Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tampa's Joe Maddon 129, Verschlimmbesserungophobia 0:
More Guts + Glory From A Master  

Tampa Bay Rays' manager Joe Maddon doesn't win every game, but he is an indispensable role model for every manager, in and beyond Baseball.

I've written about Maddon before, his omnivorous pursuit and relentless application of knowledge that might make a difference in his management. Like all great managers, Maddon is attentive, listening to anyone who might be able to provide something that could make a difference strategic, tactical or inter-personal. Like all good or better managers, Maddon is in the minority who actively likes to experiment when there's nothing or little to lose (for example, his first two full seasons with the written-off-as-hapless Tampa Bay Devil Rays, when no one expected them to win).

But now that is team is kicking serious AL East axe and is competing for the flag, a moment when even brave managers expend more ergs trying to not screw up than they do come up with new twists, Joe has resisted the Siren Call of Verschlimmbesserungophobia: The Fear of Making Something Worse By Trying To Make It Better.  Verschlimmbesserungophobia is something better known in American offices and factories by the shorthand "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Verschlimmbesserung is a valid concern. Many initiatives struggle unnecessarily  when, for example, a project that is slightly ahead of schedule encourages the addition of good ideas (also known as "feature creep"). I worked on a project recently for a client who highly values design and who has customers who value it. We were roughly on target on a fiercely ambitious schedule, and the client saw the opportunity to make the product better by using outside professional designers for the deliverables. Both designers totally crashed their deadlines, ripping apart the delicate schedule, and made the project not only late, but, through the necessity of last minute improvisations and staffing collisions and other resource contentions, less good overall than it would have been with less polished design. 

That's verschlimmbesserung in action, a noble try that backfires and leaves you worse off than you would have been if you hadn't tried it. 

But "if it ain't broke don't fix it" is a fatal protocol for an organization in a competitive field. Like my client, Maddon knows this. 

A week ago Sunday, Maddon's team went into a game with the Texas Rangers as (surprisingly to most) holding first place in the American League East.

Tampa Bay 74 48 .607 - 7-3 L1 28-19 19-11 29-31 557 487 68-54
Boston 71 52 .577 3.5 7-3 L1 21-22 20-15 28-35 633 508 74-49
New York 65 58 .528 9.5 4-6 W1 23-22 16-10 28-31 586 548 65-58
Toronto 63 60 .512 11.5 6-4 W1 20-20 17-19 29-34 522 483 66-57
Baltimore 59 63 .484 15.0 5-5 L1 19-28 15-16 28-39 618 620 61-61

             from MLB.COM

And most managers, even in Baseball, which is a lot less innovation-averse than organizations beyond the game are, would be thinking, "let's not screw this up". The Sunday game starts well and proceeds without serious danger for the Rays until the bottom of the 9th inning, the Rays holding a 7-2 lead. Here's the sequence up to a moment at which Maddon will have a memorable decision-making moment:

Texas - Bottom of 9th


Juan Salas pitching for Tampa Bay TAM TEX
J Saltalamacchia singled to right. 7 2
C Davis walked, J Saltalamacchia to second. 7 2
T Metcalf struck out swinging. 7 2
G Balfour relieved J Salas. 7 2
R Vazquez walked, J Saltalamacchia to third, C Davis to second. 7 2
B Boggs grounded into fielder's choice to second, J Saltalamacchia scored, R Vazquez out at second, C Davis to third. 7 3
B Boggs to second on fielder's indifference. 7 3
M Young walked. 7 3

The bases are loaded, so the batter coming up is the tying run. Unfortunately for the Rays, that batter is Josh Hamilton, the All-Star Game Home Run Derby star, at that junction, hitting .304/.369/.549 with 28 homers and with two hits already in the game. A homer ties it up and gives momentum to the Rangers playing at home even if the Rays escape the inning. Rays pitcher Grant Balfour had never as a major leaguer faced Hamilton. And clearly, he didn't have his best control (he'd walked two of the three batters he'd faced, one to load the sacks) so any clever gaming that catcher Dioner Navarro and Balfour might have devised to pitch around Hamilton's monstrous wheelhouse smackdown crush-o-rama batting form was going to be (at best) wing-'n-prayer time.

So Maddon called for the bases-loaded intentional walk, forcing in a run, putting the tying run on and bringing the winning run to the plate...a move so counter to protocol that it apparently has happened only four times in the majors since the start of the American League

This gutsy move happened to work for the Rays. The end of the sequence:

J Hamilton intentionally walked, C Davis scored, B Boggs to third, M Young to second. 7 4
D Wheeler relieved G Balfour. 7 4
M Byrd struck out swinging. 7 4

End of game, Rays win.

At risk was more than a loss; it would have meant a loss of managerial face, which is exactly why with four exceptions in over 100 seasons, you never see it. If Hamilton hits the tater there, it leaves the manager the platitudinous pablum prose that their best beat out best yadda-yadda. But look at the standings (above) again. The Rays seasonal lead is not insurmountable, and it rests heavily on winning more games against the West than the rivals do. Every single game is meaningful. The Rays need this win, even if it means risk.

In reality, addiction to safety is, in itself, unsafe, because protocol/standard-operating-procedure/The Book is designed to prevent you from departing too far below .500. Verschlimmbesserung exists, but in a competitive endeavor, consistent adherence to the safest, or even just safer tactics drags one towards .500, and if you need to be above .500, krazy-glueing yourself to any technique that gravitates you towards .500 is a losing proposition. 

Maddon never stops considering the possibility for innovation, for breaking the rules, for doing something new to try to make his team more successful.

That's why Joe Maddon is one of the most important managers in any field to track and observe, whether his team is winning or losing. Watch, and learn.

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