Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Bob Wickman's Wisdom or Wacky Weltanschauung?:
The Intentional Balk as Cognitive Terror  

For those people who are capable of producing innovative ideas, the challenge is not usually what to innovate, but when to attempt the new. Organizations tend to resist even the least risky changes at the least risky times. Sometimes it take a rogue move from someone to actually execute the idea, outside of channels.

Baseball has vivid examples of innovations executed by players without their managers' explicit approvals. You know how they say "you can't steal first base"? Harry Davis stole first base (8/13/1902) from second to unnerve the catcher and set him up for a subsequent --successful -- run scoring double-steal. Chisox catcher Jim Essian circa 1977, with Rangers on 1st and 3rd and knowing the double-steal was on, pretended to throw the ball to second but substituted the white spongy padding in his mitt, hiding the ball and subsequently greeting the runner pouring in from third with the ball, an easy tag-out and a giant grin.

You can add another instance, and perhaps take courage from it to try your own innovations, even in what appears to be a less-than-totally-safe environment.

Because last week, Cleveland Indians closer Bob Wickman executed what appears to be the first recorded instance in 129 years of baseball history of an intentional balk.

As most of you know, the balk rule exists to prevent pitchers from trying to fool baserunners and the punishment for a balk is the runner(s) get(s) a free base. It doesn't happen all that often, & the rule and its evolution are quite wacky. I wrote about it some here.

Wickman, though used it to change an environment which he felt was unnecessarily risky to one that, while on the surface looked less promising for his team, actually improved his team's chances for success, at least to his own thinking.This, even though he did it in a "save" situation against a good team, late in the game.

Here's the situation. Bottom of the 9th, Wickman comes in for the Indians to protect a 4-2 lead against the perenially tough Minnesota Twins.

[]Ford flied out to left. none on, one out.
[]Cuddyer singled to shallow left. Runner on 1st, one out.
[]Punto lined out to right. Runner on 1st, one out.
[]Cuddyer to second on fielder's indifference. Runner on 2nd, one out.

Runner on second, close game, and Wickman, according to the newspaper report, remembers an ugly parallel:

A red light went off in Wickman's head. He remembered his blown save of April 21 against the Angels. With Darin Erstad at second, and Garret Anderson at the plate with two out in the ninth, Anderson blooped a pitch into center field to force extra innings. The Indians lost, 6-5, in 10 innings. "That pitch was almost in the other batter's box," Wickman said. Wickman had no proof, but he felt Erstad may have tipped Anderson as to what pitch was coming. He wasn't going to take that same chance Tuesday night. So he intentionally balked Cuddyer to third so he couldn't steal catcher Victor Martinez's signs. "It's the only balk of my career," Wickman said. "Stewart is a semi-power hitter, and he possibly could have hit one out on me if he knew what pitch was coming."

Quite contrarian. Closers are supposed to close the door, and putting a runner on third base with a small lead runs counter to conventional wisdom. Let's set that aside for a moment and look at the hard numbers, emotional issues aside. Remember, the run Cuddyer represents is not the tying or winning run. It's the bottom of the 9th with a two run lead, so this run is irrelevant in and of itself to the team's chances (though it threatens Wickman's personal ERA number).

What are the general case probabilities that a runner on 2nd base with one out will score? that a runner on 3rd base with one out will score? ¿And what's the difference?

Pretty minor. Using tables on a Dan Agonistes entry quoting researchers, the composite average run potential goes from .68 (man on 2nd, one out) to .94 (man on 3rd, one out). Further, there's Tango Tiger's evaluation of probability of winning a game given runners on base, number of outs, game score difference and inning. In the Baseball Primer discussion of Wickman's move, Tango Tiger stated, "Down by 2, man on 2b, 2 out, chance of winning is .052. Move him to 3B, and it's .053. That's a +.001 win change, or the equivalent of +.01 run change in a random situation."

The difference to the Tribe's chances of winning go down +.001 from a purely statistical point of view. Wickman and Martínez gain the advantage of not having to worry about Cuddyer telegraphing stolen signs, and since many who saw the move were convinced at the time it was intentional, he laid some speculative overhead on his antagonists ("why is he doing that?").

The story has a happy ending for Wickman and the Clevelanders, but not without interim drama. He unintentionally walked the next batter, Shannon Stewart, the batter he didn't want getting relayed signs, and a fast enough runner that you wouldn't want him as a tying runner on the bags. Further, Stewart stole second base before Wickman was able to close the deal by striking out Matthew "Don't Call Me LaTroy" LeCroy.

In and beyond baseball, one of two things happens when an innovation of this ilk is deployed in a way that's viewed as a total success. In the Harry Davis case, it inspired some imitators, and within a few years, baseball updated the rule book explicitly to disallow the tactic. In the Essian case, the umpire allowed the out but informed Essian he would never call it that way again, so even without an explicit rule change the potential benefit was erased.

In Wickman's case, the result was ambiguous. The Indians won the game (the ploy "paid off"), but ugly stuff marred the completion. You have to like it, even though, I have to think, Tribe manager Eric Wedge had to hate it, and, I suspect, warned Wickman not to do it again.

The result, from an innovator's point of view, is almost perfect. Immediate success, but enough muddying of the events that it's not going to become a fad. This leaves Wickman (once Wedge is no longer his manager), and you free to reap the benefits undiluted by competitors' adoption or rule-makers' generating barriers.

In your own management, let the talent innovate on the fly, especially when the probabilities of success are roughly comparable. Fear of what might happen is unfounded more often than not; in the Indians' case, I'll bet you the fear the manager had was way out of proportion to the .001 change in probability that his team would win.

Even with all its traditions, baseball is a lot smarter than most endeavors when it comes to initiating and executing innovations. I think that's because results are so measurable, accountable, open, and that in a system that "transparent", reality trumps office politics far more often than not.

But if you loosen the leashes on your talented Wickmen, it might add to your repertoire some new tactics for success.

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