Friday, February 25, 2005

Warrior In The Spotlight
But Adrift In The Doldrums  

Reprise From Feb '04:

Synchronicity. I'm running this again because I an ex-client just called me about a situation exactly like the one I discuss, and because Don Malcolm, the baseball researcher whose work I discussed, is about to go back on line with some new material. With Don, it's bound to be stimulating and generate impassioned responses. And threats.

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 (ones with good winning records), the second set against bad ones (the teams with bad records). The key number is OPS+ a single-number measure of offensive quality. Anything above 120 is very good, and usually only 16 to 20 players a year produce enough offense overall to have an OPS over 130. As you can see, while Guerrero was excellent against bad teams, he was much better, 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.

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?

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