Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You - Yankee Edition  

In the last entry I wrote about how when anything but 1st place equals "losing", whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you, and how the Cardinals' front office addressed that with an aggressive trade designed to make the team more robust offensively even though they already had the best record in the majors, no offensive weakness where they improved and looked as close to a clinch for the playoffs as any team in recent history. (I also promised to give you a test for Soviet vs. Entrepreneurial thinking, but that's going to wait because this was more timely).

Thanks to Baseball Think Factory's news links page, I saw Baseball Prospectus' Steven Goldman's latest column was about the Yankee equivalent of whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you. ¿The Yankees? The organization you'd never let loose at a church rummage sale because they'd just pull up the Mercedes 16-wheeler, open the cargo door & buy everything including the lease-buyback rights to baptismal, all without negotiating?


Yes, those guys. In Goldman's view, they have mismanaged and ignored their bench, and it does affect their chances of winning in a short series. I agree, and there's a lesson for every organization in a competitive environment, an arena where anything less that 1st is the equivalent of coming in last.

The bigger knock is on the organization's thinking, and it has been true for years. The Yankees have so much dough, so much prestige invested in their front-line players that they seem to give little thought to their reserves. Specifically, they don't devote a lot of thought to answering the question, "Why is this guy here?"

Players are sometimes on the Yankees not due to merit, but because an overemphasis is placed on having bench players who accept their lot as reserves. At one time, it was the team's goal to stock its bench with players overqualified to be replacements. It made trouble for the manager, because the players sitting next to him were almost always angry with him, but it also meant that when they were finally called upon to step in for an injured player they would do their best to excel. Today's Yankees don't have that, in part because of the death of the minor league system, in part because this may be the price you pay for Joe Torre's famously harmonious clubhouse.

A common response to this sort of argument is, "Who cares who the backups are? The Yankees are up by 62 games and these guys have limited chances to affect things. The Yankees are good enough."

This is dangerously complacent thinking. It's based on the assumption that there will never be a day when the roster will not be called upon to give its last full measure of devotion in order to win a game. Putting aside that, like the Boy Scouts, a ball club should "always be prepared" in their quest to give those that bought tickets or tuned into the game broadcast what they're paying for, a sincere winning effort, the same set of circumstances can roll up in a World Series game or any other kind of must-win contest.

The Yankees paid for their inattention to reserves in the 2001 World Series. In Game 2, the Yankees were down 4-0 against Randy Johnson in the top of the eighth. Shane Spencer and Alfonso Soriano opened the inning with consecutive singles. After Scott Brosius, who had spent the second half of the season living out Phil Ochs' "Rehearsals for Retirement" and should himself have been pinch-hit for, was called out on strikes, the pitcher was due to bat. Needing a three-run homer worse than Phil Rizzuto needs a cannoli, Torre went to his bench and called upon … Luis Sojo. Sojo hit into a double play. Rally dead, game dead, series well on its way to being dead.

Contrast that with Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, when the Giants beat the Indians on Dusty Rhodes' bottom of the 10th, three-run pinch homer, or Game 3 in 1949, when Johnny Mize's pinch-hit single beat the Dodgers.

ANY team can suffer for lack of attention to even the most apparently-minor competencies, if the competitive environment dictates whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you. Even the Yankees. It's not about the most resources in that situation, it's about the finest balance and a manic hyperfocus on perfection normally exhibited only by a French cheese inspector.


It's wearing and hard to sustain an organizational society where everything has to be as close to the 99th percentile in every way every day. But the message Goldman is giving managers through his Yankee analysis is precisely parallel to the Cardinal lesson from the last entry.

In a binary win/lose environment, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you. You have to attend to every weakness, limiting factor, gating factor. Unforgiving environments don't forgive. That weakness will show up at a critical juncture sooner or later and you'll end up needing to pull out a victory armed with nothing more likely to succeed than Luis Sojo.

You might succeed with that move, but why limit yourself when a little attention could have built a better-staffed group where every hire was thought-out and complementary?

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