Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Cincinnati Reds, Sir Issac Newton, &
The Proper Application of Bounce-Back  

If I have seen further, it is only by standing on
the shoulders of the Giants -- Sir Issac Newton

This week, the Cincinnati Reds essentially released 35-year old middle reliever Ben Weber, whose attempt to bounce back from injury was financed for chump change by the team. In his "heyday" his funky motion and weird eyewear made him, if not a fan favorite, a very watchable player. It also made him fairly effective. His motion, all extraneous, eeriely mechanical, made him look like a Mr. Machine (image, movie) that desperately needed adjustment. All that quaquaversal indirection did him no good, however, once he lost his control -- when he lost his control, he lost everything. He turned into a pitcher that last year suddenly turned Three Mile Island: ERA of 8.00, WHIP of close to 2, more walks (close to 7 per 9 IP) than strikeouts.

According to an article in the Cincinnati Post, in the off-season, the Reds, in the words of their G.M., Dan O'Brien, signed Weber to a fairly low-price deal because Weber's previous failure in Anaheim made him affordable and his short history of useful success made him someone you could imagine might deliver some utility: What O'Brien calls a bounce-back guy.

As general manager Dan O'Brien put it, the Weber situation was just one of those things that happens in baseball.

"Every organization takes a chance on a bounce-back guy, and he was our opportunity this year," said O'Brien. "It's funny, I was just talking to (Braves GM) John Schuerholz in Atlanta - they took a chance on Brian Jordan and (Raul) Mondesi, looking for a bounce-back. It didn't happen for them and it didn't happen for us."

The Reds will move on without so much as a glance over their shoulder, and Weber hopes to do the same. He said he's exploring his options for surgery that could correct the disc problem in his neck.

2001 Ana 56 68.1 66 28 4 31 40 6 2 0 6 1 3.42
2002 Ana 63 78.0 70 25 4 22 43 7 2 7 18 4 2.54
2003 Ana 62 80.1 84 26 7 22 46 5 1 0 11 2 2.69
2004 Ana 18 22.1 37 24 4 15 11 0 2 0 2 1 8.06
2005 Cin 10 12.1 20 11 0 9 8 0 0 0 0 -- 8.03
Total -- 228 284.0 305 133 19 105 162 19 8 7 39 10 3.77
Miscellaneous Pitching
2001 1048 299 3.51 15.3 5.27 1.29 .251 .350 .691
2002 1086 312 3.48 13.9 4.96 1.96 .249 .363 .667
2003 1242 332 3.74 15.4 5.15 2.09 .275 .397 .716
2004 450 117 3.85 19.9 4.43 .73 .363 .569 1.013
2005 239 66 3.62 18.9 5.84 .89 .364 .473 .927
Total 4446 1229 3.62 15.7 5.13 1.54 .277 .396 .737

Weber did his best. He even disposed of the Mr. Machine Deliquescing delivery, trying to adjust in a way that he could still be effective. He was good enough in his A- and AA League stints, but at AAA, he got eviscerated and as you can see, on the big club he entered the Harry Smythe Zone and then got a little worse. The Bounce-Back Guy thing didn't work this year for the Reds, and when that franchise has tried it, it tends not to work out for them. They go low-risk, low-reward on their bounce-back guy approach, which is the right way to do it; tghey just haven't pulled many gold nuggets out of the placer.

The Bounce-Back Guy theory is very useful to know about beyond baseball, less for individual contributors than it is for vendors. I'll explain what I mean after I flesh out the baseball model a little as background.

But the Bounce-Back Guy thing can work for a baseball team, and it can work out for organizations beyond baseball, too.

The Atlanta Braves have a very productive history with this tactic. Like the Reds, they are good at applying the right context, and that's the way you should consider using it, too. In 2001, they picked up the 42 year old Julio Franco, who from ages 27-37 had been a rewarding contributor and then faded out, as is normal for a middle-infielder of that age. In 2001 he put up adequate numbers. And the next year they used the right-handed Franco to complement a left-handed hitting first baseman they believed couldn't hit lefties. And in 2003 and 2004, it didn't behove the Braves to get a better more expensive solution because they had promising young first-basemen in their system they were looking to promote. Even this season, at age 47, it appears Julio Franco has not yet crapped out.

And the Braves are legendary at inventing and rehabilitating the careers of older pitchers other teams have given up on.

The key to correct application of a Bounce-Back Guy is to avoid the MBWT (Management by Wishful Thinking) lure of imagining he or she can lead you to a pennant. Bounce Back Guys are bad investments when you build a team around their success. Franco was meant to be a bat off the bench and then a platoon partner; he succeeded beyond their expectations. Low risk, good reward. Weber was meant to be a middle-reliever for a borderline maybe-contending team that couldn't fill up their roster with hot minor league relief prospects. When Weber's game didn't come back at AAA, they promoted a prospect. Low risk, low loss.

The incorrect application of the Bounce Back Guy isn't that common in baseball, but the 2001 signing of Ben Grieve by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to be their heart of the order talent is an eccentric recent example of a failure. Grieve was not exactly in the dumps (his 2000 OPS+ was 117) but he had experienced a steady three year decline and the Rays chose not to imagine what they'd do for a #3 or #5 hitter if he either continued his decline or moved sideways. They built their offense around the idea that he would bounce back, he didn't and they were frelled.

A worse application of the Bounce Back Guy tactic is when an organization buys into someone who has apparently bounced back and believes the apex of the bounce is either the beginning of a new uptick in accomplishment or a new assumed level of performance. The New York Mets took a flyer on the faded Derek Bell in 2000, and he was a fine bounce back guy for them that year, but the Pirates signed him as a free agent at the end of that campaign with the thought of him being a key contributor and he turned into expensive roster plaque.

Never hinge your strategy on the upward motion of Bounce Back Folk. Never collect more on your roster than the number, that if they all zero out, you couldn't succeed with.

On the other hand, it can make good sense to use the tactic judiciously with suppliers who have failed. I consulted to a law practice that had had a long-term, fully committed relationship with a local printer/copy-shop outfit. The shop got taken over by a bigger company, they replaced human clerks with a private label, brain-dead stored-value card system in an attempt to strip out staff, and lost most of their best staff. Quality crashed, turnaround time became glacial too often, and the savings the vendor was making from the neutron-bomb destaffing were not passed on to the customers.

The practice dumped the shop and moved to another that was less conveniently located and more expensive than the Neutroned shop had been before they went Full Basra on them. And prices started going up. It was better than their original supplier, but not a perfect solution.

When the shop fixed the stored value concept by making it optional instead of mandatory, they were able to provide better service to their business customers as well as their walk-ins, and they were able to acquire some adequate staff. A new manager asked the law practice to give her a chance to show what they could do, and the practice used the Bounce-Back concept perfectly -- they gave her low-priority jobs where quality and timing were less important.

In this particular case, it worked out like a Julio Franco. The practice was able to shift most of their business back to the old shop, though they never recommitted fully. and never committed for drop-deal deadline jobs. And that's appropriate -- there's no reason to put an organization that's been a proven failure into the critical path of a vital project.

It could have been a Ben Weber, but the risk was low enough that it would have been a worthwhile experiment. As with so many baseball practices, the approach is not based on binary simplicity. "This guy/vendor failed - we'll never play/use them again" or "oh well, too bad, but I don't want to take the time to find someone/some other vendor, so let's just see what happens".

As for Weber, he going to try to bounce back from his failed bounce back. As the Post reported in that story linked to:

"I'm a little disappointed only because I went through a lot to try to come back. I think, honestly, most people would have sat on the DL all year, without a doubt. But I didn't do that, and that's the only reason why I'm a little upset - but not a lot. {SNIP}

The Reds will move on without so much as a glance over their shoulder, and Weber hopes to do the same. He said he's exploring his options for surgery that could correct the disc problem in his neck. If he can get that corrected, he said he will go back to the herky-jerky motion that was his trademark before he abandoned it during a rehab stint this year, hoping it would cause less strain on his neck.

He turns 36 in November, but said he believes he has "four or five" good years left in him if he can stay healthy, which was never a problem for him before this season. After a career that has seen him take detours to the independent Western League for a season and Taiwan for two, it's doubtful Weber will let a setback like this drive him from the game.

"I can't go out like that," he said.

I have to say I hope he succeeds though it would take a miracle for him to get four more years out of his talent. But I love all that Mr. Machine, Newton's Third Law-violating wierdness. If I was nine years old, I'd try to imitate it in a game.

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