Monday, October 10, 2005

Bobby Cox & Phil Garner: Joe Ely's Take
On When the Six-Shooters Are Empty  

A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter.
He fires it until it's empty and then takes the gun
and throws it at the bad guy -- Dan Quisenberry

Yesterday's final playoff match between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros really was two games in one.

For one thing, it literally was two games worth of innings, decided in the bottom of the 18th. But managing a game through the first seven innings and how you finish out a close game require different mind sets and decisions. The parallels are like they are in my buddy Martin Marshall's favorite management toy, chess. For example, chess' "end game" is considered quite a different set of skills from openings.

In an extended extra-inning game such as this classic, tactics shift (I'll elaborate farther down on that for those who want a refresher). Marshalling limited resources is almost a universal, quotidian issue, but when the manager is in a situation that has normal fluctuations, most days fall into a predictable range. Every once in a while, everything goes sproing at work and the manager has to figure out a way to keep the line running or improvise for the rare, you-know-you'll-get-it-sooner-or-later-but-not-often deviation day. But the biggest difference is it's one of those situations that in or out of baseball a manager (a) has to keep a set of skills in her toolbox for but (b) needs to use rarely. For a baseball manager, there might be one game in 30 where the skipper is knows he's running on fumes, so has to pick his moments to burn up a pinch hitter, use up a reliever to gain a platoon advantage or apply the defensive replacement.

Joe Ely writes one of my favorite weblogs, Learning About Lean, and this morning he published a super Management By Baseball lesson about the Braves-Astros game. Joe's work is manufacturing, lean manufacturing specifically, and when it comes to the First Base set of skills in the MBB Model, operational management, and managing and driving Change, Home Plate, he regularly has tons of valuable insights.

...is the the title of today's entry. I urge you to read it, but here's a taste.

In such a long game, each manager made numerous substitutions to try to win, both in the late innings of regulation and then in each extra inning. Relief pitchers, pinch hitters, pinch runners. Since baseball requires players to leave the game once they are substituted for, the choices got more complex as they used up available players. The managers of both teams faced and made key decisions.

They ran out of options. Players were in positions they didn't normally play. Roger Clemens, the great 43-year old veteran pitcher, was a pinch-hitter. The Braves had Julio Franco, the living fossil, playing first base. At age 47 (we think), Franco is older than 8 current major league managers. The Astros had a rookie shortstop, Eric Bruntlett, in right field.

They didn't whine. At least not about the rules. They played the game and made the best of the situation.

They balanced the "now" with the "future". Bobby Cox and Phil Garner had to weigh out each decision and balance its affect on the current situation (often one at-bat at a time) with the impact it would have on the lineup for the remainder of the game. And, in choosing to use Clemens as a relief pitcher, with how even the next game might set up.

If you'v ever worked on a factory floor, you can see Joe's filter here. The lesson works a little differently in other endeavors, although I urge my clients to take lessons from manufacturing because it's very accountable. Go check out Joe Ely's insight on this, and if you want some stimulating grist for thought, check out his archives.

I didn't watch the entire game; I was working and listening some on the radio. But the baseball skill set you need to manage the you-know-you'll-get-it-sooner-or-later-but-not-often deviation is an game that goes beyond 10 or 11 innings. Especially with the Tony LaRussa-inspired method for application of bullpen (prescribed rôles for set individuals, appearing in a constrained range of innings and order), and the tendency to carry one fewer bat off the bench than in the old days, it fierce. Roll in that it's the National League so the pitcher bats, setting off another opportunity around the sixth inning on for a manager to choose to use up a batter to hit for a pitcher in certain situations. That makes it more resource-intensive. And then make it a playoff, where every game is a life-and-death moment and you're unlikely to "finesse" (sacrifice a porting of your chance in this particular game to give yourself a better chance in multiple future games) by trying to preserve an arm or an injured player's body.

Once you get to the 9th inning of a tied game, the roles polarize much more heavily between Home and Away teams. The away team has to play for the lead, but if it's tied going into the bottom of the inning, you can take all kinds of chances. Every batter can (doesn't necessarily, but can) swing for the fences to end the game quickly. The consequence of failure is low -- you play another inning, a generally neutral outcome. The away team doesn't have that advantage, and the home team wins more often.

In competitive endeavors outside baseball you'll see two sides go head to head. Two big engineering firms bid against each other on an RFP. Each knows what the other is likely to bring to the table, one selling based on price, the other on deeper specific experience. Two manufacturers of body armor are going head to head for a military contract. One has superior performance, the other has a VP of Sales who used to work for the buyer. Two soda bottlers are trying to snare the same shelf space at grocery store chain's stores. One has better demand, the other is willing to pay more dollars up front as to "buy" the space.

Predictable, flexible rôles each with guidelines and parameters, but variations. Booby Cox and Phil Garner, tangling in a tango from which neither can release until it's over. Cool moments.

A couple of quick observations. Garner was more aggressive about burning up his resources, while Cox chose to preserve his, leaking them out more gradually. In part, that goes along with the home/away tactical guideliens. But after the three changes in the 9th didn't close the deal and a lot of scrambling through the 13th, Garner was pretty much spent. He emptied his six-shooter and then thrown the Colt .45 at the opponent, retaining his advantage of the high ground (playing at home). Cox still had a reserve or two to play with. But I suggest Garner chose to be more aggressive in applying resources even taking into consideration the home/away duality. Not that Garner wasn't having fun being involved, in fact if you talked to these two, Cox would be laconic about the situation, while I'll wage a nickel Garner has spent way more time than he needed to thinking about what he'd do in the 15th inning of a playoff game. He had a blast....catchers playing first base, double- and triple switches. To read one enthusastic Astro fan's play by play, try Lisa Grey's.

Keep in mind as a manager outside of baseball, there are skill sets you know you'll need sooner or later, just not often or when. You shouldn't spend as much time polishing those, but you do want to invest some mind time in playing out the what- ifs. You never know when you'll get a game that runs more than 11 innings, where the guidelines change and constraints magiify to the point where they seem like almost the entire set of challenges you have to deal with

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