Monday, July 03, 2006

Part II -- Dontrelle as a Magic Crystal : How Are the '06 Marlins Doing It?  

In Part I, I talked about how people had underestimated this year's Florida Marlins and how researcher Don Malcolm had used dead reckoning to calmly ascertain that while they would likely not be good enough to play .500, they were very unlikely to lose the 100 games most experts expected. The cause for the general panic was that the 2006 Marlins, like the 1998 Florida Marlins, were undergoing a serious strip-down of known talent and using as replacements mostly rookies. While most promising rookies have a chance to succeed, most won't actually have a good career. And as a rule, a team that's mostly inexperienced struggles to escape long losing streaks and the poor morale that surpresses achievement.

So while we had Malcolm to describe to us how the experts failed to measure actual run potential, it's still worth knowing how the Marlins are succeeding at their higher-than-expected accomplishment (35-43 through today, with a 24-12 record since May 21).

I think a description of one key factor is a New York Times article from June 23 by Lee Jenkins, Money Talks, but Sometimes It Doesn't.

The Florida Marlins' latest makeover started the day that pitcher Dontrelle Willis walked into the clubhouse with a boxful of hand-me-downs.

When Willis opened the box, revealing a pile of colorful vintage jerseys from different sports and different teams, he kept at least one baseball tradition alive in South Florida.

"I had to tell the guys about Throwback Fridays," Willis said. "Everybody here wears throwback jerseys to the stadium on Fridays. That's been our thing for years."

Most players on the current roster did not know Throwback Fridays from Two-Dollar Tuesdays.

So there's a critical alarm, something that should be a problem. Dontrelle Willis is 24 years old, one of two young star-quality players the Fish kept, the other being 23 year old Miguel Cabrera.

In the practice of knowledge management (KM) it's a common observation that the amount of institutional memory (unwritten and written rules about how things are done in general and what the exceptions are and why and how to react to those) that is clear and actionable provides a ceiling on how successful an organization can be. And it's clear from that little article opener that it's close to zero. As Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper told me this Spring, "You always would like the players to come to you knowing everything they need to, but you can't count on it". And that's just the baseball on-field part of their knowledge. The subtle codes of behavior, to each other, with the coaching staff and front office, with the fans, with opponents, little of that is the same in the minors. So as a rule it's the veterans who pass this on to the youngsters, in baseball and in non-baseball endeavors.

So knowledge management should be a fluster-cluck in Florida.

Even though Willis is a World Series champion and a Cy Young award runner-up, he blends into the romper room. In the dugout, he keeps up a running commentary about batters. On the mound, he acts as if he is a hyperactive point guard. After someone makes an error, Willis provides a pep talk. After someone makes a diving play, Willis showers him with praise.

Fortunately, Dontrelle Willis is a hyper-extrovert. He would be even if he was the only young player on a team of veterans. He's very loose and puts himself on familiar terms with everyone he can. Off and on the field, he exceeds by a handful of standard deviations the norm of cheerleading for his team and his fellow players.

And he's a very good pitcher, not a scrub. Cabrera, while an introvert, is 3rd in the National League in Baseball Prospectus' table for Equivalent Average (a one-number measure for a player's batting quality), and that alone give him a small amount of leadership potential.

Why does there seem to not be a KM problem? I invite other KM practicioners or people who invest thinking in these issues to ante up their own ideas. The Marlins have opened my eyes to a possibility I haven't seen or considered before: That if the level of knowledge is typically low, it's a problem, but if it goes so far below a threshold that anyone would consider "normal" or "acceptable" and if you have a staff of individuals committed to competing (and virtually all ballplayers who get to AA or higher are very committed to competing), that the team will make itself committed to building process and method and working with other team members to do what it takes to succeed.

The Marlins are like a college team that gets living expenses. They play soccer with a water bottle. They give each other piggyback rides. They fight over copies of Baseball America. When catcher Matt Treanor hit his first career home run here Tuesday, he sprinted around the bases, because he said that was what his high school coach taught him to do.

I'm suggesting that a strip-down of the magnitude the 2006 Marlins are facing is so extreme, they may be capable of missing out on the inefficiencies you'd get with a half-way purge. In the more usual half-way model, there is enough institutional knowledge to do some things well, most things not, and it's net-negative. But the newbies don't know which is which, so they just follow. The cost can be compounded if the surviving veterans are suffering from any bad morale (and in a normal purge, bad morale is more common than not), because they can teach the newcomers that "spit happens" or "¿so what?", and might even make only a desultory effort to socialize the newcomers into the system.

These Kid Fish know there's not much model to follow, so they are stable in the knowledge they have to find it out or invent it. And beyond Willis and Cabrera, there's not much hierarchy, so this lack of social development leads to a pretty democratic openness to participation and a minimum of the destructive side of rookie-hazing (how much harder is it for two guys to haze 23 than the reverse?).

It's not intuitively logical, but I think it's possible that an organization can fall below a low-point of knowledge that it's so obvious you are insufficient that people pull together to make things work where if it was just a little short, those same individuals might figure "it's someone else's problem, someone who's been here longer".

There is another factor of which I'm more confident, which is when you're an individual who wants to win and you're playing for an organization expected to win, it's hard to lose. But that same person playing for an organization no-one expects to win is released from the effort of resisting self-flagellation.

''If you're the only rookie on a team and you get shelled, you worry about what everyone thinks of you,'' (pitcher Josh) Johnson said. ''Here, with so many rookies, we don't worry much about anything.''

In a mediocratic organization, on which has internalized that mediocrity is the norm, freedom from expectation might be a limiting force, but in one where no one has yet poisoned the staff with expectation of mediocracy, it can be liberating.

The Marlins have some promsing young talent...not enough that it's likely they will be able to make it to .500 this year. But these players and their coaches are in the midst of creating their own social norms by following a couple of players who are totally successful performaers and one who is a connector and energizer. They could surprise again (well, not Don Malcolm) with another "unprecendented" jump up in 2008.

It never ceases to impress me how much a good staff can overcome adversity if not stopped from doing so by fearful or protocol-bound management.

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