Monday, May 28, 2007

In Which Abba Embraces
the San Francisco Giants' Bullpen  

Can you hear the boos...Armando?
I remember long ago, another starry night game lit,
In the towers' light...Armando.
You were mumbling to yourself and softly shaking off Molina;
I could hear the ringing bats
And sounds of razzing fans were coming from between us.

They were closing on our lead...Armando.
Every out, every pitch seemed to last eternally.
I was so aghast...Armando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to lose.
And now I am surprised to hear
Opponents' bats and runners lit our fuse.
ABBA, "Armando" (1976)

In large organizations, criticism accumulates to people I call "lightning rods", or, sometimes a related species, "sh*t magnets". Once people start getting blamed for failures, it becomes easier to attach blame to them even when they are only partially to blame or perfectly innocent. A strong organization will face this head on and determine if the lightning rod's actual conduct is culpable. If not, they will fight this tooth and nail...not just because losing a good performer to a blame campaign is costly, but because once people can scapegoat someone without serious responsibility, it is likely to happen again and again and get ingrained as a norm.

Accountability is the fuel of effectiveness; lack of it fuels ineffectiveness.

So when Swedish Disco's fave closer, Armando Benitez, came into a clean 9th in a tie game last Friday against the Colorado Rockies, poured gasoline on hisself and lit it in the form of three hits and a walk and an "L" for both the Giants & Benitez, the booing was stentorian. Giants fans were already hypersenstive to Armando's legendary inconsistency (well, he is consistent in that every season he's pitched, he's thrown more pitches per three outs than average, even in some remarkably "effective" years). The booing went up a notch the next day when in the San Francisco Chronicle Armando was quoted nipping at his teammates.

Moreover, the ticket-holders might not be happy to hear that the closer rendered himself blameless.

"I did my job," he said when asked if it was tough to give up two runs when he was not hit particularly hard. "I got three groundballs. It happens. We had opportunities to win the game. How many times did we get somebody on base and we don't move him over? Somebody had to pay and today it was me."

At least one columnist, Ray Ratto, characterized Benitez' comments thusly:

Armando Benitez walked out of the dugout to do his turn around the Photo Day circle, and was booed by the people wielding the cameras.

It wasn't a universal boo, not like Friday night. There were some cheers as well from the true believers who worship the shirt and all who wear it, but it was a fairly striking juxtaposition -- "Boo! You suck! Now stand here so we can take your picture." The American Fan Experience in all its mutant beauty.

But credit where it is due, and all that, for Benitez tipped his hat anyway, and spent 35 minutes circling the rope and accepting any and all lenses pointed his way. He knew many of the people on the field openly reviled him the night before, and plenty of times before that.

Plus, he had chosen the wrong time to haul out his image-suicidal "I did my job" defense -- a 5-3 defeat in which he gave up the go-ahead runs in the ninth. He complained that the Giant hitters didn't make enough of their opportunities, pointed out that he had induced enough ground balls to get out of the inning with no damage, and in general credited himself with a job well done and delegated blame for all the jobs undone.

He has done this before, of course, which is part of the maddening pattern with Benitez.

I both disagree and agree with Ratto. I've snipped out the part of the piece where he defends Abba's Closer as someone whose done better than a gaggle of unreviled closers (Mariano Rivera, for example), and where Giants manager Bruce Bochy defends Armando's point of view about opportunities squandered.

BEYOND BASEBALL It's critical when blame is being doled out that it "stick" to the right persons. That doesn't mean people have to endlessly point out and replay the video tape every single error, but it does mean showing you care & trying to make sure in the cases where people did the wrong thing and the outcome was bad, they understand the link.

Life, of course is not always so clear cut.

¿What happens when the involved staff did the right thing and the outcome was bad? Or did the wrong thing and the outcome was positive?

The answer is one of the most important of the thousands of lessons Baseball can bless you with. Because in Baseball and beyond, you can execute the optimal plan flawlessly and still lose/have a bad outcome. And you can sub-optimize your approach or execute fumblingly and still win/get a good outcome (for example, every operating system Microsoft have shipped since Windows 3.1). You have to come back the next day and still do your best to execute the right process as flawlessly as the environment permits to have a chance in a competitive environment.

...AND BACK So I disagree with Ratto because Armando induced 4 ground balls, three of them tractable, and the defense didn't convert them into outs. He essentially is being scapegoated here, he calls it out, but because he's already hyper-sensitized the fans with "so many" blowups (I'll get back to that in a sec), they want none of it. And in Baseball's case (Baseball being the beacon for accountability among North American lines of work), you don't point out teammates' errors publicly. What's not-done in Baseball isn't fatal to it because there' so much accountability culture ingrained in every process and norm that calling out teammates in public is unnecessary...perhaps even piling it on.

In fact, Abba's fave closer has 9 saves and only 1 blown save. Opponents are batting .246 against him with a .316 on-base and a .369 slugging; better than adequate And the ugliest situations that can be hidden (when a reliever inherits runners for which his actions can allow to score without being on his own record), he has been in four games where he inherited runners and the team has gone 3-1 in those games.

But let's look at Benitez' Baseball-Reference game log for the year. I'm going to characterize it as outcome fine / process not-so.

Date       Opp DR GmReslt Pitcher Result  IP   H  R BB SO HR   ERA  BF Pit Str IR IS Situat. In/Out Inn Rnr O Scr  DP
Apr  4     SDP  - L  3-5   9-9f           1    1  0  1  1  0   0.00  5  22  13  0  0  9t --- 0 d 2   9t end   d 2  0 
Apr  5     SDP  0 W  5-3   9-9f ,S  1     0.1  1  0  1  0  0   0.00  3  10   4  2  2  9t 1-3 2 a 4   9t end   a 2  0 
Apr 10    @SDP  4 W  6-5   9-9f ,S  2     1    2  2  0  1  1   7.71  5  20  14  0  0  9b --- 0 a 3   9b end   a 1  0 
Apr 18     STL  7 W  6-5   9-9            1    0  0  0  1  0   5.40  3  11   8  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t 3 out tie  0 
Apr 20     ARI  1 W  4-2   9-9f ,S  3     1    0  0  2  0  0   4.15  5  22   9  0  0  9t --- 0 a 2   9t end   a 2  0 
Apr 21     ARI  0 W  1-0   9-9f ,S  4     1    1  0  1  2  0   3.38  5  29  18  0  0  9t --- 0 a 1   9t end   a 1  0 
Apr 24    @LAD  2 W  5-3   9-9f ,S  5     1    2  0  0  1  0   2.84  5  17  11  0  0  9b --- 0 a 2   9b end   a 2  0 
Apr 25    @LAD  0 W  6-4   9-9f ,S  6     1    0  0  0  1  0   2.45  3  12   8  0  0  9b --- 0 a 2   9b end   a 2  0 
Apr 26    @LAD  0 W  5-4   9-9f ,S  7     1    0  0  0  1  0   2.16  3  16  10  0  0  9b --- 0 a 1   9b end   a 1  0 
Apr 30     COL  3 W  9-5   9-9f           0.2  1  0  0  1  0   2.00  3   9   7  2  1  9t 12- 1 a 5   9t end   a 4  0 
May  4     PHI  3 W  6-2   9-9f           1    0  0  0  1  0   1.80  3  12   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 4   9t end   a 4  0 
May  9     NYM  4 L  3-5   9-9f ,L  0-1   1    3  2  1  1  0   3.27  7  28  16  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t end   d 2  0 
May 11    @COL  1 W  8-3   9-9f           0.1  0  0  0  1  0   3.18  1   6   3  2  0  9b 12- 2 a 5   9b end   a 5  0 
May 15    @HOU  3 L  5-6   8-9  ,BS 1     1.1  1  1  1  2  1   3.55  6  26  14  1  1  8b 1-- 2 a 2   9b 3 out tie  0 
May 17    @HOU  1 W  2-1  12-12f,S  8     1    0  0  0  2  0   3.29  3   9   7  0  0 12b --- 0 a 1  12b end   a 1  0 
May 21     HOU  3 W  4-0   9-9f           1    0  0  0  1  0   3.07  3  12   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 4   9t end   a 4  0 
May 22     HOU  0 W  4-2   9-9f ,S  9     1    1  0  0  0  0   2.87  4  10   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 2   9t end   a 2  0 
May 25     COL  2 L  3-5   9-9f ,L  0-2   1    3  2  1  1  0   3.78  7  19  10  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t end   d 2  0 

Some factoids pop out at us.

  • Of the seven runners Armando inherited, four scored.
  • I have a simple/simplistic way of evaluating relief appearances for thumbnail purposes: If a reliever yields 1 or fewer non-homer baserunners per inning, that's a "good" outing, and it's a "frustrating" one when it's more than that. Using that as a standard, Armando has eight "good" and ten "frustrating" ones.
  • Even when he's induced ground balls (for example, the stretch of April 20-24 inclusive and that game on May 25) with runners he's put on, he hasn't had a double play turned behind him (frustrating for the fans, and Armando, too, methinks)

These are not significantly awful marks. But they do increase the fans' frustration factor, especially fickle ones'.

So here's my conclusion and why I find myself as a management consultant agreeing with The Ratto: If Armando wants to embrace process in the face of bad outcomes, he needs to have attached to him the barnacles of infinite doom a la Bootstrap Bill, when he has good outcomes in spite of bad process.

NOTE: I may be a little extra sensitive about this particular reliever since he pitched for my home team part of one season, and I saw every single game in which he blew up. And probably further sensitive because in 1991 or 1992, I went with and old Baseball man, Bill McCarthy (he'd worked in the Reds' system long enough & long enough ago ago to have worked with Rogers Hornsby -- and watched a game with Cy Young) to Jack Lang Stadium for a Spring Training tussle between two of my favorite talent-development teams...the Orioles and the Cardinals. The Orioles had this monster-sized pitcher with great posture and demeanor who threw incredibly hard and seemed to have some control, a lot for the pre-20 years under his belt. When I looked up the giant's name, I realized I couldn't wait to see Armando Benitez pitch in the majors. Bill told me I was crazy and that the kid would break my heart, and when I asked why he couldn't put it into words...he just told me the kid was going to be a heartbreaker. I was hemi-semi-demi right; he was almost completely right.

...AND BEYOND AGAIN It's critical in a competitive endeavor to manage "blame" & crush scapegoating, and Baseball's insistence on accountability is essential. But so is Baseball's wisdom about looking beyond pure outcome to try to assure that good process is continually reinforced regardless of outcome.

That's what Abba was singing about so presciently in 1976.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Book Review: In Which
the SnarkMeistersinger Meets the Bulldog  

Derek Zumsteg, the master of GenY Snark, has a new book out, his first as a solo author. The top line: It's a great summer read, the kind of bagatelle you take to the beach and relax with.

The book is The Cheater's Guide to Baseball. It's an easy-reading 272 page tour of 15 "cheating" topics ranging from the accepted but technically unethical (sign-stealing, for example) to the Just Plain Wrong  to Everyone But Pete Rose (for example, gambling on baseball when you're a player or manager). The tone is classic Zumteg, edgy humor concatenated with a numerate appreciation for informed statistics and analysis, enough references to beer to make you fail a breathalyzer test from the contact wooze, and expressions of snarky attitude about the world (and himself). Ironically, though, it's at its most engaging and Derek's at his best when he's covering the most serious topics. His sections on chemical supplements (what I call the Baseball in Steroids issue) and on the sections on Pete Rose and The Black Sox, the two most egregious scandals that ever surfaced in baseball history, are important work. Others have covered a single one of those three subjects as well as Zumsteg, but no one has put together terse, reasonable, eminently readable and informed descriptions of all three in one place.

IMNSHO, the most serious topics are where Zumsteg's background and appreciation for understanding and presenting baseball history is where the book excels. In lighter sections such as Heckling and Doctoring the Ball, the gravitational field that pulls edgy humor over into the "sophomoric" zone seems stronger, and for a summer bagatelle this isn't fatal (I know how to skim snarky sidebars), but it did reduce some of my appreciation of the work.

And I think it's the bleeding into sophomoric humor that won this book its most widely-published pushback, a mildly-negative review of it by one of my favorite authors, former Yankee and Braves pitcher Jim Bouton, in the New York Times Book Review on April 1.

I'm sure the editor at the NYTBR thought she had a stroke of genius when she chose Bouton, master of edgy humor about Baseball, as the reviewer for Zumsteg's seemingly analogous tome. Maybe it was, but the reviewer left a couple of stigmata on the author she probably didn't anticipate. As an anthropologist, I'm not surprised, because one generation's edgy humor is another's bad taste or dead rat bounce. I think more than anything else, generational difference left baby boomer Bouton unimpressed by Zumsteg's work, and the lack of enthusiasm was juiced by what I imagine Bouton saw as a lack of respect for the game. In his own work, Bouton aimed his muckraking at individuals who, he believed, were too ignorant or sloppy or self-indulgent to show the institution the respect it deserved. I'm not sure Derek doesn't share Bouton's respect, but the author's tone might make it look to a reader like disrespect, especially in the lighter chapters. I wish I could perform a little thought experiment...go back in time and give Bouton only the three serious sections I mentioned earlier; I suspect the ex-pitcher would have been a lot more positive.

But there it is: an entertaining summer bagatelle that (strangely enough) excels when it's being the most serious, The Cheater's Guide to Baseball is a bit of an outlier, but one I'll end up keeping in my library to loan to people who don't "get" the supplements issues or why Pete Rose isn't in the Hall of Fame.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

A Cardinals' Lesson in Finding the Right Enforcement Balance  

At work, we managers have in our heads an "ideal" set of behaviors we seek in the staff and peers we work with. And more often than not, some of our roster misses that ideal in a way or five.

When team-members' effectiveness is the key determinant of organizational success, that is, when the organization is in a very competitive arena or The Talent Is The Product (or like Baseball, both of those) we have to trade off their high individual performance against the way their missing our definition of ideal undermines the team's ability to perform at a high level.

If the part of our ideal they're failing to meet is cosmetic, and if the individual truly is a high-performer, then it's an easy call -- you let it go and let the player find her own way as long as she can do it without degrading the belief other team members have about the desirability of people achieving the ideal. It's an easy call if it's a critical shortcoming and the player is a marginal performer -- you know what I'm going to say. The in-betweens are tough, but I'll tell you you're likely to have the best overall performance if you keep communicating (a) what the ideal is, (b) why it's important and (c) how to achieve it.

But no matter how much you'd like to, you can't effectively police every behavior every team member has. And insofar as your players have issues that seem more personal than workplace-related, you'll undermine yourself more than you'll burnish your productivity if you invest too much energy in policing. And if you don't find a way to contain that more-personal behavior, you risk some serious consequences. There's the management challenge, one the St. Louis Cardinals ran into when their relief pitcher Josh Hancock died in an ugly SUV-wreck while driving while talking on a cell phone while drunk a week ago.

The Cards, like 28 of the 29 other major league teams served (past tense: they changed that policy) post-game beer in their clubhouse. And allegedly Hancock was known as a late-night party fellow, and they'd reprimanded him just a few days before the wreck for oversleeping and being late as the result of a hangover. But clubhouse beer wasn't in his system when he met his death six hours after he left the stadium; it was apparently vodka served at a restaurant. And from a workplace management point of view, it's important to note he wasn't noticed by management on that day or any others as being drunk at his job. So on the one hand, the team coulda/shoulda had hints of his off-workhours behavior, and they had definite knowledge of a single off-work incident which did affect his work.

¿What should they have done?

Back when I managed a test lab, I had a pair of employees who came in early and stayed late and took long lunches. A co-worker of theirs reported to me they were using their midday meal break to drive over to a park a mile or so away and there smoke funny cigarettes (if you know what I mean and I think you do). The company we worked for had a rudimentary form of employee assistance program, a service people with personal life issues (such as mental health challenges or substance abuse problems); on the other hand, my boss liked to screw with people for fun (he'd fired a top contributor for not figuring out a way to get dismissed from jury duty).

 The "evidence" was a rumor. One of the two was a very-high productivity contributor, virtually irreplaceable. The other was good not great, a bit abrasive, but always willing to help out a peer and had some skills we didn't have elsewhere on the team. Neither had what a high-expectation manager like I am would call a performance problem.

I started trying to track their time and determine if their afternoon/evening productivity was lower than their morning. I was able to determine there was little difference in output and yes, they did take really long lunches though, yes, each did work well over 40 hours a week. I couldn't smell any telltale incense on them (for reasons you'd never guess, I knew what funny cigarette smoke smelled like).

My basic operational belief, and what I try to make clear to my workgroup is this:

  1. Each person is responsible for self-discipline,
  2. Whenever a staffer notices another worker's non work-affecting problem, it's best to deal with it directly; if it's a work-affecting problem talk to the person with the problem before taking it upstairs...after all if it's affecting the team's performance, it's affecting all the team members' worklife.
  3. If the problem persists, take it upstairs.

In that case, I decided not to intervene personally. I asked the co-worker to talk to them about it to salve her concern and to urge them to keep any recreational substances off-premises. But I realized that neither was a performance problem, and if they were doing it on work hours, it wasn't at work or on our time. I had no evidence. And having the boss breathing down your neck for non work-related issues, especially when you're producing, is a booger.

It became a worse booger when in the year after I left the lab, the good not great staffer had a serious nervous breakdown at work, allegedly triggered by some hard drugs. If I had interceded against my better judgement, would it have changed the trajectory of his work life?

In the end, I'm culturally too American to easily meddle in the personal lives of better-than-adequate level staff or peers I work with, and Cardinal GM Walt Jocketty was quoted in a way that it sounds like he shares my management tendency.

According to a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story,

"There's a lot of guys who like to have a cocktail now and then, and maybe some
more than others," Jocketty said. "But unless you go out and socialize with the
guys, which I don't, how are you going to know? … It's not like we police these
guys away from the ballpark," Jocketty said. "It's up to them to police

{SNIP} Jocketty said he has inquired further about Hancock's habits since Sunday's

"I've now talked to two guys who said they talked to him about (his drinking)
from time to time, but I don't know how much they knew," Jocketty said. " …
These guys are grown men. They have to know how to conduct themselves."

{SNIP} Jocketty said the club may further address the issue after attending a Thursday memorial for Hancock in Tupelo, Miss. "I've talked individually to guys about making sure they don't have any more problems," Jocketty said Tuesday.

When people have personal demons that don't seem to affect their work life, the most effective policing system is team-mates' intervention. They have a stake in the outcome, and they have leverage "the bosses" don't (see Kohlberg's Theory of Moral Development, Stage Three).

As managers though, that doesn't free us from responsibility or action. If Hancock did have persistent enough problems that, as Jocketty heard, some teammates were talking with him about it, teammates should have brought it to the GM's attention earlier, and it would have been his burden to carry, his mandate to try to get the player some help. It's our job to not make staffers lives worse, but we're management, not parents and there's no perfect always-right answer for most organizations.

There's only finding a right enforcement balance and hoping it works.

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