Monday, July 26, 2004

Art Howe & The Mets: Nobody Expects
the Spanish Inquisition  

If you're trying to deliver a major change, people will resist.
If people think you may be trying to make a major change, people will resist.
If you're trying to deliver a minor change, people will resist.
and in a sick enough environment, if people think you may be trying to make a minor change, people will resist.

In the theory & practice of change management we have a few core commandments, the key one being that people fear change. And while some people fear change, and some of those fearful will actively try to oppose it, I don't believe that fear is as big a problem as most do. I think pure vicious greed-eyed politics looms a lot larger as a factor.


Every reform triggers a counter-reformation. And every counter-reformation has atrocities. When the Roman Catholic system was battling the range of Protestant theologies in Europe, there were some people who committed atrocities because they believed God spoke through their actions. But there were far more who believed in using the Inquisition and other methods to get in on the action and used an expression of faith as an excuse. There are some people who will burn you at the stake because they think it's good for you, but far more who will do it because they like to hear you scream in pain as the flames lick at your extremities.

This latter type is prevalent among the New York region's sports press.

Last Thursday, New York Met starter Tom Glavine pitched through 7 innings against Montreal and left with the game locked in a 1-1 tie. Manager Art Howe brought in John Franco, his veteran left-handed reliever, to face the Expos lineup. The first two hitters, Brad Wilkerson and Endometriosis Chavez were both left-handed and Franco and his fielders got both out. With one out, Jose "In" Vidro singled. Man on first, two outs, and Tony Batista up.

Batista is right-handed, generically a potential edge against the left-handed Franco. But:

  1. Batista isn't hitting any better against lefties this year than righties (.225/260/410 against left, .235/260/385 against right).
  2. Batista this year can't hit Major League pitching any better than a randomly-chosen member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
  3. In his career, Batista has hit right-handed pitching 17% better than left-handed. (in 2001-03, he had an OPS of .630 against lefties and .740 against lefties).
  4. In four previous career appearances against Franco, Batista is 0-for 4.

Howe leaves Franco in. Batista hits a homer, the Mets continue their futility at the plate, and the Batista coup proves to be the winning margin.


So if Howe brings in the righty, he's open to criticism because Batista hits righties better. And because he left in the portsider, he gets piled on by David "Get The Comfy Chair" Waldstein of the Star-Ledger. While I don't know Waldstein's work, I think he's the kind of writer who would blame the Red Cross for the Abu Ghraib prison torture, contending they didn't succeed in stopping it soon enough.

Here's the way Torquemada spins it:

NEW YORK -- John Franco and the Mets' struggling bullpen will get the blame for this one. And when you gift wrap a home run ball the way Franco did, you deserve it.

But manager Art Howe should not avoid scrutiny either, since it was his decision yesterday to allow the struggling lefty with the 2-7 record to face right-handed hitting Tony Batista, who belted a two-run home run in the eighth inning to break a tie and lead the Montreal Expos to a 4-1 victory at Shea Stadium.

[snip]Howe spoke after the game about his hitters' lack of discipline at the plate and said he was "disappointed with the offense." But he would take no blame for leaving Franco, who took the loss Tuesday night after pitching poorly against the Marlins, in an untenable situation, especially when right-hander Orber Moreno was warming up in the bullpen and appeared ready to pitch.

"Johnny was the guy we wanted there," said Howe, who pointed out Batista was 0-for-4 lifetime against Franco. "It was a good fit for Johnny. What can you say? The home run ball got us today."

Batista is also 0-for-3 off right-hander Mike DeJean, who didn't pitch Wednesday after a scoreless inning in his Mets debut Tuesday.

The Mets, whose heavy reliance on complex statistical data and sophisticated scouting reports has served them well, may have been let down by them yesterday. More than one player said even though Howe was disappointed in them, they were equally disappointed in him.. [emphasis mine]

"The manager lost this game today," said one player, who refused to be identified.


Baseball management, as it is in every non-baseball endeavor, is about percentages not certainty. Howe was let go by the Oakland A's because allegedly he wasn't statistically-oriented enough. In Gotham, he's getting dinged for letting the historical record shape his decisions. The baseball counter-reformation wants to get back to the good old days before 1950 when Branch Rickey hired a statistician full-time to start tracking game data to look for trends for the Brooklyn Dodgers. There aren't many who actually believe you can do it better without some simple data, but there are those who would use a perfectly rational data-based decision to attack the decision-maker. In this case, Howe isn't even being particularly sabermetric. He's just using tools commonly used by a vast majority of managers since about 1970.

Beyond baseball, you will always find those with an agenda to oppose you. If you're using standard operating procedure, they'll argue you shouldn't have. If you innovate, they'll argue you should have used s.o.p. Even your own players will snipe at you if they have an agenda (who is that unnamed player in Waldstein's piece? And what's this about "refused to be identified"? Waldstein knows who he is, I suspect, since he covers the team on imagines he would recognize him by face or ask another player who dude is. They must not have editors who can fog a mirror at the Star-Ledger).

You can't let the Torquemadas stop you.

It doesn't pay to ignore them, either. Sadly, you can't just take the high road & let them have their say without response, because if you leave it unargued the Waldstein stories become part of the organization's folklore, the details disappear over time because they don't really support he slander, and then the core slander, that you caused the loss, stay as residue. You have to fight back. Preferably you fight fair (the counter to the Counter-Reformation included the Defenestrations of Prague where Hussites tossed selected Catholics out the windows of The Castle, perhaps necessary at the time, perhaps excessive).

No matter what, though, you don't ever reward the Torquemadas' sadism by ignoring it. Whether you use P.R. in favor of what you did, indirect promotion (change the subject, create a better story about an actual accomplishment that's more important), or engage in an effort to discredit your Torquemada, you plan and implement a way to push back.

Every useful strategy will have opposition. Even when you're not trying to implement change, some particularly political scum will try to undermine you just because, like watching you barbecue at the stake, they find it fun. Don't dwell on it, but be prepared and be ready to act. Change, even just your career, won't succeed without it.

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