Saturday, June 24, 2006

Part I -- Dontrelle's Revenge: Marlins Morph to Match Malcolm's Mise-en-Scène  

The Ozzie Guillen of wonky baseball commentary, Bad Boy of Sabermetrics Don Malcolm was the only non-Florida Marlins fan who predicted their out-of-the-blue competitiveness that led them to the 2003 World Series trophy. His multi-part 2003 analysis series is no longer on the web, sadly. But this year he again predicted a great surprise from the team -- not a pennant, but in the wake of a strip mining of the roster intended to bring the payroll down to the lowest in baseball, the conventional wisdom was they would be the worst franchise in the majors and probably lose an ignominious 100 (or more) games.

There are multiple lessons in Don's getting in right again and in so many others' getting in wrong, lessons you can apply in management beyond baseball.

Just to get some context for this Scottish Skeptic's sibilant study, here are the mainstream preseason predictions for the 2006 Fish.

Malcolm did something none of these outfits did. He measured by dead reckoning the probable effects of the players lost and their replacements. He did it in a sensible way, neither emotional nor bloodless. His Golden Meanie analysis was posted at Baseball Think Factory back in March. I recommend reading the whole piece, but he processed the runs they would lose and gain on the batting side, then the same for the pitching side, and roughed out a baseline win-loss record based on their runs scored and allowed. It was considerably more promising to Floridians than others -- because he both analysed the rubbish being moved out and noted the high quality of the youngsters the Fish factored in as replacements.

His conclusion:

And since I don’t happen to think the worst-case pitching scenario will (pardon me…) pan out, I suspect that this team will avoid 100 losses. The decline will be palpable, but gentler (though not kinder…) than what the consensus of professional soothsayers and neo-logical webslingers (what—you say you can’t tell the difference between ‘em anymore?) has been imparting to you elsewhere.

After starting the season 11-31 over their first 42 games, they had an 18-6 streak and a few games later, they are now at 31-39. Not exactly threatening to win their division, but on a pace to better a 100 loss season by 10 full games. 

East W L PCT GB vs R vs L XTRA 1-RUN RS RA X W-L
New York 46 27 .630 - 36-23 10-4 6-5 18-8 390 308 44-29
Philadelphia 35 38 .479 11.0 26-27 9-11 2-3 8-13 355 379 34-39
Florida 31 39 .443 13.5 26-28 5-11 2-4 8-14 324 328 35-35
Washington 32 43 .427 15.0 21-33 11-10 2-4 7-11 335 378 33-42
Atlanta 31 43 .419 15.5 23-35 8-8 4-2 11-19 357 387 34-40

table from mbb.com

The odds of them losing 100 games are pretty low at this point. They'd have to go 31-61 the rest of the way, which is possible but unprecedented in this century. Since 2001, 60 teams have had 18-6 streaks during a season. Zero of them finished with 100+ losses; in fact zero of the finished with 95+ losses. A 18-6 record doesn't equal a great team, but it does indicate a team that's likely to perform well enough win often enough to avoid ignominy. Note, too, their runs-scored and runs-allowed, an excellent rough gauge for judging what a team's components are worth, are very close; one might expect a team that scored 324 runs while surrendering 328 to be very close to .500, closer than this kettle of Fish has gotten so far. And from a morale p.o.v., being two places above Atlanta in the standings has got to be good, even if it doesn't last long.

While Malcolm was using unrelentingly rational metrics, the mainstream guys were focusing on the fire-sale, and missed just how shoddy some of the merchandise shipped out really was. The bullpen was probably impossible to make worse -- so losing it and replacing the slots with a bunch of very young but (some of them esteemed prospects was likely to cost a little, not a lot. As he wrote:

They had a decent closer (the many-spindled Todd Jones), but the rest of those guys looked like a taggle-rag of white hip-hoppers queasily mixo-lizing Olivia Newton-John covers.

And, of course, the 1997 Marlins went from a World Series to last after a similar fire sale, & the human mind cleaves to the idea of history repeating itself, even if the context doesn't support it well. Which leads us to...

The 1997 Marlins won 92 games, slipped into the playoffs and rode that berth to a World Series trophy. The owner didn't make as much money as he planned to so he prepped the team for selling the way many businesses do, by selling off the assets for which there were buyers. The Fallujah-ed roster went 54-108 the next season, an extraordinarily putrid performance.

The context is different, though. While both owners of the 1997 and 2005 Marlins are reviled by fans across the country & both stripped down the team, the ownership cognate behind them was quite different.

The 1997-8 owner was the extraordinarily offensive Wayne Huizenga, a toxic-waste collector and video store magnate. He bought the team at an advanced age where he'd already learned his business chops: determination, relentless bargaining and capturing a large market share of a commodity line of work. In baseball, the talent is the product; it's about elite value-added employees crafting value-added creations out of extraordinary talent. Huizenga didn't really have the stomach for this business model that didn't match hi polar-opposite one that he had mastered so well.

The 2005-6 owner is the lurid Jeffrey Loria. Also a meddling, poorly socialized and controversial operator, Luria's fortune came from dealing art, an industry where The Talent Is Almost All The Product, the opposite of commodity (unless you're Clint Wilder's fave artist, Thomas Kinkade, in which case you're not even different from toxic waste). But fine art and dealing in it is parallel to baseball and the business of it. Loria, like Huizenga, is bringing his existing business cognitive map into the Florida operation, but unlike Huizenga, Loria'a map recognizes that the product requires unique talents, and not merely commodity drones working at low wages. As they were liquidating the team, the Marlins' front office managed to acquire more advanced good prospects than the 1997-8 office had (many of the 97-98 castoffs seem, in retrospect, more about purging payroll than acquiring young talent, though the team did both). So while the young talent that's on the Marlins major league roster really is minor league quality, they are higher-level minor leaguers. 

In sum, Loria's approach, while disturbing, doesn't work against long-term success on the field, while Huizenga's guaranteed it.

Pattern recognition is one of the most powerful tools we humans have, more powerful even than Eddie Gaedel's custom-built baseball equipment.If we don't use it, we lose.

But the reverse, "If we do use it we win", is not true either. We need to use it properly, pay attention to the context and the environment in which the cases we observe are unfolding. As managers, it's really important we don't make the mistake all those vaunted baseball pundits made -- seeing part of a pattern and assuming it's identical. 

How do we avoid it? Common sense is one method, though Malcolm's method, applying metrics, is better. You won't often have pure numbers for analysis, and if you are too dedicated to them, you can overlook subtle differences by converting a heuristic into an algorithm, a guarantee of failure, as described in that wonderful article by Roger L. Martin, the dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Common sense shaped by numbers is best of all.

When a surprise like the 2006 Florida Marlins to date come along, it's a great reminder of the methods experts use to defeat themselves, and what the maniacal outliers, like Don Malcolm, can add to human knowledge.

There are more management lessons from Malcolm and the Marlins, and I'll explore them in the next entry.

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