Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Omar Minaya Knows Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You  

Some of the most interesting trades of the season have hit the ticker after the trade "deadline". The most interesting from a Management by Baseball perspective, the one that holds the largerst, nay Nabuchodonosor-sized lesson is the New York Mets' (76-48, .613, 13.5 games ahead of second place team, 10 wins better than any other team in their League, estimated by Baseball prospectus of having a 99.99448% chance -- let's just round that to 99.9%, shall we -- of making the playoffs) acquisition of Arizona Diamondback outfielder and middle-of-the-lineup batter Shawn Green & some "financial considerations" for a minor league player.

Coals to Newcastle? Arteriosclerosis to Pizza Hut? Ron Coomer to Pittsburgh?

None of the above. I think it's a bright move, and I don't even like Green very much. I'll tell you why it's worth considering in a little bit.

For long-time readers, you may remember an entry I wrote in 2004 with the same theme as this one. It was about the Cardinals' acquisition of Larry Walker. The similarity is the Cards were in much the same position then as the Mets are now. The big difference is Larry Walker was in a slight decline after a long run as an elite five-toolplayer, while Shawn Green never was an elite player, is in more than slight decline, and on the surface, you'd think he is really struggling this year.

There are statistical reasons to see the positive, and non-statistical ones.

To quote from the 2004 article.


But in that binary situation, where being #1 is the only alternative to being a total loser, Confucian stillness can be fatal. Teams that are playing this well can get too relaxed (2001 Mariners) or smug (1995 Angels). Whether it's chemistry or the individual consciousness of key individuals or physical wear-and-tear, few teams embody the start-to-end excellence of the 1998 Yankees who had the best season record and rolled through the playoffs and World Series.

The G.M. of the Cards, Walt Jocketty, knows this, so he fixed what wasn't broken. {SNIP}

By changing the recipe, the front office has been able to achieve a few things:

  • The move adds offensive quality to the line-up. {SNIP}
  • It juggles the batting lineup, forcing the hitters and fielders to re-focus on new situations (for example, how fast is the guy in front of me on the basepaths? where should I stand in the cut-off for that guy, given his pattern and arm?).
  • It provides the team as a whole with a new social/communal task of integrating a new contributor.

Jocketty has made some measurable improvements, but he's also given this winning machine other reasons to pay attention, stay sharp, be a team.

It doesn't guarantee they'll win in the playoffs -- nothing the front office does at this juncture can do that, only the players can. But it does provide a number of small edges, it does provide more supports for winning this binary game the Cardinals are playing.

The Walker move improved the Cards fielding. With Cliff Floyd down, the Metropolitans' OF features star Carlos Beltran, rookie Lastings Milledge, and old hanging-on-as-fourth-outfielder Michael Tucker and I-can't-believe-he's-hanging-on-as-a-fifth-outfielder Ricky Ledee, As poor as Green's range factors and zone ratings are, they are an upgrade over the defensive accomplishments of both Lastings Milledge and Ricky Ledee.

As a batter, as a composite, he's better than Ledee, about as useful as the small sample of Michael Tucker the Mets have got this season. And he doesn't have to be platooned to be effective -- he's pretty balanced versus both right- and left-handed pitchers, so you can leave him in against a lefty if you need to.

vs. Left 124 6 1 5 18 12 3 25 .274 .350 .460 .810
vs. Right 293 16 2 6 33 25 3 39 .287 .348 .416 .764
Total 417 22 3 11 51 37 6 64 .283 .348 .429 .778

He's not great, but he's not a massive pothole you have to spackle.

But the player is not the average; the average is not the player.

Regardless of how Green plays, the Mets are close to certain to be in the playoffs, so his October contribution is going to be more important than what he does in the next five weeks. And October is where Green's hidden potential lurks. Because Green's record against the most-likely playoff opponents is much better than against the rest of the league. After the Mets, which are the most likely NL teams to be playing in October? No one really knows, but I'll use Clay Davenport's numbers from Baseball Prospectus (and I'll round to whole percentage numbers, and arbitrarily cut it off at 25%).

Team % chance
Cards 75%
Dodgers 74%
Reds 58%
Padres 38%

I'll call these teams "contenders" in the subsequent text. If you split Shawn Green's 2006 season between these teams versus the rest of his appearances (minus the Mets), you get this.
















Non-Contenders 268 39 66 11 2 7 32 23 5 38 .246 .318 .381 .698
Contenders 112 18 44 7 1 4 15 10 1 20 .393 .447 .580 1.028

He doesn't walk any more frequently, he just hits more and for more power. Please note, he doesn't hit equally well against all these teams. In his few apperances against the Cards, he's been only Ricky Ledee quality.

Dodgers 41 .439 .511 .732 1.243
Reds 23 .348 .400 .696 1.096
Padres 36 .417 .447 .444 .891
Cards 12 .250 .308 .250 .558

If you're Omar Minaya, and you're shopping for someone who might help you in October, and you've done your statistical research, there's a good argument Shawn Green is the best fit on the market. I just have to say, "Who'd have thought?" And I'd bet Murphy Money that the Mets' front office team meeting to discuss the research they had on outfielders they might acquire said the exact same thing.

In Shawn Green's microscopic October history, there's a last potential plus to consider. He appeared only in 2004, and for the Dodgers went 4-for-16 with 3 homers. One can argue that's pretty good since the teams that make it to October (in his one appearance, the Cards) have better than average pitching.

There are two basic lessons to take from Minaya and the Mets' acquisition of Green

First, even very successful teams need improvements and tuning because in a competitive situation, whatever doesn't make you stronger can be the source of your demise. (This isn't really true in a non-competitive situation, if you're a monopoly or, like the U.S. armed services or Microsoft, because of your massive resource advantage, you can essentially put out of commission any competitor you choose, excellence or not. Very few organizations, though, have either of those two luxuries). Whether it's smugness or a lack of a day-to-day need to excel or simply a loss of sharp focused attention, competitive organizations need to shuffle the deck a little to stay fresh.

I've seen good workgroups sour slowly. It happens way too often. They don't need to be demolished, like a Godzilla attack from the original Sim City. They just need to stay challenged. A handful of common techiques include adding a new senior person (as the Mets did) who can bring additional prespective and expertise into the group's tool box. You can add a junior person to learn how to be successful or to acquire domain expertise (be sure to allow everyone a little extra time for this longer-term investment). You can expand the team's span of control, giving them new, related tasks to handle. In an organization that has teams that are struggling you can (I love this one) lend them out as internal or external consultants to struggling teams so the two teams can collaborate together on improvements (remember, you need to create some slack for this, and make sure you're letting the successful team get public credit before you try to use them as consultants).

Second, in a competitive endeavour, you're never "too good". I once ran marketing for a company whose president was a finance guy, and like most finance guys, he had a "tin ear" for corporate image and positioning. This company was a leader in its field with unprecedented margin and return on investment. It had gotten there on creative product development combined with unrelenting commitment to the customers in the form of customer service and technical support. And it had beautfiul marketing that a strong team had established before I started, and all we needed to do was keep it fresh and aligned with emerging trends. The president, I'll call him Al Luplow, wanted to cut expenses, and when he asked his buddies in the Junior Presdients' Club what the "right" ratios were for companies, it brough up some noteworthy exceptions. Including the marketing budget. Without knowing any more about marketing he did than about how to hit a knuckleball, he not only cut marketing way below the industry standard, but randomly picked the programs we would fund and for how much.

When I pointed out to him the number was pretty small for the goals he planned to achieve and that he should trim his expectations and resources he was continuing to throw at things that were the results of the marketing he was trimming, he suggested our marketing strength would continue at the same level, unabated. "It's all about ROI," he said, "that is ... Return on Image". He believed once you won, you could just glide on your success.

He didn't. That company is deader than a printing contract to produce Kansas City Royals 2006 World Series tickets. If he had been able to convince his competitors to stop marketing, too, he might have had a chance (but "Al Luplow" was, and still is, one of the most clueless executives on the face of the planet, so even then he would have frelled it up).

This is one of those noteworthy areas where baseball management just makes the path clear. You can never be "good enough". If you think you can sneak into the playoffs with 92 wins, some oddball thing will happen that knocks you out -- a little injury to a #4 starter or a week of lax play or a gaggle of blown calls by home plate ump Rick Reed -- something. If you want it to rain, wash your car, and if you want to lose a division flag, coast on your lead.

That doesn't mean throwing money randomly across the landscape like Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE in The Magic Christian. It does mean observing, measuring and analyzing your team's strengths and weaknesses and the changing competitive environment and never ignoring a weakness that you can afford to address.

Because there is no "return on image". Whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you.

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