Wednesday, March 31, 2004

The Business Intelligence of
the Chicago White Sox  

Organizations that use "business intelligence" (BI) tools (and most do, to some degree, organized or otherwise) tend to become "lumpy" in their strengths. They tend to become much better where their BI tools and staff have high aptitudes, and this makes their weaknesses appear even larger.

It's not that lumpy strengths make their weaknesses worse (though it can happen...look at Enron's brilliance at creative accounting and playing Wall Street and how ultimately, it overwhelmed everything else in the organization to the point it that this toolkit of simple tricks became the corporate mission).

Anthony Giacalone recently produced for Baseball Primer a sharp preview of this year's Chicago White Sox, and he detected one of these BI tools making strengths lumpy trends in a way that's illustrative for managers all kinds of organizations. From his preview (emphasis mine):

(White Sox G.M. Ken) Williams’ horrible beginning as a GM highlights his shortcomings. Williams is just not a very astute judge of major league talent. Sure, he can understand that Bartolo Colon has a lot of ability but the overwhelming majority of his major league acquisitions have been failures. Basically, he has dumped major leaguers Keith Foulke, Chad Bradford, Tony Graffanino, Chris Singleton, Mike Sirotka, Kip Wells, Rocky Biddle, Jeff Liefer and Mark Johnson for Bartolo Colon, Tom Gordon, Esteban Loaiza, Royce Clayton, Juan Uribe, David Wells, Alan Embree, Jose Canseco, Scott Schoeneweis, Roberto Alomar, Carl Everett, Todd Ritchie, Cliff Politte, Armando Rios and Brian Daubach. Anything pattern in these moves? For the most part the players that he parted with were young and unproven while those that he acquired were not only older but also had established reputations.

Of all the major leaguers that he has brought in, only Colon (trade), Loaiza (FA) and Canseco (trade) have been successful to this point. But there is another side of Kenny Williams' dealings. Under Williams, the White Sox have been tremendously successful at acquiring unproven and minor league talent. Since Williams has taken over, the Sox have brought aboard unproven players Willie Harris, Damaso Marte, D’Angelo Jimenez, Miguel Olivo, Mike Rivera, Jamie Burke, Ross Gload and prospects Ryan Meaux, Enemencio Pacheco, Neal Cotts, Felix Diaz, Ruddy Yan for very little. That’s not to say that the White Sox won’t occasionally decide to bring in a bad player like Kelly Dransfeldt, but in sum that’s an impressive list. Further, not one single minor league player that the White Sox have traded away has been successful in the major leagues yet. In fact, in the last 10 years only Ron Coomer and Josh Fogg have been traded away by the White Sox and have later had any success at all. That’s a pretty good record.

It just seems very unlikely to me that a GM can be so bad at picking major league players but so good at analyzing his own minor league talent and acquiring it in other organizations.

Lumpy. Extra lumpy. A very high strength concurrent with a very marked weakness.

What many people don't know, even in the sabermetric community, is that the White Sox were an early adopter of sabermetric methods. Manager Tony LaRussa and executive Jack Gould embraced the STATS event-tracking technology around 1982, according to Dick Cramer, one of the big brains behind it. That organization didn't just run the system; they liked analysis-support technology so much, Gould & G.M. Roland Hemond had Cramer build them a custom scouting-support system. Practical and logical: use technology where the benefit/cost ratio of the status quo truly blows chunks, where the options are so multitudinous that current systems are destined to get overwhelmed, and where your competitors are unlikely to have the proper cognitive underpinnings to follow so that your comparative advantage can persist a while.

Where virtually everyone else was using whiteboards and index cards, scouting the Mongol Horde of potential playing talent, the Chisox applied special focus. And BI technology to back it up. (I think you can see where the discussion is leading).

The White Sox, because they invested in this strength, appear from the clear duality Giacalone brought to our attention, appear to be really awful at at their weakness. And they may be that awful, but it seems to me a majority of baseball organizations make these apparently foolish decisions with veteran players. I think, based on skimming through Retrosheet transactions, the White Sox are little worse than anyone else at their veteran-selection weakness, but that it looks worse because this strength is such a counter-example.


It's a natural gravitational field. As an organization invests resources (time, money congitive commitment) in one thing, it reduces the resources available for other things (See Enron example above) unless you're an organization like the Yankees (mucho dinero, obsession with excellence).

Sometimes it's the technology that creates strengths or weaknesses. Usually it's not. Usually it's the human talent involved that makes this happen. Like Frank Thomas taking extra batting practice when he really should be working on his footwork in the field, it's easy to enter a cycle where you do something well, get rewarded for it, and focus your resources in a narrow way on what the organization is rewarding you for. It's a universal temptation. I succumb to it myself; it's hard not to.

¿So what do you do about it?

I counsel organizations that do BI to run analyses not unlike the one Giacalone did for the White Sox. What are you finding out? Where are you successful with your BI? What are you really bad at? Could BI you don't currently do if it magically was perfect make any difference to that really bad attribute? And if you threw investment at it, would you still be good (maybe not quite as, but good still) at the BI you're good at now?

Preston's Law states if you want to improve your net performance, it's generally much better to turn your '1's and '2's into '5's and '6's rather than try to turn your '5's and '6's into '8's. It makes sense mathematically, ecologically, and in baseball, too.

Lumpy strengths & weaknesses may not just look like a worse curse than they are. They might just be the limiting factor that is both putting a ceiling on your organization's success and that is relatively easy to break through.

I suspect that's the case for the Chisox.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

MoneylessBall: Where Bluster Passes Muster  

A couple of regular readers have asked me to comment on today's New York Times Magazine article (registration required) by Moneyball author Michael Lewis on his high school baseball coach, "Coach Fitz's Management Theory".

It's a lovely evocative piece. There's not much management theory floating around its 8,000 words, although there are stories from which you might sketch the beginnings of a basis of a theory. I suspect Lewis did not write the headline, but someone on the copy desk who had scanned it as a proofreader was responsible (at dailies, it's pretty rare the author gets her headline/title on an article).

If you read the piece, you'll get a real dose of New Orleans' Newman School's now-controversial Billy Fitzgerald, a former Athletics' prospect cut almost perfectly from the Dick Williams cloth. I've written about Williams' management techniques before, and described the advantages and disadvantages of the approach. Fitzgerald, like The Skipper, is an old-school guy who believes everyone should try to do their best all the time and not ruminate too much on failure, but look forward. I would call it a bit of a Roman Catholic approach: you confess, get absolution in exchange for a small amount of trouble that you can remember was somewhat troublesome, and then just move on. Like Skipper, Fitzgerald is a really smart guy (better read, it seems, than Williams, who I never heard quoting Victor Frankl), and has a bad temper that he can use as a weapon and generally knows when and where to use as a technique to inspire his charges.

In moneyless ball, pre-college schooling environments, it may be the single most probabilistically effective technique for a baseball coach. The charges are pre-adolescents or adolescents, chronically unfocused, riddled with fears of inadequacy emulsified in a solution of arrogance and a belief in the self's ultimate immortality and superiority. In baseball as a income-generating profession, the approach has its limits, because most pros are making significantly more money than the coach, and in a society that worships money as its most frequent measure of virtue, this makes adherence to the ultimate wisdom of the coach a tricky proposition.

But for adolescents and immature adults (many of whom are people you have to learn how to manage well), it can be a real winner. Here's Lewis talking about having to relieve the team's best pitcher because the opposing coach called Fitz on a rule that normally wasn't enforced (the two-trips to the mound in the same inning one) at this level.

Out of one side of his mouth Fitz tore into the rule-book-carrying high-school coach -- who scurried, ratlike, back to the safety of his seat; out of the other he shouted at me to warm up. The ballpark was already in an uproar, but the sight of me (I resembled a scoop of vanilla ice cream with four pickup sticks jutting out from it) sent their side into spasms of delight. I represented an extreme example of our team's general inability to intimidate the opposition. The other team's dugout needed a shave; ours needed, at most, a bath. (Some unwritten rule in male adolescence dictates that the lower your parents' tax bracket, the sooner you acquire facial hair.) As I walked out to the mound, their hairy, well-muscled players danced jigs in their dugout, their coaches high-fived, their fans celebrated and shouted lighthearted insults. The game, as far as they were concerned, was over. I might have been unnerved if I'd paid them any attention; but I was, at that moment, fixated on the only deeply frightening thing in the entire ballpark: Coach Fitz.

By then I had heard (from the eighth graders, I believe) all the Fitz stories. Billy Fitzgerald had been one of the best high-school basketball and baseball players ever seen in New Orleans, and he'd gone on to play both sports at Tulane University. He'd been a top draft pick of the Oakland A's. But we never discussed Fitz's accomplishments. We were far more interested in his intensity. We heard that when he was in high school, when his team lost, Fitz refused to board the bus; he walked, in his catcher's gear, from the ballpark at one end of New Orleans to his home at the other. Back then he played against another New Orleans superstar, Rusty Staub. While on second base, Staub made the mistake of taunting Fitz's pitcher. Fitz raced out from behind home plate and, in full catcher's gear, chased a terrified future All-Star around the field. [snip]

And now he was standing on the pitcher's mound, erupting with a Vesuvian fury, waiting for me to arrive. When I did, he handed me the ball and said, in effect, Put it where the sun don't shine. I looked at their players, hugging and mugging and dancing and jeering. No, they did not appear to suspect that I was going to put it anywhere unpleasant. Then Fitz leaned down, put his hand on my shoulder and, thrusting his face right up to mine, became as calm as the eye of a storm. It was just him and me now; we were in this together. I have no idea where the man's intention ended and his instincts took over, but the effect of his performance was to say, There's no one I'd rather have out here in this life-or-death situation. And I believed him!

As the other team continued to erupt with joy, Fitz glanced at the runner on third base, a reedy fellow with an aspiring mustache, and said, ''Pick him off.'' Then he walked off and left me all alone.

If Zeus had landed on the pitcher's mound and issued the command, it would have had no greater effect. The chances of picking a man off third base are never good, and even worse in a close game, when everyone's paying attention. But this was Fitz talking, and I can still recall, 30 years later, the sensation he created in me. I didn't have words for it then, but I do now: I am about to show the world, and myself, what I can do.

At the time, this was a wholly novel thought for me. I'd spent the previous school year racking up C-minuses, picking fights with teachers and thinking up new ways to waste my time on earth. Worst of all, I had the most admirable, loving parents on whom I could plausibly blame nothing. What was wrong with me? I didn't know. To say I was confused would be to put it kindly; ''inert'' would be closer to the truth. In the three years before I met Coach Fitz, the only task for which I exhibited any enthusiasm was sneaking out of the house at 2 in the morning to rip hood ornaments off cars -- you needed a hacksaw and two full nights to cut the winged medallion off a Bentley. Now this fantastically persuasive man was insisting, however improbably, that I might be some other kind of person. A hero.

The kid with the fuzz on his upper lip bounced crazily off third base, oblivious to the fact that he represented a new solution to an adolescent life crisis. I flipped the ball to the third baseman, and it was in his glove before the kid knew what happened. The kid just flopped around in the dirt as the third baseman applied the tag. I struck out the next guy, and we won the game. Afterward, Coach Fitz called us together for a brief sermon. Hot with rage at the coach with the rule book -- the ballpark still felt as if it were about to explode -- he told us all that there was a quality no one within five miles of this place even knew about, called ''guts,'' which we all embodied. He threw me the game ball and said he'd never in all his life seen such courage on the pitcher's mound. He'd caught Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers and a lot of other big-league pitchers -- but who were they?

A core of the Fitzgerald/Williams technique is the bluster is a smokescreen. At the key moment, if there's a lesson to teach, the listener is so attuned to trying to make sure he doesn't displease "the angry father" that he's really concentrating on acting on the instruction. And because it's said calmly, it's notably different, an exception, a surprise, and processed . And he's not forcing Lewis to do something Lewis is afraid he doesn't do well enough (pitch to the batter), but to do something else about which he'll have little anxiety, pick off the runner at 3rd.

The advantages are all to the Newman School team. If it works, it's a big statistical shift (an extra out and no runner on third from where it's so probable he'll score), plus it's a change in momentum and builds the confidence of Lewis. If it doesn't work and the runner is safe, no loss, and Lewis has a few more seconds to compose himself.


There will be some employees you just have to bluster at. If you bluster, though, at mature contributors, the likelihood is you'll lose part of their loyalty and some of their productivity. And if you want to ever be mediocre or better as a manager, you can never allow yourself to actually bluster without knowing that you're at a level you could turn off in an instant (like Fitzgerald did on the mound), and placed in context as part of an overall process.

As Lewis explained later in the article, for his coach, success was not an event or even a set of events, it was a process. So while on the outside, Billy Fitzgerald is a dangerous explosive device, in reality, that is a technique he uses as part of an overall plan, a process for tuning his charges for the tasks at hand and later when he won't be right there to make every decision.

Outside of baseball, all the blustering managers I ever met had no long-range process design in mind. The closest I ever came was Ray, the former NYC fire captain who ran the mailroom at a talent agency I interned at. Ray blustered, but wasn't trying to intimidate, merely stress how important he thought it all was. But he had no long-term design.

Do you know any successful Fitzgerald/Williams types beyond baseball? I'd love to hear any stories; I think they're a very rare type.

Friday, March 26, 2004

When the Chiba Lotte Marines Beat The N.Y. Mets:
Bobby Valentine's Critical Wisdom  

When managers meet in a professional way and talk about their work at big social venues such as workshops, seminars and trade shows, there's frequently a subtle pecking-order exercise based on how big or famous the manager's organization is. Bobby Valentine, compulsive outsider, former journey-guy utilityman and New York Mets manager, now at the helm of the Japanese Leagues' Chiba Lotte Marines has some useful insights in how the effort invested in pecking-order is effort drawn away from the real job at hand.

Pecking order overhead has been going on for a long time, but it's picked up in the last few decades. What Americans have based it on has changed subtly, too.

In the Eighties, it was annual sales. In the Nineties, when the Cult of Branding was wilding and stock market ticker symbols were etched into the public memory with a depth comparable only to the names and stories of martyr saints during Europe's Dark Ages, the corporate name recognition of one's employer weighed heavily in establishing perceived mojo. If you worked for a better-known company your words seemed to carry more gravitas

The anthropologist in me never failed to be amused when I'd watch the odd pecking-order dance rituals over institutional sliced-beef lunches, and observe the particpants trying to figure out who was more important based on who they worked for, or how big their budgets were.

There's been an additional factor in this Elizabethan Great Chain of Being since about 1976, (I think resulting from the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter) where as a society we have been marketed the idea that corporate structures were morally and functionally superior to non-profit, military and governmental ones. And that therefore, by some transitive property, the managers who labored for the corporate employers had some functional and moral superiority over their peers who worked in endeavors where profit wasn't the currency. The Cult of Going Public refined this further; it wasn't enough to work for a successful for-profit venture, but to really be a chosen one, you needed to work for a company that traded its ownership in the form of stock that traded on public markets. In another forty years or so, that last bit will trigger the kind of amusement and wonderment with which we view Medieval peasants' worship of minor saints.


As you go about learning your managerial craft, if you keep your ears and eyes open, you'll find you have every bit as much to learn from managers who work a small unknown organizations. Small departments can have big, complex budgets. Big departments can have lots of bodies but only one simple, relatively unchanging function they do over and over.

And, of course, the only difference between managing in a large organization and a small one, is the larger the organization is, the more effort dedicated to politicking and the less to managing. And, almost always, the less innovation desired or possible. Those are powerful gravity fields, not immutable determinants. But you have at least as much to learn from managers who work in organizations you don't recognize from the store or stock ticker as you do from those you do recognize.

The task of management is no more sophisticated at G.M. than it is at Department of Agriculture. It's no better done at Pepsi than at Essential Baking Company.

Valentine is bumping up against this Great Chain of Being assumption right now. Managing in Japan, he's viewed with the assumption that he can't wait to manage in the bigs. Yes, in general the caliber of play in the National League is superior to that of the Japanese leagues, but that doesn't change the skill required to manage a team. The game is the same, as are some of the players.

As he said in this New York Newsday article this week,

"I have a job I'm doing right here that I'm loving and I'm totally into,'' Valentine said. "I do find it insulting for people to say, 'When are you going to get back to the States?' I get it, but I find it insulting.

"I am a major-league manager, whether people think that or not, because of their closed- mindedness. We stay in the finest hotels. We play before 40,000. We have guys that throw 96 mph that have splits and guys run down to first base and hit home runs as well as anyone in the world. Because they don't want to appreciate it, understand it or admit to it, I don't care.''

[snip]Valentine is back in business here, working from sunup to sundown.

"I like the challenge of a new team, of learning the talent and putting it in the right places,'' he said. "I like the language thing. I like learning to drive on the left-hand side of the road. I like all of those things.''

Valentine just gets it. (He always did, btw.When he was a utility infielder for the Seattle Mariners, he was one of the more interesting interviews you could get. There were rare excuses to actually talk to him, but it was always a pleasure, because he was open-minded and opinionated and fairly well-spoken.) It's not the size or brand-recognition of the organization that makes for advancement, it's challenge, coping with changes, managing differences, that build up your toolkit of abilities.

Be open to perspectives of managers in different kinds of organizations, remember that while their challenges might not be as public, or as likely to make Baseball Tonight or The Nightly Business Report or C-Span, those challenges might be tougher, or of more use to you. Bobby Valentine knows that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Minimizing Talent: Lou Piniella, Jesus Colome &
Learning When an Experiment is Over  

Earl Weaver was the master at experimentation, a key factor in his mastery was knowing when to hold and when to fold, as Kenny Rogers has been quoted as saying. There's no magic formula in or outside of baseball, it's intuitive. And even the best can be wrong, usually tending, when they make a mistake, to make that mistake on one side of the hold/fold duality.

Knowing when to pull the plug on a failed Prune-Pepperoni-Peanut Butter Pop-Tart of an experiment is not one of Lou Piniella's personal strengths. Back when he managed the Seattle Mariners, Piniella got a wonderful 1994 season out of reliever Bobby "Ay-Ay-AYIEE" Ayala, and a special gift it was, too, worthy of an O. Henry write up. Because while it wasn't quite as good as the 2.86 ERA indicated it was, the year was highly functional. And like a Staffordshire Terrier who's caught the car he was chasing down the street and locked his jaws on the left-rear Michelin Pilot® Exalto® 195-60h-15 radial, Lou sticks with his decisions, even when the discomfort of being flump-flump-whumped on the macadam would have convinced a lesser Promise-Keeper to release his hold. Piniella let Ayiee's subpar '95 go by, stood by his man during a sucko '96, rode him to death during a positive '97. In '98 Lou descended into the Sixth Circle of Dante's Hell holding on mightily to an Ayala who racked up a legendary 7.88 run average over 75 event-packed innings of Mariner baseball.

Lou finally folded. But he didn't exactly learn his lesson. In 1999, he used to regularly let Brian L. Hunter (the one that can run but hot hit a lick, as opposed to the one who could hit but not run a lick), who that season sported a .277 on-base percentage, hit for himself late in games that were on the line, when he had at least two guys on the bench (in one game, Edgar Martinez) who could hit notably better. He stopped doing these past-their-value experiments in Seattle only when he became the Tamnpa Bay Devil Rays' skipper.

Apparently, he's at it again. This, according to Steven Goldman, the most-consistently amusing of the well-informed baseball commentators, in his recent Pinstriped Bible piece:

On Sunday, in an outing that lasted approximately 80 of our Earth years, Devil Rays reliever Jesus Colome pitched two-thirds of an inning against the Yankees, allowing three hits, two walks, and four earned runs. He also winged Derek Jeter on the hand. In Colome's last 16 regular season innings against the Yankees, he has walked 13, allowed 19 hits, and six home runs.

There is nothing left for Lou Piniella to explore in the Colome-Yankees relationship, and both pitcher and his team would be well-served if he never again faced New York. It's rare that a prohibition on a match-up is strictly enforced by a manager, but it has happened. On September 15, 1986, Don Mattingly hit a game-winning home run off of Baltimore bullpen ace Don Aase. It was the second time Mattingly had done that to Aase in less than a year. To that point in his career, Mattingly was hitting about .750 against the reliever. After the game, Orioles manager Earl Weaver said that Aase would never pitch to Mattingly again, not even to intentionally walk him.

Discretion, Shakespeare wrote, is the better part of valor.

We all come to the management table with strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are harder to lose than others. Usually these won't be the drop-dead obvious ones, I've found in coaching managers, because when failure is complete, or the results consistently hurt (flump-flump-whump), it's easier to shed them. Usually it's the ones that don't guarantee failure so often that are hard to shed. A World War I French cavalry charge into entrenched German machine guns or rolling out Bobby Ayala is an easier mistake not to repeat than calling for a sacrifice bunt (usually net-negative, but in the right situation is a great move).

To become an acceptable manager, you need to learn from your mistakes. Not overlearn (that is, refuse to ever again consider anyhting like what you did before), but flexibly reject moves you recognize from past failures. In subjecting Jesus Colome to all the stations of the cross, and then cycling him through it again, Piniella is re-living the failures of his past.


Monday, March 22, 2004

The Adaptive Wisdom of Jim Colborn,
Dodger Pitching Guru  

There are managers who know how to inspire beautifully...who then fail to inspire.

If a manager comes to the task of coaching or working with a staffer armed with a single perfect approach, he might succeed, he might fail. When I was a young manager, I had incredibly powerful success with certain kinds of people -- people who wanted to do a good job and to do that were willing both to learn and to teach me, too. When I hired, I mostly hired those types because I just thought they "were the best". This approach helped make me a good manager, that combined with finding it easy to tolerate a wide range of approaches to getting things done.

But there were many assignments I had as a consultant, and a few as an in-house supervisor where I found people in place who simply had to have their butts kicked to perform. In my prejudiced way, I considered people you needed to manage that way inferior, and as far as being immediately useful in a group I ran, they did seem that way. But that was my fault. Because I get much less pleasure kicking someone's butt than teaching and learning, I missed the fact that many of these types could be important & prolific contributors if, instead of giving them what I thought was virtuous, I gave them what they needed to kick-start them.

My single "perfect" approach only worked when I got to hire everyone. I learned from Earl Weaver that to be a great manager, one had to learn to squeeze the most out of everyone. You treat them equally (don't play favorites or grant special privileges without the most extraordinary of exceptions), but at the same time, treat them as individuals. That was a Weaver standard operating guideline.

People are different in what inspires them to give their utmost and a great manager has to be sensitive to what each individual's motivators are and keep a range of behavioral tools at her side to apply the best one for each staffer. I still believe in my gut that people who need their butt kicked to achieve are somehow less healthy than the people who are my preferred type -- I just understand that in the workplace, they can contribute equally if they are managed to their own pattern instead of mine.

Balance is the hard part, because you need to treat everyone equally, but at the same time, with a different set of things you do to help, and with a different set of motivators (what I call "currencies").


In baseball, this is transparently clear because it focuses a lot of light on the way things are set up. If you're a pitching coach, you're going to be coaching right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers, and these don't have mirror-image mechanics. Even if you were an accomplished pitcher, unless you were Tony "The Apollo Of The Box" Mullane, who pitched from both sides, a significant percentage of your charges will throw from the side you didn't. And pitchers fall into about nine basic patterns, so even if you were a very accomplished pitcher with a long career, you would only have applied two or three of them at most (hurlers with long careers usually make a shift when they get older and their fastball is not an overpowering weapon by itself, so they start using one of the other patterns).

Dodger pitching coach Jim Colborn apparently knew this intuitively, and it's helping his organization both in producing better talents in his young pitchers, but also in attracting attention from the kind of pitchers who are looking to learn. This profile from MLB.COM, referenced by Baseball Primer, interviewed many of Colborn's charges.

It isn't that he mentored a Cy Young Award winner, although that's pretty cool on the resume.

Jim Colborn said he knows something special is happening with his career when he hears a journeyman pitcher like Eric Knott explain why -- despite knowing he has virtually no chance of making the Dodgers' loaded Major League pitching staff -- he signed with the organization anyway.

"I probably had a better shot making other clubs, but I was wondering if there was something over here, something they were teaching guys that would make me better," said Knott, who now faces knee surgery. "I see things going on here working for everybody. I want to tap into that. I wanted to know what the secret was. I was intrigued. Now I see the way Colborn teaches. That had a big influence on my decision."

Rick White, another roster candidate who has made seven other Major League stops, felt the same. "This guy must have a good idea if everybody pitches well," said White. "It's like nobody ever struggles. It just doesn't happen when the whole staff is good. He knows what he's doing." [snip]

That word is getting around, the way it did with Ray Miller and Dave Duncan and Leo Mazzone, with the legacy of Dodger pitching coaches from Red Adams to Ron Perranoski to Dave Wallace. Colborn has become a pitching guru. They come from far and wide seeking his counsel. Young and old, star and scuffler. He's not too technical, not too theoretical. He's everyman's pitching coach. [snip]

."He's a great teacher and a great motivator," said (last year's Cy Young award winner, Eric) Gagne. "He's a weirdo, in a good way. He has a dry sense of humor. He doesn't take anything too seriously. There's so much failure in this game, you need to be around people who can handle it. He keeps everybody loose and relaxed. He's not yelling, he's not acting crazy. He's good for young guys and old guys. He shows you the path.

"For a young kid, there's a lot of pressure up here. Colby jokes, even if you fail. We're human. It's OK. His strength is that there isn't just one way to do it."

"We have a tolerance for idiosyncrasies that some might find irritating," said Colborn. "We appreciate the bizarre. One reason for our success is that we have an attitude that is supportive of individuals, guys like (Kevin) Brown and (Jose) Lima." [snip]

He treats (the pitchers) equally, yet individually. He offers suggestions, but not too many. "He's got the ability to make it easy," said Alvarez. "Some coaches say you've got to do it their way and they make you think. His way is simple and that way you don't think too much. You just do it. When some guys get technical you just get confused."

"I say as little as possible and make sure to say it one way as simply as I can," he (Colborn) said. "If you have a golf coach give you a tip, it might take you 10 swings before you get it. If he gives you a new tip every two or three swings, you overload. Trust that they are good at it. Give them a tip and let them master it."

In short, you need to learn the adaptive wisdom of Jim Colborn. Great management is not about forcing people to conform to some ideal form you design to. Yes, you need standards, but equally, to deliver the highest vlue from each staffer, form each moment, from each decision, you need to adapt to individuals' needs and what motivates them.

Procrustes never would have succeeded as a major league pitching coach. Neither did Stan Williams. All his grit and wisdom was wasted as a pitching coach because it didn't flex to meet the individuality of his charges.

Colborn had some advantages. His career was fairly long (8 real seasons), and he got to pitch as a starter and as a reliever in both leagues, as well as having some years he was considered successful (20 game winner in 1973, in 1977 he threw a no-hitter), and some years that were far from it (in 1976, he was 9-15, and in 1978 was 3-10 with a putrid 5.24 ERA). He got a wide perspective which seems to be a foundation for teahcing multiple ways of working.

Be like Colborn. Learn not only to recognize differences, but to embrace them as a tool for maximizing your organization's returns from staff skills and attitudes.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The Lessons of Brady Anderson's Magnum Opus  

I once hit .583 for a season in a recreational league. Granted, it was one of those 1887 Tip O'Neill flukes. Only 21 games, there were no walks and you couldn't strike out on a foul ball (a rule I hate that's in so many rec leagues), so I could foul off five or six pitches waiting for one I really liked. But I had this extraordinary combination of seeing the ball really well, being very comfortable at the plate and incredible luck that allowed a fair number of line drives to just miss outstretched gloves. Everything just lined up that season.

So when Brady Anderson, a fairly good but ordinary player who had one breathtaking outlier of a year, gets accused of using illegal substances simply because that year is so many standard deviations from his norm, I 'm confident that the accusation is just whingeing from a bunch of people who don't get the point. But so you understand, here's Anderson's the part of playing record including The Year, and the five years before and after:

Year Ag Tm ..G ..AB ..R .H .2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB .SO .BA ..OBP SLG HBP
1991 27 BAL 113 256
.40 .59 12 .3 .2 .27 12 .5 38 .44 .230 .338 .324 .5
1992 28 BAL 159 623 100 169 28 10 21
.80 53 16 98 .98 .271 .373 .449 .9
1993 29 BAL 142 560
.87 147 36 .8 13 .66 24 12 82 .99 .262 .363 .425 10
1994 30 BAL 111 453
.78 119 25 .5 12 .48 31 .1 57 .75 .263 .356 .419 10
1995 31 BAL 143 554 108 145 33 10 16
.64 26 .7 87 111 .262 .371 .444 10
1996 32 BAL 149 579 117 172 37 .5 50 110 21 .8 76 106 .297 .396 .637 22
1997 33 BAL 151 590 .97 170 39 .7 18 .73 18 12 84 105 .288 .393 .469 19
1998 34 BAL 133 479
.84 113 28 .3 18 .51 21 .7 75 .78 .236 .356 .420 15
1999 35 BAL 150 564 109 159 28
.5 24 .81 36 .7 96 105 .282 .404 .477 24
2000 36 BAL 141 506
.89 130 26 .0 19 .50 16 .9 92 103 .257 .375 .421 .8
2001 37 BAL 131 430
.50 .87 12 .3 .8 .45 12 .4 60 .77 .202 .311 .300 .8

In the new tabloid fascination with supplements legal and illegal, Anderson's 1996 Magnum Opus has been mentioned as a strong candidate for being an indication of steroid use. This kind of thinking is so far off base, I'm not sure it qualifies as actual thinking. The Baltimore Sun ran an article, "Anderson defends his '96 power trip", that lets Anderson talk about his season, and how it fits into his career.

"Because I only hit 50 home runs once, it was, in fact, an aberration. However, it was not a fluke," he told The Sun yesterday. "Nothing can be considered a fluke that takes six months to accomplish. Rather it was a culmination of all my athleticism and baseball skills and years of training peaking simultaneously. This was my athletic opus.

"Hitting in front of [Roberto] Alomar, [Rafael] Palmeiro, [Bobby] Bonilla and [Cal] Ripken didn't hurt, either." [snip]

"I have been alternately amused and perplexed by Palmer's vacillating comments over the last few days," said Anderson, who is raising his daughter with her mother, Sonia Vassi. "I did not respond initially because I sensed he knew he had made a mistake and thought it fair to let him rectify the matter on his own.

"Perhaps what offended me the most was his comment that he knows how hard I trained. How could he possibly know that? Pushing myself to become a better athlete was truly my passion and still is. Many people don't possess the desire to test the limits of what the body and mind can accomplish, and others I'm certain possess the desire but lack the expertise to achieve the desired results."

Anderson never hit more than 21 homers before 1996, and didn't eclipse 24 after '96.

"I know what I accomplished, am proud of it, and know that it was done with integrity," he said. "I'll state this once again: It was 26 more home runs than I hit in any other season, but that's just one more home run per week, just one more good swing. That is the data that simultaneously comforted me and haunted me, the small difference between greatness and mediocrity."

Anderson usually kept a container of Creatine in his locker, but the supplement, which serves as an energy reserve in muscle cells, is legal. "That's here to stay. It's a legitimate substance. It's found in food," he said. "Taken properly, it can be very beneficial. But it doesn't replace skill or training."

Anderson, who was tested for steroids in the minors last year, said he has received dozens of calls from friends and former teammates since Palmer's remarks made it into print, many of them outraged or confused by the implications. They remember Anderson as a man obsessed with physical fitness, someone whose training methods were seen as outrageous for a baseball player. They remember him working out privately on the back fields at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, where he would squat 200 pounds while balancing on an exercise ball.

They also observed how his weight never fluctuated much, that his muscular build was the same four years before he hit 50 homers - as evidenced by a poster of him, shirtless, that was a popular sell in Baltimore. They didn't see the violent outbursts common with steroid abusers. [snip] Players used to tease Anderson for bringing his own blender into the clubhouse, unfamiliar with the concoctions he chugged before or after games. Said Ripken: "Now protein mixes are an acceptable part of everyone's diet. Brady always had a much more advanced concept of cross-training and plyometrics and his diet. He was just ahead of the curve."

His timing on fastballs was impeccable in '96. "To me, it was all about him being locked in. He had good swings every at-bat. Bearing witness to it all year, he was a marvel to watch. I don't remember him ever being in a slump," Ripken said.

"Brady always had a fly-ball swing, which he was criticized for as a leadoff hitter, but that year he was right on the ball. He was just in one of those grooves. There were a couple of instances in my career when I seemed to pick up the next day where I left off. It's hard to explain. You wish you could do that every year."

Said Anderson: "The thing that stands out about '96 is, it's not my size, it's my swing. If anyone wants to compare what changed about me, my swing was so much better that year. I couldn't match it, and I don't know why. Later in my career, I was trying to imitate myself. I had a swing that any hitter would have been proud of. The other years, I used to just battle [hard] and be athletic."

If one thinks Anderson took steroids, the arguer would have to answer some simple questions

#1: If he was on steroids before 1996, why were his stats so ordinary?

#2: If he was on {steroids | whatever} in 1996, why is the shape of his stat line the way it is? It's not one single thing...that is, it's clear he was taking a different approach and benfitted. He had 22 HBPs, over twice his typical dram, meaning he was working the plate differently. He ha a lower walk rate and lower strikeout rate and more hits, meaning he was putting the ball in play some more. His RBIs (excluding the ones he got scoring on his own homers) went up 25% while his hits went up 19%, meaning he probably had far more plate appearances with men on base (which provides an additional advantage to a hitter who is facing a pitcher who is more likely to be ineffective or whose attention is divided to some degree, or both).

#3. If he was on {steroids | whatever} in 1996, why is his 1997 stat line so normal for his career in most ways, while still reflecting the approach of the unusual 1996 year? There was no giant tabloid supplements witch-hunt. He didn't injure himself (he played two more games that next season than he had the year before). Competitive people can usually be counted on to keep doing what they are asuccessful at and for which they recieved recognition. If he was taking steroids in 1996, why would he stop?

The suspicion is unavoidable that Brady Anderson just had his Magnum Opus in 1996, a year when everything went just right, he had some extra luck, some extra tranquillity. some extra soupçon of consistent muscle coordination. And that it was combined with a different approach of crowding the plate to avoid being jammed too often, and that pitchers didn't, as a composite, adapt too well during that season, to his changes, adapting only later.


Outside of baseball, managers experience this alignment of the planets occasionally. It's important to remember this in evaluating performance in in managing your own expectations of people and strategies.

Just as many Orioles fans were disappointed with Anderson, a C+ ballplayer for most of his career who had an A+ year, it's possible to be "disappointed" with the perfomance of staff or managers who are good, and who then do something great when they're locked in or get the perfect situation in which to prove themselves. These zones don't usually last very long in dynamic systems. The odds are, they will regress to their range of normal. That's true when they suddenly fail as sharply in the other direction.

While individuals get hurt by this spearation between reality and expectations, organizational strategies can hurt a lot more. Decent one-year results based on a specific strategy can be the early recongition of a sea-change, or just an Anderson-like change of approach that works for a while, and perhaps benefits from a little fortuitous smattering of co-factors or indepedent events that play into the direction of the strategy. And in the case where it's a Brady Anderson 1996 (a fine outlier where everything just came into synch at the same time), organizations can go nuts and refuse to adapt their approach, sticking to the expectation that somehow, that outlier was normal.

Do you see this in your own organization? Perhaps behaviors that unfairly criticize individuals for living in their 99th percentile all the time? Perhaps strategies that see past results as rules writ in stone? Or like Brady Anderson, can your organization stay as sharp as it can and not let expectations blitz reality and face the immutable fact that sometimes, everything comes together for a contributor or a strategy, and just see that as a positive, useful-when-it-happened blip.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Iron City Hazing: Lloyd McClendon Relives
an Olde Frothingslosh Hangover  

Those who condemn history to repeat itself, forget it.
-- Unamuno

A frequent bad management trick is to unconsciously or intentionally make someone go though some hazard course that the manager had to go through when he was just a player. This lack of self-awareness and self-examination (third base in the MBB model) It happens in baseball and in non-baseball organizations alike. But in baseball, it's drop-dead obvious.

Baseball Primer is running a team-by-team scouting report and a few days ago, they carried Mike Emeigh's summary of the Pittsburgh Pirates' prospects for the pursuit of the pennant. If you're not familiar with his work, it's really special; he's numerically sophisticated, but his studies grip context and shading better than just about any of the other exxxxtreme math guys'.

Emeigh wrote about a young Pirate player of promise, Craig Wilson, his performance (which is good) and his prospects for playing time (which aren't very good).

Craig Wilson, over the course of his major league career, has hit .322/.414/.595 against left-handed pitching, and .249/.340/.450 against right-handed pitching. Those RHP stats, by the way, are not much different than [his left-handed hitting platoon partner at first base] Randall Simon’s splits against RHP over the last three years (.302/.332/.466), although Wilson’s OBP is inflated to some extent by 35 HBP vs RHP, which nearly matches his walk total (46). Unfortunately, the Pirates also see Wilson’s relatively high strikeout numbers against RHP (about 1 every 3.5 PAs) and look at him as a liability against RHP. The "Free Craig Wilson" movement is in full swing, but it’s not going to happen in Pittsburgh; Wilson is going to be a backup catcher, platoon 1B with Simon, and OF starter when Mondesi or Jason Bay need a rest. As Lloyd McClendon is fond of saying, Wilson will get his 300 PAs –he should be getting more, but the Pirates probably won’t give it to him.

Craig Wilson (not to be confused with Buc SS Jack Wilson) is popular among many sabermetric enthusiasts. He has some power in his bat and has figured out how to get on base enough that his on-base percentage is net-positive, too. Plus he's young enough that if he played regularly, he might have some noticeable chance to be better. He had the highest offensive production rate (OPS+ of 125) of any 2003 Pirate still on the team. As of yesterday, he was having an acceptable Spring, statistically, anyway:

Wilson .393 10 28 8 11 26 3
..0 .4 10

That's a small sample slugging percentage of .929. On defense, he plays right field (just about well enough to be called adequate, but he doesn't get enough playing time so that you could really judge his full potential), first base (just about well enough to be called adequate, but he doesn't get enough playing time so that you could really judge his full potential), and catcher (just about enough....yes, you get it already).

And this is frustrating to Iron City fans who wish he'd get a proper chance. As a right-handed platoon partner, he's going to start in the roughly 3/8ths of the games where opponents start a left-handed pitcher. He's going to move around the field as a sub, and never get established in a position (which conceivably could help his hitting a little, because if he is a barely-adequate fielder as the numbers make it look like he is, he'll not be given a chance to master any position to the point that he's clearly-adequate, and this will probably draw some of his attention away from his batting.

It seems like a sad waste of potential letting a guy who might be the team's best hitter wallow on the bench while manager Lloyd McClendon injects an exaltation of sabermetrically unpopular players into the lineup. If Craig Wilson could help the small market, and long-term struggling Pirates, no one will ever know.


Here's the odd thing, and I think it's not a coincidence: When Lloyd McClendon played, he was the Craig Wilson of his time. Not quite as good a player, but Wilson is a right-handed hitter who kills left-handed pitching and plays corner outfield, first base and catcher. McClendon was a right-handed hitter who killed left-handed pitching and played corner outfield, first base and catcher, and McClendon never really had the opportunity to start regularly. Even when he was putting up All-Star quality numbers, he never put up All-Star quality numbers because he got used as a platoon partner and occasional sub. Look at McClendon's career; it's hauntingly similar (not exactly the same: the manager's playing career started later, and his really good years were punctuated with poor ones).

But McClendon was the Pirates' lefty-killer sub extraordinaire of his day, and the way then-Pirate manager Jim Leyland used him is the way it appears he's insisting on using C. Wilson. In his two best years, 1989 and 1991, he was used for 200-350 plate appearances, and annihilated lefty pitching (numbers courtesy of Dr. Grant Sterling, philosopher, baseball researcher, Tolkien scholar, commissioner).:

        avg  obp  slg  AB    H  2b  3b  hr  rbi  w  hbp  k
vs. L  350  429  547 117   41   5   0   6   19  14  2   17
vs. R  130  200  239  46    6   2   0   1    5   4  0    6

vs. L  339  432  554  121   41   8   0   6   22  22   0  11
vs. R  239  310  413  138   33   4   1   6   18  15   1  20

McClendon's 1989 had splits much like the numbers Emeigh cites in the section I reprinted above. Great against lefties, about league average against righties.

I believe Lloyd McClendon is doing one of three things.

Possibility #1: He's intentionally making Craig Wilson relive the manager's own career limits (McClendon didn't do well enough against right-handed pitchers -- as in the 1989 example here -- to benefit his team, but on the other hand, it wasn't like he ever was given a great chance to play enough against righties to succeed or fail clearly). I call this a management hazing ritual -- sort of "I had to suffer through it all, and now you will to". Awful, but possible..

Possibility #2: He's intentionally using Wilson the way he was used because he falsely believes Wilson really is his doppelganger, that is, without any malice at all, he has come to believe that he himself never could have achieved more, that when he was effective, he was being spotted as a lefty-killer, and he's protecting Wilson's ego and career by using Wilson the way Leyland used him. Sad, maybe even right, but not good management.

Possibility #3: He's unintentionally using Wilson the way he was used; he doesn't even realize why. Really awful management.

Wilson is truly trapped in the Olde Frothingslosh hangover of McClendon's playing career. He's inexpensive enough to keep around as a bench player (last year's salary was $327,000), and at 300 plate appearances, will not likely rack up enough playing time to harvest big enough numbers to be able to sell himself as an expensive free agent, which may have him hanging on in this existential job description. And like Olde Frothingslosh (The Pale Stale Ale With The Foam On The Bottom), Wilson is a real product whose career may be short-lived and a source of bitter humor later on.


Outside of baseball, you see these managerial behaviors (all three of the possibilities I mentioned). This is actually one of the rare management failures that's as prevalent in small organizations as large ones.

Sometimes it's intentional.

As a college work-study job, I worked as an "agent trainee" at William Morris, a leading talent agency, in New York. It was the beginning of the career path that virtually everyone in the company had shared. The actual work was mail-room clerk, substitute receptionist, foot messenger, go-fer. And occasionally, you got to ask one of the agents a question or share an idea with him or her. And I once got to deliver a fat manila envelope to Melina Mercouri herself, which I thought was cool.

More than anything else, it was a total hazing experience. Like older boys in a British boarding school, many successful agents who survived this system suffered emotional damage during their years of endurance. They came to believe that the hazing they received was an important part of their training (after all, why would they have chosen to endure it rather than leaving -- a subtle logic trap). So they abused the agent trainees the way they had been abused.

Sometimes it's unintentional.

That's especially prevalent in American management. Because management itself is not seen as a profession in this country, but merely something gets promoted into for no (or vaguely) related reasons, American managers tend to just imitate managers they've had themselves (who, in turn, probably developed their managerial behavior portfolio the same way). If one does this consciously and with a rigorous and systematic approach, it's a wonderful short-cut to adequacy. But if one does this as a last resort, merely imprinting on a previous supervisor as "this must be a template for the way I'm supposed to act", it almost guarantees failure. Since 85% of all managers (business, government, military, non-profit) are mediocrity or crap, 85% of the people who one imitates are mediocrity or crap. (Actually, closer to 80%; 5% are so awful, they out themselves to their mediocre supervisors, who can't help but notice and actually do something about it).

My wife had a supervisor, let's call him "Vern Rapp", a very fine line worker, who was promoted to supervisor in social services unit. He was an English major, a cool guy, but w/zero management training. Without realizing it, he used his own father as a template for what an authority figure should do, and conflating "authority figure" with "manager" was the first howler of a mistake. Authority figure merely rule, and play off competing factions to maintain authority, while managers have to actually deliver results.

Vern Rapp's father was an overbearing, dictatorial man who protected his authority by maintaining secrecy. His decisions and instructions were delivered without explanation, without context. He maintained his authority by keeping family members on edge, uncertain, and concerned about their standing by never praising-when-merited, only criticizing-when-merited. Rapp's dad wasn't just a Falangist scumbag -- he had some good attributes, too. That secrecy, for example, meant that the family didn't know about every challenge they faced because he'd just take care of it. And he'd defend any family member to the death against anyone not inside the family.

So when Rapp became a supervisor late in life with no training, he managed his unit the same way. And this worked to a large degree as an authority figure. He won the loyalty of his staff because he would defend them to the death when they messed up, which they did more often than they should have because he wasn't managing them properly or teaching by example or helping the weaker individuals build up skills. His portfolio of managerial behaviors was constrained to his dad's.


I'm not promising McClendon is actually hazing C. Wilson, I don't have secret insight into his thinking/feeling process. But the parallels are so close it's breathtaking. This Scotsman would bet you a nickel he's right.

In your own management practice, do observe yourself regularly, examine your decisions and motivations, imitate the productive. Don't make someone else relive your Olde Frothingslosh hangover.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Blogging on Five Day's Rest  

This is going to be a very slow week for entries. Between work-related travel, trying to finish a particularly dense chapter of the book and journeying to play in a tournament, my work schedule is killer.

Probably won't have time to post something worthwhile until Thursday. Until then, invest your time in spring training boxscores. Don't waste any time on the made-for-tv-quality movie Secret Window. I think David Koepp must be the Larry Burright of directors. Let's hope his career is just as short.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

The Cubs, the Red Sox, and Now
the Rangers: Comfort is the Enemy  

If a nation values anything more than freedom,
it will lose its freedom.
The irony of it is that if it is money or comfort it values more,
it is destined to lose that, too.
-- W. Somerset Maugham (1941)

Comfort is the greatest enemy of successful organizations.

That's understandable. "If it ain't broke don't fix it" is not only a pandemic nostrum, it makes some practical sense, and that makes it more dangerous when fixing is necessary. It's always easier, extremely-so in larger organizations, to just do whatever they do the way they already do it. So success breeds comfort with the status quo in process and strategy, that in turn creates an inertia field.

The irony of it is that comfort with the process and strategy status quo also affects unsuccessful organizations, and the larger they are, the more likely they are to be trapped by it until there's a resulting cataclysm. Amazing, or as Vizzini says in The Princess Bride, "It's INCONCEIVABLE".

But conceivable it is, and there are wonderful examples in baseball that illustrate the process. For decades, the poster children for the odd recombinant mix of comfort and lack of success were the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. What the teams shared were home stadia that significantly enhanced the probability of certain kinds of offensive events over a long season, that, in turn, created distorted batting and pitching stats for many team players and the team as a whole. So when the teams failed to achieve as highly as they thought they should, management looked at the numbers, underestimated (or perhaps even ignored) the way the context of home stadium factors distorted "reality" as measured by the statistics, and then got comfortable with what they should have been uncomfortable with.

According to Anthony Giacalone's Looking Forward to 2004: Texas Rangers team overview in Baseball Primer, the Texas Rangers are following this pattern, this amazing, counter-intuitive Bizarro-Superman World weirdness. As Giacalone writes in this really informative piece (read the whole thing for an insightful analysis of the entire Ranger roster):

Bill James once wrote that we need to start with two premises when dealing with parks like The Ballpark at Arlington, or like Wrigley and Fenway used to be: one, these parks distort the records of their players, which is generally known but universally underestimated, and two, teams that play in these parks pay for believing everything which is not true. "Park illusions," James elaborated several years later, "create unequal and misplaced pressures upon teams and players, which in the long run yield results which are precisely opposed to the characteristics of the park." A team like the Rangers, which plays in a great hitters’ park, will always score runs no matter how good their offense is. So, over a period of years they will not address their offensive needs, allowing their offense to slip into mediocrity. Conversely, their mediocre pitchers, who might put up league average ERA in another park will tend to have an ERA in the 5.00s in Arlington and will quickly be replaced. [snip]

The conventional wisdom about the Rangers, even among stat-friendly analysts, indicates that we haven’t come very far in the last quarter century. The Rangers were fifth in the league in runs scored in 2003, better than two playoff teams. However, their pitching was dreadful – dead last and a quarter of a run worse than the next worst staff. Ask any sportswriter, babbling SportsRadio pundit or bantering head on SportsTV and they’ll tell you that the Rangers can’t win because they have no pitching. Which is true, but only to an extent. The Rangers can’t win because they can’t pitch AND they can’t hit. In 2003 Rangers hit .246/.316/.405 on the road; in 2002, .254/.319/.416. That, my friends, is a bad offense, thirteenth in the AL in runs scored on the road in 2003 and better than only Detroit’s.

[snip] the point has everything to do with players like Shane Spencer (.176/.300/.255 on the road in 2003), Juan Gonzalez (.257/.307/.379 on the road in 2002) and Andres Galarraga (.221/.296/.377 in 2001 road games). The Ballpark at Arlington masks some really bad older players and allows them to muck up an offense for years. But worse for a team is the effect that a park like Arlington’s has on the evaluation of young players. Here’s an example. Michael Young may or may not end up being a good player, but the Rangers seem to think that he will and are talking about giving him a five-year contract extension. Why? On the surface he seems like a nice player. After all, he hit .303 with 14 homers last year. Unfortunately, those numbers are mostly an illusion, a refraction of his real talent viewed through the distorting prism of a offense-oriented home park. In his three big league seasons, Young has hit .227/.263/.345, .245/.287/.359 and .262/.291/.367. [snip] Hank Blalock hit below .190 on the road in 2002 and .262/.301/.435 while away in 2003. Last year Teixeira hit .217/.303/.343 on the road; Laynce Nix, .189/.223/.300. See? This park makes things very confusing. Everyone you know thinks that Teixeira and Blalock are can’t miss guys, but their road numbers are butt-awful.

[snip] And the pitching would be equally as confusing if the Rangers had any major league capable starters right now. Doug Davis, for example, is no great shakes but he sure was a lot worse in the Rangers’ home white that in their road gray. From 2001-2003, Davis posted a 4.18 road ERA in 209 road innings. Now there might be a lot of noise in those numbers and the Rangers might have been swayed by other things, but I can’t picture another team releasing a 27-year old lefthander while he was sporting a career 4.18 ERA.


Outside of baseball, I see this a lot.

A company struggling because of a weakness they can't see, a weakness masked by what appears to be success. I consulted to a high-tech company for a while that had the most incredibly productive R&D department I've ever seen. The company needed to change, because while results had been very good for years, the trajectory was changing, and sales people were having greater and greater struggles selling to the largest accounts. Because high-tech companies are driven by responding to or getting ahead of change, all the change efforts were focused on getting R&D pointed in the right direction, killing projects viewed as too creative (that is, seen as risky) and producing what the biggest, highest-buying customers thought they wanted.

In high-tech, of course, no matter how fast you move, by the time you actually release a product, the customer has usually evolved and usually wants something slightly, greatly, or completely different. R&D was not the problem.

The sales department was the problem. Totally. No one inside the organization could see this because of the environmental factors. First, in high-tech when you are successful and then your sales start to tail off, it's a "safe" assumption that your technology is no longer serving the market. Second, as long as the sales are rolling in (as long as the team is scoring 6 runs a game), it doesn't look like sales needs fixing. But the sales department was a mess masked by high sales volumes. The department head had a personality disorder. He liked (as employees) men much better than women. So when an account was developed by one of the departmental women, he'd transfer it to one of the men. It created discontinuity in the relationship-building with the purchasers at the big clients while undermining the women's ability to make money, and since most sales people are motivated primarily by money, this tended to offend the women, who tended to transfer, slack, or leave the company.

In addition, this sales department had, in spades, a distortion that is pretty common in sales departments: they listened too closely to their largest customers and not enough to their fastest-growing ones. Smaller organizations tend to grow faster than larger ones, and tend to be far more capable at absorbing change (in everything, including new technological approaches). So sales growth is easier to harvest from smaller, faster-growing companies that larger, higher-current volume ones. But it's easier for a saleswoman to make her numbers selling to Chrysler than it is to Smart Car (and the same is true for the department as a whole).

Both distortions fried the chicken that came home to roost.

Not only was the sales group not able to take good advantage of the growth area of the market, it was bringing back feedback exclusively from a handful of slower-growth customers with whom they didn't have tight personal relationships (because of the staff reassignments designed to help politically-favored appointees). The company was relying on salesfolk for gathering the information on which to base R&D's direction (tends to be a mistake, because this always guarantees a bit of backwards-looking, as opposed to forward-looking, bias). And the salesfolk gathering this info tended not to have built up a deep enough relationship with the buyer to get the buyer's most thoughtful and engaged response.

Comfort can undermine even organizations that aren't really succeeding, if the comfort is the result of context distortion. Just as the Cubs, the Red Sox, and the Rangers.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Schlock-Eyed Optimism Revisited
Pushback & Added Insight  

On Saturday, the entry was about MBWT (Management by Wishful Thinking), & I took The Sporting News to task for having printed a pre-season overview that suggested 18 teams would improve while at the same time only 10 would decline. Based on my thinking, baseball is a zero-sum game, and for every extra win there has to be an extra loss, so 10 declines wouldn't blanace 18 improvements..

Bruce Adelsohn pushed back on pieces of my logic and his note has merit (abridged here):

I think your analysis of the excessively optimistic views of baseball reporters in springtime is facile, or at least more superficial than your usual effort. In addition to the three reasons you mention about why writers would believe a team has improved, there is the belief that baseball is not a zero-sum game in terms of talent. While it certainly is recordwise, as you note, there is a widespread perception that the incoming talent from the ranks of the minor leagues will more than make up for it. I believe that it is so, though not to the extent that is perceived; that is, the level at which the game is played is increasing annually. (Yes, I can see that as a parallel in the business world. A business SHOULD aim to improve, always.)

Also, in your example, eighteen teams are listed as believed to have improved. This is likely true on paper; nevertheless, unpredictable events such as injuries will play some part in determining how many of those predictions fall short (at least three, unless as you note some team tanks atrociously). Although baseball GMs (and reporters) are aware of injuries, most preseason assessments are not written with them in mind. (I imagine a good business plan WOULD include contingencies for events such as loss of key personnel to illness or defection, though. Such a plan wouldn't necessarily make up the loss completely, if at all, though it would allow the firm to continue functioning.)

I wonder if you might consider addressing an amendment to your last point in more detail (or if I have missed it, please point out where): while the lack of quality is not free, quality costs more. Or does it? (My conclusion: quality might cost more up front, but, like all good investments, pays for itself over time.).

My response (also abridged) both agreed and disagreed with his arguments. Mr. Adelsohn is a publishing/layout professional, which is why you'll see a reference to printers.

I don't disagree, though I'm inclined to hold to my original point. Let me make a tiny desktop publishing analogy for a minute. Let's say you own a 600 x 1200 dpi color laser. Your competitors own 2400 x 2400 dpi technology. You buy a new (better resolution) printer like theirs.

Are you better in the Bruce sense? Yep, sure. Can you use it to market your service. In the Jeff sense, nope. You might retain customers you would have lost otherwise (if they cared about such specifications), but it's not likely to bring you new business. You get a bit of a tax break, technically on paper you're better, but your competitive position isn't improved.

Another point I didn't make but that re-inforces your side: the overall rolling average quality improves every season (with blips and exceptions). The fact is that the quality of ball played on the field goes up every decade, with the improvement in techniques, nutrition, a wider pool of potential choices in talent. So it's technically true that the team is "better", but in the sense of is it better prepared to win additional games than last season, the answer may be "no" (as you noted). I guess my defense of my position is that the answer "better" was true, BUT TO THE WRONG QUESTION.

But Adelsohn's point has merit, and is deserving of consideration in the your own decision-making equations outside of baseball. Quality is free, as Adelsohn points out, in the long run (and I'll add, "in compsotite, that is, most of the time, but not in very case").


Sometimes a single graphic can point out a concept better than a long discussion, regardless of how precise and intelligent that discussion is. Mike Gutierrez, Alaska's #1 All-Natural blogger, sent me a copy of this graphic, which appeared in the New York Times (warning, the guy who wrote the attached article is considered controversial; the data shown, however is official government issue and indisputable). If politics is not your cup of meat, just look at the graphic at the top (NYT requires registration) and skip the text below it.

Gutierrez' comment:

I saw this graphic in the New York Times and it struck me as a greatly exaggerated example of Management By Wishful Thinking.

I couldn't agree more -- it's a perfect example. To many people, MBWT is just a concept. I suggest the graphic Mike sent is the single best shorthand epiphany I've seen, condensed into a small space, clearly illustrated.

If you need to be reminded about MBWT yourself or wish to remind (secretly or otherwise) another manager of his MBWT tendencies, print out the Times graphic, trim it nicely, and crazy-glue it to the offender, or pass it out in meetings like a Dick Tracy Crimestopper to support some of your relentless realism in the face of MBWT.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Reds: Mining the Pre-Cambrian
Strata for Comparitive Advantage  

Nobody goes there anymore...it's too crowded. -- Yogi Berra

It's the silly season for baseball reporters. Having gotten an assignment that requires them to get paid to go to a warm climate and cover baseball, they have almost no actual news to report.

So they make up deals (e.g., Griffey Junior to Seattle -- no way, btw, if he's going anywhere, he's going to the Yankees who now need a slugger to replace Gary Sheffield temporarily and someone who can can play center field while contributing with the glove and bat, which Junior will do wherever he plays until he gets injured; yeah, I know about Junior's animosity towards the franchise, but it'll be a rent-a-player situation...he won't be there that long and the cash the Red'll get back will enable them to keep him around once the Yanks ship him back). They paraphrase the article they wrote about bats last Spring. They obsess about nutritional supplements. They write big-think pieces, trying to apply small-think brains besotted with sun.

When we're lucky, they write about anything unexpected, as Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer did today (thanks, Baseball Primer & the inimitable Repoz). Reds batting coach Chris Chambliss, a great situational hitter in his day, is faced with a team that last season didn't just lead the league in strikeouts, but blew away the field, whiffing 27% more than the rest of the league.Understand, as a composite, strikeouts are not instrinsically worse than any other kind of outs...within limits. And especially when combined with a lot of walks as an offensive approach, can expose the weak underbelly of some teams' middle relief corps by probabalistically ginning-up a better chance of wearing out starters with the extra effort strikeouts and walks entail. But the Redlegs were 11th in walks, trailing the rest of the league with 3% fewer free passes. Any ingredient in the recipe that's way out of context upsets the balance, and this very very high strikeout, low-middle walks strategy is not a sure winner.

So what does Chambliss do? According to Daugherty, he exhumes the Pre-Cambrian fossil pastime: Pepper. The drill, in case you haven't seen it, is a game where a batter hits (not slugs) the ball to a group of players gathered around closely, and when they snare the hit ball, they throw it back (not really hard, but as quickly as they can). Digging up abandoned fossils can have value outside baseball, too, but first let me explain a little more about pepper. The concept is the hitter is making contact with balls coming from a myriad of angles and spins, and using the wrists and arms to react quickly. The fielders and trying to snare balls hit at them from very close range and that requires not only quick hands and weight/balance changes, but hones the ability to predict the direction a ball will take. That's the way it's supposed to work

Over the last twenty years, and especially since the ball was juiced for the 1994 season, the incremental value of fielding has inched down, and as the frequency of power hitting has gone up, the incremental value of putting a ball in play without a lot of mustard (that is, a ball you focus on hitting squarely at a specific angle rather than swinging through with power) has gone down too. This is true in the composite and in most individual situations.

There are exceptions though.

The 2003 Cincinnati Reds are the poster child for the inability to hit situationally (just try and meet the ball on certain counts like 1-2 or to a lesser degree, 2-2, instead of taking your most Canseco-like cut) having a different, higher incremental value than it would for the average team. And a potential side benefit: Pepper is designed to quicken reaction for defenders, especially in the infield. The Reds were dead last in fielding percentage in '03, and fielding percentage is one small, partial indicator of defensive ability. Baseball Prospectus' more sophisticated measure, Defensive Efficiency, rates the '03 Reds as 26th out of 30 teams, that is, they were execrable.

Pepper, this discarded technique, if there's some physical or physiological benefit to it, could be an important bit of comparitive advantage to the Reds, especially since every other team thinks of it as being as passé as Mondale for President bumper stickers, and that means any advantages that accrue to the Reds are not as likely to be diffused to other teams as quickly.

¿Will it work to diminsih strikeouts enough to bring the team into some level of balance? ¿Will it improve Reds fielders' ability to snare and process effectively some additional balls that would have been hits and convert them into outs? I don't know. But I do know it's worth dredging up the ancient, disposed-of past when the situation begs it.


The Chambliss Maneuver, turning something so old that it's new, works well outside of baseball, too, especially when well-chosen. And I do insist well-chosen. Just because it was once useful doesn't mean it still is or even should be. You have to consider and examine the context: is is extinct because it was dysfunctional and still is (like some sacrifice bunts early in games), because it was replaced by soemthing better and cheaper, or was its extinction merely part of a cycle.

Marketing is filled with examples of efforts that go through cycles. In high-tech marketing, for example, there was a tradition of giving away t-shirts, and early in the cycle, that worked decently, especially if the t-shirts were cool. But then everybody was giving away t-shirts, and most potential recipients valued them less, so there was escalation: long-sleeve tees, sweatshirts, hooded sweatshirts, fleece vests, each costing more than the previous. So now, no-one gives away t-shirts. I got my first t-shirt in about three years last month, and in the past that would have been an incredible yawn. But I actually found this one useful and attention-getting. It's so Pre-Cambrian, it's avant garde.

It cycles through commodity prices, too. When long-time ingredients get replaced with newer ones in manufacture or food processing, the price of the older one tends to decline until almost no-one wants to produce it for sale any more. But frequently, there are a few providers who keep on manufacturing it out of either stubborness, foolishness or dedication to a product they know they can make better than anyone else. And I've had clients who were able to buy a constituent or ingredient they had switched from years ago because it was too expensive, find that it's so inexepensive now from lack of demand that it makes sense to go back to it. And competitors, committed to the present, forget the (now cheaper) virtue of the extinct.

As as a management consultant, I let tools go that I carried around for decade, but while I remove them from my toolbox, I never expunge them from my memory. I periodically go back though old projects, and review how I worked problems when my tool set was different. Occasionally, I find one that I retired and realize it might work for someone I'm working with now. Sometimes, it's merely habit that keeps us going at things the way everyone else is, and sometimes it makes sense to pull a Chambliss Maneuver.

As noted management consultant Yogi Berra might say, It's so empty, people can go there now.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Schlock-Eyed Optimists: Hack Writers
Breathin' Outta Dennis Hopper's Canister  

April is the cruellest month, breeding
hopefuls out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull fungoes with spring rain.

--T.S. Eliot

In baseball, Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT) is seasonal. It spikes in March and April when teams without regular-season records (all undefeated, having had the counters set back to zero at the end of the previous year) shoot out of the dead land.

Trashing all objectivity, most fans pretend the team they root for is going to improve this coming season. And in March, they haven't yet been proven wrong, so the succulence of delusion is almost inescapable . The challenge is fiercely harder for baseball writers. While fans count on their writers to keep them informed, are immersed in the American ideal of a free and fair press, baseball writers this time of year are as informative, fair and rational as if they'd just taken a hit off Dennis Hopper's tank in Blue Velvet.

We all know this intuitively, but I can prove it to you statistically.

The February 16 issue of Sporting News featured a wrap, a Spring Training Special. Each division got its own page. Each team got a little info box, and each info box had common categories. The first category in each was "Better or Worse".

Violating the laws of physics and common sense as well as the immutable, ultimate consolidated .500 record produced every season by the majors, the schlock-eyed optimists of the baseball press predicted that of the thirty teams, 18 (64%) would be better and 10 (36% worse (with two sitting in the middle).

It's unprecedented. In scanning through Baseball Reference (not a thorough study, just a half-hour walkthough), I can't find a year where 64% of the teams improved their records year to year. It would mean every one of those ten "worse" teams would have to cherry-pie time like last year's Detriot Tigers, while the wins would have to be spread very carefully and balanced between the "better" teams.


There are a few reasons worth noting.

The baseball writers who put a team profile together cover that team during the year. That gives them three reasons be be delusional about the team's prospects, or to pretend they are.

#1 - Ego. The writers can't help but want the team to do well. They are lashed, like Ahab to the Whale, to the team for seven consecutive months or more, and it's hard to avoid the dream, substanited or not, that the team will be interesting to write about and, mor importantly, an important subject. Would you rather be a beat reporter covering the Yankees or the Rangers?

#2 - The Stockholm Syndrome. Writers spend all this time with the players, coaches and staff of the team that they "bond". While they are supposed to be objective, they, more often than not, become advocates, consciously or unconsciously rooting for their travel partners.

#3 - Survival Instinct. They are counting on the good will of front office people, players and coaching staff to provide them with quotes, news and, sometimes, scoops. Moreover, their newspapers and radio/TV employers are almost always counting on the team as a source of advertising and promotion revenue. If a reporter is ssen as less of a team player than her peers, she'll be undermined comeptitively, getting many fewer scoops, incrementally fewer opportunities for interviews. And she won't win any seasonal gift baskets from her employers, either. Sometimes a reporter will have high enough standing and a grumpy enough baseline to rassle with team management or players year after year (I think Glenn Dickey used to do this), but it's pretty rare.

Baseball is lucky, though.

These delusions are seasonal. And the results make the outcomes more accoutnable.


Outside of baseball, you see the same processes. Stockbrokers who work as "analysts" get so immeresed in the handful of companies they cover, that they tend to fall in love with them (reason #2). Like baseball reporters, they count on the covered companies to keep them informed as quickly as possible, and that makes them hostage to the subject's good will (reason #3). And analysts, like reporters, have a vested interest in coming to believe what they do is important, and that is an incentive to think the subjects of their analysis are important. And it's not a far leap in most minds from "important" to "good"

Historians and biographers have the same gravitational fields tugging at them. Business intelligence analysts, CIA desk officers, too. This problem is endemic from government and business to academia.

There are no ways to eliminate it, though there are ways to control it.

In the Sporting News case, they could have rotated reporters so each was writing about a team other than the one they report on. Stock and intelligence analysts can have rotations, though you need to find a period that's long enough to gain insight and expertise but short enough for the cost of delusion to be moderated. Not much you can do about biographers.

Of course, there's the nudge-nudge-wink-wink strategy of ignoring what analysts say, or simply deflating it some proportion to where it seems believable.

In the end, though, organizations that are able to take a clear-eyed view of their own and others' prospects are at a strong advantage over the MBWT-infused others, whether it's in building schedules for project management, designing budgets, or planning an invasion. Yes, you can just let the same old flabby, delusional thinking persist and deflate the numbers (to some degree you've guessed at) and you might get close. But you're wasting overhead, time, energy, resources, massaging useless results to get less-useless results.

The lack of quality is not free.

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