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Sunday, February 29, 2004

Chisox Pitching Coach Don Cooper:
Aikido in the 'Pen  

In a competitive environment, keeping antagonists off-balance almost inevitably provides a temporary advantage. Some temporary advantages have permanent benefits.

I keep several tools available in my own management toolbox for this organizational aikido, though I don't try to teach it too often, because it's not easy to do successfully and failure can be politically fatal. In baseball, the risks/costs are a little lower, but surprisingly aikido is not a ploy managers frequently deploy. Thanks to Baseball Musings, I found a lovely illustration with an explicit rationale written up in the Chicago suburban Daily Herald. I do love seeing these efforts.

According to the story:

The White Sox feel they have a secret weapon in the bullpen and they aren't eager to break out Shingo Takatsu in exhibition games. That's why the Sox are planning to keep the 35-year-old Japanese relief pitcher in the dugout when they play American League teams this spring.

With a funky, sidearm delivery, Takatsu has been baffling White Sox hitters during batting practice and his off-speed pitches have been particularly nasty. "I don't want to pitch him against any American League team down here unless I have to,'' said Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. "I'd rather make it a complete surprise attack. Nobody's seen him, so let's keep him under wraps.''

Pitchers with unusual deliveries, wind-ups or pitches (like a screwball, kuckler or eephus) tend to have an advantage disproportionate to their overall effectiveness in their first appearances against individual batters, and that advantage can extend to a few appearances. In the immediate term (his first appearance against most A.L. teams) Takatsu has a chance to be more effective if the opposition doesn't get to see him in spring training, but only "when it counts".

Now this advantage isn't eternal in most cases. Eventually when a batter has seen the guy a few times, unless the guy changes or, like Orlando Hernandez, just has 34 configurations of wind-up/angle/pitch combo to mix up, the batter zeroes in on whatever disruptive wierdness the pitcher is pulling.

Cooper's take on this is lovely because it has the immediate effect of giving his team an incrementally-better performance out of Takatsu, especially if they use him frequently but for short bursts concentrated against hitters who haven't seen him. Long-term, it has a chance to make a bigger, permanent difference, because Takatsu has been very suuccessful in the past (Japanese leagues' all-time leader in Saves), but his competitiveness in the majors is somewhat in doubt by pundits. (This is actually a little surprising to me because there have been a goodly number of effective Japanese League pitchers who did better than "well enough" since Masanori Murakami broke through the Rice Paper Curtain 40 seasons ago).

But Takatsu is being given a chance to be more effective in his early outings, and with ballplayers, like any staff in other lines of work, early success frequently breeds confidence, and confidence frequently engenders better performance.

BEYOND BASEBALL

Strategically, not showing off your strategy before you have to is a no-brainer. In a competitive or military environment, giving your antagonists a chance to play through scenarios to counter your drives never pays (unless you false-card them by shifting to a different approach while they are grinding through the development of counter-moves). In the ongoing Iraq War you saw this on both sides; each side surprised the other strategically, the U.S. surprising the Iraqis by not rolling out the carpet-bombing shock and awe offensive it promised, and the Iraqis surrenduring by not surrenduring and melting away to fight a non-traditional war instead of defending Baghdad. It always amazes me when a company puts out a press release that lays out its new strategy for everyone including competitors. Given the ineptitude of most American executive teams, the odds that they'll accurately be able to reverse-engineer your strategy quickly if you don't tell them is close to nil.

Tactically, it's trickier. If you're a manager in a predatory organization (managers work to undermine each other for sport, or play the zero-sum advancement games I call "roller derby"), this kind of aikido can make you a very dangerous person to attack.

I used to run a eight-person organization in publishing for an editor-in-chief who was a very disturbed individual. (Publishing, more than most lines of work, attracts the poorly-socialized and people with untreated emotional challenges because the quality of the product is not "measureable" the way fungible products such as food, fabric or metals are. This makes accountability rarer, and this incrementally attracts accountability-sluffers and repels accountability-embracers.) The group I was running worked most closely with another eight-person group managed by a guy I'll call Gene Mauch. The head man had told both of us that if we could get rid of the other guy, we could have his job, too. I didn't care to have my peer's job (more work, same money, plus, he did a pretty good job), but my peer was afraid he was in a "grow or die" scenario...that if he couldn't prove to our handgun-toting editor in chief that he wanted it badly enough, he would "lose".

So Gene Mauch would make a move on the department I was running. He had a host of strengths, but imagination was not among them, and he'd never managed before. When he came at us, he always came with an approach totally optimized to take advantage of the arguments/positions I had made the previous time. And, prepared for that obvious Maginot approach, I would push back again with an entirely different set of approaches. I never showed him the same set of defensive moves twice. And given the predictability of his assaults, I generally turned them into moments of humilating foolishness for him, like the Union Army's sappers creating a death crucible for their own division at the Civil War's battle of Petersburg, or like Rip Sewell's second eephus pitch to Ted Williams. After about the fifth time, he started sending his assistants to try their skill. They weren't as smart as he was. I became a guy with a reputation greater than my actual abilities, & no one but the headman himself wanted to mess with me.

Learn from White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Whether it's external competitors or internal antagonists, it pays to grab little edges that give you short-term (and potentially permanent) advantage.


Friday, February 27, 2004

John Schuerholz: Sim-City Zen-Master  

One of the hardest things to do well in most organizations is succession-planning. Operating the present is challenging enough to most American-trained managers (and since most American managers aren't given any formal training, those struggling but trained ones are better off than most). Succession planning, what I call pre-volution, has many facets, from organizational structure, to strategy, but mostly, personnel. How do you build people to take over as the next generation of [jobtitle], what skills will they need that the incumbent has, what skills will be needed the incumbent is missing, what skills will the job require then that it doesn't now, will the organization even need a [jobtitle] by the time incumbent is ready to move on?

Baseball is a wonderful petri dish for succession planning, a window on an amazing on-going experiment, because baseball players, unlike those in most skilled jobs, have a predictable lifespan that's based on age. Yes, coal miners and construction workers wear out, too, but they are the exceptions. In most organizations stuff just happens, and as in nature, evolution, there are mass extinctions, Ouspensky-like catastrophes, exploding heads, mass hysteria and silly Dilbert-quality ineptness.

In baseball, though, everything moves faster, you have to have some plan, which means you have to examine the future and find that challenging middle ground between pretending it'll all be the same (MBWT -- management by wishful thinking), and pretending everything will go your way (MBWT of a different nature).

I used to use the computer tool Sim City to train managers who were planning-impaired. Sim City, if you're unfamiliar with it, was Will Wright's magnificent urban planning simulator, Nobel-prize quality brilliance. Because you can make it speed up and fit a decade into a minute if you choose, because you can limit resources, and you get do-overs, Sim City is an almost perfect training tool for succession planning. And baseball, with its relatively rapid pace of change is almost like Sim City.

YOU SAY YOU WANT A PREVOLUTION

Nature evolves, but good management prevolves, that is, while things in nature just happen, adequate management pushes and shapes responses consciously. The effects are most visible in baseball.

I think the Sim City Zen Master award has to go to John Scheurholtz, GM of the Atlanta Braves. He's done what he needed to do to keep his team very competitive for 12 consecutive seasons, and baseball has changed since then (the owners juiced the ball, then took it down some, successful management theories have blossomed and died, unsuccessful management theories have popped up and deliquesced).

Baseball Prospectus' recent scouting report on the Braves analyses the most recent succession issues. For the first time, the team has a massive budget cut, and yet there are indications that Schuerholtz has made some wise planning decisions for the coming season.

 

  • End of the Road?: Many analysts predicted that 2003 would be the final year of the Braves' dynasty. Their once-vaunted rotation didn't look so fearsome after losing Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood to division rivals, and there were few bright spots in the lineup.

    But as they've done every year since 1991--save the washed-out 1994 season--Atlanta nabbed another division title, largely on the strength of their free-agents-to-be. In the process of facilitating a $15 million budget cut, the Braves said goodbye to much of their core for the first time in years. But take a look at how much the hitters let go by the Braves are expected to regress in 2004:

     

     Player                   2003 VORP    2004 VORP (projected)
    -----------------------------------------------------
    Vinny Castilla               24.7             9.0
    Rob Fick                      7.8            13.0
    Javy Lopez                   75.9            26.3
    Gary Sheffield               78.9            44.2
    Totals                      187.3            92.5
    

    John Schuerholz deserves credit for letting these guys go. Drastically lowering salary was not a problem he had to take on very often during the dynasty. He chose wisely to let the big spenders in the AL East throw their money at his aging hitters instead of re-signing them and cutting salary elsewhere. Looking at the numbers above, it is clear that the Braves probably wouldn't have been able to repeat their offensive rampage in 2004 even if they were able to keep their 2003 lineup intact.

  • VORP, btw, is a player performance projection technique, highly-imperfect, as they all are, but one of the most interesting ones.

    If you look at the Prospectus numbers, you'll notice three of the four players he let go are expected to decline in offensive production by the projection formula. He didn't try to stay in the same place by passively MBWT-ing. If the projections end up being true, and again you have to work from assumptions and intel, even if he had tried to preserve the offensive status quo, these guys wouldn't have let him maintain it.

    Fine Sim City move, parallel to cutting off electricity to churches when utility capacity is strained. Now, we can't trust that these numbers are "truth", but in successful succession planning, you have to have some indicators, and at a glance it looks like the measures Schuerholtz is using are parallel to VORP's indicators.

    And to press a point made in the perceptive Prospectus article, this is another big set of changes in a long parade that Scheurholtz has helped navigate gracefully. For years the Braves were a pitching team, but last year they lost a pair of their best, and they managed to win their division again remade as an offensive Infernal Machine. That's prevolution wrought elegant. Will they finally fold this year? It's always possible, but there's much to learn in your own operation by watching Schuerholtz work.

    You can't stop devolution, you can only prevolve your way around it. I can't remember if it was Wes Westrum or Jean Cocteau who said that.


    Wednesday, February 25, 2004

    Warrior In The Spotlight
    But Adrift In The Doldrums  

    Ever had an employee who just shined in the crisis moments and the most important assignments but sort of two-stepped his way to mediocrity for the ordinary?

    Don Malcolm, the Ralph Nader of sabermetrics (bound to polarize a room into two groups: big fans and people who'd like to strangle him because of their own inner demons or limitations), published a new study to test a theory about batters who hit differently against good opposition than they do against bad. In Pedro Guerrero and the Dark Ravine, he analyses year-by-year splits of Pedro Guerrero's batting stats. Pete Warrior consistently, almost universally, hit better against good teams than bad.

    Here's a slice of the information, a part of Guerrero's career, Don presented:

    Year   Op    BA   OBP   SLG  OPS+  Op    BA   OBP   SLG  OPS+
    1980   x   .311  .330  .495   134  y   .338  .404  .500   159
    1981   x   .313  .371  .467   140  y   .283  .359  .461   134
    1982   x   .339  .418  .586   186  y   .268  .339  .482   134
    1983   x   .328  .417  .630   197  y   .273  .343  .450   126
    1984   x   .277  .364  .462   136  y   .316  .362  .462   135
    1985   x   .347  .451  .639   210  y   .286  .392  .498   154
    1987   x   .351  .432  .582   189  y   .327  .411  .503   162
    TOT    x   .328  .409  .566   178  y   .296  .369  .476   141

    The first set of numbers are against good opponents, the second set against bad ones. The key number is OPS+ a single-number measure of offensive quality. As you can see, while Guerrero was excellent against bad teams, he was completely transcendant against the good ones during this seven year stretch, and only in one year was he just the same.

    That's counter-intuitive. As a rule, better teams have better pitching --not universally, but it's rarer for a good team to have bad pitching that's easy to knock around than for a bad team. For example in the National League in 2003, three of the four teams that made the playoffs finished in the top half in ERA, and the fourth, Atlanta, missed the top half by one spot. All four teams were in the top half in fewest hits and walks and homers allowed per 9 innings, and all but Atlanta were in the top half in strikouts per 9 innings. That's one data point, & while not universally determined, it's solid as a general rule.

    Malcolm has used this tool to try to see if there's some predictive measure. For example, he noted Bobby Kielty failed against poor teams while succeeding against good ones, and thinks it might presage greater success the following season, that is, that a breakdown against poor competition is possibly easily remediated if it appears the batter has solid performance against the good teams' pitching. Malcom's going to study a range of other batters to see how common this pattern is and if it correlates in a way that makes it useful as a predictor.

    If it turns out Guerrero is very unusual, he might end up being remembered for more than doing to third base fielding what Hitler did to Poland.

    BEYOND BASEBALL

    Outside of baseball, you see this pattern all the time. It's very common in sales departments because too frequently the department has designed incentives to reward the sharks who can close big deals now. So a lot of salesfolk reserve their biggest efforts for the star venues.

    Ever go to a Broadway performance in the afternoon? If the main cast members and not the understudies are on stage, you'll inevitably see one or two who are award-deserving at night performances easing through with minimum effort during the day.

    I worked with a copywriter who only pulled out the stops for the marquee jobs -- she could be brilliant or mediocre/replacement level (by choice) and it correlated totally to the name-recognition of the client.

    In France, the whole nation's organizational culture used to be gripped by this. Perhaps it's not such a sharp dichotomy now, but when I lived there, if you went to a fine restaurant, you got exceptional cooking, much better than the average for here. If you went to a low-end place, it was much below our average. This pattern even extended to individual menu items: they'd make a giant, Pedro Guerrero effort on the fancy specials, and two-step in an ordinary way down at the bottom of the menu with their less expensive or showy dishes.

    As a manager you can control quality when you notice this pattern. You can try to balance the mojo for particular jobs by offering other incentives (gifts, recognition, etc.) on the apparently-lesser jobs. You can try to fake out the Pedro Guerrero by telling her these unimportant jobs really are marquee (short term possibility, not long). If you have multiple staff, you can just give all the high-tone jobs to the Guerrero and dole out the rest to everyone else (I don't recommend this approach). Or you can confront the Guerrero and tell her she has to show better effort on the less showy jobs.

    The approach you take should hinge on what other staff you have and whether you think the Guerrero can change. But there's a lot to learn by following Malcolm's approach and trying to discern patterns. You should always be observing your staff to see what they do well and don't do well, so you can optimise your task delegation, change incentives or re-design job descriptions.

    ┬┐And while you're at it, will you PUH-LEEZE get Pedro Guerrero off third base and back into left field?


    Monday, February 23, 2004

    Orioles', & Your, Quest for
    Six-Tools Players  

    The Baltimore Orioles' front office uses a technique different from but parallel to that of the Oakland As' approach: find a way to use regression analysis of existing, available data to discover proprietary measures that might give your team a competitive advantage in personnel selection. The Orioles' technique is one you can use in your own organization if it has the courage to battle the fear-inspired resistance likely to emanate from H.R. and Legal.

    According to this Baltimore Sun story, courtesy of Baseball Primer, the Orioles have exhumed an approach they pioneered (in baseball) back in the middle 1950s: using standardised tests of mental make-up. I haven't yet been able to find a copy of the test they are using, but according to the story, it's used across baseball, so all teams have access to the same data. The Orioles' difference is that Dave Ritterpusch, their director of baseball information systems, has taken enough interest in the tests to do the same kinds of things with the available data as Paul DePodesta has been doing with on-field performance data. That is, Ritterpusch has been running what appears from the story to be regression analysis, comparing early psychological test results to historical information about draftees and what kinf of success ended up achieving.

    The article makes it sound like the team has created some formulae based on patterns in the data to create indicators they have found predictive. That is, they believe that for each position on the field, differentiating even starting pitchers from relievers, their test-result patterns that lead to greater probability of success.

    It's a chancier strategy than the As', because the baseball events the As are using are in the external, easily measurable, world, while the Os are testing for interior tendencies and people are mutable. They don't ignore the other facets, just use this regression analysis as an additional perspective.

    BEYOND BASEBALL

    It's finding a niche and exploiting it. Depending on the quality of the test and the quality of the analysis, I believe this is wonderful technique.

    I use a host of tools in my own practice for gauging personality and aptitudes. Some pop-psych profile systems are actually very useful when constrained to a work setting (that is, normal people at work exhibit a narrower and more consistent range of personality traits than they do in their "real" lives, so the profile systems don't need to be as complex or robust). I can recommend a couple of widely-available examples that are useful on the personality side if you write me.

    In large organizations, there's usually resistance from H.R. and Legal, because they're more worried about getting sued than they are hiring and nurturing the right people and making sure they're in the right position -- that is, like bad baseball managers, they are more concerned with avoiding mistakes (not-losing) than they are with exploiting opportunities (winning).

    Overcoming that barrier is important, and if you have the mojo to make more mental kinds of profiles part of your toolbox, you can greatly increase the depth of your organization's strength. And on a cautionary note, in the wrong hands, these kinds of profiles can lead unhealthy organizations to over-optimize on a small number of "types", rendering them less able to evolve or be dynamic.

    Given that they are competing in the AL East Drillion-Dollar division, I think that's the least-likely challenge the Orioles are going to face with this interesting model.


    Saturday, February 21, 2004

    You CAN Mess With Texas. Every Time  

    You might have noticed a little coverage lately of the Alex Rodriguez-to-the-Yankees deal. A couple of readers asked me to post some management take on it. That means I need to ignore Alex, Stonebender, and the Yanks' 2004 roster.

    That means we need to talk about the Texas side of the equation, because that's where all the juicy management lessons are.

    BUT FOR THOSE EAST OF THE HUDSON & SOUTH OF THE CLOISTERS...

    ...a quick tidbit, courtesy of Baseball Primer. According to a story in the NY Post, the Yankees have been trying to trade Soriano for years, part of an ongoing strategy of bring up bright young talent, buffing them up for the press (the press is a willing co-conspirator in this endeavour, because New Yorkers in general, and Yankee fans in particular more than most New Yorkers, have a need to believe every Yankee system prospect is better than any other system's prospects), and once the baseball universe buys into it, monetizing that added P.R.-component of their value by trading the hot shot away. Think ex-Yankee hotshot Gerald Williams who was collecting a paycheck last year at age 36, having had his last net-positive season in five years earlier.

    Here's a snippet from that story, which, given it came from the Post, may or may not have any element of truth in it (I love the Post, btw, and I would have taken their headline-writers to work on my stories any day, but the standard of news reporting there is one stratum below the National Enquirer).

    It is interesting now how close the Yanks came to trading Soriano before this. There had been a completed deal to Houston for Moises Alou in 2001, but Alou invoked his no-trade rights. Before the 2000 season, Yankees officials were bitterly split about turning Soriano into Jim Edmonds. The Yanks agreed at one point to a three-way trade that would have netted them Matt Clement and B.J. Surhoff before it fell apart. They once nearly moved Soriano to Seattle for Jose Paniagua and Brett Tomko, held serious discussions about sending Soriano to Toronto for either Kelvim Escobar or Roy Halladay...

    As a Seattleite, I have to wonder how the Mariners might have brought themselves to give up both Brett Tomko and Jose Paniagua (Joe Bread-and-Water, as he was known here) for A-Sorry.

    THE TEXAS REPUBLIC: WHITE HOLE OR BLACK HOLE?

    But all the coverage has been of the New York side. Surprise.

    For every black hole in the universe, there's (allegedly) a white hole. It's been assumed that New York harvested all the benefits, Texas is just lead-bait, like one of those Indians in a John Wayne movie, just waiting to absorb a bullet and fall off his horse back and to the side, with an "Aiyee" and a fleshy thump. Perhaps, but unlikely. Let's look at a few things from the Texas end.

    LESSON #1 - ALL HAT AND NO CATTLE

    People who are good at investing other people's money tend to not be good at investing their own. Tom Hicks, the owner of the Texas Rangers, generated most of his wealth using other people's money and working sweetheart deals for public subsidies and working kickback-like favors running pension operations. That is not to be dismissed as a skill. It requires brains and panache.

    But owning and operating your own business in a competitive area away from patronage requires a different set of skills. I frequently ask the question of managers assessing or considering the hiring of other managers at any level (including CEO). The question is, "If [candidate] was the assistant manager of a 7-11, would he do a great job, an okay job or would he be a failure?". I call that The Assistant Manager of a 7-11 Test. Tom Hicks wouldn't pass the test (and neither would about 40% of the CEOs at the helm of half-billion dollar and bigger corporations in the U.S.). C-level execs like to pretend this stuff isn't important, that what they do is "different". And while it's different, you have to master the Assistant Manager of a 7-11 skill set to have any chance at all of succeeding higher up.

    Hicks drove that original Alex Rodriguez deal, and he got the second best player currently in the game, and a delightful public presence (though perhaps more Eddie Haskell than the Leo Buscaglia Rodriguez pretends to be). But he wasted anywhere from $40 million up by raising the ante after there were no other bidders. And you can do that when it's the public's money, or your friends in high places can recover that for you with a grant or some sweetheart deals. But not as the owner of the Rangers.

    That contract made it challenging for Hicks' operation to do other things that needed to be done to keep the team competitive. Not impossible, but challenging. The Rangers are not a terrible organization, nor a terrible team (just a not-particularly-good one). But Hicks is not a real entrepreneur/manager/businessman; he's all hat and no cattle, a Potemkin hacienda-owner. His talents lie elsewhere.

    LESSON #2 - THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO EVERY TRANSACTION

    I'm not a big Alfonso Soriano fan, but he's not exactly Gerald Williams either. Memories of him now are mostly hyperfocused on his comically disastrous performance in the last World Series.

    What did Texas get on their side of the deal in acquiring him?

    1. They got a guy who was an unremarkable-fielding shortstop in the minors who was moved to second base, a position at which he is simply dreadful, and watching him play there is redolent of the last reel of the second Alien movie. Texas won't likely play him at second base most of the time, increasing his net value.

    2. They got a guy who kicks serious grass in the Rangers home stadium.. Given that, it's gonna boost his home stats significantly:

    A-Sorry at Arlington 2001-03
    By Stadium AB R
    ..H 2B 3B HR RBI BB HBP SO SB CS AVG .OBP .SLG .OPS
    Arlington  41 11 16 7
    ..0  3 ..8 5 ..1 .10 3 .0 .390 .468 .780 1.248

    Data from ESPN.COM

    Scary numbers, though a fairly small sample. But do you think people they'll complain about his low walk rate rate if his on-base percentage at home is .465? Those doubles are very impressive, and the homers nothing to sneeze at.

    Technically, given A-Sorry is playing half his games in that park, they might have a guy who is competing for a batting title, and putting up good power numbers, too (that is, he could look a lot like Alex Rodriguez as a set of numbers to casual observers). Those are better numbers than the other middle-of-the-lineup stud (well, Viagra stud) R. Palmeiro put up playing in Texas (though Palmeiro's sample was 19 times the size).

    A-Sorry is simply worth more to the Rangers than the Yankees, because of the environment and the teams' existing rosters. Management lesson here is that some things are worth more to the person who got the asset than the one that neogtiated it away.

    LESSON #3 - YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH CAN TURN INTO YOUR GREATEST WEAKNESS

    There's a somehwat overblown legend about Boston's Fenway Park and its short, high left-field fence destroying good hitter because it was so tempting (and seemingly easy) to pop balls off that wall for doubles. It was very true for certain hitters, who would distort their approach to try to take advantage of the opportunity for easy pickings, and fail.

    A-Sorry is going into a parallel situation. He's moving to the American League park which in which he's put up the best (by a big margin) numbers in his career.

    And given his lack of discipline, he could exacerbate his Achilles Wheel, his orgone-drenched passion for swinging at cruddy pitches. Over the last three years, he's only walked in about 5% of his plate appearances, about half of the frequency considered low. In his small Texas sample, he struck out 22% of the time, very high, but not legendarily so.

    If some of those strikeouts turn into hits, or even of he keeps it at that very high level, he could succeed. But if his lust for putting the ball into play hard amps up with a little better success, he could disappear entirely into the cloaca of his strike-zone dementia, disappearing below the Event Horizon of his own lack of discipline like Maxmillian Schell at the end of The Black Hole. Emotionally mature players can resist the siren call of the tater. A-Sorry hasn't yet shown he's mature, so this one is still up in the air.

    Beyond baseball, you see this a lot. A company that has, for example, very effective direct mail, finds it hard to use other techniques, like advertising, or internet marketing. If they move into a zone where they've always had good success with their strength, they can hyperfocus on that and miss the required balance. And it happens with personnel, too. I worked for a company that had the most fantastic engineering department. When the company got an influx of cash, they just hired more (really fine) engineering guys, because it was their strength. They didn't need more engineers, even really good ones. They needed operations skills and some creativity in the financial side and a bit of luck, but they came off the tracks in a haze of passion for their passion.

    For every black hole, there's a white hole. Which one is Texas?


    Thursday, February 19, 2004

    Bleeding Dodger Green
    Bean Counters or Beane-Counters?  

    The Dodgers this week chose sabermetrically-drenched Paul DePodesta, he of the Moneyball stardom, to be their G.M. It wasn't a given.

    Thanks to Steve Nelson of the always-interesting Mariners Wheelhouse, I read that just days earlier, according to the Los Angeles Times, the team was interviewing another, very different candidate, Dennis Gilbert, whose diverse background would have made him unique in G.M. circles. Some of his background in the highly-abridged snippets below:

    Former agent Dennis Gilbert, who has spent the last three years working as a
    special assistant to Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, interviewed
    for the Dodger general manager job Saturday.

    Gilbert, a Los Angeles native and longtime Dodger follower who was part of a
    Jeff Smulyan-led group that failed in its bid to purchase the Dodgers last
    year, was recommended for the position by Reinsdorf.

    [snip] Gilbert, a 55-year-old who has a strong background in
    negotiating contracts and scouting, did confirm that the interview took
    place.

    "I've known Dennis for 20 years, first as an agent, and then working with
    me," Reinsdorf said. [snip]

    "He certainly knows how to negotiate contracts, and one of the problems the
    Dodgers have had over the years is they've paid [players] too much money. He
    knows the market. He has a great mind, a really fertile mind, and lots of
    good ideas." [snip]

    Among his clients in 18 years as an agent, a period in which Gilbert broke
    several salary barriers, were George Brett, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mike
    Piazza, Bret Saberhagen, Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull.

    Since selling his stock in the firm in 1998, Gilbert has been involved in a
    number of ventures, including starting an insurance practice that
    specializes in policies for major league players and entertainment industry
    professionals, and establishing and raising significant funds for the
    Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.

    Gilbert has attended roughly 75 games a year in Dodger Stadium, and while
    going through Major League Baseball's due-diligence process as a prospective
    owner, Gilbert spent several weeks in 2003 conducting a thorough examination
    and review of the franchise, including the front office and the farm system.

    So in Gilbert there was candidate who had been a succssful agent (other side of the table perspective), prospective owner (able to empathize with the owners), lots of exposure to the Dodgers as an outsider (75 games a year attendance), some scouting background of indeterminate success (though the fact that his charity work was for scouts would tend to make scouts empathize with him, so he'd be able to tap into other scout perspectives).

    Reinsdorf, his current employer, saw this candidate as a winner primarily because he believes Gilbert is a great negotiator.

    My first reaction was disgust, in part because I dislike Reinsdorf's history and significant responsibility for some adversarial (against players and fans) positions as an owner, and his significant responsibility for making the Joe Lieberman of Baseball, Bud Zelig (why Lieberman? Inept, Greedy, Nice Guy To Those Who Know Him Personally) the Commissioner. My first reaction was Bean-Counters on the Loose (Fineman Films, 1974), the thought that Reinsdorf really believed that a master negotiator (Gilbert is a much "better" negotiator than say, Scott Boras, whose scorched-earth policy means teams come back to him only when they have to) was a person you wanted to rebuild a proud but increasingly-tattered franchise. The Reinsdorf thought being that if you could just drive down player salaries and scouting costs and minor league agreements and all the things G.M.s can affect on the cost side, you could create a profitable franchise. If you read this weblog often, you know it's unlikely that any organization that has as their mission "maximizing shareholder return" will ever achieve excellence except in the net profit department, that if gross or net are your raison d'etre, your focus on winning as a goal is necessarily diminished, and therefore becomes less likely.

    But once my churning chelm settled down, I realized Gilbert's set of aptitudes would be unique among G.M.s/competitors. And there were some very good aptitudes and ways of looking at things. For example, he may or may not have been a good scout, but he learned the scouting way of looking at data. That's a filter, a set of tests, a way of examining and processing data. So was his experience as an agent, and so was his experience as a prospective owner. And he's both outside the Dodger organization, while at the same time he allegedly attends 75 Dodger games a year, which makes him fairly knowledgeable about what existing players do and don't do well.

    Uniqueness in itself is a positive, especially in a closed system such as baseball. As Richard of the Just A Gwai Lo blog believes, one can profit just by being in the minority (and it helps a lot to be correct). Richard & I both believe some of the success of the DePodesta-Beane team in Oakland derives from their being alone in pursuing a strategy. And yes, the sabermetric approach has more followers now (Toronto, Boston, perhaps St. Louis, perhaps others not advertising), and the comparative advantage of the approach is bound to fade a little with each subsequent addition. So a unique strategy based on negotiation and the loyalty and diligence of scouts might work well even if it wasn't THE optimal strategy.

    I'm really glad the Dodgers chose DePodesta. It'll be interesting to see how the cognitive grandson of Allan Roth guides the franchise. But Dennis Gilbert would have been an equally interesting, and unique, choice to watch manage a baseball franchise's front office.

    Executives outside of baseball take note: There are a hundred ways to solve most complex challenges. As Richard says, sometimes just being in the minority and having a workable/right solution is, in itself, the optimal approach.


    Tuesday, February 17, 2004

    PART IV: Paul DePodesta: If
    You're "The House", You Can Be Fearless  

    In previous entries on the Paul DePodesta presentation to non-baseball managers on change management (off-line as I write this), I've covered a few of his techniques & insights. This post continues that series, and is not the last.

    Let me note that yesterday, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the first organization to hire an official team statistician (Allan Roth), chose this highly numerate young man to be their new G.M.

    If you haven't read the previous & don't want to, here's some table setting:

    Paul DePodesta, the Assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics featured (not extensively enough) in Michael Lewis' Moneyball, is one of the most interesting of the new statheads in baseball front offices. What separates him from the others is not that his stats are better or deeper, it's that he understands the key, final, most-difficult-to-master concept in the Management By Baseball model: Change.

    He understands that to successfully manage and push change, you have to change he changes you deploy, even as you're concurrently fighting to install them in the first place.

    To understand the system he was working within better, he kept asking naive questions. And in return, he got a lot of opinions.

    The response to all this questioning was somewhat expected. There were opinions layered on top of opinions. A lot of people were saying, "I think it's because," or "maybe it's this," or even "that's the way we've always done it". My industry is comprised on human capital -- the players are our assets. So subjectivity plays some role. But the enormity of the subjectivity was staggering. [snip]

    Opinions are great -- don't get me wrong. They're great for starting research projects. Then you go study and see if you can prove the opinion or not. But when placing multi-million dollar bets on future outcomes, opinions are wholly unsatisfactory. Opinions as conversation starters are fine. Opinions as conclusions are very bad.

    I started research projects to discern the objective "why". I wanted to know why certain teams won and why otyher teams lost; why certain drafts produced big stars and others didn't.

    This was the naive question put to work.

    DePODESTA INSIGHT: OPINIONS ARE FOUNDATION, ANALYSIS DELIVERS ACTION

    He knew he wanted to instill analysis into the mix. He knew he'd need measures, But like many managers outside of baseball who are trying to develop and direct changes sensibly, he was faced with "information overkill"...too many unintegrated numbers and no established systematic way to balance and blend them. DePodesta threw himself at an old sabermetric drill, using Markov technqiues to find probabalistic relationships between baseball events and run scoring.

    I was able to figure out that a man on first with nobody out is worth "X" runs and a man on second with two outs is worth "Y" runs. From there I was able to jump to understanding what it means to have someone who can hit a lot of doubles. What was the value of that event and others? I went a step further and asked who the people were who could add these value-enhancing skills to our team.

    The result is a model that can assign some marginal value to each thing that can happen on the field. Then, you can apply that model to calculating a rough value for each player, as well as shape in-game strategies and plan training effort (to maximize training in the components that have the highest rewards).

    And to go along with the probabalistic model, he imported an analogy to buffer the fear most people have of change.

    DePODESTA TECHNIQUE: BE THE HOUSE

    The analogy was a casino analogy: "Be the house".

    Any individual bettor might win any individual bet against the casino (the house). But the odds are in the house's favor. Chain together enough events, stack in enough betters making enough bets, and probabalistically it's overwhelmingly likely the house will come out ahead.

    Because baseball has such a long season (so many events), if you can just identify and grab enough small edges, you can "be the house" and win, as DePodesta aimed for, 60% of your games. It means failure (40% of the games are losses) is permissable and therefore no cause to panic, because you're going to (at least you set yourself up to think this way) win in the end.

    Every season we play 162 games. Individual players amass over 600 plate appearances. Starting pitchers face over 1,000 hitters. We have plenty of sample size. I encouraged everyone to think of the house advantage in everything we did. We may not always be right, but we'd be right a lot more often than we'd be wrong.

    BEYOND BASEBALL: TWO DePODESTA APPLICATIONS

    In many organizations (clearly not all), there are collections of things that were once processes, alive, evolving, that have ossified into habits, supported by opinions. As in baseball, they are supported not by rigorous examination or testing (that may have been done when they were first established), but by habit, involuntary gesture. In anthropology, we call these "survivals" like the behavior (almost involuntary on the part of the speaker) of saying "God bless you" in response to someone sneezing. More often than not, the speaker doesn't truly believe that at the moment of sneezing, the sneezer is subject to being possessed by an evil spirit, the reason people in the 12th century were trained to say "Gode blesse ye" to prevent such nefarious doings. (Aside: Perhaps I'm being optimistic when I say "more often than not". I go to a wide-demographic site called Iwon, and they have polls for their visitors. One was about evolution versus creationism. The results indicated about 20% believed in evolutionary biology, about 20% believed God created all life the way it was in 4000 B.C., and about 40% believed the totally impossible Baked Alaska that really it was both at the same time. So perhaps a plurality of American believe, along with the Bundi of Borneo -- yes, the bones in the nose dudes -- that sneezing makes one subject to possession by evil spirits).

    So putting a yardstick to presumptions, finding out where the support for behaviors is a habit and not the result of ongoing examination, is a fruitful way of turning up opportunities to be aggressive.

    And "being the house" can be productive, too, in many settings. Not all shops are like this, for example, the auto mechanic place up in Everett that mostly does tune-ups for Porsches and Audis. Close-enough is no-good, only perfection is acceptable because the equipment wasn't made to be even slightly tolerant. And, because there are not a lot of transactions over which to accumulate an edge.

    But more likely than not, you have some processes in your own organization that are repeated frequently and where perfect is not perceptively better in any way to "close enough". These are great targets for re-tooling, because if you can figure out a way to "be the house", that is, install a strategy that's a winner over time, you can reap constant rewards. And you can buffer staff fears about occasional "losses" which always accompany change but must not be allowed to halt it.

    BUT, please note, you have to keep measuring results. Unlike a casino, the environment shifts subtly even when your assumptions were totally correct. But sometimes, your assumptions are going to be flawed, because data can tell you only so much.

    As baseball researcher Don Malcolm will be the first to remind you, the model DePodesta created for the Oakland A's (more on that in the next entry in this series), worked well, but not well enough. The model paid tribute to in Moneyball was heavily re-tooled. Yes, the As still have more than their share of unathletic bodies, but their success in the last couple of seasons is more attributable to three "ace"-quality starting pitchers and defense that was improved over the original model that rejected defense as an overpriced hood ornament. Through observation, DePodesta learned that attributes like defense and team OBA were not linear functions charted against success, but non-linear one (for example, you can yield on defense only so far before the model decays and goes China Syndrome).

    In my next entry in this series, I'll continue this exploration of DePodesta's insights & techniques, specifically related to how he worked to make the change happen, the (very successful, and contrary to the way I usually try to do it) organizational development approach he took.


    Saturday, February 14, 2004

    Those Magic Managerial Moments--
    Pick Yer Little Poison  

    It doesn't happen often enough, it requires luck and knowledge both, but there are times as a manager when you think through something quickly and just hit it right on the head. In baseball, it's a manager's Bernie Carbo moment, when with a World Series game on the line, you call for a pinch-hitter, and he essentially wins the game for you with a homer (if you read the play-by-play game line for the famous 1975 World Series game six that has the Carlton Fisk homer video byte, you'll realize it was Carbo's homer, not Fisk's, that was the deciding blow; Fisk's, for the home team in extra innings, was statistically almost a foregone -- or even fivegone -- conclusion). In baseball research, it's a Lloyd Waner moment, which I'll get to in a minute.

    You gotta love those events, the total sweet spot, George Brett swinging as hard as he can and getting 100% of Goose Gossage's hardest fastball, whether in baseball or in management. They don't happen all the time, but the satisfaction of them persists, and serves to defend the psyche when things aren't going so well.

    I was once consulting to a small, intentionally lean group in a wonderfully aggressive organization that had new management that wanted to prove to the world that the old regime was bad (it wasn't...not even close). Because the laws of physics, gravity specifically, apply to fecal matter on a steep embankment, one can expect that fecal matter to move in the obvious direction. In this outfit, the program managers were getting pressure from above to do "more with less", and they, in turn, were trying to deliver to impress the new executive team by "making it happen". But program managers, unles they roll up their sleeves and pitch in, don't do the work that makes things happen; they just beat the drum rhythm faster. And this group I was working with was already hyper-optimized and pushing hard.

    Worse, the program managers were playing a zero-sum game, each wanting all the resources for their own program,and having no incentive to be concerned about anyone else's program.

    I needed a tool to (a) protect the lean group from the Tragedy of the Commons madness of the program managers, (b) squeeze an extra 2-4% measureable effectiveness out of them that would indicate enough "progress" that the new executive team wouldn't think they weren't "doing more" in response to the marching orders sent down from on high, and (c) trump the efforts going on in the rest of the company in a way that made the group untouchable for a while. I'd used lots of tools in similar situations, but never the particular one I used here. I was just guessing based on a combo of some real factors and intuition.

    In this case, the tool was merely an electronic Project Management package that output Gantt charts, the kind of tool no one else in the entire multi-million dollar company was using (and in most cases, had never tried to understand before). The group's manager already did this kind of work in her head quite effectively. But the tool addressed all three challenges, in this case, perfectly, George Brett swinging as hard as he can and getting 100% of Goose Gossage's hardest fastball. The intentionally-giant Gantt print-outs were the The Great Wall of China, unarguable, especially by the program managers who didn't know how to produce them themselves. The tool helped the manager and me do some creative re-sequencing that did squeeze out a couple of extra percent of production without burning people out. And it made the group look so much more technically sophisticated in comparison to the rest of the company that the executive team left them alone for two rounds of layoffs that resulted in big bonuses to the executive team.

    I hit that 100%, and like a game tying line-drive gapper in the bottom of the last inning, it felt beautiful coming off my bat and has resided in my memories ever since as one of those perfect moments I'll carry to my grave.

    100th-PERCENTILE HAPPENS SOMETIMES

    It does. The perfect storm. Brady Anderson's 1996 season. The script for the movie The Usual Suspects. Bob Beamon's Olympic long-jump. Sometimes, against the laws of entropy, the dance of random chance lines up all the random factors in your favor and perfection occurs.

    In my entry a week ago, I was trying to make an analogy about 'focusing on outcomes', and I chose to make an analogy out of a batter who hit for high average, but was actually an offensive drag compared to average for his team. I was in a hurry and just plucked Hall of Famer Lloyd "Little Poison" Waner out of my memory as a poster boy. I knew he was an decent example, but I was just guessing based on a combo of some real factors from memory and intuition. I didn't check my database or anything scholarly, I just grabbed the least-useful non-pitcher in the Hall of Fame.

    It turned out that Little Poison is not only a good poster boy for high-batting average, net-offense-negative performance. In response to a message from someone wanting to know the all-time best batting averages that had OPS+es at or below average, I ran a query against my normalizing database and it turns out frelling Lloyd Waner's 1930 season is, by a megaton, baseball's all-time leader in the pattern I was trying to describe. Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug. Sometimes you're George Brett.

    And because the message writer wanted a top-ten list in this category, I produced it and share it here, a trifling but tasty piece of statistical trivia.

    Here are the top 12 seasonal batting averages of all time (minimum 200 plate appearances) that are associated with no-better-than-average hitting usefulness, with the RPRO column representing a measure similar to OPS+, normalized so the league average equals 100, with higher numbers being more valuable:

    BA

    Year

    Apps

    First

    Last

    RPRO

    Roba

    RSlg

    0.362

    1930

    265

    LLOYD WANER

    99.7

    105

    95

    0.330

    1925

    237

    HOMER SUMMA

    100.2

    106

    94

    0.327

    1996

    210

    ROBERT PEREZ

    95.9

    101

    91

    0.324

    1930

    326

    MONK SHERLOCK

    97.5

    106

    88

    0.324

    1998

    308

    AARON LEDESMA

    96.3

    101

    92

    0.319

    1897

    566

    KID GLEASON

    98.7

    102

    95

    0.318

    1930

    390

    JIMMIE WILSON

    99.2

    103

    96

    0.317

    1930

    378

    AL SPOHRER

    99.1

    101

    98

    0.317

    1930

    248

    BENNIE TATE

    98.4

    106

    90

    0.317

    1922

    631

    HY MYERS

    97.0

    96

    100

    0.317

    1934

    618

    BILL KNICKERBOCKER

    99.9

    99

    102

    0.317

    1994

    390

    FELIX FERMIN

    93.0

    99

    87

    Stats notes for those who care: RPRO is my measure Relative Production, which is very close to OPS+ but does not adjust for park factors. Apps are approximated plate appearances.

    An interesting bit of synchronicity: Five of the players on this list are all from the same single season, 1930. As I noted in that earlier post, it was a legendary year for offense, a year in which a last-place team hit .315 as a team (and that includes the efforts of the pitchers at the plate). Even more impressively odd, three of those five 1930-uns were catchers: Ace Wilson, Al "The Human Spore" Spohrer, and Bennie "Lost Freight" Tate. Given that there were over 50,000 qualifying player/year seasons for this "measure", it's interesting that almost half of them were from the same year.

    I love these moments of perfection. Lloyd Frelling Waner...human lesson in management, and opportunity for perfect moment. If there was a Hall of Fame for Synchronicity, he'd be in it.


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