Thursday, August 04, 2005

Beane Salad Surgery: If You Respond to
Current Events, You've Waited Too Long  

If it's broke, fix it
-- André Maginot, 1929

Managers who aren't skilled with change (home plate in the MBB Model), & most of them aren't, tend to react to change as it becomes obvious change is needed. And like building a massive project to prevent defeat in the previous (completed) war, it's guaranteed to be expensive and out of date before the first bag of concrete is requisitioned.

Baseball is a perfect test lab for theories of change and coping with it. Not all teams handle it well, so you can observe the good and the bad and both see and measure the results of different strategies.

The Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was quoted in an article I found on Baseball Primer this week as saying about his team that was in terrible trouble (17-32 in late May):

If you look out on the field one day and say, ‘Hey, we need to rebuild this thing,' you've probably waited too long. We could see the erosion of personnel on the club. We couldn't keep it status quo.

That's the good approach -- you don't wait for a problem to become obvious to design a solution, you design solutions for problems that will happen and design possible solutions for challenges that haven't happened yet but might. Most importantly, you design structures that prevent problems in the first place. Most managers won't do this because they don't think that way -- they react much like a telephone complaint line staffer: when the call comes in, they listen patiently and see what can be done.

And let me make a point clear for those who aren't good at managing change: it's not all or nothing, a binary choice to invest 100% in contingencies or none. The optimal model is stochastic, neither random (investing an equal amount in any eventuality no matter how likely or unlikely) or deterministic (invest in the likeliest n options only until there is no more to invest), because evolution is stochastic. The optimal model is also updated frequently (frequent being defined specifically in context with the line of work and situation).

One Oakland team was successful because of the Moneyball model (and consistent development of good pitchers). But the next year, the team was working to rebalanced factors, neither totally different from before nor quite the same. Unlike a Soviet five-year plan, feedback and the tracking of trends tune the plan constantly.

As most baseball fans know, Oakland doesn't have the luxury richer teams do of making mistakes, of being in the pack; they have to be ahead to succeed. In that sense, motivation to invest in what most fiance types consider speculative efforts without guaranteed returns (strategic planning, knowledge management, change management) goes up, because even though they have thinner resources, their need to succeed is greater.

In contrast, take the New York Yankees (56-43, .533, in 2nd place 5 games back, projecting out to an 86-win campaign). Not terrible at all, but not guaranteed to finish ranked as high in results as they are in resources committed.

Steven Goldman of YES Network makes them the poster dude for the Maginot Line Franchise in his most recent Pinstriped Bible column. There are two sections worth noting on this topic:


Earlier this week, Joe Torre was discussing the politics of dealing Robinson Cano at the deadline. "As an organization," he said, "young kids don't usually get an opportunity to stay around because the future is right now." Torre was parroting the organizational line, but this is one of the dumbest things a manager who is interested in winning can say. Why rule out a whole class of people based on age or experience if the decision commits you to mediocrity? Why keep giving Wayne Franklin chances when there are younger pitchers who can do better? Why pretend that one two-hit game is a bigger indicator of things to come than Tony Womack's entire career? The answer is that the Yankees suffer from a kind of intellectual limitation that functions similarly to bigotry. That's what we call it when a person is judged on the basis of some aspect of his being rather than on ability. The Yankees are no meritocracy.

If Bobby Cox and the Atlanta Braves had the same attitude, they'd still be playing Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. They wouldn't be in first place in their division.

On Tuesday, the Yankees wisely elected to turn down Bernie Williams' club option for next year. He can now be signed to a much cheaper deal if they should desire to bring him back. They shouldn't.

As a fourth outfielder/designated hitter, Williams is of almost no value. He can no longer hit with his old authority; the only thing left of his peak skills is his willingness to draw walks. What Williams has done this year is consistent with what he's done the past two. It's time to concede that the old Williams passed on with the end of the 2002 season and was replaced by this:


    2003 .263 .367 .411

    2004 .262 .360 .435

    2005 .245 .333 .371

Actually, 2005 may be third-stage Williams. This is the one rehearsing for retirement. Designated hitters don't swing the bat so weakly. This year designated hitters are hitting .260/.340/.439. Last year they hit .263/.344/.445. Williams is unlikely to slug .439 again. A lot of home runs go missing when a team plays an inoffensive DH out of — what? — sentimentality or incompetence.

Williams is useless if he's considered a potential fourth outfielder. His inability to play center field for more than a day at a time is well-established. His arm is so weak as to prevent him from playing left or right field. How, then, does one justify Williams' 2006 presence on a Yankees bench that will have, at most, three spots on it? Leadership? Williams is the team's quiet man. Sinecure? Make him a coach. Pinch-hitter? A luxury when the bench is so short and more versatile players are likely to be available. Just because the Yankees have been unable or unwilling to find them doesn't mean they are nonexistent.

Bernie Williams is one of the most beloved Yankees of all time, and correctly so. A five-time All-Star, four-time Gold Glove winner, owner of four seasons over .320, including the 1998 batting title, 22 home runs in the postseason, four championship rings, Williams should go into the Hall of Fame someday (though he probably won't due to chronic obtuseness on the part of the voters). He is one of the great center fielders, but his time is done. The Yankees run a baseball team, not a museum. Unless a case can be made that Williams can contribute to the winning effort next year, his time with the Yankees should come to an end this October.

Love cannot turn back the hands of time.

And recreating a perfect strategy to win the last war cannot withstand the corrosion of time.

The Yankees need, for fan reasons, to treat Williams with respect, but if they intended to dominate this year, and that was the owner's declared intent, they needed to get ahead of Williams' 2005 probable production decline with a contingency plan. Try a trade for or signing of a positive contributor who could play center field, that key defensive position. Try an early, even premature, promotion of a young player who might only contribute on defense or only contribute on offense.

At the least, initiate the classic change management strategy of talking about his retirement.

The classic losers' argument that you are committed to paying Williams $12 MM in salary this year is a loser itself: you pay him to degrade your competitiveness or you pay him not to degrade your competitiveness.

The Yankees are a little (not totally) lazy about addressing limiting factors before they become that because they have enough resources to buy their way out of most of the resulting consequences. But this one is a real emergency flare -- it was so obvious and so costly to their overall performance, that it's hard to believe anything but MBWT (Management by Wishful Thinking) talked them into thinking Williams would reach adequacy he hadn't reached in three consecutive seasons.

Bernie Williamsmorphedd at some point from being this elegant classy All-Star contributor into an unquestioned answer.

Another enemy of successful change is what Goldman calls The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations. In the 2005 Yankees' case that means holding your Platonic ideals above measurable reality. The Yanks are not the only organization that have this problem, most do (like the lesson of the Piazza story I was explaining in my last essay). And myriad people, including a handful of sabermetricians have to fight with themselves to respect real outcomes as much as these beautiful, almost Keplerian, simulated models.

TIP #226
This leads us to one of the easiest things to point out to fellow managers and executives, and a great practical tool for making some people partially ready for change. Question, in a polite or even pointed way, every case where the presumed ideal the organization has internalized without questioning, has failed to deliver real results or where a competitor is using a different model that succeeds better consistently.

That's not to say the modelyou'ree questioning has to be inferior - it may be adequate. But questioning the implicit is always a useful technique for stimulating the energy that eventually can lead to change.

Why did no Yankee executive question the unquestioned answer? Why does Beane channel Paul DePodesta and keep asking the unquestioned answer? There are a lot of reasons, many of them operating in your own organization, and when you see them, you can start the struggle to overcome them.

The Maginot Line wasn't built in a day, but it was functionally removed in under a week.

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