Saturday, September 04, 2004

The Brewers, Bucs, Astros & Ichiro Suzuki:
Self-Immolation, Pride, Chemical Imbalance, Hot-Wiring  

The National League Central has been the most study-worthy division this year...not necessarily the best, but the most interesting. A recent note from Lisa Gray, one of the elite bloggers who covers a single team and manages to be insightful, fully-fannish without letting that distort her view of the competitors, (and a heck of a good writer) triggered this entry. She's a devoted Astros fan and wrote me about her team's August torpor and raised a lot of issues about group behavior in the face of adversity.

A critical part of management, in and beyond baseball, is keeping a team/group sharp and progressing as the prospects for success shift. Teams that get ahead can keep soaring, cruise along adequately, or implode at the end like George Bush Senior's 1992 presidential campaign.

But this entry is not about how teams face success (intrinsically less interesting, because random chance favors the group that's already cooking), but how groups/teams face adversity either of their own doing or from effects they could not control.


At May 31, after one-third of the season, the NL Central was not only the most internally-competitive division, but, far from its reputation, the best against the rest of the league:

  Cincinnati 30 21 .588 - 7-5 16-11 7-5 7-3 W1
  Chicago 27 23 .540 2.5 5-1 13-13 9-9 4-6 W2
  Houston 27 23 .540 2.5 6-6 18-14 3-3 3-7 L1
  St. Louis 27 23 .540 2.5 10-8 12-14 5-1 6-4 W1
  Milwaukee 25 24 .510 4.0 8-4 11-13 6-7 5-5 L2
  Pittsburgh 23 24 .489 5.0 5-1 12-17 6-6 6-4 L2

The least successful team was playing roughly .500 baseball and none of the teams had a losing record against non-Central opponents (and as a division, the Central was 21 games over .500 against the rest of the league, at 77-56). Of course, the evenness of the race was very fragile, given the rosters and management and stage of development of the teams. The Cardinals, Cubs and Astros had the strong rosters aimed at 2004 success. Two teams are rebuilding with young players, the Brewers in year one of a scheme, the Pirates a few years in. The Reds...well, if the Reds have a coherent plan, then the Mystery Meat they serve in high school cafeterias is something you get to call meat. The odds of this eye-candy of a race going on were low.

As the race developed, the Cardinals have become the best team in the majors (on target for a 109-win season) making it a non-race for the flag. Plan B for success, the wild card, is a chancy way into the playoffs at best because your fate is not in your hands. Let me show you.

National League Wild Card - 9/3

  Chicago 73 60 .549 - 6-4 W1
  S.F. 74 63 .540 1.0 5-5 W1
  San Diego 72 62 .537 1.5 6-4 W1
  Florida 70 62 .530 2.5 8-2 W7
  Houston 71 63 .530 2.5 9-1 W7
  Philadelphia 66 68 .493 7.5 4-6 W1
  Cincinnati 62 71 .466 11.0 3-7 L4
  Pittsburgh 62 72 .463 11.5 4-6 L2

The Cubs for example, currently in the driver's seat for the wild card, could play .600 ball (excellence) for the rest of the season, but if either San Francisco or San Diego got hot for the last 28 games (the Cubs play neither, so can have no effect on either team's on-field record) and went 17-8, the Cubs would be cashing in on their bad cognates again. The Astros, the Cubs Central rivals, could help themselves by sweeping their series against the Giants, but if the Cubs played .550 ball the rest of the way, the Texans would have to go 19-9, and hope neither the Padres or Marlins got hot. It's not hopeless, just challenging, because no matter how well you play, when there are that many teams in front of you, the ways you win are very compound, aligning butterflies beating their wings in Sri Lanka with David Wells' diet, Kenny G's recording schedule and the the numerology of Bud Zelig's contract renewal.

The wild card is an emotional loop-de-loop, even if you're vaguely in the race for it. But how about if your shot is long or non-existent? What kind of effort can your team sustain when it's really struggling and clearly not in the race anymore? This is critical for managers outside of baseball, too. How do you get your team to produce when it becomes obvious they're not #1, that their project is going to end as a so-so, when the product they were rushing to market is going to follow a competitor who has captured the mind-share and dollars of the market before you can get there, when your stronghold cannot hold out and infantry is in retreat and your team needs to slow down the enemy long enough to regather and establish a fallback position you might be able to defend?

Because today's apparent disadvantage might only be the prologue to the next effort. The Astros could have everything fall right for them, if they play very well. It certainly won't if they can't bring themselves to. The late-to-market product might acquit itself just enough to provide a revenue trickle that makes research for the next product successful. The defensible fallback position might provide enough breathing room and tactical advantage to allow your attacker's naivete or a mistake to give you the opportunity to go on the offensive.

Different groups/teams respond differently to apparent disadvantage. Some 2004 baseball examples illustrate these quite well.

Three of them come from the NL Central, and to make the following sections more underdstandable, take a look at Jonathan Boyd's magnificent graph of the NL Central this season.


Like a lot of teams not built to win yet, the Brewers did the Wile E. Coyote thing. From the chart (dark green line) you can see they were holding on to a 4-5 game deficit through the All-Star break. They had a 10-game bad stretch combined with a Cardinal good stretch, and that was it. Poof. Having chosen to realize they were playing over their heads, they looked down, saw they had gone off the cliff, and pancaked. They levelled out for 10 days, and after that, just deliquesced, disappearing from the radar. They had a 12-game losing streak, a franchise record. From 1-½ games behind the Cards at the end of May, they are now 31-½ games back three months down the line, losing their touch by an additional game every three days.

They are deer in the headlights. As this year's breakout player, Lyle Overbay, said a few days ago, "We're looking at one another and saying, 'What else can go wrong?'" .

It's critical to keep the team going well. Winning is important, but not the only measure -- training and cross-training opportunities, analysis and de-briefing, decoding precisely what when wrong...all those things are valuable. But don't diminish the value of measurable success. Sabermetrician Bill James has found a very high correlation between a team's success down the stretch with its success the following year. That's logical (April performance/roster/mindset is closer to the previous September performance/roster/mindset than it would be to the previous May's), and beyond baseball it holds for those other, partial win factors I talked about before like the gains from late product to market or the infantry fall-back position. Winning is a wonderful ingredient that doesn't guarantee future winning, but does make it somewhat more likely.

What to do about it: Beyond baseball, a group that's having a terrible streak needs realistic, acheivable targets. The manager needs to attack the trend. A manager who tells them they can still be #1 will have no credibility. But this attitude...waiting for the next thing to go wrong...is not ever going to help the situation or the individuals in it. If you're managing a group that's whingeing like this, try setting new targets, try humor, try contests, try to inspire some people to break personal bests. Break the interlocking chemistry of doom.

In the next entry, I'll look at a couple of other examples of coping with late-season/late-project adversity and what a manager should do about it.

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