Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Dierker Doesn't Do Dallas,
Tributes Tribe's Track-Record  

In most workplaces, public relations can yield more recognition than competence. And competence can be overlooked.

There are a couple of nifty baseball examples of successful managers who are generally under-appreciated. One of the most noteworthy examples wrote today about one of the other most noteworthy examples.

Larry Dierker, SABR member and former manager today wrote a column that while not the most elegant piece of writing, aimed to make a strong argument I've been meaning to get around to for a long time. His assertion: Bobby Cox, the skipper of the Atlanta Braves, is a heck of a manager. Before we go to the subject, Cox, let me point out Dierker's managerial record:

Year League Team G W L WP Finish
1997 NL Cent Houston 162 84 78 .519 1
1998 NL Cent Houston 162 102 60 .630 1
1999 NL Cent Houston 162 97 65 .599 1
2000 NL Cent Houston 162 72 90 .444 4
2001 NL Cent Houston 162 93 69 .574 1
TOTAL 810 448 362 .553

Five seasons, four division titles, a .550 winning percentage, and ended his last season in 1st place. Dierker knows something about managing a baseball team.

In Dierker's piece about Cox, he argues the key point that always convinced me Cox, for his almost Lake Wobegon quality lack 'o charisma, knew what he was doing: he manages a team with fairly high turnover in personnel and overall style, and manages to either promote their winning, or, if you're cynical, just not get in the way. Either way, that's great management.

In the last 13 years, Atlanta has won its division 12 times. In strike-shortened 1994, no-one won, but Montreal finished the aborted season with the best record. Cox' teams have won in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, a high-powered offense enhancer, and in Turner Field, a pitcher's park. As General Manager John Schuerholz brought up developed talent, traded players he couldn't afford and replaced them with others he could, the team has changed complexion multiple times during the 13 year run. They went from the most incredibly fine first three starting pitchers to losing two of them to free agency and one to an injury. Schuerholz, like any great management talent, used the tools at hand to cobble together a rotation. The injured starter, John Smoltz, still pitches well, but couldn't go as many innings, so they made him their (now very successful) closer. (Dierker details many more moves in his article, if you're interested).

They never let themselves be constrained by their self-image. Many organizations would have seen themselves as a pitching anchored team, and struggled to get back to that. Not the Braves. With less pitching, they traded for more hitting, becoming primarily an offensive team last year. This year, after almost universal predictions that this would be the year they tanked, they are in the middle of a pennant race and at this moment have a small lead.

Dierker adds that he thinks Cox' demeanour is part of his success:

During all the years I have followed Bobby Cox's Braves, I never have seen them in turmoil. Sure, they have had their minor tiffs, but Bobby makes sure they stay minor. His players always seem to be prepared physically, and they always seem to strike that uneasy balance between being loose and relaxed and focused and determined. After managing so many stars for so many years, you would think there would be at least one season in which the team would implode. It hasn't happened.

It's true Cox has the advantage of a team with a great front office that views the task without prejudices that would constrain lesser talents. And that means Cox regularly has better talent available to him than the average field manager has. But he, like Schuerholz , makes the most of what he has, shifting tactics to match ballparks and personnel to maximize what he has.


That's the most you can expect from any manager: that she or he will optimize the resources at hand, and when faced with change, change the way they do things to match those changed resources.

Moreover, he has the kind of attitude and calm can-do attitude that enlists his players, and this is vital outside of baseball, too. Many shops that militantly collect serious talent tend to decay into internal-competition modes, zero-sum games where the competitive compete to be the best, not just by excelling themselves, but by trying to undermine their peers to make themselves look better in comparison. Cox' Braves collect serious talent and seem to be able to pull together for mutual advancement.

Will the Braves win again this year? I'm not much of a prognosticator. I do know they are competitive this year when everyone thought they wouldn't be. Again. Flexibility and teamwork are the hallmarks of this organization.

I agree with Dierker -- you can't succeed over-and-over like that without good management, in baseball or beyond. And that requires embracing change and making sure you give people more incentive to succeed than just making them fear for the consequences of failure. That's how you grind out excellence year-after-year.

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