Saturday, October 07, 2006

Part II - Ichiro Suzuki: A Heretical Lesson in Personnel, Marketing & Getting the Most From Your Talent  

As I explained in my previous post, Seattle Mariner Ichiro Suzuki agreed to move next year from right field to center field, a move that should/could have four benefits to his team:

  1. He's a very capable center fielder, a position that requires more skill than right field (and, in fact, he may be a better CF than RF; more on that later).
  2. It protects a secret "weakness" of his other teams are starting to discover and act upon and turns it into a strength.
  3. It enables the team to be flexible in its approach to add a left-handed bat over the off-season (M's DHs were dead last in the AL in OPS and in RBI and in Runs scored).
  4. It overcomes a rumored gnarly shard of office politics that has possibly created a bit of resentment on the roster.

In this entry, I'll elaborate on benefit #2 and the lessons it offers about the limits of marketing beyond baseball.

SUZUKI LESSON #2: MARKETING CAN TAKE YOU A LONG WAY, BUT NOT FOREVER As I mentioned in the previous section, Suzuki didn't have a ton of experience in right field in his years with Orix in Japan, so when he came to the U.S. and started, he made a big point of showing off his throwing arm. Read the following paragraph only if you don't know about the differing demands of the three outfield positions, otherwise, skip to the paragraph after.

The center fielder needs to cover the most ground of the outfielders. The left fielder, in general is the least-capable, and on many teams an excuse for offense...the left fielder is out there to get to the plate and make a difference with the bat, more often than not. In the NL this season, all non-pitchers hit .257 / .325 / .413, while left-fielders hit .276 / .357 / .470, out-hit only by those who play 1st base. So think Batting Monster and Cigar Store Indian Manny Ramirez who, through not being particularly fast in the first place, and by bringing an attitude towards playing defense that he's doing the team a big favor just by standing out there desultorily waving the dead-cow skin on his hand at an occasional passing shot, is about as useful as Nerf Body Armor in Iraq. This, of course, amplifies the center fielder's need to cover ground. In baseball since about 1965, most playing fields are roughly symmetrical, so the right fielder needs to be a little more skilled than the left, mostly because some throws are longer (to 3rd base, most frequently on a single when a runner is trying to get there from 1st base), and the throw home has to be a little more accurate because the catcher can't be watching an incoming runner and the incoming throw both at the same time. So a big attribute that differentiates right fielders is the quality of the throwing arm.

The Mariners organization from the staff to the marketing department made a big point of raving about Ichiro's throwing arm. One of the team's Communications honchos, Randy Adamack, is famous around baseball for having gotten Cleveland Indian second-sacker Duane Kuiper on the fielding highlights of the This Week in Baseball t.v. show more often than Meredith Vieira asks verifies answer finality, and that with skills generally regarded as C+/B- quality.

The team promoted Suzuki as the monster arm of the millennium. He ripped off a few great throws in his first spring training and got into the highlight reels in April games, and his reputation was established. The announcers trumpeted it constantly, the media picked it up and ran with it.

The ugly truth is, though, is he's got an adequate, not an outstanding, arm for a right fielder. He's at or near incomparable for outfielders playing center, but he is pretty close to average for a rightfielder. His strongest throws aren't that accurate, his most accurate throws aren't very strong. Many of his highlight throws were made specifically to catcher Dan Wilson, perhaps unsurpassed in his generation at taking marginal throws from right and turning them into outs or close plays at the plate through his ability too know where a runner out of a normal sight line was and quick footwork and a knack for knowing within an inch of where he was relative to the plate that enabled him to snare, protect the ball and turn quickly.

Suzuki is fine, not exceptionally good. Because in baseball, there are no rigid mandates (The Book is stochastic, not deterministic) opponents have been learning/confirming the reality of Ichiro's ability and how it diverges from the marketing slowly, but some have caught on and others are starting to. By moving Suzuki to center, there's a side-benefit that this knowledge slowly captured is less valuable to opponents -- that is, they can't take advantage of it, because he's not in right anymore, and because the quality of his arm is outstanding among his peers in CF.

But why broadcast it if it isn't true? Marketing. This happens for the same reason it happens beyond baseball.

BEYOND BASEBALL In baseball, if coaches and runners believe the right fielder has a monster arm, they will try incrementally fewer times to advance the extra base. In business and politics, an actual (or apparent) leader in a field will project itself as uncatchable to deter entrants or demoralize opponents. In politics, this is currently done with money -- an incumbent will raise tons of funds, a lot more than she really needs, to deter strong potential opponents from even entering the race. Since conventional wisdom as broadcast by high-paid political consultants repeats the self-serving message that money is the deciding factor in campaigns (self-serving because high-paid consultants can make more money from candidates that have a lot of it than they can from those who don't) just raising big money is a deterrent to entry for strong candidates who want to use brand-name consultants. The media re-broadcasts the consultants' messages, basing coverage of candidates largely in proportion with how much money they've raised.

Runners who might advance on Suzuki take fewer chances, choosing not to test his reputation. The stats show fewer runners advancing against him. Baseball management analysed the stats and saw fewer successful advances against Ichiro, discouraging some incremental attempts.

This all conforms to Angus' First Law of Organizational Dynamics: All human organizations tend to be self-amplifying. Time is close to a zero-sum pool. Candidates who spend less time developing understanding of policy or governance become scarcer in the ruling pool than those who shape their time to fund-raising.

Marketing, especially somewhat authentic marketing, can make a difference but it can only take you so far. If Suzuki had an overcooked linguini arm, the marketing image wouldn't have lasted a season. His arm was good enough that it persisted a long while, because anyone not named Reggie Smith or Roberto Clemente or Joe Kelley is going to be wild or not strong enough to nail a nail-able runner once in a while. Intentional tests continue in baseball, slowly peeling back that which clouds Truth; unintentioanl tests...when a runner goes against a signal or takes a chance that "shouldn't" have been taken...also deliver results that expose Truth. Slowly, opponents have come to realize Suzuki is "just" quite good, and not the embodiment of his reputation.

Non-baseball institutions are not as effective at testing assumptions as baseball is. It's going to take candidates and the press a lot longer than the five years it took for competitors to have Suzuki's actual ability overshadow the marketing image of it.

But baseball is a lot smarter than other lines of work.

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