Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Reprise W/A Reason
Pulling A Lenny: Evolution, Prevolution
& Lenny Harris' Deboning of the Marlins  

Invention is the mother of necessity -- Thorsten Veblen

Note from the August 24-30, 2005 Baseball Weekly insert:

CF Juan Pierre was in a 16-for-100 (.160) slump dating to July 24 before going 2-for-5 Sunday. Pierre had a .312 on-base percentage and was on a pace to finish with 50 fewer hits than he totaled last season.

"Nothing I seem to do is working for me this year," Pierre said. "I can't explain it."

I have a hypothesis to start with, as described in this February, 2005 entry. Pierre was the victim of a Lenny.

I was at the FileMaker developers' conference earlier this week, and with a pure slug of synchronicity, got to hear from a developer about a classic Lenny pulled on his department, and on the plane on the way home, got to read the Pierre item.

Has anyone pulled a Lenny in your workgroup lately?

Soon after my daughter started 5th grade she learned to listen to her peers and give them credence equal to that she gave her mother. It's a normal choice for someone that age. And it's equally normal that some of that advice will be given by sheer incompetents or will be totally dysfunctional ideas from a perfectly reasonable kid.

The case in point was an innovation sparked by a kid named Lennie. Since much of the mojo around pecking order was based on athletic shoes, Lennie decided there needed to be a post-purchase innovation to the shoes that he could claim as his own. I'm confident he didn't think about it too long, because the innovation he sparked, and that soon spread to any kid who wanted to be cool, was an evolutionary dead-end based on a total lack of investigation.

Lennie decided that from now on, athletic shoes should be laced in reverse...starting at the ankle and working down towards the toe with the bow laced in the front. This was a demented idea worthy of the post-victory moves of Esposito, the Latin American rebel leader, upon liberating San Marcos in the movie Bananas ("From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now... 16 years old!"). Only three things were wrong with the idea: (1) kids kept tripping by stepping on their front-bows, (2) it took about ten times a long to get the shoes on or off, and (3) there was not one thing better or more functional about it -- there was nothing right about it. It lasted less than a week, but it was ugly while it happened.

This type of seat-of-the-pants innovation with no testing happens too frequently at the hands of executives and managers and peers in all kinds of organizations. Ever since the week my daughter tried to endure that innovation, I have called these brain-spasms of the nanosecond that get implemented without even a couple of minutes of investigation or doing the simple research "pulling a Lennie".

After 20 years, I may have to change that spelling. Because this week, according to this story in the Sun-Sentinel, Florida Marlin utility player Lenny Harris is counseling team leadoff hitter Juan Pierre to walk more, specifically by being more consistent with his approach on pitches when he has three balls in the count. By doing this, Lenny suggested, Pierre could be more like Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs and have a better chance to win a batting title.

Working out together for most of the offseason, veteran Lenny Harris drilled one thought into leadoff hitter Juan Pierre's head -- think batting title.

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."

A year ago, Pierre led the Marlins with a .374 on-base percentage but only walked 45 times. Because he's one of the fastest runners in baseball, Pierre hasn't been as patient at the plate because he feels he can beat out bunts and infield dribblers. "I'd have to get 250 hits or walk more [to be a batting champ]," Pierre said. "I have to do one or the other. Sixty walks would help out."

On the surface, it seems like it might be worth a try. Contemporary baseball researchers and sabermetrics aficionados are enamored with the walk because it's been underrated for so long. In essence, since runs are the ultimate measure of success in a game, and since a necessary precursor of scoring is being a baserunner, it makes sense to harvest every opportunity you can to become a baserunner, and walks, as unromantic as they seem, are something you don't even have to create...you can can "take" them from opposing pitchers. And this will definitely raise your on-base percentage (because letting ball four go by and taking first with a walk is a higher on-base move than swinging, even at a meatball hanging curve, and putting it into play with a perfect smack because there's not a 100% chance the defense won't put you out or that the ball would be foul. And it has a good chance of raising your batting average because if you are letting a higher percentage of out of the strike zone pitches go by, you're going to have better success with the ones you do swing at and should make fewer easy outs.

But while this is overwhelmingly true in the general case, the average, that a player who is more patient and works pitchers for incremental walks is going to have a better on-base percentage and likely end up with a better batting average, it's not true for every single player.

It's not true, even remotely, for Juan Pierre.

There can be useful torque in taking tips from teammates. Sometimes they see things differently from managers. Sometimes, they're willing to look at data management won't. Not in this case.

Harris clearly pulled this Lennie without ever looking at Pierre's historical record. Not only has he been consistent on balls four, more important, he's been blisteringly effective. Here, courtesy of MLBPA and Yahoo, is Pierre's career historical performance and at or after selected counts. I abridged this table so we can focus on the Lennie Lenny pulled.

 Juan Pierre Career Situational Stats
 Total   2755 859 98 35 7 185 166 .312 .361 .380 .742  
 Count 0-0   343 114 9 2 2 1 0 .332 .342 .388 .730  
 Count 3-0   0 0 0 0 0 46 0 .000 1.000 .000 .000  
 After (3-0)   45 22 1 0 1 80 3 .489 .811 .578 1.389  
 Count 3-1   27 10 0 0 1 87 0 .370 .852 .481 1.334  
 After (3-1)   109 47 6 0 1 111 5 .431 .717 .514 1.231  
 Count 3-2   155 62 10 1 0 51 11 .400 .548 .477 1.025  
 After (3-2)   155 62 10 1 0 51 11 .400 .548 .477 1.025  

For his career, Pierre has been a leadoff hitter, so his job in the normal baseball view and the sabermetric view is to get on base. Up until 2004, Pierre has gotten on base at a .355 clip, though last year he improved it to .375, about 13% better than the league. His career OPS is a middling .740, about median for starting players, neither good nor bad. He walks rarely (more than he strikes out, which is a strong, not definite, indicator of decent plate judgment) so his on-base reflects mostly his ability to hit the ball and be safe at first.

Clearly, he has room for improvement and a swell foundation from which to build. But being more consistent on balls four isn't a place for growth.

You can only have a potential ball four thrown at you on the following counts: 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2.

On 3-0, he's obeyed the accepted wisdom of the ages and not put the ball in play even once. He's walked 46 of the 171 times he's been thrown a 3-0 pitch. He's created no outs at 3-0. No harm. Just fine, thank you.

In the roughly 125 times he didn't walk on a 3-0 pitch (that is, the pitcher threw a strike and he had to go on in the at bat to 3-1 and possibly further) he had a batting average of .490 and an on-base percentage of .810. He had a Bonds-ian OPS of 1.390. Once Pierre worked the count to 3-0 (that is, a count where his handling of potential balls four) he is Godzilla, Rodan and the resurrection of Sliding Billy Hamilton combined.

Does he need to change the way he deals with potential 4th balls? No way.

Here's another indicator: What he does on 3-2 pitches. The 3-2 count is not automatically in the batter's favor...the batter pretty much has to swing at anything that might be a strike, but the batter will more often get a strike, as well. On composite average, it's pretty close to a wash, but with a high variance depending on the kind of batter at the plate.

Pierre's OPS on 3-2 pitches that finish his plate appearances is a super-charged (for him anyway) 1.025, 39% better than his average. The last thing in Pierre's game he needs to worry about is handling plate appearances where he might see a 4th ball.

How often have you worked in a group where the manager hopped on some bandwagon she'd heard about at a seminar or trade show and tried to implement it without investigating the details of how it might work in your group's context?

I had an associate who had a client at the turn of the millenium she was trying to get to commit to implementing a knowledge management solution to his professional practice's professional development and training effort. It was a very appropriate idea, but "Lennie Merullo" had been in the profession a long time and nobody else did things that way. He was new to this function and was understandably afraid of trying to innovate and look like a fool. The consultant's boss trusted her, but Lenny didn't.

My suggestion to her was to take Merullo to a knowledge management trade show, where he could hear smart and enthused fellow-managers talk about the benefits, be informed by their questions, and see a broad field of systems, products and methods offerings. She took my suggestion but had to cancel at the last minute to take care of another client's emergency meltdown, and Lennie went alone. "Better than nothing," I thought.


The first person he talked to was a vendor with a loud, garish eye-catching booth. The vendor was selling a very powerful search utility, something that could have made a fine last minute addition to a knowledge management system, but could never be even a critical component of a knowledge management system. The company that made the utility had defined their product as knowledge management, something that seemed hot at the time and that many people didn't know better than to believe. The vendor filled Lennie's head with vaporous illusions from which Lennie didn't escape. For the rest of the show, his mind was empty to the possibilities, filled only with this first easy-sounding approach.

He came back. He insisted on implementing search and search alone as what he called a knowledge management solution. He wouldn't listen to her advice or warnings. The group wasted a few months in implementation and tweaking the system but it didn't, because it couldn't, yield any significant benefits.

A lot of innovation initiatives don't even have a 15-minute presentation at a gabfest to justify their initiation. Frequently in government and business especially, some higher-up will demand a change in vague or unclear terms and the line manager will implement without asking follow-up questions. Sometimes the higher-ups don't know any more than they said (a common problem in American management is executives who initiate even though they're ill-informed because they feel like that's their rĂ´le and if they wenre't constantly launching a new re-org ot churning dust-bunnies people would think less of them).

Don't pull a Lenny. Don't hesitate to innovate, but do at least the easy-to-do research first, imagine how it might work in your own system, what you could do that would make it work better in your context, or at least test it in a small, controlled way before you hinge any significant effort on it.

And whatever you do, don't lace your shoes back-to-front unless you have a great dental plan without co-pay...

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