Friday, March 04, 2005

Part II:
Pulling Another Lenny: When Pattern Recognition
is Accidental Dismemberment  

Pattern recognition is a key skill of every significant management action. You look at the situation, examine the past, recall things you and others did that worked out and that didn't, pick a small handful of options, devise an approach. You have to connect the dots, because this moment is not likely identical to any you've had before. You have to find the key parts of the pattern that will affect your choices, or, even better, the patterns that connect the patterns, as Gregory Bateson suggested.

If the decision is one that doesn't have to take effect this instant (say, any event after about the first 15 minutes of Black Hawk Down), it pays to do at least a little research. That can be using reference materials, interviewing people, brainstorming. If you don't, you are not managing.

In the last entry I discussed Marlin utilityman Lenny Harris' lack of research before proposing a radical change to Juan Pierre's approach to situational hitting. But wait, there's more.

The Lenny apparently had his epiphany around an idea for Pierre:

Harris wants Pierre to aim high and "shoot for the stars." After Pierre led the Marlins with a .326 batting average last season and finished second in the majors with a club-record 221 hits, Harris believes Pierre has all the makings of a batting champion.

"We talked about it a lot this offseason," Harris said. "When I first mentioned it to him, I don't think his expectations were that high yet, but that's what he has to reach for. He's got the ability to do it as long as he's more consistent on ball fours. If he's going to be the type of hitter like [Wade] Boggs and [Tony] Gwynn, he's got to walk more."

For some reason, The Lenny believes Wade Boggs is the same kind of hitter as Tony Gwynn.

But it appears that not only did Harris provide the wrong prescription for Pierre, he based it on a flawed assumption, and one that he could have easily researched. Because the only thing Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn had in common was they were very different hitters.

Here's what they had in common:

  • A feature: They batted left-handed (as Pierre does).
  • An accomplishment: They both won multiple batting average titles (as Harris believes Pierre should aspire to).
  • An approach: They both eschewed the home run as a key to their overall offensive production except in two seasons (which Pierre has no choice but to do).

That's the beginning of a pattern. The problem is only the third commonality, their general rejection of the home run, is about what kind of a hitter they were, about their batting approach, about what Pierre would have to do to being a batting average titleist.

Worse, Gwynn and Boggs were very different hitters. You can't be like both at the same time.

Here are their careers in what's sometimes called seasonal notation. A seasonal notation line takes all a player's stats, and divides it up into a 162-game composite virtual season that represents a year's worth of their "average" stats over their career. I threw in Pierre's career to date.

162 Game
Boggs 610 200 38 4 8 2 2 94 49 .328 .415 .443 2 6 12 2 16
Gwynn 617 209 36 6 9 21 8 52 29 .338 .388 .459 3 6 13 2 17
Pierre 653 204 23 8 2 50 19 44 39 .312 .361 .380 13 2 1 8 8

Output was similar in some aspects, different in others. The telling difference here is in walks and strikeouts.

Pierre was 26 years old in his 2004 season. Let's look at the two batting champs through age 26.

Boggs was a very slow baserunner who got most of his hits on line drives where he trotted to first, or where he used the features of the stadium he was playing in as affordances, such as using the short, high wall in Fenway Park's left field as a device off which to carom a shot. Through age 26, here was his line:

 Year Ag Tm  Lg  G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG IBB HBP GDP
 1982 24 BOS AL 104  338   51  118  14  1   5   44   1  0  35  21  .349  .406  .441  4   0   9
 1983 25 BOS AL 153  582  100  210  44  7   5   74   3  3  92  36  .361  .444  .486  2   1  15
 1984 26 BOS AL 158  625  109  203  31  4   6   55   3  2  89  44  .325  .407  .416  6   0  13

Boggs established that he was going to take a lot of walks, especially numerous for a player who didn't hit a lot of home runs. He established that he was a low-volume, low-percentage base-stealer. He went deep into counts and while he struck out far less than normal, his going deep into counts made him more likely to whiff occasionally. But his approach was designed to maximize on-base percentage. Boggs consistently kept his on-base percentage above the .400 Magic Turkey Thermometer Indicator of On-Base Very Good Ness.

Gwynn was a fast runner until his mid-30s who hit the ball at more different trajectories and used his speed to harvest incremental hits. While he had almost as many doubles as Boggs, they were more likely to be leg hits than Boggs' were. Through age 26, here was his line:

 Year Ag Tm   G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG  IBB HBP GDP
 1982 22 SDP  54  190   33   55  12  2   1   17   8  3  14  16  .289  .337  .389   0   0   5
 1983 23 SDP  86  304   34   94  12  2   1   37   7  4  23  21  .309  .355  .372   5   0   9
 1984 24 SDP 158  606   88  213  21 10   5   71  33 18  59  23  .351  .410  .444  13   2  15
 1985 25 SDP 154  622   90  197  29  5   6   46  14 11  45  33  .317  .364  .408   4   2  17
 1986 26 SDP 160  642  107  211  33  7  14   59  37  9  52  35  .329  .381  .467  11   3  20

Gwynn put the ball in play early in counts and counted on his speed for extra hits. He slowly established himself as a base-stealing threat (not important to his batting approach, but an indication he had some wheels). Like Boggs, his approach increased his chances for grounding into double plays. There's something else they have in common.

Pierre to date is not much like either. As shown in Part I, he's a hit it and run like heck guy without power. He's nothing like Boggs as a hitter in part because he's nothing like Boggs as a runner.

He's not much like Gwynn, though his strikeout & walk numbers at this part of his life are parallel to what Gwynn's were at the same age. It's very unlikely he'll develop on Gwynn's trajectory. Their body types and swings are very different (Gwynn during his playing days looked like a slightly-less aerodynamic 12 oz. can of Spam Lite with arms and legs, and hit the ball a lot harder).

Managerial pattern recognition starts with the Harris approach. The very earliest start of the process includes these three steps.

Step #1: Sift through history for clusters of features or events that match the one you're about to play with. Step #2: Examine each, starting with the most well-matched, and start figuring out how they're the same and different. Step #3: Establish what you can change in the environment that should be different to better match the success factors of your patterns.

Harris didn't even get through this beginning of the start. He stopped at Step #1.

This aborted form of pattern recognition is common is all kinds of organizations: business, government, professional practice and non-profit.

Take Lorig Associates LLC. They own and manage public properties converted to mixed commercial/residential applications.

They manage and are pulling a Lenny on one of their properties right now, a former school turned mixed residential/commercial neighborhood hub called the Wallingford Center. They rehabbed it about 20 years ago filled it with unique, one-off family-owned shops (handmade craft jewelry, a high-end eyewear boutique, an urban garden store, an intelligent toy store, for example). The neighborhood which had had only the basics, crystallized around this hub, attracting like-minded retails to nearby buildings and then attracted residents for whom the appeal of a middle class neighborhood devoid of no chain stores, but populated with small businesses with character was a magnet.

Times have changed, though not in Wallingford. People still live in the area for the same reasons. But Lorig got bored with the model. They looked around and found a more profitable approach, copying the retail success of a nearby "lifestyle" shopping mall called University Village.

The U Village used to also be populated by boutique one-offs (with a mix of a few chains). It's in an upscale neighborhood packed with avid consumers of high-end goods and the mall is a destination, even though people can buy Banana Republic and the Gap in a lot of places. This place got a makeover, dragged in more chains, dumped independent entrepreneurs and is now a magnet for the people for whom shopping is their lifestyle. The place is packed daily, an orgy of purchasing even in a region with a bombed-out economy.

Lorig did Step #1. They realized the demographics said Wallingford was economically, ethnically, and by education much like the U Village neighborhood. Then they stopped.

They are trying, with no luck at the present, to turn the Wallingford Center into a U Village. In a market where commercial vacancies have been very very high, they raised rents sharply to drive out independent businesses to make room for chains. In a market where apartment rents have been falling, they allegedly raised rents on apartments. Empty storefronts begetting lower traffic begetting dicier business factors begetting more empty storefronts. The result is a dying hub that's like a black hole -- not only does it look like the mall of death from Saturday Night Live, but being the hub, it's expiration is sucking the oxygen out of the whole neighborhood's retail core. Other landlords saw the hub raising rents, so they did too, and the bloodbath spread to adjacent blocks.

Personally, I believe it's going to be very difficult to get chains into the smaller family-style retail spaces because they'll need a ton of dollars per square foot to make the kinds of numbers chains, with their diseconomies of scale, need to thrive, and there's not a dense traffic of people whose lifestyle is being consumers to patronize them. They certainly won't get much torque from the current residents of the neighborhood, though perhaps they can remake that, too, over time. And without a lot of neighborhood business, they will need the destination business -- and they are already shopping at U Village.

When Lorig pulled a Lenny & failed to get past Step #1, they missed their opportunity to realize that Wallingford, in spite of looking demographically on the surface like the U Village's neighborhood, was really the anti-U Village, and that by populating it as a U-Village wannabe, they would lose their old market without picking up the new.

It appears to be a moronic move based on a foolish failure of half-axed pattern recognition. Kind of like Lenny Harris'.

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