Thursday, April 27, 2006

Red Sox' Bane: Diffusion from Softball to Baseball, There's Method to This Maddon  

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays' new manager Joe Maddon hasn't even gotten a quarter into the season before he's provided a set of outstanding Management by Baseball lessons to his peers outside the game. He's adapted a 10-fielders-a-side softball scheme for placing his defense in trying to cope with the monster hitting ability of Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz (as of today, tied for 2nd in his league's home run table). Thanks to Erik Hansen of Tom Peters' site for coming up with the pointers.

There are a ton of crunchewy bits in his recent move. Maddon has come to this because he's a student of metrics. Anaheim Angels' manager Mike Scioscia his former boss, told me Maddon was that team's dugout data guy, and his recent non-conformist process confirms that for me.

Some background on the innovation: Murray Chass wrote a nifty article for today's New York Times, To Combat Ortiz, Just Add Outfielders, discussing the move. Every paragraph is quotable here, a useful part of the overall info, so I won't excerpt it here -- there's noting to leave out. Just read it; what I write here will presume you're read it.

As he says in the article, Maddon uses "spray charts" like the one here on this page. They show where batted balls from a specific hitter land. The example I'm using is clearly the one Maddon looked at to deploy his "34" scheme, which he named after an NFL defense arrangement.

Now look at the Times chart of the Devil Ray defense scheme. Ortiz, a lefty who normally pulls the ball to right field does hit a few outfield flyballs to left, but "nothing" (just one exception) towards left field through the infield. Leaving the 3rd sacker stationed there is like Starbucks putting a Starbucks store inside Salt lake City's Mormon Tabernacle (a waste of space for an asset that won't get anything hit its way).

When you match these two charts, it's pretty obvious the deliverable (the fielding configuration) is fit, like a Birkenstock, to the historical record (Ortiz' 2006 perfromance).

Why wouldn't a manager do this? he same reason managers beyond baseball don't -- because it's not standard operating procedure. Odd shifts, though rare, have been part of the game for a long time -- the most famous being one the St. Louis Browns deployed against another Boston Red Sox slugger, Ted Williams (infield only, shifted around towards first base). But Maddon has gone beyond that standard -- he's gone to softball methods & created a clear fourth outfielder, and perhaps another half-outfielder (in softball terms, a "rover") out of one of his other infielders.

The definitive work on innovation makes it clear that a lot of successful innovations (a lot of unsuccessful ones, too) come from borrowing wholesale at first, then fine tuning, a process from another discipline. Bringing together tools everyone has but not everyone uses, with a classic innovation path produces an experiment worth trying. Ortiz may adapt by starting to hit the ball the other way (a guarantee of depriving himself to a degree of the very thing that makes him so feared, in exchange for the possibility of making it up with a new technique). Maddon 1, Ortiz 0. It's always worth considering analogically experimenting with a process innovation from another field in your own -- it won't always work out (this Maddon tweak may go away or stick), but you won't know unless you try it.

Maddon is not deploying the shift in every Ortiz plate appearance. As he told Chass, they won't use the scheme when there are runners on base (infielders have some responsibilities for basrerunners) or when Ortiz comes to the plate with no outs and fewer than two stikes (because Ortiz, as slow as he is, and he's tectonic-plate slow, could conceivably beat out a bunt with the Method to This Maddon defense on).

So the Rays are approaching this judiciously. They are starting where it has the best chance to succeed -- against a deadly opponent, in specific, lower-risk situations. And there's another, related contextual factor that doesn't have anyhting to do with the game on the field, so it becomes...

...when it comes to innovation, anyway. Chass even mentions this explicitly in his article, saying the Yankees aren't likely to try it no matter how much success Maddon has. Bceause the Yankees are competitive with the Red Sox and a win in either direction between them could make a big difference at the end of the year. Maddon won't say this publically, I suspect, but I'll stick my neck out an assert Maddon knows the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' 2006 championship hopes season won't hinge on the failure of a fielding experiment against one batter or a dozen of them. The Rays' best case is not, frankly, an AL East flag.

And that's liberating. Standard operating procedures don't favor the Rays so the relative risk of innovation goes way down. Maddon, like most baseball managers, is fearless enough to innovate when the odds either work in favor of it or are unknown but reasonably could work out in favor of it. ┬┐And if Maddon can't innovate now, where there's so little to lose (strategically), how can he ever hope to do it once the team is established?

Beyond baseball, most managers fritter away their "First 100 days" trying not to offend or upset anyone or any established norms, and that's a pitiful waste of a resource one gets once and then is gone forever -- the ability to get a little forgiveness. Finally, though, a caveat for Maddon and for managers outside baseball in their enthusism to innovate processes...

When I spoke with Joe Maddon last November, I found he wasn't really a numbers geek. Cognitively, more a "business analyst" (numbers as means not ends) as opposed to a "statistician" (the endorphins come from the numbers themselves). That could work to his advantage or disadvantage in this particular Ortiz/Method to This Maddon "34" Defense because if he's only looked at David Ortiz' 2006 spray chart and not previous ones, the Rays may be in for a little sting themselves.

Look at Ortiz' 2005 spray chart hitting at his home stadium. While there's still a predominance of the infield action on the 1st base side, there are enough grounders to the left-field direction to undermine the return on the new Maddon tactic. If Maddon is lost in the romance of his new numbers, he may have missed this. A good statistician would be careful about putting too many eggs into a small basket of recent events, but most statisticians aren't managers, responsible for acting, and therefore forced to act before information with 99+% confidence is available.

The great thing about baseball management, a lesson every other single line of work beyond it could benefit from, is if this scheme was deployed prematurely, Maddon will fix it, and smartly. He won't throw it away entirely never to be considered again. He'll erither adjust, or, if he takes it out of circulation, he'll have it eternally in the back of his mind, idling, waiting for a context in which it would again succeed.

I urge you to set aside a little time to think about how you could experiment in low-risk ways with processes that don't currently work well. And follow Maddon this season, especially early, in his "First 100 days". He's a pathfinder, a manager with excellent emotional intelligence, an enthusiasm for data combined with a mind that's pretty good at using it & a massive dose of fearlessness.

How could your organization benefit from having a manager like that?

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