Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Athletics Lesson:
When Good News Makes Things Harder  

Wisdom is knowing what to ignore.
-- paraphrased from William James.

Much of a manager's success in, and beyond, Baseball will derive not, as many pundits want you to believe, "leadership" (as vaporous and not-reproducable attribute as exists in human endeavors), but on the mechanics of decisionmaking. It's not that "leadership" doesn't exist, nor that whatever magick it derives from, it doesn't affect outcomes. But consistently good decisionmaking combined with so-so "leadership" will beat good "leadership" with so-so decisionmaking far more often than not.

One of the keys of decisionmaking is eliminating (without ignoring) variables from the equations of the decision. Sometimes a course of action is quite obvious: if, for example, you have an ace pitcher like Roy Halladay coming off the disabled list, you're going to make room for him to start. If, for example, your 25th player is a back-up 3rd baseman and pinch runner who, like Jason Smith, is hitting and slugging .182-for-May, and that's not far out of line with his career numbers, you'll drop him to take a chance on someone who might prove to have more utility. These are extreme cases, easy decisions beyond telling Smith in a humane way he's been cut.

The farther you get away from the extremes and the closer to the middle, the harder it gets.

Take this beautiful conundrum the Oakland Athletics face with the return from injuries of two of the three outfielders they had penciled in at the beginning of the season as starters: Mark Kotsay and Milton "Game Boy" Bradley. While they welcome back these two important players (Bradley=VERY important, Kotsay seen as their most competent CF, though statistics argue he's ordinary), they are already a overstocked with good-not-killer talent to fill outfield spots, first base and designated hitter. Rookie manager Bob Geren was already trying to figure out who the odd man out was going to be any given day based on no overwhelmingly sure choices either to use or bench.

Here's SF Gate's Rusty Simmons' take on the issue:

First-year manager Bob Geren has kept the A's hovering around .500 and alive in the American League West race despite using a patchwork lineup, rotation and bullpen for much of the season.

By the end of the week, he'll have a whole new problem.

When outfielders Milton Bradley (hamstring), who threw down his bat after a batting-practice homer Tuesday to signify he's ready to return today, and Mark Kotsay (back surgery), who is expected back Friday, rejoin the lineup, Oakland will have more than a full complement of guys fighting for at-bats.

"I don't have an answer," Geren said. "I'm thinking about that often. Different lineups, different batting orders."  Bradley and Kotsay will be competing with Travis Buck, Jack Cust, Dan Johnson, Shannon Stewart and Nick Swisher for five spots, including first base and designated hitter. Geren said he'll work Bradley and Kotsay back into the lineup slowly, giving them ample time off to avoid aggravating their injuries, but he also warned against the assumption that the designated-hitter at-bats will be used as days of rest.

Cust, who burst onto the scene with game-winners among his eight homers this month, recently had an 0-for-17 stint. "You can't assume that he's going to continue to cool off," Geren said. Buck went into Tuesday's game hitting .348 in May; Johnson is hitting .323 with five homers in the month; Stewart has hit safely in seven of the last eight games, and Swisher might have found a home in the No. 3 spot.

Geren finally settled on this: "When you add players of that caliber, it's great for the Oakland A's."

No one is a Vladimir Guererro you have to pencil in every day, but neither is anyone a Willie Bloomquist you weep about benching. Two of these players, Cust and Dan Johnson, are young in major league service and have struggled during regular-season appearances, but both had hot streaks during the season that floated the team for a while. Buck is only 23 years old, still learning, and still had an eight-game streak this year where he had a .485 OBA and .655 slugging percentage. There's a good case to make that Nick Swisher is the team's star this season and he's still maturing, so  the manager pretty much has to pencil him in and that cuts 5 available spots by 20%. Stewart has a career as a reliable, fairly consistent contributor, and was producing around .300 batting average .400 on base percentage for the prior 30 games. And while Bradley is not quite as consistent a veteran as Stewart, the apex of his peak performance is higher.

A lot of very decent choices, the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle (or not) in a few less-experienced people, the chance to pencil in stable, predictable positive adequacy in others. You might expect Geren, especially in his first major league manager position, to dither or stall, but it's not likely. In Baseball, not acting is not just usually fatal, everyone frowns on it. Allowing circumstances to make decisions for you, or picking a slip of paper out of hat is dissed as the absurdity it truly is.

How a Baseball manager or general manager solves this good but complex challenge is an example you can model yourself when there's no slam-dunk choice. I built this example around a personnel issue, but almost any decision  around a challenge benefits from these guidelines.

0. Clarify your goals.
1. Break the problem into reasonable pieces.
2. Simplify if you can
3. Commit to a course of action that allows for contingency responses.
4. Act

The goal in this case is to win now while building for the future.

Break the list into three pieces. The veterans are Kotsay, Bradley and Stewart. The current star/potentially more is Swisher. The promising-but-speculative are Buck, Cust and Johnson. 

Simplify. There's and easy choice to start with...Swisher needs to be penciled in as a corner outfielder any day he's not injured or too tired. 

Who's going to play the most important skill position in this pile, center-field? Probably not Swisher,  but guess what, none of the other choices get a pass here either. None of the young players seem promising for that spot, Kotsay and Bradley have played it the most, Kotsay with a little better success there a few years ago, but Bradley has more offensive value. If you consider Swisher a more than adequate defender you lean towards complementing him with a better-fielding neighbor, and (the A's re-learned this the hard way during the early Moneyball years) if he's below-average, you probably want a better defender next to him to cover his weakness and avoid stacking like weaknesses next to each other.

Now we're down to three decisions: the other corner outfield spot, first base and DH. If this was September and you were either out of contention or sporting a big lead, you might use all three promising-but-speculative choices, buying knowledge and experience building for future returns in exchange for current potential wins. But in the general case, you undermine your chances of winning today, so you pick a couple to keep on the roster and send one down using your best judgment in how each can change your future for the better if they get additional major league (or minor league) exposure.

That leaves one spot and two leftover veterans. Maybe a close choice, ergo "tough", but just a single one left, therefore more tractable. You might try to keep both on the roster and use the more versatile one in a bench role. A rookie manager is unlikely to embrace the added complexity of such a choice. More often than not, one of the veterans gets traded or cut.

Whatever you choose to do, though, you have to act on it, commit to it until you can see it's not going to work or that you have a better alternative worth the cost of shifting to.

The ceiling imposed on roster size leads to sharp self-discipline...a difference between Baseball and the world beyond is Baseball franchises find it very difficult to overstaff. But that Baseball self-discipline is something one can apply in any field, and it has positive results when you're growing or when you're shrinking.

When organizations are growing, especially when they are growing quickly, it's easy to gloss over the life-and-death criticality of every hiring decision. The Talent IS The Product in any competitive endeavor that expects to thrive in the current environment and to survive into the next, but most organizations persistently underweight the importance of hiring.

When the organization is shrinking, the manager has to balance immediate utility against overall quality (quite parallel to Geren's reliable veterans versus less-known young talent -- an omnipresent artifact of Baseball's [and your own] need to both win now and concurrently build for the future). Especially in big organizations, layoffs are usually targeted by departmental function, not by the caliber of the individuals in all departments. An organization with a healthy view of using talent will use a "downsizing event" to purge roster plaque -- people who because of learning limitations or anti-productive attitude -- from even needed functions, and redeploy excellent performers in targeted functions to take their place, following baseball teams' practice of re-training people who play a position at which they have a surplus of quality so they can try to make use of their qualities at a different position. It's a lot of work, but you get a roster with more talent on it and better morale (effective staff almost always hate it when effective co-workers are let go and people who are a waste of desk space get retained) and being given more incentive to perform well (because it sends the message that if there are more problems, individual productivity will be a decision factor.

Not all challenges are bad ones. Some are win-win-win-win-win-win, like this one. But since whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you, it's makes unrelenting sense to pursue the best decisions you can. The A's have a very good recent history doing this, and if you follow their example, you can, too.

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