Sunday, June 26, 2005

When Harder is Easier: The Bosox'
Matt Clement & Task Simplification  

Part of the skill required to be effective at First Base in the MBB Model is the ability to tune job descriptions and assignments to get the most out of the strengths of existing staff, and to decide when and how much to train them to overcome weaknesses.

Baseball is way ahead of most lines of work in this skill set. An ideal manager finds the perfect balance Earl Weaver-style, making sure that most of the time the contributor is doing the things the individual can do better than anyone else available for the task while at the same time throwing her into situations that enable her to get experience and possibly grow in her abilities to be a high achiever in domains that are currently not her strengths.

There's another key factor a manager must balance: how many different things the individual can juggle. Some people thrive on doing a little of everything so they don't get bored. Others need to be doing the same thing over and over to stay in a groove. Neither is a good or bad pattern, just a working style factor the manager must understand and apply to the organization's and individual's advantage -- understanding, too, that there's a balance in this tool's application. Sometimes you can't optimize against a single staffer's skill pattern because the immediate requirement doesn't allow for it. In general, managers should worry less about those exceptions, though, than the general ability.

One of the interesting things about this practice is that how "difficult" the tasks you throw at a contributor are ends up being less of a factor than the contributor's individual strengths.

Take Red Sox starter Matt Clement. After coming up through the San Diego Padres organization and pitching for them and the Florida Marlins and Chicago Cubs, Clement signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox over the winter. At this point, Clement is 9-1 with a Composite ERA of 3.33 (about 18% better than the A.L. average). Here are some of the component numbers from MLB.Com (w/some numbers I've added in the last two columns).

Year TEAM AVG PA NP K/BB BB/9 K/9 H9   HR9   G/F
1999     San Diego .273 803 2903 1.53 4.28 6.73 9.46   0.9   1.9
2000     San Diego .248 940 3536 1.32 5.49 7.46 8.52   1.0   2.0
2001     Florida .267 760 2803 1.54 4.52 7.12 9.14   0.8   1.4
2002     Chicago Cubs .215 858 3241 2.34 3.73 9.44 7.11   0.8   1.6
2003     Chicago Cubs .227 851 3148 2.11 3.53 7.63 7.54   1.0   2.0
2004     Chicago Cubs .229 775 2997 2.35 3.83 9.45 7.71   1.1   1.6
2005     Boston .247 432 1643 2.56 2.81 7.19 8.42   0.5   1.4

Clement's Strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) equals (exceeds slightly) the best of his career. That's because his walk frequency (BB/9) is a big improvement over his previous best while his strikeouts have actually declined a little. He has a vast apparent improvement in his home runs yielded rate (HR/9) though that's puffed up a little bit by pitching at home in a more homer-hostile Fenway Park this year (~34% less homer-ific than league average) than he did last year in homer-friendly Wrigley Field (~33% more homer-ific than league average); he still is markedly better this year than last in home runs allowed. And he's inducing more fly balls than he did in the past, comparable with his 2001 season which looked like an outlier before this year.

His pitching approach is quite different. Through about the first half of this year, his change to the American League seems to have altered his past patterns and so far, yielding what's looking to be his best season ever. And let's note that conventional wisdom says long-time National League pitchers find it harder to succeed in the American, where teams have an additional potential "real" batter w/the D.H. batting for the pitcher.

¿Why is Clement succeeding so far?

According to an article by Peter Gammons this month:

Usually when pitchers go from the National League to the American, people worry about the impact of the tougher lineups. But this has suited Matt Clement. "I really like the fact that all I have to do every day is concentrate on pitching," says the 6-0 Clement. "I don't have to worry about hitting, or holding a bat, or running the bases. Jason Varitek has helped me immensely, but so has concentrating on pitching." Cubs folks feel that not having to run the bases is good for Clement, who is asthmatic.

Simplification. This is one of those cases where it doesn't matter how difficult the assigned task is in general. If you give a talented contributor a tough task and clear out other distractions you give him a chance to focus on that difficult thing and make it seem not difficult.

As a manager, you can't always snap apart and re-assemble task assignemnts to take advantage of this, but if you're not experimenting at all with re-tuning assignments, you're undermining your potential by falling into the trap of ignoring individuals' varying abilities and ways of succeeding.

Where do you start if you haven't yet?

Create an inventory of staffer's individual abilities and holes in their swing. Compare that inventory with the inventory of what strengths you need for specific tasks. Experiment with assignments, especially team assignments (so individuals with more experience in the specific task can combine their experience with the newcomer's possible skill at it). Experiment with simplification, a la Matt Clement, or breaking up repetitive work for others who tend to do mostly the same thing. to see if after some time has transpired the change improves productivity or quality.

As the Red Sox discovered with Matt Clement, an altered task assignment list can be a foundation for noteworthy tactical success.

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