Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Gross Nationals' Product: Endometriosis Chávez
or When the Dud Thuds  

Washington Nationals lead-off hitter & starting center-fielder Endometriosis "Endy" Chávez, the only professional ballplayer named after a nasty medical condition, became a minor leaguer yesterday.

Exactly how this occurred is explained by the dean of American baseball writers, Thomas Boswell in an article that appeared today (courtesy Baseball Primer). Chávez did something that American staff in non-baseball organizations do too frequently, and the Nationals' management approach is instructive: it's risky but the potential benefit is greater than the potential cost, and is therefore worth learning and perhaps applying.

Chávez, as lead-off hitter and starting center fielder has three main performance objectives that relate specifically to his team role (he has others in common with many other players, but these three are his custom ones).

  1. As a lead-off hitter, get on base by any means legal (primary objective),
  2. Be an active baserunner, get into scoring position and torment the opposition's defense,
  3. Cover a lot of range in center field.

Now, Endometriosis is not a big star; he doesn't hit for a lot of power, so management can't afford to cut him a lot of slack on his performance objectives -- his value as an ordinary young performer is closely tied to his personal performance objectives. "Endy" not only failed to meet his primary objective, he didn't bother to try. He didn't jump-start himself to do it, he didn't do it once management made it clear that was his primary task this Spring. He didn't push back, he just didn't, like the rare contributors all over American organizations, lift a finger to do anything to meet the objective.

According to the Boswell story:

What the Nationals asked of leadoff man and center fielder Endy Chavez wasn't much.

They just wanted him to get on base 4 percent more often than he did last year. That's all -- 4 percent. And it would have been so easy. Everybody showed him how. But, for some reason, Chavez couldn't or wouldn't listen. All advice was ignored. No attempt at improvement was made. For weeks the camp has buzzed with befuddled amazement at Chavez's oblivious inability to sense the precariousness of his position. His career was slipping away and everybody knew it.

Except him.

Yesterday, in a stunning move that some hope will finally serve as a wakeup call, the Nats shipped Chavez to the minor leagues even though it meant making an enormous mess of the entire Washington lineup less than a week from Opening Day.

{SNIP}"I've agonized with him," Robinson said. But to the manager's amazement, when he told Chavez he was being shipped out, the 27-year-old seemed not to understand how everything had gone so wrong. "It was strange," Robinson said, twice.

{SNIP}It should never have come to this because that 4 percent improvement could have come so easily. In baseball stats terms, 4 percent is the difference between Chavez's atrocious .318 on-base percentage last year and a mark near .360 that would be acceptable for a speedy leadoff-hitting center fielder.

Please, Endy, the Nats begged, listen to us. Robinson, hitting coach Tom McCraw, General Manager Jim Bowden and coach Jose Cardenal, as well as several teammates, all made the same point. Endy, we like you. We need your glove in center field. But our offense was the second-worst in baseball last year. We can't afford a .318 leadoff anchor. If you don't improve -- not a lot, but just a little -- you're going to lose your job. Just show us you're trying. Just make progress.

{SNIP}As he packed his bags in the middle of the Washington locker room, chatting in somber tones with Cardenal, Chavez seemed almost numb. He refused to comment to reporters. But everybody else had plenty to say.

"Potential is great. But you've got to perform. We tried everything we could. I told him, 'Endy, if I had one more 40 home-run bat, I could afford a defensive center fielder who doesn't get on base. But with this team, I can't,' " Bowden said.

"This was our most difficult decision of the spring . . . Maybe it makes a statement in the clubhouse. The players that make the adjustments that we ask them to make to improve themselves are the ones who are going north with us," Bowden said.

{SNIP}The most perplexed person may be Robinson. "We weren't asking him to do anything he isn't capable of doing," the manager said. "But he had two walks in 37 at-bats this spring. Two. Not walking, not bunting, just swinging. That's not enough to keep a job up here. . . . But he came in here like he wasn't worried about anything."

The primary performance objective is not some sudden, unique requirement invented by the Nationals for some custom purpose. It's not even that difficult for someone with Chávez' underlying physical skill set and experience, like learning how to correctly pronounce the number seven in Swedish. It's intrinsic to baseball and there are a number of ways to do it: learn the strike zone so you can walk an additional 1-in-19 plate appearances, or allow yourself to get hit on the arm or glutes by an inside pitch once in a while, or learn to bunt. Mastering any one of those things would have met his primary objective, or just getting barely-adequate at all of them would have done the trick, too.

While he was continuing to meet his objectives #2 and #3, Endometriosis just festered on the one that counted most. The team sent him down. It's not a cheap decision for them. They don't feel they have anyone on the 40-man roster with lead-off hitting skills (on-base ability & speed), so at the end of Spring training, they are shuffling the deck and are going to have to try to work out a replacement by experimenting during the regular season when games count, or work out a trade under duress. This was not a trivial move for Washington to take. But it was one they believed they had to take.

This Clueless Contributor problem is widespread but just rare enough (thank Ahura and Mazda both) that managers can find themselves without an idea of how to deal with it. I'm going to give you a couple of tools, but first I'll tell you about an example from my own experience, an employee I'll call "Ben Davis".

You wouldn't think there would be many of these types left standing in American business, but this happened since the economic implosion that made decent-paying jobs scarcer than an "Endy" lead-off walk. That makes it more mystifyin', because the general anxiety in the work world post-implosion makes most people strive a little harder to please the supervisor.

Ben was a team member that the IT group assigned to a small-team project I was working on. He would get assignments and not do them. You could ask "where are you on your schedule?" and he'd reply, "fine". But you'd never get any real work out of him. It just wouldn't arrive. He take a sudden two-day vacation that started on the day some deliverable was due. Moreover, if you assigned him tasks A, B, C and D, he'd do none of them, but you might get G or H, or nothing at all. He might actually deliver some piece of assigned work, but it would be totally or mostly useless. When he was in front of you, he was courteous and seemingly intelligent, but of no actual use.

It's incredibly costly when a member of a small team becomes a no-op because there's not much flexibility in making up for one contributor's chronic lack of productivity.

There were three factors that made Ben Davis what he was. His supe, the IT Manager, had no supervisory skills and this was exacerbated by staff cutbacks that didn't mesh well with the manager's desire to keep the IT project pipeline full. The supe was super busy, clueless about staff performance in general, and Ben Davis wasn't even reporting to him on this project. Davis' boss on the project was a project manager, a person who, because of his own people-management shortcomings, had become a project manager instead of a supervisor (project managers usually don't supervise people, just inanimate work objects). The project manager didn't want to do what it took to force Ben Davis to either get the work done or do what it would take to get him off the project.

The pattern I've noticed in Ban Davises is that they tend to have some form of attention deficit disorder, a lack of intelligence, OR come from a sub-generation of people who run roughly from 26-35 years old. Why that sub-generation? I'm not sure why, but I'll offer up a quick w.a.g.: When these folk were adolescents, success as described by leading communication outlets such as TV and news seemed to be disconnected from actual accomplishment, and some imprinted on the idea that work achieved and success were somehow not linked. Dot-bomb millionaires, Enron, Milli Vanilli, Chainsaw Al Dunlap, et.al. Some people came away imprinted with the idea that just showing up and looking good was enough. And in our society today, that's actually true in many cases (though not in the true crucible of management, baseball).

So what can you do with a Ben Davis?

For one thing, you never leave her alone until the problem is fixed. As a manager, you have to focus relentlessly, daily on what the Ben Davis can do better. This is my suggested sequence, moving down the list if you're not getting enough torque out of the Ben Davis:

  1. Figure out what work tasks the person can do and does do, and then anchor the contributor's work around those tasks.
  2. Ask what kind of help the Davis needs and try to provide it.
  3. Monitor the Davis' work on a daily basis, meeting at the end of each day to dissect that day's progress and set up tasks-to-be-achieved for tomorrow.
  4. Assign a mentor, a peer who has had success doing this kind of work, to help guide the Davis on a daily basis.
  5. Probation.
  6. Drop from the Major League roster -- purge the plaque.

The Chávezes and Ben Davises need the daily feedback because that's your best chance to wake them up. If someone really is imprinted on the lack of connection between accomplishment and "success", you want to try as a manager to disabuse them of it. You may not succeed. Ther person may be too unmotivated, too protected by her work situation to have to try, too lacking in intelligence or ability to focus attention to be able to learn the content of what the job requires.

But don't do nothing. The Chávezes need to be sent down if they don't pick it up, not just because of the contribution you're losing from keeping them on your roster, but because it's demoralising to the rest of your roster for you to let an Endometriosis fester.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

St. Louis Cardinals' Technique:
Increase Productivity by Getting More Utility From Utility Players  

revised 3/28

Preston's First Law: In most organizations, you can get more gain from
turning your bad performers into average performers than you can from turning
your average performers into better-than-average performers. And it's easier.

The St. Louis Cardinals won more games than any other team in baseball last season. In looking at their accomplishments, most observers focus on the team's top line offensive leaders, the remarkable Albert Pujols, steady Scott Rolen, or hockey players Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. And that's a valid observation because it's the extraordinary production of those stars that made the team a winning team.

But the difference between St. Louis being very good and being the winningest team is more a result of the value Cardinal management squeezes out of more average contributors and even the utility talent on the roster.

Most American organizations are incapable of making good decisions in applying the staff they have, in part because most turn common sense on its head by defining people's work by their job descriptions instead of shaping job descriptions to people's aptitudes. All baseball teams have mastered this turnaround, and the Cardinals are an especially fine example of this skill. The Cardinal lesson is worth applying in your own organization.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a story in mid-February (no longer on-line) that stated that utility-man John Mabry (nickname according to Ivan Weiss = "Frickin' ") was working on learning to play catcher as an emergency back-up for this most difficult of all positions. Mabry is never going to be a star on a decent team, but the Cards have gotten use out of him in some visits to their roster as he's bounced around the majors (St. Louis --> Seattle --> San Diego --> St. Louis --> Florida --> Philly --> Oakland --> Seattle --> St. Louis).

At age 34, Mabry and the Cards are trying this unusual experiment that when tried, doesn't always work out. It's worth the effort to the Cardinals (and most likely to you, too) as well as to Mabry for these six reasons:

  1. Cross-training before you have a need for the added ability always saves time in the long-run.
  2. Cross-training before you have a need for the added ability always reduces the cost of acquiring the skill if you need it in an emergency.
  3. Cross-training usually reduces the number of contributors you need to achieve an objective.
  4. Cross-training, when effective, usually reduces the number of staff changes you need to make to adapt to change, and staff changes are the most expensive unaccounted expense to the bottom line and to productivity.
  5. The reality of Preston's Law (cited at the top of this article) is that it's easier to tease an extra 15-20% improvement out of your lower performers than an extra 5% out of your high performers, so there's reward to harvest in getting better torque from your non-stars.
  6. Staff who are willing to seriously cross train have more to offer so it can increase their career or job options in healthy organizations.

It helps to choose the right person to cross-train. Just as the Cardinals didn't choose Pujols to be a back-up catcher because he's too valuable as is but chose Mabry because he's a useful but limited utility player, try to pick specific kinds of talent for cross-training at jobs you may need more of later. The people should be willing and capable of learning. They should be people who are so excellent at their own current assignments that you would be introducing a distraction. But note: everyone needs training; I'm not suggesting you slow or stop training of your high performers. Everyone needs to keep their skills current and informed. I am suggesting that if you are going to pick a person to take on something that is well out of their current area, you choose people whose current contributions are not exceptionally valuable as is. Someone like Mabry...good enough to keep on the team, or perhaps good enough to be on the team if she masters this other skill.

Reasons #1 and #2 alone are worth the effort. I can't tell you how many organizations inevitably try out the breathtakingly-incompetent "just in time" training approach. Some do it because they know there's a chance the trainee will use the extra skill to either try to get a raise or use it as a piece of a career move to another organization. But much like the criticism of certain productive batters for striking out too much, it's an accurate observation but of an effect that doesn't affect the value of the contributor. Hitters like Adam Dunn and Brad Wilkerson strike out a ton, and its certainly unsightly, but their overall production at the plate is very high. The chance a trainee will take those skills elsewhere is real, and it will happen, but unless you have reason to believe the otherwise-qualified staffer is already looking elsewhere, the fear of the potential problem is bigger than the potential problem itself.

And it's always been surprising to me how many organizations don't bother to train or cross-train until a crisis has occurred and the situation is an emergency. They throw someone into a fire drill of a training regime (getting someone who was hurried through the process) or spend a lot of money to bring in someone new from the outside, someone who is likely to realize they have the hiring organization over a barrel. "Real-time" management seem addicted to these MBLMHE (Management by Last Minute Heroic Effort) gambits, & no matter how often they underperform or fail miserably, the faith in them rarely seems to flag.

The Cardinals, in contrast, are training an emergency back-up catcher before it gets to be an issue...just in case. The benefit/cost ratio is very high, because the cost is fairly low, and the consequences of throwing an untrained talent into that position are brutal.

Reason #3 is a little trickier. It requires an accomplished and self-confident manager to be able to both know all her contributors' abilities and shortcomings and win over their trust enough to have a fluid redeployment of talent to various tasks on an as-needed basis. There's always some lost energy in switching assignments or tasks in mid-trajectory, but if the manager is wise about balancing this guaranteed cost with the benefits, there are a lot of advantages in speed and quality.

Reason #4, staffing costs, are a giant accounted and even bigger unaccounted cost in most organizations. Cross-trained people can move more fluidly into positions the organization needs more. If the shop doesn't shoot itself in the foot by assigning the new position to the cross-trained person while expecting her to still do her old job, too (a not-universal practice, but more a more common suicide-bombardier technique than you ever wish on your worst enemy...I had to fire a client in mid- '03 for insisting on this), it saves a lot of money and time. The cost is merely diminished a little and shifted when the outfit decides it needs to fill the cross-trained contributor's position. But the current American jobs pattern that will probably persist for at least several years beyond the end of $50 oil and dependency on Communist Chinese manufacturing is a passion for thinning staff, so increasingly, positions perceived as less important a more likely to go away than be filled when someone moves on.

Reason #5, Preston's Law, is the truth that it's easier to get big advantages out of lower-end performers than the ones who are already stars. It's common sense, but something most managers, globally, don't get, because it's less fun and many managers just accept the status quo and choose to resign themselves to the idea that lower-performers are bound to that category.

Look, the stars are already doing very well. If your tuning approaches fail, there's risk you'll disrupt the very things that make the contributor a star (in baseball, last year's failed experiment by the Mariner batting coach to tinker with Ichiro Suzuki's batting approach, which ruined the outfielder's April; once Suzuki reverted, he started nibbling the league to death). Further tuning their game yields only asymptotically. But the contributors who are currently underperforming have lots of room for improvement. Breakthroughs for those more-mortal contributors, getting one beyond one current plateau, hold great potential gains.

Finally, there's a benefit that works to the contributor's advantage, Reason #6. Like John Mabry, a cross-trained person will have more opportunities to contribute and better job security. Sure, it wouldn't help the career of David Ortiz or Jim Thome or even Edgar Renteria to be able to play catcher, as well.

Follow the lead of the baseball model on contingency planning: Offer that cross-training opportunity to someone like John Mabry, a person whose value is real but intermittent in the current scheme of things, someone who's interested in and capable of learning new skills.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Managing Academia by Baseball:
All-Star College Dean's N.Y. Yankee Lesson  

Everything you need to know about academic institutions' administrative staffing difficulties you can learn from dissecting the New York Yankees' roster building approach.

That's my clunky description of the entry from earlier this month on the Confessions of a Community College Dean weblog. Written anonymously, the insightful essay describes how the staffing choices of institutions of higher learning create, as they do with the Yankees, an age imbalance and thereby keep younger talent from getting an opportunity to participate.

It's a well-crafted management by baseball lesson. I strongly urge you to read it.

I want to add a small point he doesn't really touch on. That's the cost to the students themselves from having an overly mature faculty without a generous helping of younger educators. This is less marked at the college level, more in middle school, junior high and high school, but I notice it at the college level a little when I take occasional classes. When faculty are almost all over 50, you still get the benefits of their insight, but not the fresh, enthusiastic views of younger talent. You also miss out on the newer methods of instruction (I'm not talking about technology, but I am talking about the incorporation of new knowledge about how brain and mind work, for example, new instructional methods, a generally greater openness to new ideas). Again, I'm not criticizing older faculty (any more than in baseball, I would criticize a heavily-muscled first baseman who recorded a home run every 15 at bats) -- just suggesting balance requires a mix of experience levels to achieve the best results.

In baseball, the rule has been that as a team's average age gets to 30, you're cruising for a bruising. Certain abilities remain, some are enhanced, but the balance gets out of whack and things like outfield range and baserunning speed degrade enough that it costs the team a competitive edge. In baseball at least, the age at which the trend takes hold seems to be going up -- as a probable result of better sports medicine for talent that can afford to pay for it, better training regimes, supplements and social factors. Here's one look at the San Francisco Giants, a team that if you can believe Peter Gammons' math, was going to have a starting lineup with an average (¿mean? ¿median?) age of 36.5. This Tom Ruane-inspired piece by Alan Schwarz talks in depth about the Giants' aging pattern and what it means. Worth reading, but the thumbnail here:

Such rosters have a mixed history. The other five were the 1981 Phillies (59-48 record), the 1982 Angels (93-69), the 1998 Orioles (79-83), the 2001 Diamondbacks (92-70) and the 2004 Mariners (63-99). Although the Mariners were a classic case of an aged team falling apart, three of those clubs made the playoffs, with one, the Diamondbacks, winning the World Series.

Some predict the Giants are finally going to belly-flop this year as a result. Some believe the average age is just a number and that the team plays well enough to contend for at least a wild card spot. I was going to suggest watching the Giants this year as an interesting data point with which to enlighten this debate, but this story on BTF I just read while composing this essay suggests Barry Bonds will not play until mid-season at the earliest as a result of his second arthroscopic knee surgery. Since the Giants were 4-11 in games Bonds didn't start in last year, it bodes pretty badly, if he truly is out until mid-season) for their chance to be contenders. Of course, teams have rallied around losing their superstar for a long stretch. In 1995, the Seattle Mariners lost their superstar Ken Griffey Jr. from May 26 through August 14. They were playing 15-12 ball before he went down, and the team pulled together with guys most have never heard of (Mike Blowers, Alex "The Human Highlight Film" Diaz and Bob Wells) having career years & an unusual rate of big games, while Edgar Martínez ratcheted his game up from awesome to transcendent (.480 on base, .625 slugging). They played .500 ball while he was gone (36-37) and with Griffey on board went 28-17 for the chance to make the playoffs. Teams can overcome the loss of their best player...it's just that recent Giants teams haven't yet shown that ability.

The historical record indicates that a uniformly aged roster can succeed but is intrinsically more fragile than a more polycultural one. Apparently higher education is suffering a parallel hazard.

Read the Confessions of a Community College Dean weblog. There are other interesting entries there, systems thinking about educational organizations and their development. Sadly, this Yankees entry is the only baseball one there so far, but if you agree with me that it's good work, perhaps you'll write the author and ask for more.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Sacrificing With Two Outs  

Effern's Observation: It's possible to collect accurate metrics to support false conclusions
and the false conclusions supported by accurate measures are harder than average to dislodge.

I was blessed recently with the chance to talk with Effern, maestro of The Vision Thing weblog and one of the little nuggets I came away with was a reminder about the difference between "Correct" and "Useful".

Effern does business process and process management in a big corporation for a living, so it's part of his job to assess and analyze workflows and behaviors. A behavior he noted in general, not just his place of work, is that managers frequently latch on to an historical effort that resulted in success and conclude that if they can recreate the conditions and decisions that worked in that previous event, it's a path to repeating that success.

The way this hinky pattern emerges is nowhere clearer & more instructive than it is on the baseball field.

Back when I co-managed a U.S. Congressional League softball team, I was blessed with this wonderful ringer, Della. In a league where you had to have at least three women among your defense at all times, the general rule was the team with the the most-skilled women players tended to win. This was amplifed in the Congressional League because too many of the women who played were more concerned about breaking their fingernails or mussing their coiffs than breaking up a double play. Ironically, the men who played for most of the teams had the same passion about hair and clothes, but they seemed to believe they could mess themselves up in a a game and then put on their faces later.

Della was a poor batter, a fair fielder, but had two great talents that were several standard deviations above the norm: she ran like her feet were on fire, and she had very good judgement about fielders' reliability and their arms. So while she was the woman on our team who hit the ball least forcefully, she could put the ball in play and without the ball ever leaving the infield, she could score. A typical Della first at-bat in a game was a couple of (intentional) foul balls and then a hot grounder to 3rd base. She pour up the line and instead of running straight up the line and through the base, she'd make an almost perfect turn as though she'd hit a double. If the ball didn't beat her to first and retire her, she'd surprise the infielders, frequently generating a throwing error or fielding error as the surprised opponents tried to put her out at second base. More often than not, she'd head for third. If she thought there was at least a 10% chance she would be safe, she'd just put the pedal to the metal. Most opponents didn't know how to execute a run-down play properly (which saved her bacon because she ran so fast she couldn't change direction readily).

Opponents would respond in a typical way to this suicidal approach to baserunning. Self-destructively in the pattern Effern described.

The first man up for the opposing team in the following inning would frequently try the Della maneuver. If not the first, then the second. It would almost never work. He usually didn't have Della's speed and most certainly fell short of her basepath instincts. Most of all, that kind of "run until they put you out" is just a bad play, a low percentage way to use up an out, even when Della, who'd mastered it to its full potential, ran it. The benefits we accrued from her doing it were (1) entertainment, and (2) the effect on the other team's psyche for the rest of the game.

When a manager goes simplistic and assumes success by duplicating a tactic or decision, he's putting himself in the position the opposing hitter did - he's ignoring the fact that a single success doesn't prove the viability of an approach. I'm not suggesting you ignore the past and just pretend it's all random. Nor am I suggesting you collect data for years before you start focusing on a few choices for any decision.

Earl Weaver's approach was the one I advise. Like the Baltimore Orioles' successful skipper, keep your mind open even while acting with past performance in mind. Before it was economical or logistically reasonable to have computer access in the clubhouse, Weaver would compile batter-versus-pitcher history on index cards. With a card for every opposing pitcher, he tracked how each of his hitters performs against him.

In his book Weaver on Strategy, co-authored with Terry Pluto, Earl lays out his decision strategy, which is anchored in a bit of optimism. If a batter is, for example, 2-for 3 against a pitcher, Weaver would try to use him. He knows the batter was at least capable of getting a hit of the pitcher. If the batter was 1- or 2-for-9, he would be guarded, but he wouldn't stop testing to see if the batter might still learn to succeed. Remember, while 1-for-9 is an anemic batting average of .111, if he gets 3 hits in his next 5 at bats, that's going to come up to an acceptable .284. Weaver liked to let a player get 20 at bats against a pitcher to see if he could learn to hit the hurler, so he would use players with a short string of unsuccessful experiences but not commit to using them all the time. Of course a player with success over 20 at bats would get every opportunity to bat against the pitcher he did well against.

In short, Weaver was aware enough of his data and confident enough in himself to vary his approach on any given spring training or regular season day. He kept his eyes open and tracked the success or failure of sets of historical precedents and didn't just let whatever happened most recently lock that course into auto-pilot.

Managers getting lazy and cloning decisions based on a single recent success are common. Context changes, the environment changes, but the manager doesn't want to think it through so the decision stays the same.

The 90s were filled with dot-bombs who thougt you could take any kind of retail operation, strip out the customer service, throw it onto the Internet and reap the success Amazon or eBay did. The venture capitalist graveyards are filled with on-line grocers, on-line toy stores, on-line pizza joints.

The opposite, never again giving a chance to something that didn't work out the last time one tried it, is even more common. My favorite case was a small savings bank I worked with. They had contracted from twelve to just three branches and needed to reposition themselves to corner the neighborhood depositor. I worked with the marketing woman to develop a set of direct mail pieces. When the president had it passed over his desk, he killed it. He'd once worked at a bank that had done direct mail and the program failed. Abjectly. He didn't know why, I didn't know why.

I have a technique I like to use in this kind of case, which is to design a set of small test mailings, just big enough to see what kind of returns you might get. When/if it succeeds, you proceed. If it doesn't, you're out maybe $300. I even offered to not bill them for my time if it failed to break even. The prez said "no"; he was immovable. As far as he was concerned, direct mail couldn't work for a savings bank because it had failed once.

About six months later, a savings-and-loan with the same market need did a ton of direct mail into my client's neighborhood. That mailing worked beautifully, it seemed and within six months, they expanded into the neighborhood, which did cut into my client's growth prospects. The president stuck to his guns though. He was decisively dysfunctional and dysfunctionally decisive.

Either model - crazy-gluing yourself to some approach that worked once, or inflexibly rejecting some approach that failed once - makes it harder to succeed. There are too many variables, shifts in the environment in which a decision plays out, to close yourself off to any chance of experimenting with a respectable idea again.

Just because some leadfoot got thrown out trying the "run until they get you out" mayhem play didn't mean Della would ever stop doing it or notching a few "inside-the-park homers" on balls that never got past the infield dirt.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Bill James & Adrienne Barbeau Confront
The Fog of Metrics & Post-Modernity  

A cynic is a man who will laugh at anything
so long as it isn't funny
-- Oscar Wilde

There are a pair of delusions that dominate analysis. They are binary opposites, but they come from the same lack of self-discipline.

One is an optimistic delusion; that everything useful can be measured and that everything measurable must have value. I'll cover that in the next entry. This entry is about the other, the opposite. The cynical delusion that if an effect can't be isolated or made predictable through measures, there must not be an effect at all. The cynical delusion has its roots in a cultural position that is on an up-trend and it's becoming common in all endeavors. Nowhere, however, is it more transparent & instructive than it is in baseball. And nowhere has it been more elegantly dissected than by the master himself, Bill James, in the most recent SABR publication.

NOTE: Once a year, SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) issues a collection of research papers under the title The Baseball Research Journal (the BRJ I'm talking about here is the 2005 edition, Volume 33). This year's is the best in the last decade for several reasons: well-chosen pieces, a balance of types of statistical as well as investigative content, crisp editing and very professional publication quality (which wasn't always the case before Jim Charlton became editor and starting driving the team). It's apparently not yet available to the general public.

James' essay in the BRJ is called Underestimating the Fog, and it takes on the symptom of the delusion's up-trend in statistical baseball research coming from a school of thought Don Malcolm calls "neo-sabermetrics".

The underlying delusion many have when analysing measures, James asserts (and he includes himself as an occasional transgressor), is that if they can't prove something is significant, they assume it doesn't exist as a real factor. From the BRJ article:

If you make up a list of the leading hitters in the National League in 1982 (or any other year) and check their batting averages in 1983 (or the follow-up year, whatever it is) you will quite certainly find that those hitters hit far better than average in the follow-up season. If you look at the stolen base leaders in the National League in 1982, you will find that those players continue to steal bases in 1983. If you look at the Hit By Pitch Leaders in 1982, you will find that those players continued to be hit by pitches in 1983. That is what we mean by a persistent phenomenon-that the people who are good at it one year are good at it the next year, as well.

If the opposite is true-if the people who do well in a category one year do NOT tend to do well in the same category the next year-that's what we mean by a transient phenomenon. Here today, gone tomorrow.

All "real" skills in baseball (or anything else) are persistent at least to some extent. Intelligence, bicycle riding, alcoholism, income-earning capacity, height, weight, cleanliness, greed, bad breath, the ownership of dogs or llamas and the tendency to vote Republican . . . all of these are persistent phenomena. Everything real is persistent to some measurable extent. Therefore, if something cannot be measured as persistent, we tend to assume that it is not real.

Some of the factors that serious, intelligent researchers have studied and rejected as real phenomena and see as merely transient include:

  • "clutch hitting",
  • "catcher ERA" -- the ability of an individual catcher to affect the runs-allowed effectiveness of a pitcher,
  • "individual platoon differential" - the ability to for an individual hitter to have more success with pitchers who throw from one side over the other.

All three of these factors are widely accepted by old line baseball management and to an even great degree by announcers. Clutch hitting is a great example...in May you'll hear some radio mouthpiece getting all breathy about some batter's 2-for-6 performance this year as proof he's a clutch hitter with the bases loaded (ignoring both the minute sample size and the fact that he's 2-for-11 in other situations with a runner in scoring position). The logical flaw is that these numbers are merely background noise, "luck", call it what you will.

James goes on to describe one of his own studies, a 1988 examination of the last bulleted item.

One of the conclusions of that article was that "The platoon differential is not a weakness peculiar to some players. It is a condition of the game." I based this conclusion on the following research and logic. Suppose that you identify, in last year's platoon data, two groups of players: those who had the LARGEST platoon differentials, and those who hit better the wrong way (that is, left-handed hitters who hit better against left-handed pitchers, and right-handed hitters who hit better against right-handed pitchers.) Suppose that you then look at how those players hit in the FOLLOWING season. You will find that there is no difference or no reliable difference in their following-year platoon differentials. The players who had huge platoon differences in Year 1 will have platoon differences in Year 2 no larger than the players who were reverse-platoon in Year 1.

Individual platoon differences are transient, I concluded, therefore not real. Individual platoon differences are just luck. There is no evidence of individual batters having a special tendency to hit well or hit poorly against left-handed pitchers, except in a very few special cases.

In 1988, he came to the conclusion that because there was no way to prove statistically that the effect existed outside of a few exceptional players, it was logical to equate zero persistence with "luck" or random factors or background noise.

He concluded only a few years ago that the 1988 study was flawed. And that flaw, James suggests, was that his conclusion was based on random factors and background noise...the very thing he was trying to overcome with the study. Platoon differentials have noise in them. When you take the batting average against left-handed pitchers, a number that reflects some level of skill and some level of luck, and take the batting average against right-handed pitchers, a number that reflects the mixture of skill and luck, then when you compare them, you're adding together all the randomness/luck/noise from both sets of numbers.

In the case of platoon differential, a normal one for the League average is about 27 points of batting average, about .0275. James believes "the randomness is operating on a vastly larger scale than the statistic can accommodate," and that the "luck" is about 10 times the factor being measured (platoon differential). The noise is ten times the size of that being measured. Of course a good researcher can't nail the factor; it's overwhelmed by the noise. Then when you compare platoon differentials from multiple seasons to evaluate persistence, you're adding in more randomness. Rather than neutralizing the transient, you're overwhelming the truth inherent in the numbers.

But that doesn't mean in practice it doesn't happen and that managers shouldn't apply the knowledge that platoon differential exists as a general rule that embodies itself to some (probably varying) degree in each individual batter. If a right handed hitter, in the general case, has a .0275 (about 1 in 36) better chance of success against a left-handed pitcher than a left-handed hitter would have, a manager would be foolish to ignore the effect as a general case. The .0275 is the difference between a batting average of .276 and .303, not a giant difference, but one worth trying to harvest in key situations.

One of the giants who originated sabermetrics is Dick Cramer, a professional data analyst who's been doing it for a long time and had great success both in his vocation, pharmaceutical biochemical analysis, and in baseball. Cramer had impaled himself on the same fallacy with a study of clutch hitting. And James gets to the core delusion:

We ran astray because we have been assuming that random data is proof of nothingness, when in reality random data proves nothing. In essence, starting with Dick Cramer's article, Cramer argued that "I did an analysis which should have identified clutch hitters, if clutch hitting exists. I got random data; therefore, clutch hitters don't exist."

Just because you can't prove something with the numbers doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It doesn't mean you should give up -- that which you're trying to measure could be important (if a team could raise its batting average 27 points in general, it would yield them, all things being equal, another 16 runs a season, generally, about 3 or 4 extra wins, which is nothing to turn one's nose up at). But if you can't measure it well enough to isolate it and use it as a predictor it doesn't mean you should decide it doesn't exist.

Baseball players (as a group) have a platoon differential and the numbers indicate it. Individual players have a platoon differential, though the individuals' numbers aren't able to indicate it.

The binary impulse around metrics (otoh, they are everything, and if you can't measure it it ain't real, but on the other, you can follow the numbers and still be wrong so why bother?) leads to more cratered projects and organizations than I have room to list.

Good analysis requires skepticism, but it seems the post-modern trend is away from skepticism and towards cynicism. Cynicism can be very entertaining (I'm much more entertained by listening to Lewis Black or Christopher Hitchens than I am listening to Barack Obama or Ralph Reed). Cynicism may get someone attention in the media or in the classroom or the boardroom, but it doesn't do a great job of furthering useful analysis.

I had a boss once, Swish Nicholson, who was juggling multiple projects. He was highly-trained and exceptionally skilled at the content of what his department produced, while completely untrained in management or any stripe. In my spare time I attempted to build a project management foundation for him, simple tools he could use to rationalize the chaotic environment and daily events that made his life (and the life of everyone who worked for him) miserable.

Swish hated the thought of having to manage projects. Whenever I'd track the staff's use of time and then draw up coordinated schedules that would create ways to get more work done in the same amount of calendar time, he would hammer them. "You can't tell me that this item will be delivered in 36 days and with an adequate quality, you're just guessing," he'd say, "and therefore, this is just a pile of lies".

There is, of course a lot of room between predictive abilities that would let you declare the winner of the 2005 World Series with the winning scores and a pile of lies, enough room to do doughnuts with a lardass Dodge Ram 2500.

I went through the exercise that proved that the team as a whole could make fairly predictable progress based on his decisions and external factors. But because I couldn't predict to the day when some giant piece of work would be finished (too many external factors and "luck") Nicholson saw the data as useless as opposed to a place to start.

In your own workplace, don't be fooled by studies that fail to deliver significant results that are sensitive enough to create great plans on. Don't be fooled into thinking the factors you studied don't exist at all; keep in mind that which you're examining may be something you haven't been able to isolate from randomness or from other factors that you haven't neutralized. Don't give up asking a question you believe has a valuable answer just because you haven't found that answer yet.

As Bill James says, the absence of proof that a significant relationship exists is not proof that it doesn't exist. Or, as he wrote in this little Freudian story to conclude the BRJ essay:

...A sentry is looking through a fog, trying to see if there is an invading army out there, somewhere through the fog. He looks for a long time, and he can't see any invaders, so he goes and gets a really, really bright light to shine into the fog. Still doesn't see anything.

The sentry returns and reports that there is just no army out there-but the problem is, he has underestimated the density of the fog. It seems, intuitively, that if you shine a bright enough light into the fog, if there was an army out there you'd have to be able to see it--but in fact you can't. That's where we are: we're trying to see if there's an army out there, and we have confident reports that the coast is clear-but we may have underestimated the density of the fog. The randomness of the data is the fog. What I am saying in this article is, that the fog may be many times more dense than we have been allowing for.

Let's look again; let's give the fog a little more credit. Let's not be too sure that we haven't been missing something important.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Spring Fever: In Which Alan Greenspan
Learns at the Feet of Buck Showalter  

April is the cruellest month, breeding hopefuls
out of the dead land
-- T.S. Eliot & Dr. James Rigali

Alan Greenspan, the Wizard of Blahs, is a classic tin god who could, if he bothered to open his eyes and follow baseball management practices, achieve a lot better results in his job. Greenspan, who heads the Federal Reserve System, is the driving force behind one metric that helps shape the economy. His decisions there have been sometimes good for the economy, sometimes abject failures, but quite one-note. If he would take the time to sit at the feet of the Texas Rangers' manager Buck Showalter, he could get a significant uptick in his performance.

It's because Showalter has a better grip on "irrational exuberance" than the OCD-behaving, binary-bound Greenspan.

According to a story in today's Ft. Worth Star-Telegram:

I thought it was only sportswriters and fans, but Showalter says it's also a baseball tradition to overreact to what's seen in spring training.

"It's the same with every team in March," he said. "I call it the positive and negative feeding frenzy syndrome. You get high on a guy, or you get down on a guy, based on one game or one week.

"My staff meetings are funny. We spend a lot of time settling everybody down, one way or the other."

Showalter is the rudder that keeps his staff from skewing off extremes based on either a single ability or limitation, a single success or failure, a passion for some narrow sub-component of an element of success. This protects them from binary thinkers' messing up decisions. The binary thinker's motto is If A is Bad, then the opposite of A is Good. Greenspan, of course, is the poster boy for binary thinking.

Unlike Buck, Alan is emotionally bound to three binary illusions: (1) That one extreme tail of an environmental continuum is more beneficial than the other extreme; (2) That one single metric is more important than all the rest combined; (3) That protecting the interests of one special interest group is more important than all the rest combined.

Because Alan's personal tendency is to be hyper-turbo-vigilant against inflation (not deflation), he views the world with a simplistic one-tailed chart. And because his view is based on a somewhat disproven theory that the root cause of inflation is uptick in dollars earned through performing work (payroll, paychecks, wages, salaries) and opposed to an uptick in dollars earned from investments, his urgings end up delivering results that sometimes don't match his mission. And because he has his hands on one of the levers of a giant complex endeavor, he has come to believe his lever (significant control over interest rates that in turn have a small but usually-significant effect on inflation) is the most important lever in the world. His own irrational exuberance for manipulating interest rates in the service of preserving lenders' margins (a worthwhile endeavor) has made him miss half the equation, has enhanced his binary thinking bias.

Showalter, being more capable and functionally intelligent in the real world than Greenspan, he isn't bound to Alan's irrational exuberance or irrational inxuberance, fear of or passion for one thing. Just because pitcher Kenny "Ruby, Don't Take Yer Slider to Town" Rogers hits a couple of homers in Spring Training games, Buck won't be pencilling him into the regular season line-up at D.H.

Baseball management know how to flex, change with the times, in most cases to overcome disproven biases it brought to the table. If only the people who try to steer the economy had the same open-minded flexibility and eyes wide open ability to avoid the irrational.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Part II:
Pulling Another Lenny: When Pattern Recognition
is Accidental Dismemberment  

Pattern recognition is a key skill of every significant management action. You look at the situation, examine the past, recall things you and others did that worked out and that didn't, pick a small handful of options, devise an approach. You have to connect the dots, because this moment is not likely identical to any you've had before. You have to find the key parts of the pattern that will affect your choices, or, even better, the patterns that connect the patterns, as Gregory Bateson suggested.

If the decision is one that doesn't have to take effect this instant (say, any event after about the first 15 minutes of Black Hawk Down), it pays to do at least a little research. That can be using reference materials, interviewing people, brainstorming. If you don't, you are not managing.

In the last entry I discussed Marlin utilityman Lenny Harris' lack of research before proposing a radical change to Juan Pierre's approach to situational hitting. But wait, there's more.

The Lenny apparently had his epiphany around an idea for Pierre:

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."

For some reason, The Lenny believes Wade Boggs is the same kind of hitter as Tony Gwynn.

But it appears that not only did Harris provide the wrong prescription for Pierre, he based it on a flawed assumption, and one that he could have easily researched. Because the only thing Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn had in common was they were very different hitters.

Here's what they had in common:

  • A feature: They batted left-handed (as Pierre does).
  • An accomplishment: They both won multiple batting average titles (as Harris believes Pierre should aspire to).
  • An approach: They both eschewed the home run as a key to their overall offensive production except in two seasons (which Pierre has no choice but to do).

That's the beginning of a pattern. The problem is only the third commonality, their general rejection of the home run, is about what kind of a hitter they were, about their batting approach, about what Pierre would have to do to being a batting average titleist.

Worse, Gwynn and Boggs were very different hitters. You can't be like both at the same time.

Here are their careers in what's sometimes called seasonal notation. A seasonal notation line takes all a player's stats, and divides it up into a 162-game composite virtual season that represents a year's worth of their "average" stats over their career. I threw in Pierre's career to date.

162 Game
Boggs 610 200 38 4 8 2 2 94 49 .328 .415 .443 2 6 12 2 16
Gwynn 617 209 36 6 9 21 8 52 29 .338 .388 .459 3 6 13 2 17
Pierre 653 204 23 8 2 50 19 44 39 .312 .361 .380 13 2 1 8 8

Output was similar in some aspects, different in others. The telling difference here is in walks and strikeouts.

Pierre was 26 years old in his 2004 season. Let's look at the two batting champs through age 26.

Boggs was a very slow baserunner who got most of his hits on line drives where he trotted to first, or where he used the features of the stadium he was playing in as affordances, such as using the short, high wall in Fenway Park's left field as a device off which to carom a shot. Through age 26, here was his line:

 Year Ag Tm  Lg  G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG IBB HBP GDP
 1982 24 BOS AL 104  338   51  118  14  1   5   44   1  0  35  21  .349  .406  .441  4   0   9
 1983 25 BOS AL 153  582  100  210  44  7   5   74   3  3  92  36  .361  .444  .486  2   1  15
 1984 26 BOS AL 158  625  109  203  31  4   6   55   3  2  89  44  .325  .407  .416  6   0  13

Boggs established that he was going to take a lot of walks, especially numerous for a player who didn't hit a lot of home runs. He established that he was a low-volume, low-percentage base-stealer. He went deep into counts and while he struck out far less than normal, his going deep into counts made him more likely to whiff occasionally. But his approach was designed to maximize on-base percentage. Boggs consistently kept his on-base percentage above the .400 Magic Turkey Thermometer Indicator of On-Base Very Good Ness.

Gwynn was a fast runner until his mid-30s who hit the ball at more different trajectories and used his speed to harvest incremental hits. While he had almost as many doubles as Boggs, they were more likely to be leg hits than Boggs' were. Through age 26, here was his line:

 Year Ag Tm   G   AB    R    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG  IBB HBP GDP
 1982 22 SDP  54  190   33   55  12  2   1   17   8  3  14  16  .289  .337  .389   0   0   5
 1983 23 SDP  86  304   34   94  12  2   1   37   7  4  23  21  .309  .355  .372   5   0   9
 1984 24 SDP 158  606   88  213  21 10   5   71  33 18  59  23  .351  .410  .444  13   2  15
 1985 25 SDP 154  622   90  197  29  5   6   46  14 11  45  33  .317  .364  .408   4   2  17
 1986 26 SDP 160  642  107  211  33  7  14   59  37  9  52  35  .329  .381  .467  11   3  20

Gwynn put the ball in play early in counts and counted on his speed for extra hits. He slowly established himself as a base-stealing threat (not important to his batting approach, but an indication he had some wheels). Like Boggs, his approach increased his chances for grounding into double plays. There's something else they have in common.

Pierre to date is not much like either. As shown in Part I, he's a hit it and run like heck guy without power. He's nothing like Boggs as a hitter in part because he's nothing like Boggs as a runner.

He's not much like Gwynn, though his strikeout & walk numbers at this part of his life are parallel to what Gwynn's were at the same age. It's very unlikely he'll develop on Gwynn's trajectory. Their body types and swings are very different (Gwynn during his playing days looked like a slightly-less aerodynamic 12 oz. can of Spam Lite with arms and legs, and hit the ball a lot harder).

Managerial pattern recognition starts with the Harris approach. The very earliest start of the process includes these three steps.

Step #1: Sift through history for clusters of features or events that match the one you're about to play with. Step #2: Examine each, starting with the most well-matched, and start figuring out how they're the same and different. Step #3: Establish what you can change in the environment that should be different to better match the success factors of your patterns.

Harris didn't even get through this beginning of the start. He stopped at Step #1.

This aborted form of pattern recognition is common is all kinds of organizations: business, government, professional practice and non-profit.

Take Lorig Associates LLC. They own and manage public properties converted to mixed commercial/residential applications.

They manage and are pulling a Lenny on one of their properties right now, a former school turned mixed residential/commercial neighborhood hub called the Wallingford Center. They rehabbed it about 20 years ago filled it with unique, one-off family-owned shops (handmade craft jewelry, a high-end eyewear boutique, an urban garden store, an intelligent toy store, for example). The neighborhood which had had only the basics, crystallized around this hub, attracting like-minded retails to nearby buildings and then attracted residents for whom the appeal of a middle class neighborhood devoid of no chain stores, but populated with small businesses with character was a magnet.

Times have changed, though not in Wallingford. People still live in the area for the same reasons. But Lorig got bored with the model. They looked around and found a more profitable approach, copying the retail success of a nearby "lifestyle" shopping mall called University Village.

The U Village used to also be populated by boutique one-offs (with a mix of a few chains). It's in an upscale neighborhood packed with avid consumers of high-end goods and the mall is a destination, even though people can buy Banana Republic and the Gap in a lot of places. This place got a makeover, dragged in more chains, dumped independent entrepreneurs and is now a magnet for the people for whom shopping is their lifestyle. The place is packed daily, an orgy of purchasing even in a region with a bombed-out economy.

Lorig did Step #1. They realized the demographics said Wallingford was economically, ethnically, and by education much like the U Village neighborhood. Then they stopped.

They are trying, with no luck at the present, to turn the Wallingford Center into a U Village. In a market where commercial vacancies have been very very high, they raised rents sharply to drive out independent businesses to make room for chains. In a market where apartment rents have been falling, they allegedly raised rents on apartments. Empty storefronts begetting lower traffic begetting dicier business factors begetting more empty storefronts. The result is a dying hub that's like a black hole -- not only does it look like the mall of death from Saturday Night Live, but being the hub, it's expiration is sucking the oxygen out of the whole neighborhood's retail core. Other landlords saw the hub raising rents, so they did too, and the bloodbath spread to adjacent blocks.

Personally, I believe it's going to be very difficult to get chains into the smaller family-style retail spaces because they'll need a ton of dollars per square foot to make the kinds of numbers chains, with their diseconomies of scale, need to thrive, and there's not a dense traffic of people whose lifestyle is being consumers to patronize them. They certainly won't get much torque from the current residents of the neighborhood, though perhaps they can remake that, too, over time. And without a lot of neighborhood business, they will need the destination business -- and they are already shopping at U Village.

When Lorig pulled a Lenny & failed to get past Step #1, they missed their opportunity to realize that Wallingford, in spite of looking demographically on the surface like the U Village's neighborhood, was really the anti-U Village, and that by populating it as a U-Village wannabe, they would lose their old market without picking up the new.

It appears to be a moronic move based on a foolish failure of half-axed pattern recognition. Kind of like Lenny Harris'.

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