Friday, December 16, 2005

The Baseball Genome Project: Bill Bavasi
& Gene Splicing to Clone Success  

As a manager, it's standard practice to tap into past successes. Weak-minded managers are only comfortable repeating methods that had successful outcomes previously, the opposite of the stochastic pattern that is most likely to lead to current success. Taken to its extreme, it's close to obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. But the dividing line between "worth trying" and not is the amount of negative feedback one earns with the method. If you never get negative feedback, there's no reason not to continue until you do.

Seattle Mariner general manager Bill Bavasi tried to clone a past resounding success this week in signing outfielder/designated hitter Carl Everett for the club's 2006 campaign. The past resounding success was Bavasi's trade for Tony Phillips for the California Angels before the 1995 season. There's a long elaboration of the Bavasi-Phillips combination and the importance to organizations outside baseball recruiting humans like Phillips that appears in the upcoming Harper Collins book, Management by Baseball: The Official Rules for Winning in Any Field (May, '06), but I'll sketch some of their mutual history here.

Basically, Phillips electrified a young team that wasn't really ready for contention and turned them into a team that contended for the division flag to the end. Phillips was one of the most determined, intense, rigorous, diverse talents in baseball during his era. He sometimes had outbursts of anger, fought some demons, offended some opponents and umps though not very many teammates, and had enough passion for the competition that he was driven to drive others, too. Bavasi believes Phillips is one of the very finest players he's ever worked with. Here's some transcript of a conversation I had with Bavasi this September.

In '94, which was my first year, we got our butts handed to us... Before the strike, I think we were 15 games below 500. Whoever was in first place, you (know you) can still catch them. I knew we were still in it because I was trying to trade for Rick Aguilera, the closer. I thought, "we’re still in this thing."

In '95, the kids matured. We traded for Tony Phillips and that really turned us around. That really made us a good club. We weren’t close … we shouldn’t even have been in that race.

So was his intensity somewhat contagious?
Oh my god. He is THE single most influential and best player I’ve been around... We traded Chad Curtis for him even up. We liked his (Curtis's) intensity, we liked his hustle, we did not like his style of play... He (manager Marcel Lacheman) and I just said, let’s just roll the dice, we don’t know Chad is going to grow and be a better player. What put getting Phillips over the edge for us was Matt Keough who played with him said, “I guarantee he will made Jim Edmonds and J.T. Snow and other guys better players. He will absolutely influence them and drive them hard”. That put it over the edge for me. We knew Chad was not going to do that for us. {SNIP}

There was a time during that year Tony had something like seven cortisone shots in his hamstring just to stay on the field. And he was driving Edmonds…you can look at Edmonds’ career, that was the big jump. J.T. Snow didn’t always over-perform that year but Tony would go into the training room and flush any player out, get them out on the field, and say, "what are you doing in here"…we’re playing today, you are playing. that was the big jump (for the team).

Tony has had his struggles in different parts of his life, but this guy made me think I could be a GM because of the way we played that year. That was our first significant trade…more nerve wracking than a free agent signing. Tony absolutely made that deal work. I’d give a bunch of players for one of those guys.

Bavasi didn't have to give up a bunch or even a single player for someone who might be one of those guys. He signed Everett as a free agent, something he considers less pressure than a trade.

This wasn't the first time he tried to clone the Tony Phillips gambit. He tried it again in May of 1997 with...Tony Phillips. Phillips had moved to Chicago as a free agent at the end of 1995. With the '97 Angels playing roughly .500 ball in May (20-19), Bavasi traded for Phillips again. The team was notably more successful with Phillips than without (61-50 in games he started, 23-28 in games he didn't), but it wasn't as young (young players being more impressionable and, in my opinion, more likely to be caught up in the currents that a Phillips can create). Even if they'd played the .550 ball they played with him starting for their whole season, it would still have left them about a game behind the divisional champs, the Mariners.

In 1997, the Phillips Gambit was positive, certainly not a failure. Many of the players who reached their baseball puberty from being exposed to the Phillips Gambit are still playing 11 years later, producing enough to be on major league rosters and also seen as intense competitors (Troy Percival, Jim Edmonds, J.T. Snow, Garrett Anderson).

The Mariners aren't exactly like the 1995 Angels in their make-up, but depending on late trades and signings, the Mariners could start the 2006 season with seven "starters" (everyday players and starting rotation) under the age of 28, a lack of experience that I believe cost them some incremental wins last season (while building for the future). The 1995 Angels started their season with eight "starters" (same definition) under the age of 28.

Everett's the age Phillips was, 36, when Phillips galvanized the 1995 Angels. Everett has the same kind of reputation Phillips had, tangling with umpires over bad calls and alienating some members of the media. NOTE: I interviewed Phillips several times when he was a player, mostly early in his career, and found him one of the very best players to talk with. I've never spoken with Everett. Everett has intensity, apparently has had an anger management problem, and values winning over comfort.

Everett is not an exact clone of Phillips -- I think Phillips was a more talented and probably baseball-intelligent player, but he would be hard for almost anyone to compete with. He doesn't have the defensive diversity Phillips had (Phillips started games at every position except pitcher and catcher) while Everett hasn't played enough games in the outfield in the last few years to accurately judge, but the fragmentary numbers or not positive. Everett has a history of being an effective hitter with some weaker seasons of late. He's not completely flummoxed by the Mariners home field (an OPS of 830 in Seattle in his last 64 plate appearances, a little better quality than the Mariners' current best left-handed hitter Raul IbaƱez's performance there over the same time), a challenge for many players who come to the team.

According to a Jon Paul Morosi story that has had some translation details contested after the printing, the Mariners seemed to Ichiro Suzuki to be satisfied with their sub-mediocrity ("He was upset to see his teammates playing cards so frequently, and was dismayed that no coach or veteran scolded them for doing so."). A passionate competitor like Everett can turn comfort into a different state, and if an excess of satisfaction or comfort is the limiting factor for the team (they did finish 7 games below their Pythagorean win projection, perhaps indicative of a lack of determination to win close games or giving up in games they were already blown out of), then increasing the volatility of the mix could be a very effective tweak.

Trying Everett as a Phillips Gambit is reasonable chance to take. The M's are unlikely to contend this year making the risk of the method's failure lower, but Bavasi's 2006 Phillips Gambit might pay off surprisingly well.

Like Bill Bavasi this off-season, many managers have workgroups or entire operations that are in the doldrums. I'm surprised when I find managers themselves getting sucked into doldrums by this gravitational field.

Go back to methods or gambits that worked in the past -- not randomly, but where the situation has some parallels to what you were working with when they brought you previous success. I'm not suggesting it makes sense to crazy-glue yourself to everything that ever worked out in the past, just keep those methods active in your toolkit. They're not guaranteed to work, but run them out there once in a while until the feedback turns more negative, which it might never do.

Channel Bavasi's courage to try to change the direction of a team with therapy that might be seen as shocking. Find a Tony Phillips, or the best stand-in you can, and don't underestimate what many people in the press have underestimated about the value of a galvanizer to a group of people who have come to rest in a comfortable mediocrity.

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