Saturday, August 14, 2010
Beyond Baseball, when you inherit a struggling or failing department, you usually have a short time to initiate actions that will turn it around. Shorter, certainly than the mythical First 100 Days a U.S. President gets. It's critical to DO SOMETHING, but frankly, flailing around aimlessly but vigorously like a Rock'em Sock'em Robot usually doesn't work out. That's leaving it to chance.
Because of Angus' Law of Problem Evolution, you have an advantage if you are quite different from the previous manager(s). If the predecessor was an a$$hole, it helps to be humane, if she was passive, it helps to be decisive, if he was an hysteric, it helps to be samurai-calm. But in the end, your best chance of success is having a plan adapted to the situation, and immediately but deliberately executing against it...incrementally, relentlessly. And use the techniques of Change Management: set expectations, communicate the changes and the reasons for them, and most critically, enforce accountability.
There is no better stage to examine business or military or non-profits' turnaround than Baseball. The National Pastime is the most transparent billion-dollar institution that exists, and moves that management makes are examined and broadcast. The subtleties hidden in the social structures of corporations publicly-owned and private, officially guarded in the military, unofficially aliased in non-profits, are all hung out to see in plain view in Baseball -- and the highly measurable results, from wins and losses to to the contributions of individual team-members, is exposed to the world. And between the 30 major league Baseball organizations, there are a number of styles and cultures and patterns that cover most legitimate organizations' equivalents.
For the last decade, a classic, transparent example of what I call a Droopy-Dog organisation is the Baltimore Orioles. A team that through several eras maximized management practices to make a relatively "small market" franchise highly competitive has fallen on hard times, and it's been so long since they won anything...
Year Tm G W L W-L% Finish Managers 2009 BaltimoreOrioles 162 64 98 .395 5th of 5 David Trembley(64-98) 2008 BaltimoreOrioles 161 68 93 .422 5th of 5 David Trembley(68-93) 2007 BaltimoreOrioles 162 69 93 .426 4th of 5 Perlozzo(29-40) and David Trembley(40-53) 2006 BaltimoreOrioles 162 70 92 .432 4th of 5 Sam Perlozzo(70-92) 2005 BaltimoreOrioles 162 74 88 .457 4th of 5 Mazzilli(51-56) and Sam Perlozzo(23-32) 2004 BaltimoreOrioles 162 78 84 .481 3rd of 5 Lee Mazzilli(78-84) 2003 BaltimoreOrioles 163 71 91 .438 4th of 5 Mike Hargrove(71-91) 2002 BaltimoreOrioles 162 67 95 .414 4th of 5 Mike Hargrove(67-95) 2001 BaltimoreOrioles 162 63 98 .391 4th of 5 Mike Hargrove(63-98) 2000 BaltimoreOrioles 162 74 88 .457 4th of 5 Mike Hargrove(74-88) 1999 BaltimoreOrioles 162 78 84 .481 4th of 5 Ray Miller(78-84) 1998 BaltimoreOrioles 162 79 83 .488 4th of 5 Ray Miller(79-83) 1997 BaltimoreOrioles 162 98 64 .605 1st of 5 LostALCS(4-2) Davey Johnson(98-64) 1996 BaltimoreOrioles 163 88 74 .543 2nd of 5 LostALCS(4-1) Davey Johnson(88-74)
Source: Baseball Reference
...that the organization gets riddled with Droopy-Dog-ism, the belief (you've all heard it in some workplaces before) "that no matter what we do, it won't work out" or "failure? it's just the way we are".
So two weeks ago, the Orioles fired their second manager of 2010 and hired Buck Showalter, who last managed a promising Texas team to a bunch of unremarkably medium finishes. His history and the immediate results of his turnaround attempt?
|1992||36||New York Yankees||AL||76||86||.469||4|
|1993||37||New York Yankees||AL||88||74||.543||2|
|1994||38||New York Yankees||AL||70||43||.619||1|
|1995||39||New York Yankees||AL||79||65||.549||2|
As you can see from the table, in his first 11 games as an Oriole manager, the squad has gone 9-2. While such an extreme turnaround requires a bit of luck, in the Orioles, as well as in Beyond Baseball organizations that are endowed with decent talent but are struggling, there's a bottled-up reservoir of will-to-win.
¿So how do you tap into that to turn around a Droopy-Dog organization? Not the Rigglemania Approach...if you want a stunning counter-example to plumb, here's one from last year. But Showalter represents one very viable positive path.
BUCK'S ONE HIDDEN PRACTICE AND FIVE YOU CAN SEE
There are several ways to do this (all require the correct context), but in the Baltimore Orioles' specific case, the beginning of the turnaround is measurably good. One is hidden, something not generally shared with the public. And you can see from reportage and by merely visually observing Showalter during games and in interviews four visible practices that generally work.
The Hidden: Relentless acquisition of data and relentless erasable whiteboard charting out of the season's plans adjusted and tweaked before series and games.
As my buddy Talmage Boston, who knows Showalter, said, Buck charts out a plan, gets it committed to "paper" (a whiteboard) and adjusts it perhaps daily when opposing pitcher assignments change or increased data gives him impetus to experiment. But if he was abducted by space aliens, his successor would inherit documentation of the plan complete enough to show the logic of it, and the successor could carry it on.
If you have a turnaround to perform, starting with a structured plan that's defined and documented enough to pass on to a helper or successor or your own supervisor, but one that's got the design that can evolve as the season wears on, is a critical, not always possible, approach. Buck is pretty relentless, even for Baseball, which is significantly more relentless and goal focused and accountable than corporate or military structures are.
Data --> Plan --> Data --> Adjustments
VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #1 - Intentional, Inevitable,
It's a classic Change Management strategy...from the first day, Showalter made it clear the new regime was different, expectations were different, and he would be unyielding in striving for success. The first messages were about avoiding mental mistakes and execution (the things that you should almost always succeed at if you pay attention, concentrate and commit. So many things in worklife are tough and likely to go wrong that it's important to get the easy stuff correct and if you can, you might turn a truly .445 team that's playing .305 ball into a .445 team (or even a little better, if their attitude makes them self-confident).
Part of that practice is to show everything is changing, that almost no s.o.p. is assumed to be operating. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays got this down in their turnaround...I've written in terrifying depth about that one aspect, here, in three parts.
In Showalter's case it's been many things, but Aaron Gleeman can point to a real break from standard practice that any Oriole can see and feel the ripples from, suggesting changing to a six-man pitching rotation. When you make public a suggestion like that, it deflects some heat from players, giving the Commentocracy some meat to tear into and at the same time making it clear to the world that just about everything from the past may be altered.
Given the Birds' chronic struggles, this is a "good" thing, because it's easier to get Droopy Dogs to perk up on seeing things actually changed (not just talked about). and it immediately engages them in changes to their personal roles, which leads directly to...
VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #2 - Consequences &
You declare and enforce the idea that everyone has to be accountable for success. It's natural to give a relatively weak team in a killer division, like the O's are, some slack. If you take every loss too seriously, and so many are inevitable, people can burn out quickly. So it's critical with a young team to simultaneously show you care a ton about winning, but not take every loss as though it was a World Series Game 7.
An earlier Gleeman article echoed a theme (several different players, all told first face-to-face) that has been going on for over a week...that everyone is going to have to justify his playing time by playing hard. From Gleeman:
Alfredo Simon took over closer duties in Baltimore when he was called up from Triple-A in late April, converting 15 of 17 save chances with a 3.40 ERA and .248 opponents' batting average through his first 30 appearances.
However, he's struggled lately, blowing two saves and allowing seven runs in his last six games, and not surprisingly new manager Buck Showalter is already talking about making some changes in the ninth inning:
"I'm sure Simon will get some more opportunities along the way, but I feel like we have some other people capable of doing it other than him. We'll see what each night dictates. Some guys down there have shown that they are capable of getting big outs for us. He has above-average pitches but he's still got to locate them, too. Guys can turn around a bullet up here."
Instead of the classic Droopy Dog behavior of letting it go because it doesn't really make any difference anyway, he's telling the whole team that execution is critical and will affect playing time, even in a role such as closer, where stability is most critical. But broadcasting this message leads to...
VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #3 - Discipline
Discipline, like any other good thing has a yield curve. You can ramp it up to a point beyond which you degrade performance. In Buck's past manager jobs, I believe, he's turned up the military aspect beyond the optimal point ... we'll see how much he's learned in the last few years, see if he can find a more moderate plateau on which to make his stand.
But if everyone knows they need to please the boss to keep their job, and if the boss is pushing accountability & concentration on small controllable factors that are easy to adhere to with a little effort, they are very likely to do it. And they are especially likely to do it if it extends to "stars" like the closer. And even more likely to do it if the hammer falls on one or two underperformers in the next few weeks. It's critical that when you use this practice Beyond Baseball, you don't just lop off a few heads a few days in. That's just capricious. You need to give everyone a chance to succeed, or you're not being accountable yourself and that decimates the power of change management. But acting on stated factors and enforcing discipline leads to...
VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #4 - Being 'In Charge'
If the manager is accountable and enforces discipline fairly and consistently she can radiate the aura of being 'in charge', and this is a vital piece of turnaround. Because when the manager tells people something is to happen and will happen, if she's shown she's in charge, she trims much of the doubt (about whether it's a good idea, about whether it's actually going to be executed, about success when it's executed) and doubt, especially in a Droopy Dog organization is overhead, that is, energy and attention invested in activities that cannot add to success.
VISIBLE CHANGE PRACTICE #5 - Neither Respecting the
Inherited Situation or Disrespecting It
It's really difficult to do this last one. It takes more willpower than most managers have.
You pretty much have to turn your back on the past. Avoid the temptation of doing the opposite of everything your predecessor did...that Binary Thinking will lead to great hope from the troops, but pointless avoidable failures in practice.
Avoid Respecting The Past...the Rigglemania Failure linked to previously. It's tempting to want to show your predeessor respect, especially if you worked for him or her, especially if you know that the failure was beyond that person's control. If you want Visible Practice #1 to succeed (everything is different now), the last thing you want to do is make people comfortable with the idea that the old system was okay.
Avoid Disrespecting the Past...bad-mouthing the prior manager. It's classless, unnecessarily alienates any remaining friends or people who liked her personally, and brings back memories of processes you want to move past because they evoke low morale cognates.
Pay attention to the past in your planning and data. Ignore the past in your communications.
If you inherit a Droopy Dog workgroup that needs turning around, it's a good idea to start with the Showalter outline and system. Every context is different, and if you don't make some tweaks to the basic design in response to who is on your roster and their personalities, you'll underperform.
But Baseball in general, and the 2010 revision of Buck Showalter, specifically, is a beacon of management wisdom for turnaround.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
PART III - Advanced Experimentation 410:
When Asceticism & Failing the Alderson Wisdom Pushes You Below the Event Horizon
Every decision a team's
off-field management makes
has to balance
the baseball considerations and the non-baseball considerations
As I explained in Part II, the pre-2010 Mariners tried an exciting but risky standards-busting experiment: Try to prevent so many runs through a combination of an outlier pitching-friendly home stadium a mix of great to acceptable pitching and a close-to unprecedented quality of team defense that the amount of offense required to win a trip to October would be unprecedentedly low. And that buying that low level of offense to fulfill the effort would save a lot of money that could go to the team's bottom line or the top line.
As Vince Gennaro can tell you, the amount of money you need to move a team from 85 to 90 wins is significantly more than to move it from 80 to 85 wins. But some offense is required...but how little would be too little and how little would be just enough?
Success at determining that demilitarized zone between "too little" and "just enough" was going to determine the experiment's success or failure. The 2009 team's offensive performance was a data point to consider; dead last in the league in OPS+.
2009 Mariners Offense Starters Age BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ C Rob Johnson 25 .213 .289 .326 .615 65 1B Russell Branyan* 33 .251 .347 .520 .867 128 2B Jose Lopez 25 .272 .303 .463 .766 102 SS Yuniesky Betancourt 27 .250 .278 .330 .609 63 3B Adrian Beltre 30 .265 .304 .379 .683 82 LF Wladimir Balentien 24 .213 .271 .355 .625 66 CF Franklin Gutierrez 26 .283 .339 .425 .764 103 RF Ichiro Suzuki* 35 .352 .386 .465 .851 127 DH Ken Griffey* 39 .214 .324 .411 .735 95 Bench Age BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ DH Mike Sweeney 35 .281 .335 .442 .777 106 SS Josh Wilson 28 .250 .294 .398 .693 83 LF Michael Saunders* 22 .221 .258 .279 .537 44 LF Ryan Langerhans* 29 .218 .311 .386 .697 86 SS Jack Wilson 31 .224 .263 .299 .562 51 ============================================================ Team Totals 29.9 .258 .314 .402 .716 90 Rank among 14 AL teams 13 14 13 14
In 20-20 hindsight, his line-up featured one very legitimate lead-off hitter (Suzuki) and one legitimate batter to bat fourth or fifth (Branyan) and one batter (Sweeney) who would not insult your lineup if he batted seventh or on his best days, sixth. No one else's performance justified them batting third or clean-up or fifth, or even really, sixth.
So what would they do?
THE FOUR & A HALF KEYS TO THE Ms' 2010 RUN
The offense protocol Seattle had to work with was not standards-busting; it was the norm. Teams with a shortstop who can hit 25 homers or a catcher who can slug .580 can play around with letting guys they're not sure about play key offensive positions. The Mariners didn't have such benefits. They would have to work the protocol of the four and half keys; they would need to produce their significant offense from DH, First Base, the two corner outfielders, and to an optional degree, Third Base.
At Right Field, they logically decided to stand pat. Ichiro Suzuki, signed for the next season, perhaps the team's most recognizable figure and only all-time record holder, slots in as a legit lead-off batter, and while he doesn't get you power (unless someone throws at his head), you can buy that elsewhere.
At First Base, the front office let their best OPS+ hitter, the health question-mark Russell Branyan, go and, given the market and their budget (left over after so much allocated to Cliff Lee, as mentioned in Part II), plugged in reasonably-priced glove man Casey Kotchman, whose 2009 line looked like this:
1b Casey Kotchman* 26 .282 .354 .409 .764 103
The most optimistically you can look at this switch is:
- He's only 26, so he might have some improvement potential.
- He's a left-handed hitter who has a swing that can pull the ball, and the only affordance the Mariners' stadium provides is for left-handed flyball hitters who pull the ball.
- He's a big defensive upgrade (at a position that doesn't have a strong individual defense contribution but does contribute to team defense since it interacts with roughly 10 chances a game)
I think the Ms focused on the last bullet, considered the first two and crossed their fingers. Of the four usual primary offense contributing positions (DH, 1B, LF and RF), they knew they had a likely offensive downgrade at 1B they hoped would be cushioned by better defense.
But Kotchman would not under any circumstances, be a batter other teams would fear or even think extensively about (in his best offensive production season, he was intentionally walked once ...and that was to set up the double-play, not to get to a weaker hitter behind him).
Essentially, without a breakout season, Kotchman was not going to provide an offensive upgrade at first base.
At Third Base, the Mariners had another switch, allowing a player they thought should be a legitimate #5 or even optimistically a #4 batter, but who hadn't performed up to those offensive expectations, to move on. But Adrian Beltre was one of the keys to their great team defense...while Third Base is not the most critical positions defensively, he was arguable the best or second-best in the league at the position. So this change could imperil the experiment if they didn't pay attention to defense. They felt they could not replace Beltre with a lumbering, concrete-handed slugger and they felt there was no-one promising in the Ms spotty minor leagues to take a chance on. They signed Chone Figgins, a lead-off hitter of some quality and who, at Age 31 in 2009, was indicating some "old guy skills" acquisition; not power, but taking walks (101 for the season compared to the 69/season he'd averaged previously as a starter), which had gotten Figgins' on-base average close to .400, roughly 40 points better than his previous average as a starter. A second legitimate lead-off hitter, perhaps, but on a team that already had one.
On the side of caution, of the seven seasons Figgins had gotten 20 or more plate appearances in the Mariners' home field, he had only performed better than his seasonal numbers twice and over those seven years had produced about 21% less offense than he had in the rest of his games (pretty sharp decline). And while Beltre's homers happened at about one every 25 at-bats during the years he was a starter, Figgins was getting a homer about once every 122 at bats.
So while Figgins was not likely to erode Beltre's defensive contributions much if at all, he was unlikely to keep up in power, even the disappointing (to the Mariners) power numbers Beltre had put up. Equation at this point: Kotchman (lower homer power) aligned with Figgins (lower homer power), and the magical Suzuki (one could hope equaling his prior power output).
If the next-to-last in the American League power numbers were going to be exceeded...or even equaled...it would require significant positive impact from Left Field and D.H.
In Left Field, the team replaced young Wladimir "The Willemstad Weed-Whacker" Balentien (OPS+ of 66) with Milton Bradley, an excellent athlete who has a difficult history with some press guys, many management guys but few teammates. Bradley had come in a toxic waste swap with the Chicago Cubs, when the Ms sent the second-worst starter in franchise history to the Windy City for the clearly-very-skilled but sometimes disruptive outfielder. The hope for his ability to add to the offense was pretty-well founded (20-20 hindsight aside). In the six years from 2003-2008 inclusive, he'd been out of action a fair amount, but in the 100 games a year he averaged, had been on base at a .390 clip, blasted out an OPS+ of 132 -- better than any 2009 Mariner, and collected 15 homers per shortened season. His 2008 year had been his best, his 2009 an emotionally turbulent campaign which had been tied for his worst (still this worst was an OPS+ of 99), but it was not as though at age 31, his agility and fine motor skills had fallen off the table.
While it was not a given that Bradley could revert completely to the 2003-2008 model, it was not delusional to think he might not bounce half-way back to his good-looking history from his sub-par 2009. And that half-way PRO+, 116, is 50 points higher than Balentien's 66, more than enough to cover the shear-off from Branyan to Kotchman. But if Bradley couldn't make up that difference, no one else on the roster could (without an extraordinary season), and given the significant dollar investment the team poured into Bradley & Cliff Lee, and the owners' execs' commitment to showing a profit every season, the front office wasn't going to get a stimulus package if the lien-up went into a depression.
But this move and the money involved put ownership, which values family-friendly warm fuzzies very highly (since the contemporary family-friendly marketing concept in Pacific Northwest sports generally outweighs on-the-field performance as a profit optimizer), really put them at the mercy of Bradley maintaining an even keel. More than about any men's professional sports franchise I can think of, the Mariners value their image of good citizenship and family-friendly fuzzies.
The contingency plan in case Bradley imploded: the even-younger than Balentien Michael Saunders (OPS+ unknown...true, his was 44 in 2009 but in the slimmest of appearances. Unlike the move at 1B, where one could be fairly confident there'd be at least some drop-off, LF was a shot in the dark, a big bag of uncertainty). But on the power front, it couldn't look like a shift for the better. While Balentien notched 20 or more homers at every level in the minors, about one every 17 at bats in AAA, Saunders had notched more like one home run per 30 AB. Saunders was more athletic and younger, so one could imagine that one day in a few years Saunders could sport more pop than Wladimir, but not as soon as 2010.
Which put every last bit of hope the Mariners had of at least equaling their previous year's offense (dead last remember...you really can't carry a drop-off from that if you have hopes of a wild card, and there was no fact-based reason to think it could be better) in getting absolutely mega-studly DH performance.
This is where the plan came off the wobbling rails, and that was because the Seattle ownership has persistently not gotten the Alderson Wisdom down: the need to balance field decisions against business decisions.
To kick off the 2009 season, they'd come up with the master stroke of signing the original Mariner star (okay, there were other Mariners who qualified as stars, but one who was really a star in the rest of the baseball world, too) Ken Griffey Junior. This wasn't an on-the-field master stroke. Griffey Junior, as you have seen from the chart of 2009 performances, wasn't even average for a D.H. But while he wasn't producing remarkable on the field, he was kicking axe at the box office, selling incremental tickets and making the city feel good about the Mariners through the application of nostalgia and the belief, probably founded, that Griffey Junior was headed to Cooperstown after he retired, and this reprise would pretty much assure his Hall of Fame plaque would end up featuring his head under a Mariners cap. So, with the owners and executives above the front office valuing the business considerations of the team way way way way more than the on-field ones,
At D.H., they re-signed Griffey Junior. Who of adult age would have predicted that at age 40, Griffey Jr would be able to exceed the .411 slugging percentage w/19 homers he'd hit as a 39 year old? Clearly someone on the business side at the Mariners' offices. But with the Griffey re-signing, the Mariners had no slack to make the Zdurienck Supremacy function; there was no position on the field where they could get enough additional power to lift the team from last place in that category. Yes, they still had old Mike Sweeney who had been an adequate contributor in a minor role, but one he would not be able to expand much given incurable injuries that prevent him from playing the field except under dire circumstances.
The Designated Hitter spot, as Earl Weaver figured out before he ever had to actually ink one onto a line-up card, is a magnificent and high-return affordance for a team with a run-prevention orientation. That's because DH gives you the chance to use an incomplete (less-expensive, easier to find) player who can hit a lot but not play the field. True, great DHes don't fall off trees in bushels, but an abundance of quite good ones are easy to find.
AND ANYONE WHO EXECUTES PROJECTS OR EXPERIMENTS KNOWS,
...means the only way to succeed is massive bouts of good luck unsullied by any significant bad luck. That was not to be.
The biggest single disruption was not on the defensive side, but on the run-production side (because no matter how successful your run prevention engine is, you still have to outscore your opponent to win a game) when (again failing to sufficiently weight the on-field factors relative to the business factors) management pressured Ms manager Don Wakamatsu to not just give Griffey the main weight of the DH role, but to bat him 5th in 15 of the first 23 games. This promotional feel-good nostalgia almost assured that whoever was batting clean-up would get nibbled to death, since the consequences of walking the clean-up hitter and facing Old Junior were close to non-existent. Bradley started the season batting 4th, and then it was the In-No-Way A Heart Of The Line-up batter Jose Lopez. With Old Junior anchoring the 5th spot, Bradley at clean-up managed .059/.238/.235 and Lopez hammered a better but not adequate.253/.282/.333.
From an on-the-field factors view Griffey pulled the team below the event horizon, and close-to-guaranteed the failure of the defensive experiment. With Griffey in the line-up as DH, the Mariners yielded their easiest-to-fill offensive boost. It was as though ownership had taken the nimble little Smart Car Z-Man had designed and planted on it a glorious 3,000 pound hood ornament. The Mariners elected to fritter their on-field design slack away in exchange for a series of feel-good promotional bobble-head opportunities.
Whitey Herzog, who went to Cooperstown this year for constructing successful run-prevention teams would never have considered the possibility the 2010 Mariners experiment could succeed minus a Balrog of a DH. Nor would Earl or any of the Baltimore front office guys he worked with. The bold experiment never got a fair shake.
In Part IV I get to give you a positive example from this failed season. I'll tell you the brilliant part of Z-Man's execution, his deft contingency planning that any manager Beyond Baseball would be wise to mimic as part of planning a bold experiment.
Monday, August 02, 2010
In Part I, I explained why the 2010 Seattle Mariners' front office found themselves best served by a bold innovation.
In this part, I'll describe the innovation they chose to adopt as a working hypothesis, that run prevention could be amassed in such concentration that it could deliver escape velocity from the gravitational field of the Pythagorean Principle (that a team's runs-produced and runs-allowed strongly shape their win-loss record).
If that Mariners hypothesis worked, it would...
- Free them from the expense of assembling a fully-featured offensive team, substituting lesser-valued players whose lead attribute, defense, is cheaper to buy in the 2009-2010 market than those players with noteworthy offense.
- Ambush the scouting of other teams who would not at first know the workings of the hypothesis and once they knew it, would be challenging, energy-consuming and time consuming to respond to.
To put a rational bold experiment together (Beyond Baseball, too), it requires OMA...observation of past trends, measurement of past effects, and analysis of relationships between factors. Here's the OMA chain that led the Ms' front office to the experiment.
What to Implement to Maximize Run Prevention?
The 2009 and 2010 Seattle Mariners have a modern statistically-oriented analytical function in the front office. And the protocol among modern sabermetricians is that run-production (and by the perfect double-entry math of Baseball therefore, run-prevention too) is made up of three factors, one of which is heavily-affected by defense (the opponents' batting average of balls put into play), one heavily affected by pitching (the rate of issuing walks), and one moderately affected by pitching (home runs yielded).
Putting it Together #1 - Team Defense
The M's 2009 campaign featured the most hit-preventing team defense (as measured by relative Defensive Efficiency Rating) since 2001. The 2009 Ms allowed Batting Average of Balls in Play at 91.3% of the 2009 American League's composite average (.274 for the Ms, .300 for the AL), and the only team in the 21st Century to apply such asphyxiating team defense was the record-shattering 2001 Mariners that won 116 games while allowing Batting Average of Balls in Play at a rate of 88.2% of the 2001 American League's composite average.
As I stated in Part I, the 2009 Mariners exceed the number of wins the Pythagorean thumbnail estimation suggested they "should" have by eight, a very high and fairly unusual difference. The 2001 Mariners (a legend everyone in the Mariners' administration views with reverence) with their even-better relative team defense, won seven more games than the Pythagorean thumbnail suggested they "should". That is a lesson they couldn't overlook.
So, using a factor they could control, they were able to play around with team defense, at least at the edges, to try to exceed the rather exxxtreme accomplishment they'd notched in 2009. They moved a mixed bag of fielding talent, 2009 2bman Jose López, to 3rd base where his strong arm would have more positive value and his so-so range be less of a deficit. They gave the left field spot, for most teams, a place to locate one's weakest fielding big bat, to youngster Michael Saunders who'd looked a little promising in the field in 2009, even though his bat wasn't yet producing fully a major leaguer's output. They acquired the athletically-gifted Chone Figgins to play second base, and even though it hadn't been Figgins' primary position, he'd played at that spot occasionally over the first eight years of his career, and as a better athlete with an apparently-better baseball brain than his second-base predecessor, perhaps would add team defense (or perhaps wouldn't neutralize the hoped-for benefit of moving López to third). Finally, the team let the only possibly-legitimate middle-of-the-lineup slugger they had on the roster, the injured first-baseman Russell Branyan, leave, replacing him with a questionable bat with an acknowledged glove, Casey Kotchman. So the team had put into the two positions most usual in roster protocol to produce offense, LF and 1b, respectively, a very young, not-fully developed player and a guy who could hit some, sometimes. This was a risky pairing - if one or both produced offense near the top of their potential, this team's offense was going to be anemic, but if one or both didn't produce near the top of their potential, its was going to be sub-anemic.
But the Mariners front office put on the field a defense that should have been even better than the 2009 squad at hit prevention. What about homers and walks, the other two components that are part of the contemporary sabermetrics protocol for run prevention?
Putting it Together #2 - Homer Prevention
While the team can't control this factor day to day like Bill Veeck, the team's home park is the most extreme anti-hitting (ergo, pro-defense) park in the league over the last 9-1/2 seasons. Further, though, it is an intensely homer-negative park overall -- crushing right-handed pull power into dust while gently boosting left handers who loft the ball while pulling it.
So to put together this work of art and craft, the Mariners already had a great canvas for laying on the homer-prevention component of run prevention, the park they played 50% of their games in. In the other 50% of their games, on the road, their 2009 pitching staff was precisely league average in homer prevention.
Staff Road HR
AL mean 92
And keep in mind, three of the teams that allowed fewer home runs were in the same division as the Mariners, meaning not only did they get to face a marginally-powered Mariner offense quite often, but also got to face it in the Mariners' home park in a bunch of their road games (an affordance the Mariners never got to have, since the Ms played none of their away games in their homer-snuffing home park).
Putting it Together #3 - Walk Prevention/Overall
Tweaking the 2009 team as a base would require care. The 2009 team had great-looking pitching overall (ignoring the home-away splits). At 4.27 runs per game surrendered, the team was #1 in the American League
R/G Tm W L W-L% ERA HR ERA+ WHIP H/9 BB/9 SO/9 4.27 SEA 85 77 .525 3.87 172 112 1.30 8.4 3.3 6.5 4.52 CHW 79 83 .488 4.14 169 112 1.35 9.0 3.2 7.0 4.54 BOS 95 67 .586 4.35 167 108 1.41 9.4 3.3 7.7 4.57 DET 86 77 .528 4.29 182 106 1.41 9.0 3.7 6.9 4.57 TEX 87 75 .537 4.38 171 106 1.37 9.0 3.3 6.4 4.65 NYY 103 59 .636 4.26 181 101 1.35 8.6 3.6 7.8 4.65 TBR 84 78 .519 4.33 183 104 1.36 9.0 3.2 7.1 4.69 MIN 87 76 .534 4.50 185 98 1.38 9.6 2.9 6.5 4.70 LAA 97 65 .599 4.45 180 102 1.41 9.4 3.3 6.6 4.70 OAK 75 87 .463 4.26 156 103 1.39 9.2 3.3 7.0 4.75 LgAv 82 80 .505 4.45 178 100 1.40 9.2 3.4 6.9 4.76 TOR 75 87 .463 4.47 181 98 1.42 9.4 3.4 7.3 5.20 KCR 65 97 .401 4.83 166 92 1.46 9.4 3.8 7.3 5.34 CLE 65 97 .401 5.06 183 83 1.51 9.9 3.8 6.2 5.41 BAL 64 98 .395 5.15 218 88 1.53 10.3 3.4 5.9 Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table Generated 7/23/2010.
That 4.27 Runs/Game (the first column) is not only the best in the league, but by a stunning margin of .25 R/G over the second best team. Why is a quarter of a run stunning? Well, the difference between the 2nd best team and the 5th is a mere .05 R/G, and to get to the team that's 0.25 R/G less effective than the 2nd best team you have to get past the 12th best. It's such a significant difference, the difference between #1 and #2 just about spans the rest of the entire league.
The 2009 M's pitching is, by this measure, an extreme outlier. And it was, as I pointed out in Part I, also an extreme outlier in its W-L record compared to its Pythagorean projection. An inquisitive and observant manager in any field would wonder if there might be a cause (incredible out-of-scope run-prevention) and effect (outperforming pre-season expectations or outperforming Pythagorean projection). What IF way-above normal defense bent the space-time continuum and changed the gravitational field the Pythagorean affects. She might not presume it existed, but she would at least be interested in if it was true.
Because if it was linked by some cause-and-effect, this not-broadly-known insight would be actionable knowledge, that is, a competitive edge. In the open market, pitching is seen as a very valuable commodity, so it's generally expensive, but defense has been both difficult to measure and not thought of as a critical factor in the high run-production era since the owners juiced the ball after the 1993 season. I'm fairly sure no team has tried to make defense its lead positive attribute since the end of practice of Deadball strategies in the early 1920s. And just as the insights described in Moneyball six years earlier had seemed a way to create more wins/dollar and something that others would then have to chase, and many couldn't chase even if they wanted to and knew how to (The Texas Rangers, for example, which have an offense-stimulating stadium), competitors could be slow to adapt to this possible Mariner revolution yielding a benefit that could last a while.
The coup de grâce for the 2010 rotation was Zdurienck's acquisition of a starter who may have been potentially the best starter in the American League, but certainly the best for this team. Because the acquisition, Cliff Lee, rarely walks anyone (in 2009, 1.7 walks per 9 innings pitched compared to the league average of 3.4), and his homers-allowed per 9 innings pitched was 0.7 compared to the league's 1.1). Roll in the Ms defense's ability to snuff hits as a complement, and it looked to Zdurienck as though Lee might notch his best season ever.
And compared to 2009, the season against which Zdurienck was looking to improve, Lee (potentially the best) would be replacing Carlos Silva (who in 2008 and 2009 had been 5-18 with an ERA of 6.81).
ASIDE: Z-Man had the opportunity to try to sign Cliff Lee, due to become a free agent at the end of 2010, to a long-term deal before the perfect Lee-glorifying scheme they'd put together had borne fruit, and many managers in all fields would have thought it best to get in front of that, getting Lee to commit before the probably-superb season played out. Z-Man didn't, and that was brilliant, a lesson I'll talk about in Part III and one you should follow.
So make a perfect alignment for run-prevention
- Asphyxiating ballpark, unchanged;
- Exxxxtreme defensive ability on the field, made more extreme;
- Good pitching, improved
Thus, the hypothesis to be tested, perhaps offensive ability would become less material.
Because the Mariners weren't using any of the standard operating procedures for building a winning team, there was a big chance the hypothesis would be null, that the experiment would not pan out.
And while the bold experiment didn't work for reasons I'll describe in Part III, Z-Man's brilliance made it possible to come away with positives even if all the Ms could prove was the null hypothesis, as I'll tell you about in Part III.
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