Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Detroit Tiger Lesson in Competitive Aikido  

"The more your predictable your behavior is, the higher the returns on significantly
changing your behavior" -- Angus' Fourth Law of Competition

The Detroit Tigers have the reputation of being a team that's "aggressive" in their hitting style. The textbook translation of that is they are more likely to swing a first pitches (which are generally fast balls, which are presumptively easier to hit solidly), and in hitters counts (2-0, 3-1, again generally attempts to throw a strike, and a higher proportion of fast balls, so generally easier to hit solidly). The Tiger norm, swinging at the first pitch got them to the playoffs. Statistically, there are good arguments for it in the general case. AL batters who put the ball into play on the first pitch hit for a .343 batting average and a .549 slugging percentage.

So in Game 1 of a American League Championship Series, the Tigers were facing the team most notorious for taking advantage of such behavior: The Oakland A's. It should have been a formula for Tiger Fricassee, but it was the A's that ended up in the loss column...because of Angus' Fourth Law of Competition. The Tigers, who had been so consistent all season in their free swinging ways, changed their approach and used the A's assumptions as a deadly weapon against them. It's a technique worth knowing and using beyond baseball if your organization is nimble enough to try it.

In Oakland, the A's ace starter Barry Zito worked the game plan formulated to turn the competitor's consistent style into an advantage for his team. He threw 0-0 pitches off the plate, and the Tiger batters didn't swing at them. 

When that happens, the advantage goes to the batter. In the American League this year, batters as a whole averaged  .275/.340/.435, meaning stepping to the plate at 0-0, that the average batter's potential for achievement. If the count goes to 1-0, that is, the batter correctly lays off a pitch that's not a strike, the average performance is .288/.395/.470, significantly better--especially in OBA --for the batter.  If the count goes to 0-1, that is, the batter swings at and misses the pitch or fouls it off or lets it go by for a strike, the average performance was .246/.287/.379, significantly better for the pitcher. 

Zito was starting with first pitches out of the strike zone, which is the klassic killer move you lay on batters you think are geared up to swing at a first pitch. Zito didn't have his best stuff; if he did, when Tiger hitters went against their Form and laid off pitches close but off the strike zone, he would have worked his way in, finding corners of the strike zone to nick -- making them either let them go for called strikes or swing at them and hope these marginals lured the Tigers into swinging at them. But he apparently didn't have enough control to do that, and when you're already down 1-0 and you throw another ball, you arrive at a classic hitters count, 2-0, where, because you don't have your best control, you are more likely to choose a fast ball (easier to control) and between throwing it off the plate or over the middle, you generally err on the side of throwing it for a fat strike rather than a ball. The batter, knowing this, will guess fast ball and swing accordingly...creating more potential damage.

Which is what the Tigers did. As written by the A.P. in the Sporting News:

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE: Watching video of previous games against Barry Zito and his performance in Game 1 of the opening round against Minnesota taught the Tigers a lesson.

Don't chase his high fastball.

The free-swinging Tigers followed that lesson perfectly.

The team that had the third fewest walks in the majors during the regular season, took a patient approach from the start against Zito. The first 12 batters took the first pitch from Zito, with nine getting ahead from the start.

Meanwhile, Detroit's lowly starter Nate "The Wichita Wakarusa" Robertson pitched a very decent game, got some fine defense behind him and crafted six shutout innings, If Detroit had been a more average team, the A's wouldn't have over-optimised their pitching approach so markedly. The perceived soft underbelly of the Bengals was flipped skewering the competitor with it's own assumption, so the very game tactic (marginal first pitches) applied to foil the Motor City roster became the mechanism by which the Tigers turned the table. By the time the A's could adjust, this single game was decided.

It's not likely Oakland's very professional management and coaching staff will hold on to that assumption for Game 2. It was a transitory advantage, a productive and laudable gimmick. But it had extra value for two reasons. First, it was in a game where Oakland's ace was going up against the least-respected of the Tiger starters, the game the Tigers would have been least-expected to win, ergo the team had the least to lose by trying a gimmick that might backfire if changing a season-long pattern disrupted the talent's concentration. Second, it happened in Oakland, losing the A's the home-team advantage, which has to be at least a little demoralizing.

Running counter to a consistent pattern can be an effective way to freeze your competition, temporarily if they're good at strategic response, more enduringly if they are not.

Of course, baseball is change incarnate, and the A's unrivalled at meeting it perhaps with only the Atlanta Braves as equals among sports teams. Beyond baseball, this counter play is more valuable. And harder, because whatever line of work you're in, it's nowhere near as masterful about change as even the most incompetent MLB franchise.

I consulted for a second-generation family business, a manufacturer that was known for being the quality provider of manufacturing equipment and tools. Their name to the ear of a potential customer (and competitor) clearly meant high-quality, high-price. Their products had a very low failure rate, attractive industrial design, longer warranty, better customer support (think Mercedes). They had a gaggle of low-cost low-quality competitors (think Radio Shack) who were nipping away at my client's market share, especially at the low-end where they caught competition from at least one Red Chinese prison factory that had gotten labor cost close to zero (think Sunbeam).

Personally, I thought they needed more and better marketing, because I happen to like margin. In strategy meetings they listened instead to a old V.P. who had once worked at one of the fastest-growing competitors. He knew competitors in general marketed against my client specifically, made their own rock-bottom price the single competitive trademark they used against my client. And he believed, as it turned out correctly, that they would not be able to respond readily if my client could come close to equaling their prices because they never imagined my client could compete on price. Their assumption was so set in concrete, it would be very hard for them to change (and besides, if you're competing on low price, you don't have many avenues to turn to as alternatives, anyway). 

My client, with years of careful margin-collection, had a bit of a cushion and lowered the price to fairly close to the lowballers' own for a fixed period (about seven months...long enough to adapt to most customers' buying planning cycles) they made publicly known. We developed some financing & rebate schemes that allowed the buyers to make it look like they were spending no more in the first year than they would have paid for the ticky-tack alternatives (making them look good to their own management -- they were buying Mercedes-es for close to Radio Shack prices).

It worked very well. They drove a couple of smaller competitors out of business and more out of my client's lines of strength. It extended their competitive ability about 2½ years.

I don't recommend this specific approach, and few organizations have deep pockets they can liquidate for the purpose. But it's a fine example of a successful application of the counter play of using one's own organizational patterns & the deeply-held assumptions of competitors to your own advantage.

How could you apply this Tiger turnabout & Angus' Fourth Law to give a competitive edge to your own organization?

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