Monday, August 16, 2004
doesn't make you stronger kills you
In baseball, as in most endeavors, "winning" doesn't share the same definition for all organizations.
Let's look at some individual teams' specific definitions for the 2004 season. For the Milwaukee Brewers, starting a sustainable upward trajectory and examining their young players was the "win" goal. For the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or Pittsburgh Pirates, just playing .500 ball this year early in their development cycle, is a moral victory. Ownership and fans will view it that way. For the Baltimore Orioles & Houston Astros, anything less than divisional contention was going to be viewed as a loss. For the Philadelphia Phillies, making the playoffs was the "win".
For the Cardinals, at least at the All-Star break, it has been getting to the World Series and possibly even winning it. I suspect that for the front office and players, that's the "win" and that anything less is just another form of loss. Very binary.
That binary win/loss set-up, where an organization can only win by being first and in no other case, isn't all that common outside sports, but it does exist. If you opened a new retail or manufacturing or service business, say a tavern or a metal fabrication shop or a dental practice, and in your market area you had, like a baseball team, 29 competitors, you probably wouldn't have to be the largest in after-tax margin or customer satisfaction or gross volume to "win". Sure, there are some entrepreneurs who, like George Steinbrenner, have the personality that drives them to always be #1. And there are some others who believe that striving for #1 status in a chosen metric is a necessary component for continued success. In most cases, I tend to agree with them, though not with their usual chosen measure of success, which too frequently is gross sales or market share...both very Soviet-style focused on Bolshoi-bigness as opposed to qualitative. In tomorrow's entry, I'll give you a small baseball test you can give to people to see if they tend more towards Soviet-style or more entrepreneurial thinking.
The Cardinals have been having an extraordinarily good season. It's certainly outstripped the pundit consensus for them. I suspect it's even exceeded the front office's optimistic projection. At the two-thirds point of the season weekend-before-last, this was their position in the League:
|2004 National League Standings|
|E A S T -||W||L||PCT||GB||RS||RA||STRK||L10|
|NY Mets||52||58||.473||11||492||487||L 3||4-6|
|St. Louis||72||38||.655||-||589||449||W 5||8-2|
|W E S T -||W||L||PCT||GB||RS||RA||STRK||L10|
|L. A.||65||45||.591||-||506||442||L 1||7-3|
|San Diego||59||52||.532||6.5||493||460||L 2||3-7|
|San Fran.||60||53||.531||6.5||567||564||W 1||4-6|
The Cards were not just in a controlling position over their Central division, they were the best team in the entire League by 7 games.
If you look at the metrics, team statistics, you can see why. Offensively, as of today, they dominate the 16-team league in the big stats, third to the environmentally exceptional Colorado Rockies and the Giants in on-base percentage, and second in the league (to those environmentall-exceptional Rox) in slugging percentage. They do well in the small metrics, too. They are fourth in stolen bases as measured by Net Steals (steals minus 2x caught stealing). Fourth in fewest double-plays grounded into.
Therefore they are, unsurprisingly, second (to you know who) in the ultimate measure of offense, runs scored. Add to that they are 3rd best in fewest runs allowed. Statistically, they are the best team-as-a-whole in either League.
They did all this without any major deals during the season, and that's understandable to those who buy into the conventional Confucian dogma of "if it is not broken, do not attempt to repair it".
WHATEVER DOESN'T MAKE YOU STRONGER KILLS YOU
But in that binary situation, where being #1 is the only alternative to being a total loser, Confucian stillness can be fatal. Teams that are playing this well can get too relaxed (2001 Mariners) or smug (1995 Angels). Whether it's chemistry or the individual consciousness of key individuals or physical wear-and-tear, few teams embody the start-to-end excellence of the 1998 Yankees who had the best season record and rolled through the playoffs and World Series.
The G.M. of the Cards, Walt Jocketty, knows this, so he fixed what wasn't broken. Given that he has a team that already has two of the most all-out, pedal-to-the-metal demonic competitors (what I call "hockey players") with both talent & baseball savvy in Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, he went out and got the aging poster boy for that model: Larry Walker. He got Walker and some cash to pay for his high-relative-to-current-market salary from the aforementioned Rockies, a team going nowhere, for an interesting minor-leaguer & a couple of players to be later specified. It helped the Rockies offload salary and get more playing time for a surprisingly good young player, Matt Holliday, who may or may not amount to something longer term.
It gave a Cards another hockey player but one with a lot of hunger for winning. Walker has played on some good teams, but only once, nine years ago, did he get to a playoff series, and then, only a single series. I'm a little biased -- Walker's one of my absolute favorite players to watch, but I think Jocketty got the single best non-pitcher he could have for this particular situation: trying to alter the recipe of an already-successful team while making it more competitive for the next few months. Moreover, because the Cards are already a healthy organization, the teams were able to convince Walker to waive his no-trade clause, required to make this deal and something Walker allegedly has invoked in the past when the Rockies previously tried to trade him. So the Cards know he really does want to play for them.
By changing the recipe, the front office has been able to achieve a few things:
- The move adds offensive quality to the line-up.
- It puts one of the savviest and accurate-armed outfielders in the Cardinals right field position (where arm is more valuable), moving a slightly-better-than-average Reggie Sanders over to left.
- It juggles the batting lineup, forcing the hitters and fielders to re-focus on new situations (for example, how fast is the guy in front of me on the basepaths? where should I stand in the cut-off for that guy, given his pattern and arm?).
- It provides the team as a whole with a new social/communal task of integrating a new contributor.
Jocketty has made some measurable improvements, but he's also given this winning machine other reasons to pay attention, stay sharp, be a team.
It doesn't guarantee they'll win in the playoffs -- nothing the front office does at this juncture can do that, only the players can. But it does provide a number of small edges, it does provide more supports for winning this binary game the Cardinals are playing.
There are two basic lessons to take from Jocketty and the Cardinals' acquisition of Walker.
First, even very successful teams need improvements and tuning because in a competitive situation, whatever doesn't make you stronger can be the source of your demise. (This isn't really true in a non-competitive situation, if you're a monopoly or, like the U.S. armed services or Microsoft, because of your massive resource advantage, you can essentially put out of commission any competitor you choose, excellence or not. Very few organizations, though, have either of those two luxuries). Whether it's smugness or a lack of a day-to-day need to excel or simply a loss of sharp focused attention, competitive organizations need to shuffle the deck a little to stay fresh.
I've seen good workgroups sour slowly. It happens way too often. They don't need to be demolished, like a Godzilla attack from the original Sim City. They just need to stay challenged. A handful of common techiques include adding a new senior person (as the Cards did) who can bring additional prespective and expertise into the group's tool box. You can add a junior person to learn how to be successful or to acquire domain expertise (be sure to allow everyone a little extra time for this longer-term investment). You can expand the team's span of control, giving them new, related tasks to handle. In an organization that has teams that are struggling you can (I love this one) lend them out as internal or external consultants to struggling teams so the two teams can collaborate together on improvements (remember, you need to create some slack for this, and make sure you're letting the successful team get public credit before you try to use them as consultants).
Second, healthy organizations attract healthy contributors. That's a corollary of Angus' First Law of Organizational Development: Almost all human organizations are self-amplifying. Just as highly-politicized slacker organizations tend to get more and more that way, as do socipathic organizations and ones driven by bunco projects, healthy organizations have the ability to attract serious contributors.
If you're a healthy organization, use that to acquire the Larry Walkers who might be available. If you're not a healthy organization, it's time to start doing something about it.
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