Sunday, December 05, 2010

Remit, Rad-aptation & Redemption: Rangers Rate Righteously  

"About the only problem with success is it does not teach you how to deal with failure" - Tommy Lasorda (from Baseball's Greatest Quotations)
There are still two kinds of infidels who, embedded in sports up to their armpits, choose to believe one of the following two fallacies:
  • Baseball management is not significantly wiser than management in any other field, or
  • Baseball management, regardless of its standing overall, is inferior to that of other sports.
The most recent error in this zone was from the generally-clever Joe Posnanski, writing for Sports Illustrated's site.
In 2008 Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington led all of baseball with 20 intentional walks that bombed. Bill James has been keeping this intentional walk stat for a while now. He breaks down all intentional walks into three categories:

1. Good — these are the intentional walks that “work.”

2. Not Good — these are the intentional walks that don’t quite “work” — a run scores — but doesn’t lead to a big inning.

3. Bomb — these are the intentional walks that lead to big innings.

There is a more detailed explanation in The Bill James Handbook, but for our purposes that’s enough. Washington led the league with 20 intentional walk bombs in 2008, which was more or less in line with his philosophy on the subject. He intentionally walked his team into 11 bombs in 2007, which was also a very high number. I would not try to explain how Ron Washington manages baseball teams — it seems to me some combination of feel, improvisational jazz, likability and Wile E. Coyote — but it seemed pretty clear that he did not want other teams’ best players to beat him. This seemed to be a core philosophy. And this led to baseball disaster quite often.

Then in 2009, all of a sudden, without warning, Ron Washington basically stopped intentionally walking people. His total intentional walks dropped from 44 to 14. And his bombs dropped all the way to three. This actually led the American League in FEWEST bombs. Last season, though Washington intentionally walked a few more guys (from 14 up to 24) he became the first manager since Bill has been tracking this stuff to not have a single intentional walk blow up in his face. Not even one.

That’s a pretty remarkable turnaround. So … what happened? Bill and I both figured that Wash probably had a heart-to-heart with the Rangers front office folks, who are savvy people, and they probably came to the conclusion that the intentional walk was hurting the team more than it was helping them.

But more … we both figured that it spoke well of Washington that after getting burned a few times he stopped sticking his hand in the fire. One of the striking things we both have sensed after years of writing about sports is that it is absurdly rare that people actually CHANGE in sports.

But in core ways … well, here’s the funny thing: It sometimes feels like some people would rather be wrong than admit that they are wrong. There are a million examples. A manager or general manager will pay someone a lot of money, realize quickly that it was a mistake, and keep playing that person even if it hurts the team.

I'm going to guess that with the exception of a gaggle of newsrooms, Mr. P. hasn't spent much time either in the military or in the corporate world, because compared to sports, it's so absurdly rarer that people in the corporate and military worlds change the way they manage in response to measurable feedback that I doubt he'd jump on sports, and most especially baseball. During a two- to four hour baseball game, the manager will change tactics almost certainly every inning, and both/either the baseball manager and the catcher on the field adapt to the current situation every pitch (otherwise the game plan would get laid out before the game and generally followed, which never happens even at the AA level of play).

In the corporate and military world, of course, this would make sense as an optimization strategy, but how many CEOs or even line managers are prepared to tweak their tactics and strategy multiple times per day (unlike the the multiple times per inning or sometimes even multiple times per minute Rangers' manager Ron Washington or any of his peers execute daily during the season)? Not very many.

The least-capable D- major league manager (that omits Maury Wills and not a whole bunch of others in the last 110 seasons) is significantly more attuned to rapid change in the face of mutating circumstances than 85% of corporate CEOs and than 75% of successful line managers. If feels a little disrespectful of Washington's acumen that Posnanski and James seem convinced the reason he changed was because the front office told him to. I believe it's very possible the data-savvy Rangers' front office sent him a report and asked him to look at it, knowing that he would respond to his outlier (and net-negative) behavior and change accordingly.

But don't underestimate any major league manager's ability to remember getting bombed by a bad decision. If Washington got bombed 11 times in a single season, I'd stake Kid Rock's life on the fact that Washington remembers either every single one as an individual failure that cost his team or, alternatively, all of them together as a big ugly pile. If he didn't, he wouldn't be able to get his team to .500, or win a single playoff game.

Accountability is inescapable in baseball. Unlike the corporate or military worlds, the baseball manager can't blame underlings or have his lobbyists arrange a bail-out. To get to be a D- or better major league manager, you have to embrace accountability, that means to last, you have to adapt your decisions to deal with reality. Some baseball managers overshoot by oscillating between binary opposites (do the intentional walk, get burned; eschew the IBB, get burned; repeat), but it's rarer than you would think, and most certainly rarer than it is in the corporate or military worlds.

I worked as staff at a place once where free-cash flow was so vast that every manager got out of the habit of ever saying "no" to any reasonable sounding expense -- if it sounded reasonable, it got funded. When the rest of the economy decided to invest in empire-building adventures and financial speculation, their market for products shrank -- an unprecedented turn of events for the firm. And at that point, managers were instructed to always say "no", no matter how useful or needed the investment was.

You been there? Of course you have. You ever seen a baseball team do this in mid-season, crack up and then keep pursuing it (or doing the exact opposite back to the original again). With the exception of the 2002-2010 Seattle Mariners, I can't think of any.

Try to think of a line of work that's more adaptive to minute-by-minute, inning-by-inning, series-by-series, month-by-month and season-to-season change than baseball is.

Give yourself a few days. But don't hold your breath.

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