Monday, September 20, 2004

What Would Wee Willie Keeler Do?
When Your Metric Pair 'O Dime is My 20¢  

For the last fifteen years for so, the dominant theoretical thrust around organizational success has been aiming for balance, striving for excellence everywhere, balanced scorecards. I think it's true that in the general case, an organization in a competitive environment can only achieve to the degree it can overcome its weakest aptitudes (its limiting factor). Balance, all around quality therefore becomes the general way to achieve success.

Sometimes, though, a group or an entire organization can be so breathtakingly supurb at one or two small things that it can achieve success. One shouldn't dismiss the excellence of accomplishments that don't conform to the general case -- they're infrequent but just as real. Baseball provides a wonderful looking glass on this phenomenon.

In a recent entry, I wrote about Ichiro Suzuki's pursuit of George Sisler's 1920 record for most hits in a season. That entry related management lessons about rate-busters who defied the gloom of a failing effort and who can frequently, with the right managerial work, tweak the outcome on the current effort and set up the team/group to do better in subsequent efforts.

But in this entry, I'm going to blather about eggheads, pinheads, Kenny G, banjo hitters, the Maginot Line, Copernicus, and Tonya Harding (or not). I'm going to refer to the way analysts (baseball, governmental, business, science) have a standardized view of how to measure things, how hard it is to change that even when superior measures and methods come along, and once the dominant view of what a valid measure is and how to do it, how that in turn becomes entrenched and the analysts resist potential improvements.

A definitive work on this, and what I'm counting on you to already know a bit about, is Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. If you don't, here's a link to a few minutes worth of reading that'll make basic sense of it. If you plan to be a manager & haven't both read it and internalized its basic lessons in how organizations work against change, I strongly recommend it as required (if not always entertaining) reading.


One of the founding parents of American baseball was a 19th century Brit: Henry "The Exeter Executioner" Chadwick. Chadwick is credited with inventing the scorekeeping model, the first formal rule book, and batting average. In the ensuing 125 years, scorekeeping has evolved, changes to the official rules now outweigh the rules themselves, but until about two years ago batting average (BA) was assumed to be the gold standard of metrics illuminatin' offensive prowess, both inside baseball and to the general fan.

BA has only recently started taking its rightful place as about the 6th most important offensive measure. The paradigm has shifted within professional baseball teams' analyst population about 25 years after sabermetrics started becoming widely available, though individual teams have had some sophisticated statisticians laboring for them since Branch Rickey hired Allan Roth in the 1947. As one would expect in a paradigm shift, average fans are still catching up, and baseball reporting in the popular media is somewhere in between, starting to understand the new, but generally communicating the old.

The first epiphany most baseball analysts have when they move from the old model to the new is that batting average is a weak indicator because it has no way to differentiate singles from doubles (better), triples (even better, though only a little less rare than a good Kenny G recording), and homers (the côup de main), or those more useful hits from each other.

In the general case, team batting average doesn't correlate well with team offensive prowess. There are other, better-correlated measures, such as on-base percentage or OPS (On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage) or the very difficult to calculate Runs-Created. For the initiated, OPS, relatively easy to calculate, has become the easy standard measure of batting accomplishment, and batting average, so often artificially puffing up the apparent accomplishments of guys who contribute singles and not much else such as walks or power hits, is considered passe.

The old-time faith in Chadwick's number made some sense when it was created and later in the Dead Ball Era. Like most metrics, it outlived its usefulness well beyond any argument for it. In the expansion era (1961-present), there have been a few dozen batters whose ability to better the mystical .300 barrier but who didn't add much else most seasons left them a great reputation without reality to support it. Fans remember fondly the hitting of guys like Jesus Alou and Maury Wills and Felix Millan and Willie McGee and Lary Bowa who could hit .300 though they had just average offensive production.

But in the backlash of that thinking, many have overcompensated. While singles hitting alone shouldn't be equated with better-balanced ability (or something like Barry Bonds' or Albert Pujols' massive production through all batting measures), at some extreme level, singles, like every other positive metric a contributor can acheive, can sum up to something very valuable. It's not as easy to put together a realistically eye-popping season on the foundation of singles and not much else, but if you're just super-excellent at it, it really does amount to something. And that hyper-excellence at one small positive thing can be valuable beyond baseball.


Suzuki is contending for a batting average title this year. He already has overtaken Lloyd Waner (1927) for the modern baseball mark for most singles in a year, and has a reasonable chance to catch the all-time record holder, Wee Willie Keeler (1898). OPS charts, though, point out he's way down in the pile with 23 batters beating him in the American League alone.

1 Manny Ramirez, Bos 1.014 .308 .399 .616
2 Travis Hafner, Cle 1.008 .315 .414 .594
3 Melvin Mora, Bal .985 .341 .419 .566
4 David Ortiz, Bos .973 .298 .373 .600
5 Gary Sheffield, NYY .949 .297 .400 .548
6 V. Guerrero, Ana .944 .328 .380 .563
7 Mark Teixeira, Tex .939 .278 .366 .573
8 Erubiel Durazo, Oak .925 .321 .396 .529
9 Aaron Rowand, CWS .925 .318 .371 .554
10 Carlos Guillen, Det .921 .318 .379 .542
24 Ichiro Suzuki, Sea .862 .366 .408 .454

Source: ESPN.COM 9/19

In the OPS World View, he's probably not good enough to make the American League's all-star team...in the top 10 alone, there are five outfielders. But I mentioned another measure, Runs Created. While OPS is a rate stat, a number meant to indicate value per event (in this case, a plate appearance), Runs Created measures total value of all events over the measured time, in this case, a season. And Runs Created weights different offensive events, like singles and doubles, in a non-linear way, by decoding how much each contributes to creating a team's run. The straightforward OPS is linear about different kinds of hits, in contrast.

The ongoing season leader Runs Created chart over at Hardball Times indicates a different top 10:

Player... ...Tm.. RC
Suzuki I.
...SEA 121
Sheffield G.
.NYY 115
Ramirez M.
..BOS 114
Ortiz D.
....BOS 110
Tejada M.
...BAL 104
Matsui H.
...NYY 104
Guerrero V.
.ANA 103
Guillen C.
..DET 102
Blalock H.
..TEX 101
Lee C.
......CHW .97
Guillen J.
..ANA .97
Young M.
....TEX .97

While any individual at-bat Suzuki has had is worth probably less than that of Sheffield or Ramirez or Ortiz, he's been in the starting lineup more often, and he has some unusual "hidden" talents (more on that in a second). But a key here to his topping this table is that he accumulates so many singles, they add up to some big accomplishment, even though each is just a small positive.


Most organizations have some people like this. They are usually mis-managed in one of two ways by managers carzy-glued to binary thinking. When an employee is really good at a few aspects of her job but not others, many managers will fail to make the most of her because they focus on the things she can't do and excoriate or ignore her for the missing pieces. Another set of managers, the MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking) types, will ignore the weaknesses and just waste too much of her effort on things she doesn't do well, long after she's proved she's not going to be a success at them. The right approach is to design a set of job requirements around her strengths and complement those with other people who can slipstream her magic with their own contributions.

Some entire organizations are like Ichiro Suzuki -- with a few really great departments or skills, and many others that are ordinary or even barely adequate (replacement level, in baseball terms). I was asked to help out a friend on a consult to a manufacturing business that had counted on industry analysts for their strategic direction, made foolish hiring decisions and hadn't adapted well to change by making the common mistake in assuming buying and deploying technology meant they were modern. When we examined their operations, we found they had only one bright light of effectiveness, their lean, effective, fast-moving packing/shipping group. I thought they were toast, because they basically needed to redesign and restaff 90% of what they did every day. My friend saw it differently, and he turned out to be right. He had the sales group talk to customers and suppliers to see if their view of the packing/shipping group was the same as his, and it turned out that outsiders were actually more impressed than we were.

He designed a rear-guard preservation strategy that had the company build up its one good department, allowing the blue-collar operations manager there to model a plan to double its capacity and staff up and equip to achieve that, which they did in nine weeks. My friend had the sales group start talking to local suppliers and customers about the move. The manager and staff bypassed H.R. for recruiting and did the interview and selection process. After the first week of shakedown they announced they were ready, and the sales group started spif-ing small jobs. Luckily, the timing of this endeavor was right around the time that outsourcing and virtual-corporation-stuff got trendy. It was a remarkable success. The group generated margins that were high (for that line of work), enough to provide enough cash flow for the base business to build an orderly retreat, in the end selling off its products and plant to various buyers including a former manager whe was able to preserve a bit of the original company and its local workforce.

If you do one or two things super-super well (as Steve Ballmer would say), even if they're not glamorous or powerful in themselves, it's possible to transcend the understood metrics.

Management will usually resist moves like my consultant friend's, just as the informed will reject new information that doesn't fit his paradigm. They'll reject it even if the information comes from within an organization. (The German plan that beat France's Maginot Line in 1940 was actually an adaptation of a French plan that was designed to go the other way.) But sillier, once the new paradigm is adopted, it will totally reject anything represented in the old model as "flat earth", forgetting that that model had worked (Ptolomy, who believed the solar system revolved around the Earth actually had the observations & calculations precise enough to have sent a mission to the moon, had he had the right transport).

Some sabermetrics guys have a heck of a time recognizing the possibilites of the old model. Small ball does win some games, and the less the old practices are put into play, the more successful the remainder become as a composite. Keep your old model toolkit lying around, because there will be elements of it you can recycle and use once in a while.

This is the end of the management piece. The remainder of this entry is statistics and a discussion of paradigms and metrics. Readers who don't enjoy the baseball numbers can disembark here.


Suzuki transcends the apparent value of what he does because he's put together some complementary small abilites, each of which alone would make for an ordinary contributor. Here's a table of some of Ichiro Suzuki's situational batting stats during his major league career.

By Situation AB H HR RBI BB SO





None On 1780 590 28 28 70 170 .331 .361 .441 .80
Runners On 879 308 9 209 107 69 .350 .427 .449 .88
Scoring Position 472 181 5 191 91 40 .383 .490 .481 .97
1B Only 407 127 4 18 16 29 .312 .341 .413 .75
Bases Loaded 41 22 2 47 1 5 .537 .548 .805 1.35
Lead Off Inning 1082 345 21 21 41 111 .319 .348 .442 .79
Scoring Posn, 2 out 220 87 4 86 57 19 .395 .528 .491 1.02

In the general case, Suzuki is the punch-and-judy hitter people think of him as. But he is situational. When no one is on base in front of him, he hits .331 and gets on base 36% of the time. Unlike most batters, when there's a runner on 1st base only, his batting average goes down (league composite averages with a runner on first go up .015 to .025 -- depending on league and season -- because infielders are positioned to defend against plays like steals and sacrifices and that undermines their position to make outs on regular balls in play, and because most pitchers dedicate some proportion of their concentration on the baserunner, leaving less for the batter). But when there are runners in scoring position (on 2nd or 3rd base, or both), he goes through De-Punch-&-Judy-fication.

He changes his approach. In over 470 at-bats with runners in scoring position, he's hit .385 getting on base 49% of the time, and shown an ability to take a walk. Some of these walks are intentional, making him the most-intentionally-walked banjo hitter of this generation. But he takes some of those walks, too. And in the 275 plate appearances he's had with two outs and runners in scoring position, he notches it up a little, with his on-base percentage going to an almost Bondsian level at 54% of the time. While he's still a singles hitter, he succeeds at such an extreme over his peers that he becomes, rightfully, feared in the clinches.

Because Suzuki adapts to his immediate environment so successfully, he can be the most successful banjo hitter of the last 40 years, successful enough at it that the intrinsic limitations of the value of "banjo" are overcome. Too many linear-minded sabermetrics guys reject this possibility, finding him so out of context culturally and physically with the rest of the very successful athletes, that he gets compartmentalized like Tonya Harding -- the numbers and performance to support his success but almost offensive to the crowd in his very different style.

If he breaks George Sisler's record, even if it takes more than 154 games, it will be a sweet accomplishment. I'm not suggesting he will have been as valuable a hitter as Sisler was in 1920. Georgeous George had gaggles of extra-base hits (19 homers, too, but in Sportsman's Park, a stadium with a relatively easy to reach right field bleacher). But it will be a season to remember, built out of small change, persistence in the face of his team's meltdown and a bit of paradigm-breaking.

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