Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The O'Dowd Report: Rockies' Relentless GM Leads Expedition to Heart of the Unknown -- Part I.
Reprise From March, 2006  

A couple of readers who have been recent arrivals to MBB asked if I am surprised by the Colorado Rockies' recent Berserker Buzzsaw. Answer: I am, but I'm not.

I'm not particularly surprised because of what I learned when the Rockies' G.M., Dan O'Dowd, was kind enough to share some time with me to talk Management topics suring Spring Training 2006. He revealed himself to be among the forefront of American managers in the area of committed innovation -- not just within baseball, but in ANY field.

I'm re-running the two essays about our conversation this week to remind us that a commitment to intentional innovation is more frequently a path to success than that taken by those who fear it and who prefer the safety of proven, accepted methods (that is, guaranteed mediocrity). And of what a cool gent O'Dowd is.

Here then is Part I of the O'Dowd interview, which ran originally March 25, 2006.

It's relatively easy for a decent manager to get adequate results just by re-applying proven successes from previous jobs. It's a common cognate for managers to first look for similarities in the new situation and apply the old lessons.

Because a good manager analyzes the new situation for similarities to the past, most good managers will know not to count too much on old proofs if the new situation is clearly different. But what happens when the new situation looks mostly like the one the manager has learned to ace? 

That's the toughest spot to be in. It's really different -- but it doesn't appear that way, so one starts by using proven tools, and then the tools too frequently underperform. Once-successful tools are hard to throw away, and if the environment is fooling one into thinking it's essentially the same, it's really tough to toss those techniques aside for untested ones.

Colorado is lucky to have a team-oriented general manager who, while he may not have found the successful formula for the elixir of winning, is an exemplar for any manager entering a situation where every evolved protocols has to be brought under the looking glass for reexamination. That executive, Dan O'Dowd, generously gave me a big slug of his time earlier this month to share a conversation about innovation when the protocols don't hold and how the front-office team's latest approach is designed. What I find extraordinarily virtuous in O'Dowd's point of view is less in the exact solution the group is currently trying, but his relentless composure, attention to system feedback and willingness to fearlessly innovate. 

There will be several essays that spring from this conversation. This is the first.

Baseball is close to a perfect arena for viewing the management tendency to hold onto the protocols. On its surface, baseball has rules and umpires and prescribed schedules and about 130 years of professional refinement that has made protocols viable. Talk about "known". But when the expansion Colorado Rockies started playing games in 1993, the obvious protocols needed reexamination. It's not that the front office couldn't construct a somewhat competitive team.

Colorado Rockies courtesy CBS Sportsline
Year W-L Pct. Finish
2005 67-95 .414 5th
2004 68-94 .420 4th
2003 74-88 .457 4th
2002 73-89 .451 4th
2001 73-89 .451 5th
2000 82-80 .506 4th
1999 72-90 .444 5th
1998 77-85 .475 4th
1997 83-79 .512 3rd
1996 83-79 .512 3rd
1995 77-67 .535 2nd
1994 53-64 .453 3rd
1993 67-95 .414 6th

In 1993, the Rox  had a decent campaign for a first year. They improved a little and by their third year squeaked into the playoffs with a better-than-.500 season. Success with that model looked attainable -- but wins flattened out and then started sagging. Players were breaking down. Team-building design tactics that worked for home games didn't work for road games. The design didn't change over those years, it was a steady Syncopation of Sybaritic Slug-A-Thons. The frustration went straight up. The previous GM, Bob Gebhard moved aside after the 1999 season to make way for Cleveland Indians assistant G.M. O'Dowd, and the new leader started twiddling with the formula.

We talked about what the Rockies front office team have been doing to cope with their very different environment and why they've chosen those paths. NOTE: there are a few unintelligible passages in here- sorry 'bout that.

Q:  You have one of the most interesting jobs of any general manager in baseball. You’re the only one who deals with a physical environment which is way out of specification compared to what all other teams face. The insanity that cascades as a result makes everything you do much more complicated

A: I think what it does more than anything else is make the basis of statistical analysis that exists in our industry – I’m not sure that most of those statistical theories, resources and methods, all of which I certainly used earlier in my career…in my Cleveland days…in fact we were kind of in the forefront there…a lot of that doesn’t carry over well in Colorado because of the unique environment we play in.

{snip – some generic conversation about pitching}

We’ve got a couple of things in place we think that have helped level the playing field for pitchers. I think Baseball has done a couple of things that will continue to level the playing field. 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. One of the problems is really just this …this is not earth-shaking scientific method…it’s like when you leave an old pair of leather boots outside in the wintertime in Colorado and they dry up & they crack, they change their shape…the same exact kinds of things happen to a baseball. <something> contact changes dramatically, the leather itself becomes smooth like a cue ball. So it’s very difficult to hold the ball and do the things you normally would do in regular…sea level…conditions.

Q: The moisture on your fingers changes…

A: Yes, and the seams change. Your seams <something> and get a little coarser. We’ve had a lot of problems with blisters over the years in Colorado which we don’t talk about much but we’ve had to deal with.

The other thing that will change the game quite a bit I think is steroid policy and the new amphetamine policy. Those will also help level the playing field. The days of Monster Baseball…though it’ll still be there for some gifted players…as a whole, I think there’ll be a lessening of it.

If you look at runs scored in Coors Field during the middle 90s, and at home runs hit – I think those were the prime years of steroids in our game. Now, with some of the changes the time of games is down dramatically, runs scored have gone down dramatically. A lot of people have said, “well, Colorado didn’t have an outstanding offensive club,” but it wasn’t just our club, it was the clubs that were coming into Colorado, too. Whether that was an anomaly or whether there was some human adaptation, we’re not going to know until some patterns hold for a while.

We studied weather patterns last year. And the weather patterns weren’t significantly different than they had been in other years. I had thought maybe there was more moisture in the air, perhaps more rain, but it turned out the rainfall was similar to what it had been in other years. We’ll just have to see if somehow the game is changing.

Anything we can do to normalize the game can only help us competitively, because I do believe it’s very difficult to play two completely different styles of game, one at home and one on the road. So I think the more the game is normalized, the more it’ll help us competitively.

Q: You have been relentless experimenters. I read that before the 2005 season you all were considering the 4-man rotation (Instead of the standard 5-man), an idea Bill James and Rany Jazayerli had argued for a few years previously. It seems to me it takes courage to try something like that that’s so out of step with standard practice.

A: We thought that taking the pitching rotation to go to not really a true 5-man rotation, but a 4-man rotation and an 8-man bullpen where they all pitched two or three innings every time out.

Q: How far did that experiment get?

A: You have to train your pitchers completely differently. I think the physical wear and tear on your pitching staff would not allow (implementing) that. One of the things about playing at altitude...number one, I’m not trying to make excuses here and number two, I’m just stating facts, but because you play at such a high altitude, your relative lack of oxygen content, it takes a lot longer to recover and creates a lot more soreness.

One thing we’re working on and that we’re excited about is developing a home-grown pitching staff and training our guys mentally from day one through the organization on what to expect has helped dramatically. You also get more of what you focus on from your management standpoint — so we no longer focus on what can’t be done in that environment, we focus on what can be done in that environment..

And we have normalized the game somewhat through the use of the humidor, not getting the results we would get just playing in San Diego or L.A. or San Francisco, but you get dramatically different results than we’ve had in past years.

I think, overall, creating a better mindset. We train differently — we train harder on the road than we do at home — physically we changed our patterns. We don’t follow the habit of what is done every day in baseball; some days we won’t take any early work, some days we won’t take a formal batting practice. We’re beginning to understand the cycle of rest and recovery a lot better than we ever understood it.

Q: Do you actively measure aspects of recovery? Is it more based on expert observation?

A: We’ve done some testing with some blood analysis, for altitude testing…mostly on our coaches and training staff…with the players it’s a more difficult thing to approach. Our medical staff (Brad Andress the Strength Coach and Tom Probst the Director for Medical Operations), they really have dedicated a ton of their personal time understanding the cycle of rest & recovery at altitude.

We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

The Rox may be the only team among its competitors that's trying to innovate through medicine. They are applying somewhat-known protocols, not from their own field, but from medicine and psychology, to try to cope with the differences. The Humidor...well, that's from other realms of research.

More to come...

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