Saturday, July 10, 2004

PART III - The Book: Baseball's Model for
Evolving the Procedures Manual  

In the two previous posts in this series, I discussed "The Book", why baseball's model for procedures manuals was worth emulating, and how baseball makes (and you, too, if you use these tactics) the model work, diffusing knowledge about how to follow a complex set of decisions, when to vary them, and how to vary them.

Big organizations need procedures manuals to try to overcome their diseconomies of scale, to try to gain the efficiencies that do come with size. But it's very hard for big bureaucracies to update procedures meaningfully and at a speed that might outrun Dennys Reyes.

Baseball "knows" and makes it easy to see how procedures should evolve because managers pay close attention both to the immediate & to with trends they've been tracking, synthesizing them. Take a couple of well-known managers as an illustration.


Gene Mauch was a manager much beloved by owners and reporters, the former because he was easygoing with them, the latter because he was more polite than most of his peers. He was also beloved by Earl Weaver because Mauch had internalized The Book and varied off it so rarely that Weaver could play Mauch like a Stradivarius. If Weaver made a specific move in a specific situation, he knew with near-certainly what Mauch, like a chess player who only plans one move beyond the current one, would do in return. Because once Mauch decided a pair of players were platoon partners, Weaver several times made Mauch burn up a potential pinch hitter by flipping his pitcher and watching Mauch autonomically take out one player for his platoon partner. Weaver, like most attentive fans of a Mauch team, also seemed to know when Mauch would bunt.

Mauch had a great reputation. There were few individual decisions Mauch made that anyone could criticize, because they were almost always, at first glance, by "The Book". While Weaver knew The Book, he understood something about it Mauch, if he knew, didn't act on.

Weaver mastered application of "The Book" by understanding the ways it transcended a procedures manual:

  • the necessity of varying actions based on context,
  • the necessity of experimenting to gain feedback and test for systemic changes,
  • the necessity of variations to test assumptions.

A perfect Weaver example is his handling of middling left-handed hitters. He had a bunch of these over his tenure, but the one that comes to mind is Pat Kelly. Kelly had a fifteen year career, mostly as a left-handed platoon corner outfielder/DH, and his two best years both happened during the four years he played for Weaver's Oriole teams. By Kelly's 9th year in the majors, his reputation was pretty much set. Like a lot of decent left-handed hitters, he could hit righties pretty well and pretty much struggled against lefties (there's an important reason for this that's worth an entire topic of its own).

Lazy by-the book managers would look at Kelly's past, see his normal pattern and if they didn't have a platoon partner, would let him play all the time, undermining his apparent value by diluting his stats, while undermining the team with his lack of accomplishment the 3/8ths of the time they faced a left-handed starter. Weaver's model was more elaborate (and valuable) than a rigid adherence to historical stats.

  1. Observe the individual long enough to ascertain if he really has this hole in his aptitudes. He does.
  2. Make the general case that you platoon Kelly, letting him feast on the right-handed pitching he's currently good at hitting.
  3. Occasionally vary the norm by letting him in against selected lefties, especially either lefties who have no strong advantage over lefties or who Kelly's platoon partner has no history of hitting well. This increases his experience.
  4. With increased experience, it may make it possible for Kelly to improve his ability enough that he learns to hit lefties, which, if it happens, it a great leap forward for the team. If he only improves his ability a little, it still helps the team to a greater degree than his immediate uptick in offense -- it also delivers an advantage because it frees his manager from having to remove him for a platoon partner and that means additional tactical flexibility in volatile situations, the possibility of saving a key player for a higher-impact situation later in the game.
  5. Don't let small data samples distort your managerial thinking; Don't refuse to act based on the data at hand.


In the Larry Stone package I discussed in Part I, he had a sidebar, "A Peek in the Book", on ten rules from The Book and their current application, trying to see if some had changed or were just as they were "written".

Several are pretty constant because the foundation of the environment can't change very much to change the context of these decision, for example:

1. Play for a win on the road and a tie at home. Most managers still adhere to this edict, because of the huge advantage belonging to the team with the final at-bat.

7. Never make the first out or third out at third base. Perhaps more than any other tenet, this has stood the test of time. The logic is unassailable: A runner on second base is already in scoring position, so the urgency to get to third base with two outs is not strong. And with no outs, the runner can be advanced to third on a bunt or ground out and still score on a sacrifice fly.

It's the same pattern outside of baseball. There are decisions you are not going to experiment at all with, like suddenly presuming the Earth will lose its gravity field or Adam Dunn will stop striking out. The benefit of not wasting energy testing the unarguable is a real benefit when applied carefully.

Some are questioned because the environment has changed, mostly decisions that have arguments on both sides but that probalistically benefit one side over the other in a way that has drifted over time because of the juiced (to varying degrees) balls MLB has used since 1994.

8. Guard the lines late in games with a one-run lead. Managers used to move over their first and third basemen as a matter of course, until the smart ones realized they were giving up more base hits to the hole than they were preventing doubles down the line.

Guarding the lines prevents more doubles at the cost of yielding more singles, and it takes more singles to score a run than it does doubles. This one is highly contextual (the stadium, the speed of the batter and corner outfielders, etc.) so the fact that managers are varying the book on this on a case-by-case basis makes perfect sense. Beyond baseball, as a manager you should be doing the same, examining presumed actions based on context.

Finally, there are elements of The Book that bear heavy experimentation and tinkering.

5. Don't bring in your closer until the ninth inning. Herman Franks was credited by Bill James with being the first to isolate his closer, when he had Bruce Sutter with the Cubs. But Sutter was usually used for two or more innings. It was Tony La Russa's handling of Dennis Eckersley in the late 1980s — and the left-right-left-right relay leading up to him — that changed The Book.

This is the most recent tenet from the ten Stone cites, and the one that bears the most reason for skepticism. The reason it came into being is one that's very common beyond baseball: Some manager did something different; it was extremely successful in the specific context with the specific talent at hand; many imitated with different context and personnel and, even without successful feedback, continue to do it even though it yields middling or poor results in many cases.

LaRussa had great success with using Eckersley as a one-inning save-situation reliever because The Eck was great, The Eck at that stage of his career wasn't great for more than one inning, The Eck played on a team that had a ton of other good relievers so it wasn't a necessity for him to pitch all the crucial confrontations that might happen after a starter became ineffective. That's aligning a lot of unusual factors that don't appear together very often by chance, and are very hard to assemble when you're trying to do it on porpoise, as they used to say on Flipper. In baseball today, there are too many managers who contort themselves trying to align all the factors to create a ninth-inning-to-protect-a-small-lead closer when there are a dozen alternative models with as much probability of success for a lot less stress and manipulation.

Beyond baseball, it pays to examine your "The Book" whether its printed as a behemoth of blather or merely the unexamined assumptions of "the way we do things around here".


It pays to create ways to diffuse knowledge through your organization without resorting to procedures manuals, and baseball is the shining example of why to do it, how to do it, and when and how to break the mold for decisions.

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