Tuesday, June 29, 2004
conscious being, to exist is to change,
to change is to mature, to mature is to go on
creating oneself endlessly
-- Henri "Boum-Boum" Bergson
An extraordinary number of readers have asked for some comments about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' turnaround. A team that has struggled consistently to finish above last place in every year since expansion created the franchise in 1998, they never have finished above last place. This year (through today), they are a game above .500 and in 3rd place in their 5-team division.
Change is "home plate" in the Management by Baseball model. Change is the ultimate & rarest managerial accomplishment. Baseball teams are an extraordinaily good lens through which to analyse conscious, premeditated organizational change.
What's changed for the Devil Rays? Many things, though from an organizational view, nothing unusual recently. When the Rays started their existence, they tried to compete instantly with older veteran sluggers and a little very young talent. After a relatively expensive bill for unsuccessful efforts, they went very cheap and let their young prospects play. That young talent was a workforce that in most organizations would have been in AAA or even AA minor league rosters. But the hopefuls got playing time without a lot of pressure, and the ones who survived slowly aged into more mature talent.
An early Bill James study showed how successful teams tend to display certain age patterns. Dividing players into three piles chronologically by age: young, prime, old (my words, not his...I can't lay my hands on the study at the moment, but if I can I'll come back with a full citation), you can see a team's distribution of each age bracket. Successful teams tend to have a lot of prime talent, fewer older players, and a smattering of young players. It's not invariable that teams with this distribution succeed or teams without it don't, but there's a strong correlation.
A few of Rays' big anaconda lump of youngsters have grown year by year into the middle category (though it's still a very young roster), and the team has acquired a few really ooooold guys who are native Tampa residents, Tino Martinez (36 years old.) and Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff (40), and solid if ininspiring utility guys Brook Fordyce (34) and Rey Sanchez (36).
The team's construction is basically the opposite of the pattern the Bill James study showed was a correlate for successful teams. It has bulges among the very young (on the roster there are guys who are 22, 22, 22, 23, 23, and 24), and the geriatric-for-baseball. This doesn't mean the Rays will tank, but they are more likely to play below-.500 baseball the rest of the way this season than above .500. Even now, they have surrendured more runs (338) than they have scored (361), a ratio more prevalent among losing teams than winning ones.
As with an Anna Nicole Smith performance art piece, the combination of Gravity and Lack of Developed Talent tends to overcome Ambition over the long haul.
While change is "home plate" in the Management by Baseball model, personal self-awareness (understanding how your own personality and neuroses and aptitudes distort your perception of how manage best) is Third Base in the model. Self-awareness plays a role in the Rays' success, too.
Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella has been very successful in the past, but at 60 years old, he's still capable of taking on his biases, examining past success and failure, and learning to apply past lessons in the present. That's a critical element of change, a critical element of adequate management.
Last Saturday, 24-year old Rays pitcher D. Dewon Brazelton was throwing a no-hitter through seven innings, though he had thrown a lot of pitches and was running out of steam. The old, pre-evolved Lou Piniella would have had no qualms about leaving D. Dewon in if the lad kept the no-hitter going. No new-age, pampering bleeding heart, Piniella was from the Bitgod School (Back In The Good Old Days) that tends to worship a past where women were gals and men had no qualms about pitching complete games, adjusting their protective cups on the field and smokin' a couple of packs of unfiltered Camels a day.
In this game story, the New Lou says he was almost relieved that D. Dewon gave up the hit. While Piniella has removed a starter working on a no hitter in the past, it's counter to his history. The capable-of-change Lou was quoted thus:
"You've got to remember -- a no-hitter is great," Piniella said. "But what's better is a nice 10year major league career where you stay healthy and you're productive and you're making lots of money."
Organizational change is tough and rarer than personal change. What's interesting is that technically, organizational change is easier than personal change.
What are your unexamined presumptions? How do they affect your decisions, the way you think people should behave and achieve? Can you overcome your own Bitgod tendencies? Can you do a New Lou and be open to new ways of managing, ways that don't fit your own early experiences or that serve your organization at the same time they don't necessarily satify yours?
Sunday, June 27, 2004
In the last entry I covered two extreme mid-range planning approaches, the Colorado Rockies' highly-impatient experimental style and the Seattle Mariners' (hypothesized by Steve Nelson) rigid stay-the-course approach that apparently refuses to make quick changes, even small ones, in response to the present situation or trends.
The poster child of the Baby Bear, adaptive version of mid-range planning (a "just right" mix of a steady long range plan that bends in the short- and mid-range to exploit sudden opportunities or changes in the overall or team-specific environment) is the front office of the Cleveland Indians. The previous G.M., John Hart, executed some masterful innovations that took advantage of the team's existing talent acquisition and development strengths, and the current G.M., Mark Shapiro, perpetuated the underlying innovations, but fine-tuned them in a couple of advantageous ways.
MATTERS OF THE HART
On becoming war chief of the Indians in 1988, Hart constructed his organization to make it more diverse and knowledgable throughout, and to make himself replaceable by hiring a truckload of people who could take over his job one day. He complemented the knowledge and skills of the existing staff with ambitious, youngish people who had outside experiences that added to his own repertoire and the organization's, too.
The names of some of these hires are known to students of baseball front offices. Three of them are G.M.s themselves now: Dan O'Dowd (the demon empiricist driving the Rockies' frenetic experiments), Shapiro (who attained Hart's job when Hart left for Texas in 2001), and Paul DePodesta, the intellectual driver for Billy Beane's "Moneyball" approach in Oakland, and now G.M. of the Los Angeles Dodgers). Others are assistant G.M.s in other major league organizations.
THE GUTS TO HIRE YOUR REPLACEMENT
Many managers hire dependent or passive assistants so they themselves aren't threatened (I call this the Kahle Model), so that when the organization is on the fence about replacing the manager, there are no attractive, easy internal alternatives. Organizations that want to maintain high accomplishment over the mid- and long-term need the Hart approach, as opposed to the Kahle Model that benefits the manager but costs the organization. (The Mariners' front office, discussed in the previous entry, seem to be working generally in that Kahle Model...when they recently hired a new manager to replace their veteran and headstrong manager, they went outside the organization and hired someone who'd never been a major league manager. When they replaced retiring G.M. Pat Gillick, a successful and veteran G.M., their new G.M. came from outside, too, and wasn't currently a major league G.M. nor particularly experienced as a major league G.M. Apparently, upper management prefers pliancy to track record.).
TINKERING WITH TIME
Hart inherited a fairly rich farm system when he started, an existing strength of the franchise. But while life and natural evolution itself put limits on how long young, cheap talent stays young, baseball labor structures and contracts put a sunset on how long young cheap talent stays cheap. Free agency truncates the amount of time a team might harvest returns on the talent it invests in nurturing. As a result, many teams trim investment in coaching and training, because the shorter the horizon between "now" and when a successful trainee leaves via free agency (or via other mechanisms such as trade because of immanent free agency), the less benefit an individual organization reaps from investing in an individual contributor. This baseball system clearly illuminates why the typical go-go corporate giant that works the system by applying the disposable employee model has been cutting back so much on training & re-education at the exact time every expert says the way the U.S. economy needs to get out of its doldrums is to accelerate re-education & training.
Like all baseball organizations, the Indians kept track of the talent it controlled by using a matrix by position and maturity. With this tool, baseball teams can judge, for example, if they have someone who can take the place of their 34-year old third baseman the team believes will be net-positive for another two or three seasons. They want to have a minor league third baseman who is showing progress in a way that suggests he'll be ready in one or two or three seasons. Well-run baseball organizations tend to be better at this succession-planning approach than not-well run ones.
So the Hart front office judged its young talent and signed selected individuals to multi-year contracts earlier than the major league norm. These contracts tended to be less costly per year, because the talent was less proven. Hart was counting on the congress of good minds he put together to pick out the better young players. And by signing them to multi-year deals earlier, not only were they less costly per year than other multi-year deals, but it made the benefit/cost ratio of coaching and training individuals higher.
CREATING & USING SURPLUS FOR SHORT-TERM ADAPTATION
A system skills-building organization like this will sometimes produce more young talent for given roles than they need for their succession plan. You can only have so many hard-hitting 1st basemen, even in a league with a designated hitter. There's some incremental value in stocking up talent -- injuries, accidents and mistaken guesses are all easier to cover for if there are next-best alternatives to take the place of the prospect who didn't work out. But there's another thing you can do with "surplus" talent. You can trade the individuals for others who play roles different from what you have been successful in producing. And if you find yourself in a pennant race and want to show your team a vote of confidence and add to your potential for success, you can trade some of your "surplus" talent for one or more players who give you an immediate boost.
It took Hart's front office five years of work to mulch and nourish and fine-tune this system before they started winning big. They had an extraordinary nine-year run, including a five-year streak of getting into the playoffs, no easy accomplishment.
The Hart Model supports long- and mid-term plans well, but provides resources to risk on short-term projects that could make a significant difference in adapting to a sudden environmental or situational need, such as an expensive but about-to-become-a-free agent starting pitcher out of whom you can get a third of a season's use and additional torque for the playoffs, too.
BARRIERS TO IMITATION
That five-year horizon, was actually a competitive advantage to the Indians. It took other teams five years to see the strength of the model. In all endeavors, competitors will imitate successful experiments. But many organizations don't have the patience to take on and then stick with a plan that even the succesful originator toiled at for five years to see the return in results. That means some might take it on, but fewer will be able to see it through. The cost of entry to successfully imitate the Hart Model is high, not in cash, but in acquiring the right front-office talent and sticking with a long-term plan long enough to see it bear fruit.
Governmental and academic organizations are more capable of resisting the need for quick returns, and can have better luck with a Hart Model approach. Corporate organizations are less capable, especially publically-owned ones, because of the pressures to perform against quarterly or annual P&Ls.
There are, however, Hart Model techniques you can use in any organization. You'll need courage, as all those who refuse to order vanilla every time do. Hart's team broke the unexamined status quo's presumptions, and to do anything particularly successfully, you will have to break the mold.
Why when you acquire young talent that exceeds expectations do you keep them on an "at-will" arrangement? It reduces the benefit/cost of training and investment in her or him, and means she can walk at a time of her choosing. If you sign your young talent Hart-style, to a contract of specific time, higher than what you are paying this very minute, but lower than the longer-term cost you might have to shell out in a couple of years, you have the assurance of her participation on a long enough horizon to make investment pay for itself many times over. Plus you have the additional asset of certainty that you won't need to replace your contributor for N years, a very valuable addition to the bottom line most accountants can't assess.
And when you've invested in a good long-term plan, do you commit 100% of your resources (human talent, money and time) to execution, or do you keep some in reserve to meet immediate needs and wrinkles? Just as the Hart team was able to deploy talent to acquire things because it had kept it in reserve, your projects and efforts benefit from the ability to move quickly in response to surprises good and bad.
Friday, June 25, 2004
"Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight" - Thomas Carlyle
The few managers who succeed at mid- and long-range planning can tell you it's neither an art nor a science, and the only hard rule is: There are no hard and fast rules.
There are things your planning shouldn't do. It shouldn't shift drastically at the slightest trend-ette (which could be ephemeral and blow away at any moment). It shouldn't lash itself unyielding, like Captain Ahab to The Whale, refusing to adjust or fine tune in the present for fear of de-stablizing the future. Planners can succeed using either of those approaches, because systems are stochastic, and the changes might work out anyway. But the most successful planning approach is like building a baseball team: you have to have an actual plan, stick to it long enough to see if its working, and be willing to make tactical changes along the way that fit your current needs without destroying your longer-term strategy.
Three teams are the exemplars of the three Goldilocks approaches to planning: The Colorado Rockies (Papa Bear), The Seattle Mariners (Mama Bear), and the Cleveland Indians (Just Right).
THE ROX: INTERESTING PLANS SHORT-CIRCUITED
The Colorado Rockies play home games in a most unusual environment, and they are blessed with a front office that is not only willing to experiment, but actively embraces experiment, testing, measuring feedback and change.
The apparent problem is, they never seem to stick with any one experiment long enough to gather enough data to see what's working and what isn't. They've tried the World 'O Big Sluggers approach. They've tried Heavy-Duty Starting Pitching Approach. They fielded Doodlebug Dementia, a team with remarkable speed to cut off hits that might turn into doubles and triples. For a place where any ball put into play might be a double, and any really hard hit ball might be a homer, they recruited a few guys who strike out a lot (don't make contact, losing opportunities) -- and it worked awfully well, as in this case. SO did they replicate it? No, they moved on.
You see The Rox' approach outside of baseball too much, in the publicly-owned business sector, especially, where ownership and executive management are not the same people, so execs are playing with other people's money. Management'll latch on to some hot acquisition that looks good to Wall Street, and as soon as they realize they're not going to get instant returns, boom-boom out go the lights, they shift to something else. Could they have made the new toy a success? Perhaps, perhaps not, but one will never know.
I worked for a billion-dollar company that used to go through the typically ornate budgeting choreography that seemed to last six months of every year. They'd project targets and then about two months into the new year, they'd start making radical realignment decisions based on tiny shift-ettes in markets or sales, rendering all that planning moot. Then they'd spend the rest of thte fiscal year just banging around without any course at all. Sometimes it worked out okay, in spite of, not because of, their Brain-Spasm of the Nano-Second approach.
THE MARINERS: DON'T SPOIL A GOOD PLAN WITH MID-COURSE CORRECTIONS
The Seattle Mariners are blessed with a very sweet stadium and concessions deal, enough so that one study (will find the link later) asserts they are one of the ten most valuable franchises in North American sports (not just baseball).
Their recent behavior has been mystifying, with an off-season spree of apparently incoherent trades and acquisitions that clearly imnproved them only in one spot, the bullpen, an area which was already a strength, and did not signficantly address any of their three most obvious weaknesses (a left-handed power hitter, a 1st baseman who could hit left-handed pitching, and an overall shift towards an imbalance of older players on the field). And two of those weaknesses are as easy to deal with as any problems you could have. And it's not like they didn't make any moves; they made a ton of them, just not in any way that made them stronger in any area, so it was definitely not laziness..
The M's have struggled all season in many ways (as of today, firmly cemented in last place, 13th best winning percentage out of 14 teams in the league, and with a downward trend). And they have done nothing to address any of the pre-season problems that have become even more obvious than they already were. It's like an enigma in a mystery wrapped in a wet blanket. They won't tap into their massive Trump-Tower sized pile of pelf to upgrade at any of the places their incumbents are killing them. They won't even take a cheap flyer and bring up young players having good years in AAA ball who play the positions their major leaguers are struggling at.
The mystery may be solved. At Mariners Wheelhouse, Steve Nelson has written a four-part series that provides a strong hypothesis that makes the Seattle front-office's behavior understandable and apparently systemic.
The essence of his hypothesis: That the team is embarked on a long-range plan that they will not deviate from no matter how things change along the way. Like a mariner who sets a dead-reckoning point and then meets surprisingly different wind and tide conditions, they were aimed at the Straits of San Juan de Fuca, and are about to be beached in the Torres Straits.
I wouldn't call it dire straits, but it's definitely an extreme style. Read at least the first of Steve's four-part series. I'll come back to this subject in my next post and elaborate on planning styles, adaptive and otherwise.
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
One mistake I've seen made in every single organization I've consulted to or worked in is managers' too-quick judgement of a contributor when the manager is unwilling to change her mind. Sometimes it works to the benefit of the judged -- someone becomes a Golden Boy and in spite of any failures, he just gets promoted away from doing work. Usually it's the opposite -- someone gets a bad reputation for good or not-good reasons and no matter how well they do, they are always going to be overlooked because of the unexamined assumption that they are not useful.
Outside of baseball as well as inside it, managers make personnel decisions under pressure, usually the pressure to perform and produce now concurrent with attempts to train and exvaluate young contributors. Most managers (about 85%) fail.
One obvious lesson is Lou Piniella, by all measureable guidelines, a very successful manager. He's managed teams to the playoffs in both leagues, won a world series in a 4-0 sweep against a significantly superior opponent, led a team to the highest regular season gross win total in 90 years, and has been in more highlight film clips throwing post-ejection tantrums than any other manager.
But Piniella has a big hole in his management "game". He's not a very good judge of talent. Many managers neither recognize talent nor get the most of the talent they have. Some slightly better ones (and Piniella's one of 'em) are good at getting performances out of certain specific types of contributors. The really good managers (and Piniella's not one of 'em) squeeze contributions out of whoever's on their roster.
Last week, David Andriesen of the Seattle P-I wrote an insightful piece about a particularly costly mistake Piniella made when he was managing the Seattle Mariners: giving up on outfielder Scott Podsednik too soon (reference courtesy Steve Manes). As he reports:
Last season, Podsednik became one of four rookies in major league history to hit .300 (.314), steal 40 bases (43) and score 100 runs (103), joining Jimmy Barrett, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Ichiro Suzuki.
[snip] "He'd have been hitting second for us," said one Mariners executive. "He'd be the guy we've been looking for all this time to hit second and steal bases. But Lou didn't like him. Lou made a big mistake."
Piniella, while a master of in-game managing and motivation, is sometimes a less than astute evaluator of talent. His distaste for inexperienced players contributed to the departure of several players who went on to solid major league careers, including Boston catcher Jason Varitek, Minnesota pitcher Joe Mays and outfielder Raul Ibanez, who starred in Kansas City before being re-acquired by the Mariners last winter.
The manager does not have absolute power in personnel decisions, but executives say privately that when Piniella decided he didn't like a player and didn't want to manage him, there was little hope that player was going to be much of a contributor in the future.
"(Piniella) didn't care for him," Pat Gillick, the Mariners' general manager at the time, said of Podsednik. "We thought he had a bit of a long approach, a long swing, and we thought at the major league level he was going to have trouble on balls (pitched inside) on him.
I'll take issue with Andriesen's valuable piece on a couple of small issues: Varitek stunk up the minor league system and played totally uninspired baseball for the Mariner organization -- he had plenty of chances to succeed, and the organziation couldn't make him successful; another one could and did. Ibanez is a parallel story; he had plenty of chance to succeed at the major league level, and didn't produce. Ibanez ended up on a team that played in a hitting paradise, and his success at home the last couple of years juiced his apparent production. Ibanez is not a bad ballplayer, and moving on to another organization improved him (organizations tend to be able to teach certain lessons and not others; a smart player and turn this into advancement by addition -- not forgetting what he was taught previously and adding the new to his base knowledge). This is not a knock on the Ms; all organizations fail with certain players because of the org.'s innate pattern of strengths and weaknesses, what they can teach & what they can't.
It's not, btw, that Podsednik is an All-Star player. He's not. Value is relative to context. Podsednik's a really good, really inexpensive player who plays a position at which the Mariners desperately needs help. And his particular set of aptitudes, getting on base (struggling a little the last eight weeks) with great basestealing (both quality and quantity) and speed on the bases and in the outfield, are exactly one of the two ingredients the Ms are swooning from a lack-of. Podsednik is worth mroe to the M's than his appraent value because that's what they're needing specifically.
CHANNELLING FRED C. DOBBS
The only man in history with a permanent 5 O'Clock shadow as devastating as Piniella's was Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on the great novel by B. Traven. Against the backdrop of a gold rush, Humphrey Bogart plays the average guy who degenerates under pressure into an id monster.If you haven't read the book, do so; Traven was one of the 20th century's remarkable talents. Or see the movie if you're lazy -- Alfonso Bedoya's performance as the sensitive New Age and Yoda-wise bandido is a must-see, as is Robert Blake's pre-indictment thespianism.
¿Why do I bring up Dobbs?
Because Dobbs, like Piniella, is not only the five o'clock shadow king, he's existentially doomed in the work to not be able to recognize gold when he sees it. He goes nuts when he sees fool's gold (pyrites, a mineral that when embedded in rock gives off a golden glitter), but doesn't recognize gold ore when he's standing on a rich vein. It takes his partner Howard to identify gold, but Dobbsy doesn't like to listen to Howard.
Too many managers are like Piniella about their talent. They like what they like and trash the rest. Sometimes they need something they don't like or already have enough of what they do like. Some learn. Most don't. And the more success a manager has in spite of this hole in his game, the more intractable he's likely to be about not evolving to get better at it.
It will come back to haunt you. Just like when Piniella said to Gillick:
"Podsednik? I don't have to play no stinkin' Podsednik".
Friday, June 18, 2004
Sometimes you do a terrible job. But sometimes, a terrible job does you. Most executives can't tell the difference.
The existential nightmare I once had was: I woke up and I was Mayor of Basra, Iraq. I'm very self-cofident about management situations; I know only four people I'm confident are as good or better than I am. But Basra -- that's different. The waking reality is the city wasn't rebuilt from the shellacking it took in the First Gulf War before the additional damage it received in the Second War on the Iraqis last year. Electricity is not restored. The water/sewage systems are shaky...on their best days. Public health system, a shambles. Police and fire service, a joke. Supplies almost non-existent, and tax revenues in the toilet because the people with any wealth to tax are also the most well-armed. The country's mortal enemy, Iran, a nuclear powered, oil-rich nation run by wacky religious fanatic TaliBaptists, just a few leagues away. Some of the residents are heavily-armed and fellow-believers in the whacko religious beliefs of the mortal enemy. And the main difference between the Basra Mayor job and managing the lowly Montréal Expos (owned by the men who own the Expos' daily enemies, and a franchise being resource-starved intentionally so it can be a human punching-bag for those rivals), is when the Expos fail, no lives are ruined.
Sometimes life works out the other way, and you get to have a job in a situation where everything is aligned to make you successful: good staff, decisions made before you got there that are bearing fruit now, an economy like in the mid-90s that put a stiff tail-wind behind most every effort.
Baseball has wonderfuly clarifying examples of this effect.
THINK GLOBALLY, BAT LOCALLY
If you want a tail-wind, something that makes you look good, be a company that has domestic oil reserves right now. The crude lurks underground, you own it, and the price trend is going up. You don't have to do anything fancy, you just sit on it and your value swoops up. Call it the Vinny Castilla effect.
Mr. Castilla is a nice ballplayer who looks like a minor diety. Instead of sitting on untapped crude oil, he hits about half the time in Denver, Colorado, where thin air dampens the break on breaking pitches making them easier to connect with, and thin air more lightly resists the flight of well-hit balls. When he plays in Denver, his OPS is about 1.170, like Barry Bonds in a pretty good season for him. When he bats outside of Denver, his OPS is about .660, about 12% below the league average. Here are his full 2004 split statistics that contrast his performance between his home games and his away ones.
It's a little unfair to compare Castilla to the companies that own domestic oil reserves, because he's a pretty good ballplayer -- just not as good as his consolidated stats make him look.
Of course, baseball is a zero-sum game. For every batter bludgeoning balls from Bali to Brussels, there's a pitcher in pernicious peril. Denny Neagle was a perfectly fine pitcher who had the self-confidence to sign a long-term deal with the same Colorado Rockies Castilla plays for and it melted down his career, not only qualitatively, but quantitatively because trying really hard to succeed in that environment put unusually high stress on his pitching arm (not to mention his ego).
I haven't yet had a dream that in waking life I pitched for the Rockies -- and with luck, I won't.
But employee performance is something you should always put in context if you want to see achievements with any accuracy. The salesman who kicks booty because his region has better customers or a better regional economy, the plant that has newer, better equipment, the vineyard that got great weather are all examples. The good and the poor are both affected by outside forces you need to normalize your perception of performance.
TODAY'S TAIL-WINDERS AND FALLING-TIDES VICTIMS
When you evaluate your staffers performance, or your own performance is being evaluated, you don't always have the benefit of clear-headed metrics to put your achievements in context. Baseball does. Thanks to Baseball Prospectus, we have the Pitcher's quality of opposing batters report. That report gives us context on pitchers performance by pointing out which moundsmen have faced competition much higher or lower than league average. Who's been lucky so far and who hasn't? As of this morning:
Twelve pitchers who faced the most challenging hitters
(hardest on top)
NAME------------ TEAM PA--- AVG --OBP --SLG
Jeremi Gonzalez --TBA 166 0.278 0.353 0.464
Chad Gaudin ------TBA 108 0.277 0.354 0.445
Jose Contreras ---NYA 214 0.273 0.347 0.452
Doug Waechter --- TBA 214 0.272 0.349 0.449
Lance Carter -----TBA 129 0.274 0.351 0.443
Rob Bell ---------TBA 120 0.273 0.348 0.446
Vic Zambrano -----TBA 392 0.273 0.350 0.442
Jamie Walker -----DET 117 0.273 0.347 0.445
Paul Abbott ------TBA 222 0.274 0.352 0.440
Gil Meche --------SEA 208 0.275 0.350 0.440
Brian Anderson ---KCA 323 0.271 0.349 0.438
Kerry Ligtenberg -TOR 115 0.274 0.348 0.439
Twelve pitchers who faced the least challenging hitters
(easiest on top)
Victor Santos ---MIL 229 0.246 0.312 0.374
Al Leiter -------NYN 236 0.246 0.313 0.382
Tyler Yates -----NYN 173 0.247 0.310 0.388
Randy Wolf ------PHI 268 0.244 0.313 0.386
Eric Milton -----PHI 324 0.246 0.312 0.396
Jay Witasick ----SDN 146 0.246 0.315 0.393
Andy Pettitte ---HOU 157 0.245 0.319 0.392
Horacio Ramirez -ATL 253 0.248 0.319 0.393
Wayne Franklin --SFN 106 0.249 0.316 0.399
Tyler Walker ----SFN 109 0.255 0.320 0.394
Doug Davis ------MIL 386 0.255 0.321 0.394
Matt Riley ------BAL 123 0.251 0.322 0.394
If you were planning on evaluating these staffers, you'd use this kind of data to adjust the traditional metrics they're measured by.
It's the same outside baseball. Just as Prospectus' staff thought up this way to help evaluate and adjust individual performance, you should be thinking through ways to measure the context against which individuals are performing.
That might be time-series data (how did the unit perform before individual was there as opposed to now?), daily contrast (how does their unit perform when each individual contributor is not there relative to times when they are?) It's going to be different in each endeavor, but my clients and I have been able to build measures that have some value in every case, and I believe it's possible in almost every endeavor.
I'm not telling you it's easy to do. Only that it's completely necessary if performance matters to your organization. After all, even your highest performer would look like an abject failure if she was Mayor of Basra.
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
Go ahead, impress me --- explain the balk rule. No? Well, no shame there, very few can. It's just a wacky baseball thing.
To be blunt, every organization has some procedures stated or unstated that look like a psychedelic pile of pick-up sticks; each individual stick seems perfectly fine, but the aggolmeration of all of them looks like some demented hybrid of a Charles Manson CAT scan and a Jackson Pollack canvas. In baseball, that train wreck is the balk rule, but your organization likely has a few of its own, too, and these sap both productivity and morale.
Bill James took on the balk rule several times yesterday in an on-line Q&A he and co-author Rob Neyer conducted on ESPN's web site. Here are the sections, which I've culled from various parts of the event because people kept coming back to it (underlining is mine):
Sean, MN: If you could change one of the game's rules, which one would you change and why?
Bill James: There are several, but. . one could profitably get rid of the balk rule.
Dan from NJ: Why would you want to get rid of the balk rule? Then you will never see a regular SB.
Bill James: Nonsense. The balk rule doesn't work. You just need to replace it with a rule that works.
Dante, Chicago: Can you elaborate on how/why the balk rule doesn't work? Thanks
Bill James: The rule manifestly fails to achieve its goals. It's one of those rules that, when it didn't work, they tried to fix it. When that didn't work, they fixed it again, and they fixed it again, and they fixed it again.
At some point they should have stopped and tried something else, but they didn't, so they stuck history with a rule which (a) is almost totally unintelligible, and (b) is arbitrary in its enforcement.
In principle, trying to prevent one player from decoying another is a dumb idea. The balk rule is like a rule in basketball that says (a rule that would say. . .theoretical example) that if you fake a shot, you have to take the shot; otherwise it is travelling. That would be a dumb rule. The balk rule is basically the same thing, only applied to baseball.
The balk rule and the wide-ranging lack of mastery of it leads to particularly unamusing behavior at ballparks when fans ululate over any uncompleted pick-off move or dummy -pick-off move that in the same motion turns into an actual one to another base. Beyond professional umpiring crews, comprehension of the balk rules (that's plural) is lower than the take-home pay of a Mexican maquila factory worker.
Some quick background. The National League instituted the first major league balk rule in 1885 (you remember 1885...the year the Chicago White Stockings won the National League behind the two-starter rotation of John Clarkson and Jim "The Scottish Skeptic" McCormick).
The rule was that "the pitcher must have both feet touching the ground while making any one of the series of motions he is accustomed to make in the delivery of the ball.. A violation of this rule shall be a 'foul balk' and and two foul balks will entitle the batter and each runner to one base".
"A balk is made whenever the pitcher, when about to deliver the ball to the bat while standing in his position, makes any one fo the series of actions he habitually makes in delivery and he fails to deliver the ball to the bat.
The first paragraph of this rule didn't even make it through the 1885 mid-season mark. But the challenging basis for the 1885 rule is the foundation of the current rule's oddness: it's asking the ump to make a fuzzy call that varies with each pitcher, a skating-judge kind of opinion whether a move a pitcher is making is one of the "series of motions he is accustomed to make".
As James notes, there have been attempts to fine-tune the rule. In 1887, they eliminated the accidental dropping of the ball from the list of balk-worthy acts, although the accidental drop is back in the balk zone now. In an attempt to make it both enforceable and thorough, the Leagues have modifed the 1885 balk rule 13 times (1887, 1898, 1904, 1909, 1912, 1914, 1917, 1931, 1940, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1957).
If you're in the mood to kill some brain cells, take a look at the current language defining balk calls here in the official rules. You'll find mention of pieces of the crazy quilt of balk-worthy pitcher acts in 8.01 and 8.05. It's got all kinds of thoughts jammed in there. There are balk rules aimed at safety (not allowing quick-pitches designed to attack the plate before the batter is ready). There are some aimed at deception (faking a pick off but throwing to the plate in the same motion). And then there's a punitive niener-niener rule (the accidental dropping of the ball) which is neither a safety issue nor an attempt to protect runners or batters from trickery.
AT FORTY SEVEN YEARS OLD, IT'S NOT A CHOICE, IT"S A TRADITION
People just jammed feature after feature onto what had been a simple attempt to prevent (for reasons that are clear neither to Bill James or to me) pitchers from faking out base-runners. And now, with the rule untouched for 47 years, it's unlikely to be torn down & rebuilt from scratch...it's just like Strom Thurmond as a Senator his last twenty years: no life in it, no productive reason for being there, but ensconced because his constituents couldn't remember anyone else in the job, and it was just easiest to leave things that way.
You see this attachment to outmoded rules and traditions in non-baseball organizations all the time. The uber-example of all time is the U.S. health care model which, like a high-payroll team that year after year flails around the .500 mark, provides mediocre results for the highest budget in the world. As James describes the balk rule, the U.S. healthcare system is "one of those [nouns] that, when it didn't work, they tried to fix it. When that didn't work, they fixed it again, and they fixed it again, and they fixed it again. At some point they should have stopped and tried something else, but they didn't."
The dysfunctional pile of pick-up sticks that is the U.S. healthcare system is a private-public partnership, but either sector alone produces these by themselves.
When I was transferred to California for a few years, I found grocery stores would charge you deposits on bottles...a good idea that discourages litter and promotes energy conservation. The problem was, they wouldn't take the bottles back and refund your deposit. Apparently ( I did a little research on this but never nailed the documentation -- this was the explanation I got from a legislative staffer who'd been around a long time), there was a time in the past when stores had redeemed deposits, but at some point the legislature had let them off the hook on the return side without purging the initial deposit requirements. Balk.
When you see it in the corporate sector, it's more absurd because they don't have any excuses except their diseconomies of scale. For a short time, I did business with a bank that demanded two forms of picture identification...for a deposit with no cash back, all because some bureaucrat at their corporate headquarters had written ambiguous language in their procedures manual trying to assure customers' security during withdrawal transactions. Foul-balk, I'd say.
I worked with a client that assembled and packaged computer products whose vice-president for manufacturing made his employees hand-check every single floppy diskette for visible signs of dents or other damage because of a bad batch the firm had received three years before and without a subsequent bad shipment. And the vice-president who'd made the decision was gone from the company. Balk, take your base.
Academia isn't immune. Most computer science programs still require trigonometry and calculus. These were vital when there weren't many computer applications that didn't involve weapons targeting or weather modeling. But a tiny minority of computer professionals will ever apply either of these disciplines to their computer work except as thinking tools.
So what's your organization's equivalent of the balk rule, the unexplainable, unintelligible, arbitrary procedure that needs to be torn down? When you root these out and repair them, the returns tend to be very high...in productivity and in morale.
Sunday, June 13, 2004
doesn't make you stronger
kills you." -- Angus' Eighth Law
Previously, I've written about using past managers' foibles as guidelines for what not to do. It's a great technique to keep in your toolbox, and one I use several times a week. The tool you can use several times a day to great advantage is one Dusty Baker uses and talks about. It's the exact opposite: Channelling past managers and other mentors.
We all face challenges we haven't faced before. If a batter stands on deck waiting to face a pitcher she's seen before, she's going to draw on her own past experiences. But if she's never seen the pitcher before, she's going to watch the action to measure the hurler's approach, velocity, pitch selection, delivery. If she's ambitious, she'll have asked others who have dug in against the pitcher, or asked her coaches what to expect.
What if she's faced the pitcher before but has consistently not achieved good results? She's going to talk with people who have, or think about other batters who have had success and try to decode what they did that she hasn't.
It's the same in managing organizations. You draw on your own experience. If you've been successful, that's easy; you pull the previous successful decision off the shelf, then walk through the circumstances, evaluate the environment in which you're making a decision, and fine-tune it for the moment.
But if it's new or you have had less than excellent results with this kind of decision, you channel past managers & mentors of your own. It expands your experience to include others'. It seems intuitively obvious, but believe or else, a majority of managers don't use this tool, which is absurd given the paucity of useful training most American managers get. Sure, there are procedures manuals and other dictates in hierarchical organizations, but these tend to be inflexible and don't evolve until the status quo has failed more often than Steve Howe's drug tests.
Dusty Baker uses this tool, according to this article from the religion section of the Chicago Sun Times (thank you Repoz at Baseball Primer; do you read everything?). Baker is one of the most successful managers in the game today, and while its popular to diss him for some of his retro approaches, find me half a dozen other managers who don't work for the Yankees or Braves who have compiled finishes as good as Baker's over the last six seasons: 1st-2nd-2nd-1st-2nd-2nd. Obviously, it's not all Dusty Baker that gets his teams into this competitive zone, but if he really was the dud some of my sabermetric colleagues like to make him out to be, what are the odds the success would be so persistent with teams that are not overwhelmingly talented?
Much of Baker's language is couched in terms of his faith, but the technique is pure Western rationality applied to management.
Making the right choice takes practice, Baker says, and he works at it. Like his ubiquitous toothpicks. They're supposed to keep him from chewing tobacco.
On the corner of his desk, amid stacks of team paperwork and piles of light-blue envelopes filled with game tickets, sits a copy of The Purpose-Driven Life, its dust cover tucked into the middle of the book. Written by California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, the book is a kind of spiritual home-improvement guide that takes readers through 40 days of Bible study and questions designed to jump-start their faith.
"I've read about three-quarters of it," Baker says as he gets up from his chair and begins rifling through a nearby bookshelf topped with unopened bottles of wine, looking for another devotional book he's been reading lately called Secrets of the Vine: Breaking Through to Abundance. [snip]
He finds what he was looking for a few crowded shelves below a biography of Sammy Sosa.
Bible-related literature isn't the only thing Baker reads, he's quick to add, motioning toward another stack of books and papers behind his desk.
"I read Sun Tzu and The Art of War, trying to get some understanding, too. The Book of Five Rings [by a 17th century Japanese samurai] and Attila the Hun, about leadership," he says. "I try to understand, like I said, that if there's a north, there's a south. If there's an east, there's a west. Know what I mean?" [snip]
Fear of being labeled a "weirdo" doesn't stop him from talking about his "grand counsel," a kind of baseball communion-of-the-saints to whom he says he turns for advice.
"I've got some people up there who help me make decisions during the game," he says, pointing heavenward. "A grand counsel of guys I know are looking out for me, guys that help me. Bill Lucas [note: Lucas was the first African-American G.M. in baseball & was in the Atlanta organisation when Baker was]. Tommy Aaron [note: Aaron was a manager & coach in the Braves system]. Joe Black. Roy Campanella, Lyman Bostock . . . Guys that were influential in my life that are gone.
"I can just sort of tell sometimes. I'm at a crossroads here. Now, help me. Tell me what to do. And I know. Most of the time I get the answers immediately."
SUN-TZU MEETS CAMPY
The Channelling Past Managers tool can be a weakness if the user takes a single mentor or past manager and channels her alone. That's merely imitation. Even bad managers do something well enough to borrow (well, not all bad managers, but most of them). And if a person hasn't had more than one manager in the past, he shouldn't be a manager himself.
And like Baker, you can borrow ideas from other fields. Baker weaves together Eastern military strategies, Western religious theories, and the pattern of one of the best catchers in the history of the game to trigger ideas at moments of stress or challenge. The more tools you collect, diverse the tools in your toolbox, the more likely you will be to come up with the right one when you need it.
Keeping track of past managers' designs and styles and decisions is a vital part of a manager's skill. You can use it to copy cognitive DNA from past successes, or to avoid failures you've seen. Any thread of another's thinking you can bring into your system for use or a determination not to use gives you a perspective you didn't have before, and that makes you stronger.
And from a management point of view, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you.
Friday, June 11, 2004
Baseball's draft has a ton of lessons for non-baseball organizations in competitive endeavors, especially businesses. The big annual professional draft unwound this week, and in the last few years it's captured a lot of discussion and analysis. The discussions have been about individual draftees, but more interesting for us, individual teams' strategies.
I think the reason the team draft approach has gotten such a flood of ink lately is the success of Moneyball, a main thought line of which discussed the shift in Oakland's strategy. Author Michael Lewis' intelligent, readable writing opened up the topic not only to baseball writers who generally didn't understand any draft strategy more focused than the old Dallas Cowboys' "Best Available Athlete (BAA)" model.
Moneyball set up many readers to cook up a straw man -- a fake monolithic enemy of the sophisticated stats and multivariate analysis model Paul DePodesta powered for the A's when he was still with that team. The straw man was "scouting", a chattering of tobacco-chewing males who barnstorm the country looking at talent and compressing what they see into symbols and numbers. The numbers are not the actual accomplishments of the prospective draftees -- accomplishments are hard to normalize between high school, college and professional, between games at different altitudes and in wildly divergent stadia. And the humans who tend to serve as scouts (many, not all) are not highly numerate symbolic logic experts -- they are sensitive eyes and ears that try to recognize human patterns, not inanimate statistical ones.
The enemy was a straw man not because most every other team did the pre-draft talent analysis differently from the way the As did (because that was true, they all differed from the As). The enemy was a straw man because the 29 teams that were not the As took no monolithic approach. Almost every team has its own theory or theories on which it drafts, and, yes, they are primarily scouting-driven. But there are as many different approaches to scouting as there are to statistical analysis.
SCOUTING CAN BE GOOFY
Scouting comes in good and bad models, just like statistical analysis does. A charlatan or a lazy or foolish analyst producing work following a statistical/performance paradigm doesn't mean the resulting study has any more merit than entrail-reading by a blind quadruple amputee. A mediocre scout will produce output of the same quality or worse.
Angus' Law states In any open category, no matter how you cut it, 85% of the individuals are crap or mediocrity, 10% are utilitarian/AOK, and 5% are excellent/high achievers.
So it's highly probable that 85% of scouts are unlikely to produce success at a rate higher than randomness. As unlikely as Babe Ruth getting thrown out trying to steal to lose a World Series...unlikely, but not impossible. And the 10% who are fine and the 5% who are brilliant are right more often than randomness would dictate.
In baseball, though, like in business, there a lot of empty plaque passing itself off as wisdom. Thanks to this week's draft, Rob Neyer wrote about some of baseball's useless thinking. Looks like phrenology. But it's based on the individual's pattern recognition skills. All intuitive processes involve some form of pattern recognition. Like the scout in the Neyer piece who thinks the team should or shouldn't be interested in the prospect because he fits this description:
BABY-FACED. MEDIUM-WIDE, SLOPED SHOULDERS. ESPECIALLY LONG ARMS. LONG TORSO. HIGH REAR
She's seen some collection of these traits before & he mentioned these aspects because it either has given him hope or undermined it. Because most observers are mediocrity or crap, most of their observations will be, too.
This stuff looks exactly parallel to things I've read on reports submitted by interviewers in businesses who are writing up their notes on prospective job recruits. It looks like it has some observation and thought behind it, but really, its a form of shorthand that has meaning only to the writer (if even to her). And baseball has its "bloodlines" pap...some young man who is the son or grandson of a perfectly mediocre utility man gets drafted because some scout or front-office resident recognizes the last name and it's after the key first few rounds and why not take a flyer? And baseball has the random factor of geography, too. Teams will favor local prospects, youngsters whose families have ties to the big club's home region, which makes some sense if the region is a hotbed of baseball activity (Southern California, Florida, etc.).
Business is just as wacky as baseball. In a job market flush with choices, you'll see companies taking a flyer on an MBA whose claim to fame is his daddy's or grand-daddy's acumen, especially in the more tribal social groupings of the extractive industries (mining and energy), though it exists in every industry to some degree. And when debriefing clients on why they chose a candidate who had ultimately failed (in an effort to get an idea of what not to do this round), it's surprising how often I have heard about personal grooming habits, scuffed shoes (or really nice shoes), and once (from a British client) a tie knotted single-Windsor instead of double-Windsored, which must be the "high rear" of that industry.
BASEBALL'S RECRUITING STRATEGIES
Most baseball teams seem to be mixing the kind of scouting Neyer speaks of with some statistical analysis. The blends are all different. I don't know of a team that does all of one while doing none of the other (feel free to point one out if you have a little documentation). Every organization has an overarching strategy with a few twists that get bent to accommodate the market, their current depth charts, and the drifts on their current scouting and front-office heavies.
Peter Gammons wrote about this topic last weekend. There's a lot of grist and promotion in there, but what's most electrifying is how pragmatically bright G.M.s are. Here are some quotes from the piece, quotes you should chew on as grist for thinking through your own strategies. These are all about recruiting, really, but the little soundbites on approach work for most other kinds of decisions, too.
Much of the discussion these days centers around the dreaded "Moneyball," which most people who shred the Oakland philosophy don't completely understand.
"Some people think we draft only college players using laptops," says Billy Beane. "We've taken high school players in the first round, like Eric Chavez, and there have been years (like 2002, in the case of Georgia high school outfielder Jeremy Hermedia) that there was a high school bat we would have selected if someone hadn't banged him in front of us. But we have to have some cost predictability."
The 2002 draft featured in "Moneyball" (and an upcoming Michael Lewis followup book), in which Oakland had seven of the first 39 picks, was controversial because the A's had to spread out their allotted money and did it with college players, some of whom were drafted because of their signability. Two years later, center fielder Nick Swisher is described by one veteran Pacific Coast League manager as "the best prospect in our league, with the possible exception of (right-handed pitcher) Joe Blanton," who was Oakland's second first-round pick that year. The 39th pick, third baseman Mark Teahan, is in Triple-A and playing so well he may be called up imminently to fill in for Chavez. The third-round pick, left-handed pitcher Bill Murphy, was traded for Mark Redman. The fourth-rounder, catcher John Baker, is hitting .340 in Double-A.
There is considerable fear and loathing over what many see as "The Moneyball Group," which now has spread to Toronto with J.P. Ricciardi, Los Angeles with Paul DePodesta and Boston with Theo Epstein.
"When we took over, we needed to restock the organization quickly and do it with college players," says Ricciardi, whose first-round picks, infielders Russ Adams from North Carolina and Aaron Hill from LSU, are in Triple-A and Double-A, respectively, and unquestioned major league prospects. "People forget I am a scout, first and foremost. I look forward to the day when we've come far enough as an organization that we draft a high school player in the first round."
For the record, DePodesta's Dodgers drafted a high school pitcher in the first round -- left-hander Scott Elbert of Seneca, Mo., followed by Virginia Commonwealth right-hander Justin Orenduff with the sandwich pick.
"Like everything else in baseball, the draft is gray," says DePodesta, who has taken over an organization whose scouting director Logan White has predominantly selected high school players. "We're essentially on the same page, looking for the same kind of players."
"There is no one way of doing anything," says Epstein, who is also trying to re-stock what was a thin Red Sox organization. "We are looking for pitchers who control and pound the strike zone. We look for hitters with a certain kind of approach. We took a high school outfielder (Mickey Hall, who hit for the cycle in the Sally League Thursday) in the second round last year. (Director of amateur scouting) David Chadd did a great job drafting two years ago."
[snip]When Twins GM Terry Ryan was the club's scouting director, they were predominantly college-oriented; in 1989, they took Chuck Knoblauch, Denny Neagle and Scott Erickson with three of their first four selections. The Marlins have what is a very talented rotation of high school pitchers, each taken somewhere between the second overall pick to the 13th round; this year, they are looking to select a college pitcher with the 29th pick. [snip] Cleveland has taken college and high school players in its rebuilding, as Indians GM Mark Shapiro says, "there is no one way to do anything."
The emphases were mine. Now it may be that Gammons got his notes mixed up and accidentally ascribed either Epstein's or Shaprio's quote to both, but it seems more likely to me that both said the same thing. Industries have their mantras, some persistent, some ephemeral. Some mantras are moronic (such as "more with less"), some are merely pointless ("shoes for industry, shoes for the dead"), but some contain a grain of essential truth that reminds the intoner/listener of what prize to keep their eye on.
THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO DO ANYTHING
The baseball mantra, "There is no way to do anything", is an essential truth for developing a strategy for any competitive system, especially a closed, zero-sum system like most industries.
Strategies get "hot". In business, a few years of MBAs get the same text-book, or a consulting firm or author with a particular sharp vision gets as popular as Britney Spears in pink spandex (and frequently with a little talent behind it). Executives who belong to Junior Presidents associations or Kiwanis or a Moose Lodge idle their engines together and breathe each others' fumes, as my esteemed colleague Cathy Cook would say. They come to believe that to stay bonded with ther fellows, they need to pursue The One True Path.
For a few years, sometimes three decades, "The One True Path" (exporting jobs to Red Chinese prison factories, currency hedging, Grand Cayman banking for tax evasion, selling into ex-Soviet satellite markets, layoffs, ISO 9000), businesses reduce their competitiveness by imitating each others' single strategies with only minor variations.
Baseball is much smart, a better model to follow.
DePodesta said, "Like everything else in baseball, the draft is grey".
Make DePodesta's declaration a Business Mad Libs: "Like everything else in [your line of work], [aspect] is grey".
It's not true 100% of the time (just about nothing is). But it's right most of the time, and the perfect starting point from which to develop a kick-butt competitive strategy. And while your competitors are huddled together in a rugby scrum eating each others' mud, you can be following baseball's essential strategic truth, carving out a niche and varying your tactical twists for the market, your available talent, and current events.
Monday, June 07, 2004
The two-week period I mentioned for the comment-enabling is over. While not all the comments were pointless, it didn't add enough value to leave the feature on.
For those of you who commented, thank you. For those who didn't, thank you, too. I have always planned to create an on-line community of interest when the book is about to come out, something that would be hearty and truly interactive in a way a comments mechanism can't be. I'll solicit insight from you all when I get close to execution on that.
Sunday, June 06, 2004
I got an extraordinary amount of e-mail on this subject, though in part because I failed to ever touch on the Ptolomy and Einstein topic in the headline. I violated an s.o.p. of journalism...write the headline last. By the time I got around to addressing astronomy, I had overrun my time and length most readers will bear, so I let it drop. But I got some especially insightful responses on the core topic of the entry, so I'm going to include those, too.
Why Ptolomy Could Have Sent a Mission to the Moon, but Einstein Couldn't
I'm actually going to let "rlc", an erudite poster to Baseball Primer explain it, in part because what I was going to write wasn't as concise and clean as what rlc wrote.
Posted by rlc on June 04, 2004 at 01:46 PM (#658901)
The headline is a conflation of two separate instances of a discredited physical theory not becoming obsolete, in both cases because it had been refined to such an extent that it was easier to use than the theory that replaced it.
In the Ptolemaic universe, all the heavenly bodies revolve around the earth. The retrograde motion of the planets was explained by proposing that the planetary orbits had loops in them called epicycles. Centuries of observation resulted in epicycles being added to epicycles (epiepicycles? epybicycles? I forget). The idea that the planets actually moved in that way was very hard to swallow, but the astronomical tables that were compiled were so damned accurate that long after the Copernican revolution astronomers were still using the Ptolemaic model to predict eclipses and transits and other astronomical events.
Einstein's Special and General Theories of Relativity are thought to be the most consistent explanations of motion and gravitation. However, NASA and JPL and every other assembly of rocket scientists still use the Newtonian equations to calculate moon shots.
The tradition of mangling metaphors has a long tradition in the business world - stopping it would be like pulling hen's teeth.
Because the why of basic earth-centered universe model was wrong, scientists spent a humongous amount of energy observing the apparent motion of the planets in an attempt to understand what the behaviour of the planetary bodies was. And they observed and recorded diligently, things they might not have been as ready to do if they had a more sensible model that dovetailed more neatly with observed phenomena.
The parallel I would have gotten to if I had gotten to it is this: In rejecting the old model, it's important not to demonize it. NASA doesn't...they're not ready to throw away Newtonian or even Ptolomaic charts because of the painstaking effort they required & results they deliver. And while the Stan Williams theory of letting a guy throw until he Pulls A Dravecky leads to a lot of Hobbes-ian pitching careers (short, nasty, and brutish), in rejecting it, it's important to recycle knowledge gained in arriving at the conclusions the old models exposed, and not throw the Baby Doll out with the bathwater.
In sum, it looks like a contributing factor in being able to be effective for more pitches a start is throwing more pitches per start within reasonable limits. No one knows what the exact limits are, and the variation between individual organisms, very high among humans, makes "knowing" it hard. The Back In The Good Old Days crowd (the Bitgods) practiced a common American management approach to not being able to know -- if you can't know, just ignore it because analysis will likely be a waste of time. That's lazy, just as the new model's 105-110 pitch ceiling for a healthy pitcher on a normal rest could become a rigid and undermining dogma that prevents an organization form getting the most productive long-term contributions from an individual.
So Mike Gutierrez, Alaska's finest all-natural blogger, sent me an insightful note in how the dysfunctional backlash works to undermine progress in government (the sector he has been working in).
You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned government experiencing that kind of philosophical swing. In a way, it's institutional. Each new chief executive comes into office based on the campaign theme that everything the incumbent administration is doing is being done wrong. So, without investigating whether or not this is accurate, lower level managers entering the system are obliged to adopt this world view.
When was the last time you heard a candidate for a chief executive position (Mayor, Governor, President) say, "My opponent's labor policy is for shit, but he is doing a pretty good job on health care?" After the election, it would be a very rare manager (Cabinet Member, Commissioner, etc...) who could speak up and say, "you know, they really weren't doing so bad on health care and we should keep doing things their way." It would be even more rare to see such a manager keep his job after doing that.
Is it similar in the private sector? Does a new chief executive, perhaps coming in to right the ship, campaign for his or her job by assuming everything was being done wrong?
A perfect example. And the answer is, of course, "yes", it does work that way in the private sector, where the behavior is even more inexcuseable. When officials are taking on incumbents, they invest a lot of moeny and credibility in making the attacks on the old model. This means there's a fairly high cost in "face" if you end up saying, "Well, this was a nice piece of design". In the private sector, except in the case of a hostile takeover of a public company, it's pretty rare that all the steak-holders know what the issues were that defenestrated one set of suited white guys and replaced them with another set of suited white guys, so the new team should have plenty of latitude to preserve as much as they need to. All too often, though, the new team wants to, as my father used to say, pee in the orange juice, to mark their ascension.
NELSON'S EXPLICATION: WHEN FEAR OUTWEIGHS OPPORTUNITY
Steve Nelson of Mariners Wheelhouse used an example from his own environmental consulting experience to draw parallels between the rigid adherence to average pitch counts as a simplified over-reaction to the actual abuse too many starting pitchers experienced in the old Bitgod model.
One important thing Steve didn't explain to me because he knows I used to do environmental consulting is that generally the kinds of pollution industries create is a lot more toxic, carcinogenic and mutagenic than the kinds that come out of municipal wastewater plants (sewage is mostly ordinary organic waste, easily treated; industrial pollutants can have significant concentrations of heavy metals, chlorinated hydrocarbons and radioactive waste). Therefore, the work is more challenging, therefore the market both allows higher charges and has a sparser set of potential competitors with the skills set. So it behooves any for-profit organization that has the skill set at hand to do the higher-margin work.
Another good example from a former employer. The company had it's roots in doing municipal water and wastewater treatment plants, and those people still dominated the management. I was involved in the industrial services practice, a good portion of which was soil and groundwater contamination and cleanup.
The managers were absolutely paranoid that the company was going to have some kind of a professional liability claim for this work, and always insisted on including a risk premium in pricing those projects. Whenever financial performance was reviewed, the greater profitability of industrial services was always discounted because of the "bigger risk". These projects also required more layers of approval, all of which wound up in added overhead burden for those services.
Want to guess how many claims the company had ever had in industrial services? ZERO!
Want to guess what the claim frequency was in municipal services? About one every three years!
I've been doing industrial services projects for close to 20 years now, and in that time I have never been involved in only one professional liability case, for a grand total of $8000 work that needed to be redone. The simple fact is that industrial clients only rarely make professional liability claims against environmenteal engineering consultants. They terminate the job, you never work for them again, and they may occasionally press informally for some financial resolution.
The entities that file claims against engineers are government agencies. They could never see that the municipal end of the business was what was driving premiums and claim experience, and no amount of actual numbers would convince them otherwise. (emphasis is mine)
It actually reached a point where competitors who did only industrial services were routinely beating us on pricing because they didn't have the premiums and inefficiencies, and many managers were just as happy to see that "high risk" work going away.
I have written at length in the past of the self-limitations of fear-based management. Fear always ends up melting away the bottom line through the attachment of overhead, whether its liability insurance, extra meetings to make sure everyone has reached consensus, or funding another commission to investigate whether traffic lights reduce traffic accidents rather than just installing the frelling things.
All large organizations need a measure of caution, but unless they are in a form of the insurance business, no organization, governmental or corporate or non-profit can succeed long-term if its decisions are driven more by fear/risk-aversion rather than by opportunity.
Thursday, June 03, 2004
beginning, there was "Guts"
-- The Gospel According to Stan Williams
You see it in baseball history and it's just as common in government and corporate settings, too: An idea that's accepted as fact and rigidly adhered to gets questioned long enough to fall -- and gets replaced with a polar opposite that's equally untrue and hewn to just as rigidly.
In the primordial ooze that was Major League Baseball before sabermetrics, when Grover Cleveland was president and Grover Cleveland Alexander was too young to know how to break a curve, it wasn't surprising for a player like Kid Nichols to start 44 games a season, pitch 43 complete games for a season total 425 innings and to pitch around that much for 5 consecutive seasons.
The pitchers in the 1890s didn't throw as hard on every pitch as their contemporary fellow-hurlers. They didn't throw as many different pitches that required snapping a wrist or elbow in this direction or that (spitballs and other non-arm torquifications were legal, plus the median batter was less sophisticated, too). And unless you were facing Willie Keeler or Jack Crooks, you weren't duelling with a batter who thought fouling off a half-dozen pitches just to frell with your head was entertainment.
And for all that, the idea that pitchers completed what they started was a cultural given, an ethnological way of being. Because for every Kid Nichols who toiled for a decade or more that way, there were a few Toad Ramseys or John Montgomery Wards who too-quickly broke down from the effort. Over time, workloads went down, relievers became tactically useful, and the labor union movement shifted the cultural norm away from the idea that humans were useful machines you could run into the ground and then throw away (although all beliefs like that are cyclical and return).
Early sabermetric work by Craig Wright, perhaps stimulated by the blowing out of young pitchers through heavy workloads, such as the murderous mis-application of the wonderful Steve Busby by young Jack McKeon, questioned overuse of young pitchers. Wright and followup work by Bill James planted a cognitive seed, and many researchers, including the team over at Baseball Prospectus have investigated the number of pitches a starter throws and its effect on subsequent starts and more globally, career longevity.
Because of this work, pitch counts now appear in better boxscores. If you see someone keeping score at a ballpark, there's a decent chance you'll see her tracking pitch count on her scoresheet. Major league organizations try to use pitch counts as a way to reduce pitcher injuries, some perhaps going as far as imposing automatic limits on pitches thrown.
But guess what? The numbers don't "make" in the general case. And in some cases, like that May stretch by San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt, it appears to be the opposite, as written up by MLB.COM's Mike Bauman (well worth reading even if you disagree. His main assertion is that like a runner, you have to practice the distance to do the distance; you don't work yourself up to a 5K by sitting in a La-Z-Boy, but by working you way up to running 5K, and pitchers should work their way up in pitch count but that human endurance exceeds 100 pitches.). The Giants let Schmidt throw 144 pitches in one game, he came back in his regular spot in the rotation and pitched solidly for 110 throws and when the rotation came back to him, he came back with a solid 115 pitch performance.
NOTE: As David notes in the comments, he got more than the minimum four-day rests because the Gigantes had some days off in their schedule and because of weather. But it was, regardless, a rather spectacular month on a full work-load for The Lewiston Lasher.
THE AVERAGE IS NOT THE PLAYER
The challenge is we can see episodic data where a demented manager or pitching coach rode some arm into the minors or out of the game entirely.
Exhaustion breeds altered motions which decay mechanics which lead to stress which will lead to further exhasution and can lead to tissue damage. Sooner or later, an overworked pitcher will break down, but we won't know if it's because he was going to break down, whether he was going to break down someday but the overwork brought it on sooner (intuitively the most logical choice) or he was perfectly fine but the overwork alone did him in.
The challenge is there are too many counter-examples, enough that we just cannot draw conclusions clearly enough to apply as dogma or even strong tendency. But even if there were a clear mean average ideal pitch count, the spread of cases is not clustered close to that -- individuals are too different and there are too many variables to try to neutralize. If we were dealing with inorganic, insensate objects like circuit boards or airplane wings, we'd have available tools to examine the failures' causes and likely occurence. But variance among baseball-playing human organisms is just too broad to get a signficant enough sample to break down all the "rules".
That's not to say there are no tendencies. Younger pitchers have more problems than older, though it's not a continuous straight-line function. According to James, finesse pitchers (counter-intuitively) have more problems than hard throwers. And Don Malcolm argues convincingly that it's not so much the total number of pitches the pitcher throws as much as whether he's having a good or bad day -- that is, if let a pitcher who's having an off day toil through exhaustion when his form is off, it causes more damage.
The Jason Schmidt example dovetails with the logic of Malcolm's argument. When you look at the Lewiston Lasher's line, he was not struggling for long if at all in any of those games. The 144-pitch game was not one where he was letting batters on and then working out of it. He was just going deep into more counts and finishing the batters off with strikeouts.
There's a lot more to say on this issue, though I'm not going to address it in this entry. Let me just summarize my key point: The old gut-it-out model destroyed arms. The new 100- or 110 pitch model may or may not save arms, though the data is ambiguous at best. You don't get an advantage by overturning rigid knee-jerk rules based on cultural bias or superstition by merely replacing them with equally superstition-based antitheses. You get an advantage by thinking through your existing rules, examining their assumptions and clarifying the variations, that is, you make better guidelines but examine them continually.
It's chilling, though, how often you see the thesis/antithesis approach in non-baseball organizations.
The most amusing one I know (it wasn't amusing to me at the time) was when I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I drove a overloaded car of fellow hikers up a brutally-rocky county road fifteen miles to a trailhead. My Chevy II bottomed out on a boulder that looked like a killer asteroid in one of those Bruce Willis Saves The Earth flicks, and my fuel tank ruptured with a slow leak.
When I got back to town, I took it into a shop to have the tank repaired. No go. Anywhere. Turned out there was a time when there was one welder in town who did jobs like this and the drill was the service station would drain the fuel and vent the tank for a while and after enough hours the welder would come by and do his work. I was told that a service station attendant assigned to drain the tank didn't, the welder never knew, and took out half a city block. So now the rule was that no-one would weld gas tanks. Period.
Of course, you say, a better guideline would be for the welder to drain the tank he was going to work on and double-check it later before lighting up. But this is knee-jerk to knee-jerk with no stop at logical.
How many of you work at companies that behave like that? They have an unquestioned rule. It triggers a disaster. A new rule appears, most frequently the polar opposite, that becomes as asburd (and unquestioned) as the tossed one.
Just remember, there's almost always a Jason Schmidt in the pile, a counter-example. Good rules are flexible and take variation into consideration. Bad rules pull out pitchers who are still pitching better & with less effort than the guy who has been called into replace him.
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