and neuroses and aptitudes distort your perception of how manage best) is Third Base in the model. Self-awareness plays a role in the Rays' success, too.

Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella has been very successful in the past, but at 60 years old, he's still capable of taking on his biases, examining past success and failure, and learning to apply past lessons in the present. That's a critical element of change, a critical element of adequate management.

Last Saturday, 24-year old Rays pitcher D. Dewon Brazelton was throwing a no-hitter through seven innings, though he had thrown a lot of pitches and was running out of steam. The old, pre-evolved Lou Piniella would have had no qualms about leaving D. Dewon in if the lad kept the no-hitter going. No new-age, pampering bleeding heart, Piniella was from the Bitgod School (Back In The Good Old Days) that tends to worship a past where women were gals and men had no qualms about pitching complete games, adjusting their protective cups on the field and smokin' a couple of packs of unfiltered Camels a day.

In this game story, the New Lou says he was almost relieved that D. Dewon gave up the hit. While Piniella has removed a starter working on a no hitter in the past, it's counter to his history. The capable-of-change Lou was quoted thus:

"You've got to remember -- a no-hitter is great," Piniella said. "But what's better is a nice 10year major league career where you stay healthy and you're productive and you're making lots of money."


Organizational change is tough and rarer than personal change. What's interesting is that technically, organizational change is easier than personal change.

What are your unexamined presumptions? How do they affect your decisions, the way you think people should behave and achieve? Can you overcome your own Bitgod tendencies? Can you do a New Lou and be open to new ways of managing, ways that don't fit your own early experiences or that serve your organization at the same time they don't necessarily satify yours?

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