Monday, April 02, 2007

PART I - The Cosmic Wisdom of the New York Mets:
Loosely-Tight Planning  

Outside baseball, one of the most common managerial freeze-ups occurs over planning initiatives - whether they are quick mini-projects or big enterprise-wide endeavors or mega-sized military operations. Almost all organizations have a terrible time finding the viable middle between the Scylla of rigid Soviet Five-Year Plans (based on wishful thinking or lack of imagination or, scarily, both) and the Charybdis of ad-hockery, a refusal to apply any planning ("because we can't be assured any outcome that happens will be one we could have planned for").

Baseball kicks other industries' collective axe. Baseball's default is mastery of rigorous, pre-meditated planning out of the future, concurrently with a lot of on-going contingency planning, combined with real-time improvisation at the time of execution. It's a given...if managers can't do this, they won't get a role like that in the majors or if they do, hold on to it very long.

The Mets this weekend provided a perfect illustration of the first of the three planning efforts I just mentioned. They had a final Spring Training game on Saturday and the season opener on Sunday. Optimization says current ace Tom Glavine needs to start the season opener on Sunday, but who gets the start in the Saturday game?

The easy answer is "some throwaway".  The easy answer here is the wrong answer. True, you don't want to use any of your core starters who will be pitching in games that count in the following week(s). A game that doesn't count, against the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays suggests at first a minor-league pitcher, because who cares? So many corporate decisions are made in that spirit, which is why so many corporate decisions are feeble.

Baseball doesn't do that. In Baseball, every decision has been planned for in advance, every possible side-benefit, foreseeable contingency, and cost considered. The answer(s) will result from careful consideration of all those factors.

So the answer Saturday was "Mike Pelfrey", neither a throwaway nor a core starter, but a rookie pitcher Mets management needs/wants to get more work against major leaguers. They hope both that he will prove to be a long-term quality starter, and that when they need a spare tire for the rotation during the season, he will be up to the task. He needs innings against major leaguers for both purposes. Baseball has figured out (why hasn't the corporate world?) that it's easier to master a skill set starting with lower-pressure situations and then ratchet up the difficulty to ascertain the subject's current ceiling and figure out what the next training required will be.

So Pelfrey got four starts last year, and against "easy" opponents, Florida, Houston and Cincy, all below average in runs scored per game. He got four starts in Spring Training this year,  (and how's this for a fascinating but meaningless coincidence: he had an identical ERA of 5.48 in his small 2006 major league line and in his 2007 Spring), and induced about twice as many groundballs as flyballs both last season and in this Spring. He'd had a good Spring until Saturday. He could have a good game and cement the possibility of being the team's "5th starter" or his work would show what he needed to work on.

There was another important factor, actually a blessing, in the decision. The Mets upcoming schedule. 

The late 1950s Orioles under Paul Richards publicly acknowledged they planned out in March every starter for the entire season. The practice probably goes back farther, or at least for a big hunk of the season. Richards knew darned well that the odds of that holding, coming to be exactly as charted out, was infinitesimal, but the long-range planning exercise was indispensably useful later on. The almost-certainties (days off in the schedule, opponents on given days) allow for an exercise where you optimize using your top starters the most, line up individuals for match-ups against specific teams where useful and possible, and spread out rest. Having already marinated one's self in the details, when something needs to be changed later, there's already a certain level of intimacy with the fine points, and a preparation for the nasty stretches that would make contingency responses challenging.

Every day, team management (in the Mets' case, Willie Randolph, Jerry Manuel, Rick Peterson & Omar Minaya) will spend a at least little time thinking about what to do tomorrow if the feasible disruptions or disasters happen today. The existence of the pre-season year's pitching chart doesn't lessen the practice -- it just makes it more supple and more quickly adjustable.

Here's what key data points on the April part of the Mets' chart might have (and probably) looked like.

Saturday Sunday Monday Tuesday Weds Thursday Friday
St. Louis
#1 starter, 4 days off
4/2 -OFF 4/3
St. Louis #2 starter, 5 days off
4/4 - St. Louis #3 starter, 5 days off 4/5 - OFF,
4/6 Atlanta, #4 starter, 5 days off
4/7 Atlanta
#1, 5 d.o.
4/8 Atlanta
#2, 4 d.o.

4/9 Philly
#3, 4 d.o.
4/10 - OFF
4/11 Philly,
#4, 4 d.o.
4/12 Philly
#1, 4 d.o.
4/13 Philly
#2, 4 d.o.
4/14 Wash'n
#3, 4 d.o.
4/15 Wash'n
#4, 4 d.o.
4/16 Philly
4/17 Philly
#1, 4 d.o.
4/18 Florida
#2, 4.d.o
4/19 Florida
#3, 4.d.o
4/20 Atlanta
#4, 4.d.o
4/21 Atlanta
#1, 4.d.o.
4/22 Atlanta
#2, 4.d.o
4/23 Colo
#3, 4.d.o
4/24 Colo
#4, 4.d.o
4/25 Colo
#5, 4.d.o OR
#1, 3 d.o.
4/26 - OFF, Travel 4/27 Wash'n
#1, 5.d.o or
#2, 4 d.o.
4/28 Wash'n
#2, 5 d.o. OR
#3, 4 d.o.

4/29 Wash'n
#3, 5.d.o OR
#4, 4 d.o.
4/30 Wash'n
#4, 5 d.o.

The days off allow both for pitchers to generally throw on four days rest (a generally useful interval) and also mean that the presumed-best four starters can handle all the work through Monday the 16th without having to work on short rest. The two days off in the first week mean the Mets' #1, Glavine, could start with 4 days rest on the 6th, but I suspect not -- the game is in Atlanta, and he has not performed as well against his old team as the rest of the league, and less-well in Atlanta than when he faces the Braves in New York. And it's a long season. As Cardinals' pitching coach Dave Duncan said in a New York Times piece yesterday, “You do all of the things that you can to give <the pitcher> the best chance to be at his best during the course of the season. Part of that is to not run him into the ground at any particular point in time.” It's a long season, and squeezing out an extra start for a 41 year old pitcher in April can have negative consequences in August or September. It's a marathon, not a sprint. But Glavine could start that game on the 6th, and might...especially if...

Pelfrey, as the #5 starter, didn't need to be on the big team's roster to start the season. As you can see, injury aside, the Mets don't look to need a 5th starter until the 13th game of the season, on the 16th. In the meantime, he can be at AAA, getting more work based on what he needs the most. And Saturday, he got Fallujah-ed by the D-Rays. He has no shortage of immediately-remembered things on which to get help.

The Mets management, like any major league team's, will observe Pelfrey's progress over the next couple of weeks. When the time comes to choose a #5 starter in mid-April, it will probably be Pelfrey. But they might riff off that default setting. If he struggles, or if someone who has started effectively in the majors before (Aaron Sele now in the big club' bullpen, Chan Ho Park down in AAA) meets management's requirements and proves ready, we might not see Pelfrey. In Baseball, plans are formed AND fluid.

Beyond Baseball, there's a lot to learn from these practices. A completely-elaborated long-term plan doesn't preclude creative adaptation -- in fact, when properly formed and followed, it enhances the potential for creativity, as my esteemed colleague Diana Wynne has argued. It easier to act quickly and improvise sensibly when a team has already steeped itself in the full details of the full schedule -- they already have confronted gotchas and knowable barriers.

Baseball has a ton to teach non-baseball organizations about long- and mid-term planning. But in addition, Baseball, and the Mets specifically, have a ton to teach about real-time improvisation, lessons I'll point out in the next entry.

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