Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mastering Improvisation Phillies-Style:
Pat Gillick, Shane Victorino & the
Arcane Bourbaki of Juan Thomas  

One of the biggest challenges big organizations struggle with is the imperfection, the stubborn refusal of actual events to match up perfectly with plans made. Baseball is extraordinarily good at improvising contingency plans compared to the norm in any other industry. And one of the outstanding practitioners within baseball is Pat Gillick, the senior sitting GM, if my quick research is correct. He had cut his teeth as a minor league pitcher in the the most innovative organization of the 1950s, Paul Richards' Baltimore Orioles, and then started his management career in Richards' Houston Colt .45s. Since 1978 (with three one-year hiatii), he's been a GM for the Blue Jays, Orioles and Mariners, and last year he came out of retirement to take on his first National League assignment, the Philadelphia Phillies. 

The rumor was, he really really wanted to retire and that his frustration of the last couple of years working for the Seattle Mariners challenging ownership team had left a bad taste in his mouth. The rumor was that he wanted a retirement on a high note, like a World Series to go along with the pair he got with the early 90s Blue Jays. I spoke with him at last year' GMs meeting about his goals, and while he's too much of a gentleman to trash-talk about even the worst employers he's had, he left me with the clear impression that the rumors reflected the essential truth of why he was taking on a new management position. He could have chosen from a number of open positions, but he told me chose the Phils because he wanted a quick return, not a long term building project and the thought the Phils had a significant chance in 2006.

He was generous with his time this year at the GMs' meeting in Naples. Specifically, we spoke of improvisation. His Phillies had had an unusual set of circumstances and in Gillick's choices in guiding them showed a responsiveness, a willingness to improvise that is a useful set of lessons for managers beyond baseball. Because most teams either find themselves within striking distance of the playoffs or out of practical contention by the significant (but not impermeable) July 30 trading "deadline", teams frequently try to be buyers of talent (even rent-a-body for the 1/3rd season left) to put them over the top or sellers of talent looking to save salary and/or stock up on young talent for future campaigns.

This year, Gillick executed both, being a seller around the July 30 when his team looked cooked and then a buyer starting August 19 when the team looked within striking distance of the wild card. Beyond baseball, a lot of managers might have been able to bite the bullet on a campaign he wanted soooo badly, but very few would have been able to pull the switch a second time, basically admitting the initial contingency plan had proved imperfect.

Beyond baseball, too few organizations plan at all. Managers tend to pull what I call a Stewk -- because one cannot have absolute confidence that unfolding events will exactly match the set of conditions considered as possibilities, they feel "why bother at all?". At the other pole, there are managers who build five-year plans and have no "touch" for figuring out what differences are significant and which irrelevant or cause for a small fine-tune, and simply refuse to change the plan. In baseball, of course, there are no Stewks at the major league level...this level of incompetence, so common (perhaps 30% of managers in business and government) wouldn't get past their first minor league gig in baseball. Building a baseball club (organization & roster) from scratch, the way the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are trying to do is a four- to six-year project, so the subtlety of fine-tuning or even improvising in the face of the need for a bigger change is the ultimate challenge. 

Planning for the future while trying to win in the present is a Holy Grail of managing change, or Home Plate in the MBB Model. Gillick's 2006 is a great example of how to do it and when and why.

To understand the environment Gillick was working in, you need to be familiar with the specifics of the Phils' 2006 season. If you're already familiar with it, skip the next section.

They started the season 0-4, a blowout and three close ones. They then went 10-10, and at the end of April, they were tied for second six games behind the hot 16-8 New York Mets. They ripped off their first streak, starting May with eight wins, lost a game to the Mets and then won four more. So by May 14th, they were 22-15, one game back. Things looked promising.

A 5-12 interleague record low-lighted the Phils stretch through July 1. By that date they looked cooked. Not only where they buried divisionally (3rd place, 12 games behind the Mets), but there were ten teams ahead of them for the wild card (this from baseball-reference). 

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    48  32     -    .600     417     347
CIN    44  37   4.5    .543     410     413
STL    43  36   4.5    .544     394     378
SDP    43  38   5.5    .531     357     338
LAD    41  39   7.0    .513     422     377
COL    41  39   7.0    .513     375     363
SFG    41  40   7.5    .506     376     365
MIL    40  42   9.0    .488     383     442
ARI    39  42   9.5    .481     395     408
HOU    39  42   9.5    .481     368     401
FLA    35  42  11.5    .455     357     355
PHI    36  44  12.0    .450     381     424
ATL    34  47  14.5    .420     382     412
WSN    34  48  15.0    .415     356     420
CHC    29  51  19.0    .363     316     414
PIT    28  54  21.0    .341     373     429

As I've written before sometimes it matters less how far behind you are than how many teams are contending with you -- the math of everyone doing well enough to knock each other off just right, of no one getting warm even if you get torrid, makes it unlikely you can take the objective. Further, their runs-scored and runs-allowed didn't hold out secret hopes they'd just been unlucky to get that Infernal Gate -- they were about where they "should" have been, based on their playing performance.

From there to July 29th, the day before the trade deadline, they went 10-10 (47-54 for the season), and the Philly phront office, phrought with the phantasy they'd phailed, executed on their plan to sell off current assets for future ones. The last week of July, they traded the phranchise player, Bobby Abreu (.277/.427/.434, 20 SBs) with starter Cory Lidle (21 starts, 8-7 record, 4.74 ERA) to the Yankees, saving roughly $5.6 million in salary & acquiring four minor leaguers. Cash and potential assets for the 2007 Campaign.

Gillick's front office team had already shed veterans David Bell, Sal Fasano, and Rheal Cormier in separate deals that each brought a young player and saved in the realm of a further $2.4 million in payroll.

But then, behold and lo...they spent the next three weeks going 12-6 and the team chemistry seemed different. Young starter Cole Hamels  got more chances and looked good with them. Young batters like Shane Victorino & Abraham Nunez were getting more chances and started producing, respectively, a lot and a little more. Fourth outfielder David Dellucci started hitting up a storm. 

By August 16, they'd cut the number of teams ahead of them from 10 to five, not so much because they'd had a very warm streak, but because some of the jammers in front of them had skidded out and gone over the railings.

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    71  48     -    .597     621     541
LAD    64  57   8.0    .529     603     554
STL    63  56   8.0    .529     577     575
CIN    62  58   9.5    .517     593     622
ARI    61  59  10.5    .508     598     597
SDP    60  60  11.5    .500     534     532
PHI    59  60  12.0    .496     628     614
COL    58  62  13.5    .483     549     529
MIL    57  63  14.5    .475     546     625
HOU    57  63  14.5    .475     543     555
SFG    57  63  14.5    .475     543     550
FLA    56  64  15.5    .467     559     575
ATL    55  64  16.0    .462     616     614
WSN    53  67  18.5    .442     551     615
CHC    52  68  19.5    .433     509     616
PIT    46  75  26.0    .380     532     609

And of the teams ahead of them, only the Dodgers were playing very good ball. It became conceivable the Phillies could contend.

So Gillick flipped the switch and started looking for pieces to complement the revised squad.

On August 19, he swapped a pair of minor leaguers to his old team, the Seattle Mariners, for one of the more consistent (not brilliant, but reliable) veteran starters around, Jamie Moyer. Three days later he got interesting utilityman Jose Hernandez and six days after that captured the services of Jeff Conine, traditionally a nice platoon piece, and in nether case did he surrender minor league talent. He'd increased the team's versatility by deepening the bench and tweaked the pennant-race veteran quotient and for not a ton of money (in the realm of $2.3 million).

While the team played out the rest of the season fairly well (26-17) they finished out behind the NL West's second best for the wild card (though they finished the season with a slightly better record than the NL Central's champion Cardinals.

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    97  65     -    .599     834     731
SDP    88  74   9.0    .543     731     679
LAD    88  74   9.0    .543     820     751
PHI    85  77  12.0    .525     865     812
STL    83  78  13.5    .516     781     762
HOU    82  80  15.0    .506     735     719

You don't get that much closer to a wild card than that. It made sense for Gillick to consider the sell-off when he did, and it made sense (in 20-20 hindsight) for him to try to shell out some dollars three weeks later for a bit of a run at the wild card.

Gillick's only disappointment, and it didn't sound very deep, is in the quality of young talent they acquired in late July during their selling period (see the interview below.

Here's the edited transcript (edited down to just the parts about improvisation) of my conversation with Pat Gillick this November 15. He was pressed for time, but very generous, and I thank him again for his willingness to chat.

Jeff Angus (JA): Improvisation. Most business are really bad at it. Baseball tends to be quite good at it. And you had a master stroke of improvisation this year when you sold your marquee player at the end of July but acquired four veterans after August 19. To the outside world it looked like you were cashing in your chips in late July, but when the team’s performance picked up, you changed course significantly.

Pat Gillick (PG): Well, I think in baseball things have changed dramatically. You have to be very flexible, you have to be able to move very quickly. Consequently you have to improvise. I think you have to be ready for everything. In baseball, because of free agency and large contracts, things are not the way they were years ago; you have to be able to move, to improvise, to move at a moment’s notice.

JA: At some point of the season, one has to decide if you’re going to try to build up for a playoff run or sell off current value for easing the salary budget and for future assets (Or neither). Who helps you decide, and when do you do that?

PG: Going into the season, the first 60 games are a feeling-out process. Not only for the manager and players, but it’s a time when you evaluate the personnel. After the first couple months of the season, you’ve gotten a pretty good idea of the people you want to retain on your club and the people who’d bet better served playing in another location.

JA: And then how well do you have to do for how long to have enough confidence …that it’s not just a little streak…and flip the switch back from selling to buying?

PG: It’s more of a gut call than anything else. I don’t know if you can put a percentage on it. 

JA: It’s intuitive, yes?

PG: It’s instinctual. It’s an instinct you get when you see the club on a daily basis and you evaluate the club and you get a feeling that you have to go in another direction.

JA: So you executed the late July sale, responded to the team’s improvement and bought pieces meant to improve gaps. Looking back, are you content with the way you played the hands you were dealt?

PG: (pauses) Yes. We gained a few things that gave us flexibility. In the exchange of players we probably didn’t come out with as much talent as we’d have liked to. But at the same time, last year provided the chance for some players to get some playing time who had not had much playing time in the first half of the season and who wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise. Shane Victorino, Abrham Nunez, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson. David Dellucci had been playing on a limted basis and he got a chance to play. About five of our players got more opportunities than they’d gotten the first 60, 90 days.
There were some pluses and some minuses. But I think overall the pluses probably outweighed the minuses.

JA: You haven’t been a GM in the National League before last year, right?

PG: I hadn’t. My whole career as a GM has been in the American. Since 1974. When I started out in 1963, I was in the National League. About 30 years. This is the first year.

JA: Did you find any subtle personnel decision differences where you had to catch yourself, prevent yourself falling into an A.L. pattern?

PG: No, not really. I think the people we have in (the front office in) Philadelphia…we planned it out well. The key difference is in the National League, you have to have a better bench because of the strategy around pitching changes. In the National League, when you make up your club you’ve got to have a better bench, because if you double-switch or when you pinch-hit for the pitcher a number of games…if it’s tied 1-1 in the 7th inning, in the American League you would likely let the pitcher pitch, and in the National you’ll need a pinch hitter.

JA: You draft a little differently, yes? As an American (League) team, you might draft a player who can’t play a position if he hits well enough. As a National League team, you wouldn’t draft, say, a Juan Thomas (a power-hitting DH not capable of playing 1b), no?

PG: No. I don’t think so.

JA: So it changes decisions in a fine way. Another need to adapt.

PG: Yes.

JA: Change of subject…what do you think of the new conventional wisdom that the American League is stronger than the National now?

PG: I think it is stronger. Offensively they have better offensive players than we do in the National League at the moment.

JA: Put ‘em in a World Series though and they execute like a Beer League Softball team…

PG: They needed some PFP (pitchers’ fielding practice), I’ll tell you that.

He had to move on at that point. But you can use Gillick's wisdom as a navigation tool, grist for your thinking in your own adaptation of plans to shifting realities and situations. If any of us got that good, maybe there'd be a place for us in baseball.

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