Thursday, May 26, 2005

Management Disinformation: Dusty Baker,
The Cubs, Shock & Awe, Derrek Lee  

One of the ingredients that differentiates successful management from doomed-to-failure amateurism is credibility. And credibility demands honesty in the general case.

There's a time and a place where disinformation can give the organization an advantage and in some special circumstances, managers can harvest that reward without yielding much or any future credibility. Knowing when to execute this maneuver, which I'll call "a Dusty", is one among the trickiest and most complicated things a manager will ever have to calculate.

When the U.S. started the Second War on the Iraqis, there was a sitzkreig period where the civilians at the Defense Department fed the press falsehoods about the type and timing of the attacks that the press then broadcast -- the purpose was to unnerve the Iraqis and keep them off balance, and this approach succeeded in its short-term objectives to a decent degree. Credibility was somewhat diminished, but the press has few options for alternative news sources, and repeating what they've been told is the lowest investment of effort per minute of video or column-inch of copy. And the working press covering the War view themselves as on the same side as the disinformers. So the end result is, while many individuals in the press pack now have and acknowledge reason to disbelieve future briefings, they will report them as though they believe them. It's the path of least resistance. They got away with their disinformation pretty well, but they could learn a few lessons in this from Baseball, specifically by sitting at the feet of the manager of the Chicago Cubs.

Dusty Baker is the master of disinformation and misdirection, not with his players or his own management, apparently, but notably with the press and fans.

He does this, I believe, for three reasons, two of which provide a series of small competitive edges, and the other for personal satisfaction.

Before I explain what the reasons are, let me give you a great example of Baker's version of a Shock and Awe campaign. Just before the season, John Hill writing for The Cub Reporter weblog, wrote a brilliant analysis of a classic Baker public statement, a howler that every many in a tizzy and one that will be remembered for a long time. Quoting Hill's transcript of the Baker statement:

I think walks are over-rated unless you can run. If you get a walk and put the pitcher in a stretch, that helps. But the guy who walks and can’t run, most of the time they’re clogging up the bases for somebody who can run.

Who’s been the champions the last seven, eight years? Have you ever heard the Yankees talk about on-base percentage and walks? You ain’t going to walk across the plate. You’re going to hit across the plate. That’s the school I come from.

It’s called hitting, and it ain’t called walking. Do you ever see the top 10 walking? You see top 10 batting average. A lot of those top 10 do walk. But the name of the game is to hit.

Of course, it's an article of faith in the educated baseball community (and anyone outside who read Moneyball), that the walk is not only a valuable, multi-purpose offensive weapon, but the most underrated offensive tool available. Making a public statement like this is like brandishing a pork chop at an Islamic-Jewish Friendship Foundation meeting (or a haggis at any time).

Rather than just react to what Baker said, Hill did the professional researcher thang and investigated what effect Dusty's Declaration had on his team and players' performance...that is, he worked to answer the question how much less does a Baker team walk?

To digest the Hill's description of the background for his study:

So said Dusty Baker before the 2004 season, accidentally overlooking that the name of the game is not to hit but rather to score more runs than your opponent, that the Yankees do quite frequently talk about the merits of on-base percentage and walks, and that baserunners, Farnsworth, Alou or otherwise, have at the very least comic value, and quite often run-scoring value too. “Clogging up the bases” and “you ain’t going to walk across home plate” have become almost as synonymous with Baker as “wait ‘til next year” is with the Cubs. And wait ‘til next year the Cubs have indeed, after a 2004 season that promised much but ultimately delivered nothing more than a third place finish in both the NL Central and Wild Card races.

One of the key reasons cited in the post-mortem was the very attitude to walks that Dusty Baker outlined above. Despite an overwhelmingly impressive lineup, at least on paper, the Cubs ranked 14th in the NL in total walks taken and walks per plate appearance, in both instances ahead of only the Pirates and Diamondbacks, losers of a combined 200 games. Despite ranking a respectable 6th in the NL in batting average, the Cubs wound up 11th in on-base percentage, with the hapless Pirates, Brewers, Mets, Expos and Diamondbacks rounding up the tail. And despite breaking a club record for home runs and as a result displaying more raw power than every other National League team (and 13 American League teams too, in spite of the designated hitter!), the Cubs finished just 7th in the NL in total runs scored. {SNIP}

Hill goes on to argue on-base percentage is less about walks than it is avoiding outs by any means, and that Baker's comments ignore that valuable truth, as well as the fact that walks burn up pitchers' endurance. He uses last year's Boston Red Sox as an example for a team that combined walks + sluggish running (that is, a team that "clogged up the bases" but was notoriously successful). Back to Hill talking indivdual players, and this is where he starts layiong the foundation for his exploration.

...it is rather ironic then that the “poster boy” of their {Red Sox'}sensible hit when possible and walk when not approach was in 2003 a Dusty Baker pupil. Mark Bellhorn hit just .191 in the 2004 playoffs, striking out 17 times in his 47 at-bats. Yet by virtue of his patience and 15 walks in just 14 games, Bellhorn posted an on-base percentage of .397.

{SNIP}Barry Bonds and Dusty Baker spent exactly an entire decade together in San Francisco. It is remarkable that Dusty’s cynical attitude to walks does not seem to have been influenced Bonds’ drawing of 1311 walks on his way to a .450 on-base percentage for that ten-year period. Bonds’ success is intrinsically linked to his extreme selectivity at the plate and his utter refusal to expand the zone. {SNIP} Bonds’ attitude to walks does not seem to have been influenced too much by Baker’s “it’s called hitting” philosophies. And Bellhorn walked in spite of Baker’s attitude too. What impact then do those “clogging up the bases” words from Baker actually have upon his hitters and their plate discipline?

Here's the boiled-down essence of his research:

Dusty Baker first managed a major league team in 1993, and 126 different position players have come to the plate with him as their manager since {SNIP} And of those 126 different players, all but 10 have had major league plate appearances under other managers besides Dusty Baker. Comparing the plate discipline of those 116 players under Dusty Baker to their plate discipline under their other managers then ought to measure the nature and magnitude of any Dusty impact.

Plate discipline though is difficult to measure. Good plate discipline can mean swinging at the first pitch, fouling off the fifth, taking the tenth; it’s about hitting when it’s possible to do so and walking when not. If it’s possible to hit, a walk is a relative failure. Ultimately though, because information as to just how many juicy pitches players swing at and how many unhittable ones they take is non-existent, though walks are an imperfect measure, they will have to do. Ultimately, it’s pretty hard to be selective yet to not draw walks as a result.

He goes on to describe the adjustments he made and didn't make to the data (intentional walks, batter age, etc.), and then he presents the results of his research, a table of players who played both with Baker and other managers, and comparing their walk frequency in each environment (a lower PA/BB means a higher frequency of walks).

And Hill's conclusion:

So it’s true then, Dusty Baker does have a marked impact on how often his players walk - he makes them walk more often! Bellhorn and Bonds, who walked regardless of Dusty’s mutterings, aren’t ironic exceptions at all. No, just about everyone’s at it. {SNIP}

Whatever the reasons though, the fault for the Cubs’ lack of walks and as a result on-base percentage last year clearly lay not with Dusty Baker, regardless of what he had to say this time last year, but with the hitters, and, by implication, the person responsible for acquiring them.

Baker then is not the walk-disser he presents himself to be. He's spreading disinformation to gain two small competitive edges.

The first is that opponents who do not examine the data as rigorously as Hill does (a minority, but still a surprising number of them) will take Baker's words as the Cubs' tactics and select some pitches to pitch them accordingly when in reality, that change will feed into the Cubs' aims.

The second is that a controversially phrased "clogs the bases" rant feeds reporters an ongoing story, deflecting other stories that might not serve the team as well. The rabid-behaving Chicago sportswriters need tart stories to keep things lively, and this occupies that cognitive slot for a while, sopping up inches that might be instead used for stories Baker or Cubs management or their players might consider "mischief".

The third reason is personal. I think Baker doesn't like dealing with the press anymore. They're his partners in a strong sense; the team needs them doing what they do and tries to control their words, but ultimately can't. So when you've been misquoted, distorted, or just said something you shouldn't have but had the quote appear anyway, after a while, you can lose your passion for this necessary relationship. And Baker has always been, even in his playing days, a mite puckish. He likes teasing the press with a Baseball Munchausen tale and watchin' them stumble over each other to get it into print. It makes his quotidian dealings with them seem, temporarily, more bearable.

Feeding external comeptitors disinformation is a standard tool in the management toolbox. Feeding partners or internal "competitors" (managers of other departments) is non-standard, but useful in moderation.

There's a delicate balance to maintain and no magic metrics by which to calculate it. Err on the side of telling the truth and maintaining credibility. Not everyone is in the position Baker or the civilian leakers at the Department of Defense were in that it's the press that ends up being held accountable for printing whoppers. No one at Defense took any hits for the disinformation, but the career of Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who made a habit of broadcasting them, is a train-wreck, her credibility strip-mined down through the matrix -- no serious reader will ever believe any story she writes ever again.

Disinformation is like that sweaty stick of dynamite in Lost -- you can use it to leverage some benefit, or turn yourself into a crispy critter.

How often does Dusty Baker tell a whopper? In the near future, I'm going to explore another Baker statement illustrating a different press management technique and well see if this time he was truthful or just being puckish again.

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