Saturday, November 18, 2006

Naples: Lessons for Business in MLB's Move to Audit Baseballs  

I was in Naples (Florida) last week for the GMs' meeting, and as you probably wouldn't expect, it's an event where the front-office types mostly sit behind closed doors & media types get to stand around for hours trying not to look bovine, hoping for a scrap of news or a slug-batch of news or an interview with the teams' front-office types.

Something pretty exciting came out of it, at least for MBB types: an initiative that's pretty instructive for your own, non-baseball, efforts, especially to those of you in for-profit business. According to this story by Troy "Red Bull" Renck of the Denver Post:

Before arriving Sunday at the general managers' meetings, Joe Garagiola Jr. met with team equipment managers last week to determine how teams store their baseballs. The league would like more uniformity, which is why there will be discussion midweek about the feasibility of other clubs adding humidors, the computer-calibrated, climate-controlled shed used by the Rockies.

"We want to know where they go from the moment they arrive until they are used in the game," said Garagiola Jr., MLB's senior vice president of operations, Sunday afternoon. "We didn't know as much as we would like about how the baseballs are kept."

I got to talk a little with Garagiola, Jr. about a couple of issues including the handling of baseballs, and he's a very thoughtful, well-spoken guy. I didn't go into the specs for balls, but he did explain to a group of us some of the mechanics of collection.

How the ball is handled, its temperature in storage, the humidity of the storage, the relative humidity of the storage, the ambient humidity & temperature of the playing environment are all going to affect the ball's response in a game, though usually not very much in most situations. And the environment is going to affect how easy the ball is to control and how much bite the spin of the ball gets against the air. The logic of non-auditing except in Denver is reasonable on the surface: in most places, the honest differences won't make a very marked difference, but in Colorado, the low humidity makes a big difference that amplifies the effects of the altitude. So after playing a pinball variant of baseball for almost a decade, the Rox tried the humidor and found it drove the ball's performance towards the equivalent of how it responded elsewhere in the majors.

As Colorado Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd mentioned back in March:

The Humidor has made a dramatic difference; we think it could make more of a difference if we were allowed to use it the way we’d like to use it. We have specifications we have to follow – where we store the baseballs and what (temperature) we can store them in. I believe if we were allowed to crank (humidity) up a little higher, it would have even more effect on the games.

So MLB has a specification for the handling of baseballs in Colorado, and a specification for the specs of baseballs everywhere, but except for tracking the Rockies' exceptional humidor-affected results, they apparently don't audit results.

Many people there made out that this audit process was not important. I disagree; measuring factors that dictate "fairness" in any competitive endeavor is the very core of assuring meritocracy. This was, I think, a truly important initiative.

REGULATION WITHOUT UNIFORM ENFORCEMENT... ...is a classic Tragedy of the Commons problem. It potentially rewards fudgers or outright cheaters while providing no possible margin for those who adhere to the specs. (If you don't know this concept, I strongly urge you to read the linked article; this, more than any other single article you'll ever read explains why most organizations are dysfunctional -- where it talks about farmers and cattle, insert managers and initiatives).

If you know regs or rules exist and you know that enforcement is either non-existent or lax or spotty, it actually pays to encourage people to adhere while fudging yourself.

Imagine you're as honest as can be expected in the real world and the GM of a team, say someone like Doug Melvin (salt of the earth). You know the regs are there so you do your best to conform to the League's standard. No advantage. Both teams play with the same ball performance.

Imagine you're competitive enough that tweaking the rules (not smashing them) gives you a little edge, say like Jeff Passan or Earl Weaver. Earl used to put all game balls in a chiller before games. Both teams played with a temperature-deadened ball, reducing potential offense and helping pitching. Fair in one way, that both teams still played with an identical ball, but Weaver believed a lower-scoring game advantaged his squad because he thought they were better at winning close low-scoring games. Plus he knew something his antagonist in the opponent's dugout didn't know.

Imagine you're only concerned with winning and think rules are for losers, say Ray Bullock. Without audit or enforcement, you could store half the game balls on Mercury and leave the other half immersed in liquid nitrogen and if you knew the usage norms, you could deliver batches of balls to the umps in a predetermined order. It wouldn't always align perfectly that your batters would get all the superjuiced balls while your pitchers would get the absolute zeroed ones, but in most games you'd have an edge.

If there are no rules, the "playing field" is leveled...anyone with intelligence and organization can harvest the same advantage. If the rules are monitored and enforced, it's a level playing field because eveyone has the same lack of personal advantage. It's when rules exist and there's no monitoring and enforcement that virtue is punished and rule-breaking rewarded.

This Tragedy of the Commons is why office politics are so destructive, and why in governmental regulations "voluntary standards" always punish the law-abiders and always reward the accountability-evaders in every area you can apply it. The Leninists will always trump the Kerenskyites who insist on palying by the rules, and those on the fence will see these powerful lessons and follow what they need to do to win, slowly making the situation less and less viable for the whole. And for the office politicos, they will always benefit from lax enforcement, because they will sluff work in favor of investing their time in campaigning, and if the system allows that, they will concentrate more power while behaving in ways that undermine the system.

If there are NO rules, everyone has the same chance, of course, to benefit by degrading the organization. In some situations, it can be a viable system, but not very often.

Do the healthy act -- be like MLB Operations and their headman, Garagiola: if you have rules, monitor and audit, measure compliance and enforce the rules.

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