Saturday, October 21, 2006

Part III - Ichiro Suzuki: Another Lesson in Fluidity, Personnel, Getting the Most From Your Talent  

When organizations make a point of relentlessly observing and measuring the skills of staff, it opens up for them a Chile-sized latitude of options for rapid refinement of work structures. This makes them more adaptable, more likely to survive external changes. Of course, most North American sectors make the fatal mistake of conflating the job description with the person. But beyond baseball when you pay rigorous attention to all your staff you can very quickly tweak job descriptions and responsibilities to match skills and experiences and  aptitudes harvest the benefits of changing needs.

Baseball is incomparable in its ability to redeploy the talent from one job description to another; it's a given. A great case in point is the mid-season move of Seattle Mariners' outfielder Ichiro Suzuki from his five+ year stint as a right fielder to center field. As I explained in previous entries (here & here), this is a move that should/could have four benefits to his team, the third being 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).

In this entry, I'll elaborate this benefits and the lessons it offers beyond baseball.

In the spectrum of field positions a batter might take, the more rigorous the athletic requirement to play the position, the more slack a team will have to apply in seeking a player who can hit as well as defend adequately. 

STATS INC -- 2006 American League Profile (per average team)
               AVG   AB   R    H  2B 3B  HR RBI  SB  CS TBB   SO  OBP  SLG
As p          .105   19   1    2   0  0   0   1   0   0   0    9 .105 .105
As c          .270  597  73  161  32  1  17  80   3   2  48  104 .329 .412
As 1b         .279  609  85  170  35  1  25  96   2   2  64  119 .352 .463
As 2b         .279  630  83  176  32  3  10  71  11   4  46   88 .331 .387
As 3b         .268  612  91  164  33  2  22  89   9   3  60  110 .337 .436
As ss         .279  609  84  170  33  3  13  73  13   4  45   96 .330 .407
As lf         .280  626  94  175  35  5  20  85  13   5  61  111 .346 .447
As cf         .274  635  95  174  34  5  19  74  19   7  52  118 .332 .433
As rf         .286  622  92  178  36  3  23  93  11   3  56  115 .348 .465
BTW: In the National League, left fielders outhit right fielders.

So in general it's more likely a team will suffer through the limited offensive contributions of a light-hitting second-sacker or catcher. There are, of course, exceptions and the teams that acquire of of them has a competitive advantage in flexibility -- so if you have a 2006 Joe Mauer at catcher or a Chase Utley at second, you have two possibilities that teams carrying more normal starting 2bs or catchers don't have.

#1 -- You could do The More With The Same, that is, build a stronger offense just by having the normal contingent of heavy hitters in the somewhat-less-demanding positions (such as outfield corners--especially left field -- or first base). One extra serious bat can change the offensive consistency of a lineup more than you would estimate by making a strictly addition-based analysis.

#2 -- You could whip out the The Same For Less gambit, that is, find a player for one of those somewhat-less-demanding positions who was a particularly good defender but a lesser batter than most teams were looking for to fill that slot. Think someone like Bombo Mientkiewicz or Vic Power. Those players are generally easier to acquire and less expensive than their more standard-issue counterparts.

Suzuki's team, The Mariners, with a very-low productivity offense in general, and less offense from their D.H. slot specifically, and in the competitive zero-sum crucible that is Baseball, needing as many different methods to boost their output as possible, asked Ichiro to move from a more offensive-loaded position to a more demanding position to open up opportunities to recruit a heavy-hitting right-fielder (or, at least, a right fielder who could out-hit the kind of production the team was getting out of the center-field slot last year). If Ichiro could produce what he produced in 2006 and a new right-fielder could outproduce what 2006 CFs produced, the net offensive gain might win some extra games. And I already mentioned the side-benefit that Suzuki is more valuable defensively as a CF than he has been as an RF.

A win-win for the team's potential.

There are no shortage of opportunities for harnessing this redeployment approach in your own line of work...if you make a point of knowing as much about each individual contributor and what she can and can't do, what aptitudes he has that he's not currently getting to use, what knowledge she has that's not currently required. As I said earlier, in baseball, this is a given. Management that didn't do this relentlessly wouldn't last very long at all.

I have a client, a small manufacturer, that invests in cross-training staff. They do this to save money spent on laying off and recruiting people. Instead of laying off people who have specialties or expertise in areas the firm needs to get out of and then hiring talent that's expert in a new direction, they cross-train for possible future need, training being far less expensive than laying off (paying people not to work; legal overhead; morale-undermining emotions among survivors), and with the side-benefit, like Ichiro's better defense, of having staff with knowledge of other, sometimes seemingly-unrelated techniques, being able to cross-pollinate those new techniques to their current work.

A win-win for the team's potential.

Note, though, this is not trivial. The benefit/cost ratio in the general case is always there, a big one like a Magglio OrdoƱez tater flying high over the bleachers. But staff enthusiasm is a prerequisite for high success; without it, you will probably net out positive results, but not great ones.

Ichiro didn't want t move for several years. There are rumors that he was asked and declined and that he only moved when it was obvious to him that the offense wasn't going to get him into another playoff game without more punch, and with the team having shot their bolt buying the services of Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson, the team didn't have a lot of options to upgrade at positions beyond his right-field slot. In a subsequent entry, I'll go back to the subject of Suzuki's apparent unwillingness to change when, during the past few years, it's been obvious the team would benefit if he did, and he, apparently, declined to do it.

But staff willingness is a big limiting factor in making a scheme like my client's work. You need flexible people, talented people, people who have a decent or better attitude and who are able to embrace working in a non-generic structure. Basically, you need to recruit for this ability, which means yielding a little on super-high aptitude at one single thing (like being a brick-footed slugger at first base) in exchange for personal flexibility and ability to learn/adapt. And that latter ability is not something most organizations recruit for or even have thought about how to recruit for.

In recruiting, do you balance personal flexibility & ability to learn against the weight of the knowledge currently-required in the job?

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