Sunday, January 16, 2005

When Juan Pierre Becomes The Hoxton Creeper:
Self-Destructive Competitive Fads  

It's a losing proposition but one you can't refuse,
it's the politics of contraband...-- Lonny Frey

The Atlanta Journal Constitution publishes today a baseball in steroids feature -- yes, not steroids in baseball...it's about supplements, not the game. Thanks to Baseball Think Factory's link, I got a chance to read the (registration req'd.) piece.

Combined with a piece from earlier this week about Players' Association founding father Marvin Miller, and MLB's official line on their new supplements policy, there's a lot of grist about the gravitational fields that tug at non-baseball organizations in the areas of management decisionmaking, strategic trends and competitive fads.

I'm going to start with some of the critical text of these pieces that sheds light on the managerial conundra.

From the Journal Constitution's big steroid feature (emphasis mine):

If Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the rest of the 1927 New York Yankees were transported through time and lined up beside any current major league team, the "Murderers' Row" boys wouldn't look very mythic. Their average size was 5 feet 11, 176 pounds -- an inch and four pounds smaller than whippet-thin Florida Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre.

While people in general have grown bigger over time, there's been a far more dynamic increase in baseball players' dimensions in recent decades, coinciding with skyrocketing salaries and home run totals.

Smaller players still have a place in the game, mainly middle infielders like the Braves' Marcus Giles and Rafael Furcal. But research by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution demonstrates how Major League Baseball has shifted to larger players and rewarded those players with the biggest slices of the salary pie.

"The game has really changed in that regard, because of the emphasis on run production and the long ball," said Andre Dawson, an eight-time All-Star and 1987 National League MVP. "Supposedly, home runs put more fans in the ballpark."

The majors went from having 75 percent of players in what could be termed a "medium-size" category (measured by body mass index) in the late 1970s, to 45 percent in 2003. The percentage of large players rose from 20 in 1978 to more than 50. The average salary among the large players shot from $600,000 in 1985 to $3.5 million in 2003 (483 percent), while medium players' average rose from $500,000 to $2 million (300 percent).

It shouldn't be surprising that more players are trying to get bigger, some by any means necessary. "You hit 15 home runs, you might be looking at a decrease in pay or trying to win a job in spring training," said Dawson, a special assistant in the Marlins front office. "The players are not stupid, when it comes to what they've got to do in order to get paid. Whatever they feel is going to create a level playing field, those are the options in this day and age they'll look into."

For many, that includes dietary supplements and weight training. For some, it also includes illegal steroids or other banned performance-enhancers that produce similar results, such as human growth hormone or androstenedione. {SNIP}

Since the early 1990s, it has not been uncommon in baseball to see a player add 15-20 pounds or more of muscle in one offseason, raising eyebrows at spring training among teammates and trainers who suspect chemical assistance.

In the pursuit of power and a competitive edge, some players go overboard. "I've seen a lot of guys get too ripped," said 25-year-old Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche, who is trying this winter to add 15 pounds to a 6-3, 190-pound frame -- by eating, drinking protein shakes, and lifting weights. {SNIP}

The quest for strength
Larry Starr was the Cincinnati Reds' trainer who became a pioneer in baseball conditioning in the winter of 1974, when he convinced Reds ownership to invest $10,000 in Nautilus equipment and put players on a new strength program.

There had been baseball taboo against lifting weights, and Reds hitting coach Ted Kluszewski -- famous for his python arms -- strongly resisted Starr's plan. "Ted had 18-inch biceps already," Starr said, "and he was very adamant that if you lifted weights you couldn't swing a bat, because it had been that way for him in college, from lifting improperly."

But the Reds went with the program, taking the equipment to spring training. "And in '75 we won the World Series," Starr said. "I'm sure it had nothing to do with fact we had [Johnny] Bench, [Pete] Rose and [Tony] Perez on that team. But seriously, we did have a lot of bit players who had to fill in at times, and the program kept them in condition and they were ready to go. "The next year, in the winter of '75, the Yankees added a program, and they ended up being in the World Series against us in '76 and winning in '77."

Today, all teams have strength and conditioning programs that include weightlifting, and Starr said some ballplayers take things too far.

"I almost feel guilty in that it's almost gone the other way," said Starr, an assistant athletics director for sports medicine at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, after spending 30 years as a trainer with the Reds and Marlins. "It's gone in a direction I don't want to see, where it's not the use of strength training, but the abuse of strength training. It comes from where guys are getting their information, and from people having success when they get bigger and other people assuming that's the reason for that success.

"A lot of strength and conditioning specialists came up in a football environment, and a lot of that mentality came to the baseball world. A lot of athletes are open to it because it makes them look better in a uniform. One player told me regardless of whether it helped, it gave him confidence to be that big."

The essence of this part of the story is

  1. A player overbuilt his physique, and perhaps in the wrong way.
  2. He projected his failure to be a general cause-effect relationship between weight-training & failure.
  3. He built a rule to stop it from happening to others.


  1. Players were rewarded for hitting homers.
  2. Some players who hit for more homers had built themselves up before doing it.
  3. Jungle-drums communications networks (not rigorous research, but episodic, experiential info transmitted from the initiated to the uninitiated) spread innovations quickly, without pre-deployment analysis, because it "feels right".
  4. Other players presumed the most visually-obvious change (physical bulk) was the factor that had made the difference.

MANAGEMENT TREND #21 - The Unscientific/Personal Origins of Competitive Fads
Beyond baseball, informal networks are great mechanisms for spreading innovations. Executives have institutions such as Junior Presidents' clubs and Rotary at which they can rub elbows with their peers and share information about trends and initiatives. How was outsourcing working? What kind of a stock price uptick might you get from an across the board 10% staff layoff? Is filing the paperwork for a Baldridge Award worth the costs? Should web-surfing at work be controlled and how? Was a non-finance company playing currency markets a way to reduce risk or even the makings of a potential profit center?

Here's the big irony: The more competitive the environment is, the more emotional and less analytical the initiated will be about choosing to pursue and implement an innovation. Moreover, the more competitive the environment is, the less incentive the initiated has in accurately and fully informing the uninitiated.

If Juan Pierre suddenly put on 25 lbs. of hard muscle and started swacking big flies by the bushel, players on his team and others might ask him how he built up. If he said it wasn't intentional, he was merely afflicted with an unfortunate case of acromegaly, but that he was getting treatments for it, players would be pressuring their agents to see what they would have to do to catch it. If it was leprosy, they might go for that, too, even based on a data sample made up entirely of a single Hoxton-Creeper-like Juan Pierre.

Baseball is a bit of an extreme example of a competitive model. There are probably 100,000,000 males in the world who wish they could play in the majors and there are only 750 slots.

But organizations in competitive industries, or organizations struggling in a tough economy in any endeavor, are desperate in the same way to capture any edge that might ease their burden and that desperation makes them more averse to deliberation before action. Additionally, rushing things through the system makes them look more authoritative and prevents any analysis from stopping their idea (which could feel humiliating to the proposer). And of course, there's always Management By Wishful Thinking (MBWT), an endemic feature of American management practice.

There's also pressure to conform, both because most humans are conformists, and because the costs of failure are greater when a decisionmaker is taking a unique or original tack. I can't begin to list all the clients I had who were interested in offshoring but who had absolutely nothing to offshore, or all the executives of understaffed organizations who waste cycles trying to figure out a way to mine that already-tapped out vein because they read about someone else's success with it.

MANAGEMENT TREND #8 - Big Klu's Arms, or the Intensification Trap
Big Klu (Ted Kluszewski) was a remarkable batter. A left-handed power monster, he's almost unique in post-WWII baseball in combining the ability to hit homers while not striking out a lot. During the three season period of 1953-55, he hit 40 or more homers in each year, and had fewer strikeouts than homers.





















Pretty fine performance; 2004's most-excellent hitting league homer champions, in comparison had almost twice as many Ks and HRs (Adrian Beltre, the NL champ) and nearly three times as many Ks as HRs (Manny Ramírez, the AL champ). It's pretty rare that anyone achieves that HR > K feat.

Big Klu was advantaged in some ways. For one thing, Crosley Field (his home park) favored batters over pitchers during those three seasons. But his big advatnage was genetic. As Bruce Springsteen said in his song about Big Klu, "Baby you were born to slug"; he had a massive physique and built muscle easily relative to less-mesomorphic people.

So when Kluszewski worked out he over-built and became muscle-bound...less able to do the thing he'd done "effortlessly" before. Ergo, he was opposed to weight-training in principle. Even among people who didn't have his physique.

This was a short-sigted, personalized prejudice. But he discovered a kernel of truth managers should internalize.

Just because a lot of something is productive doesn't mean more of it will be more useful.

In anthropology, this action is called intensification, the assumption that pursuing a currently-high yield approach can only get better proportionally, the harder you pursue it. If full-page ads increase sales, then two-page spreads ought to double the benefit. If 10% price cuts increase sales 18%, then a 20% price cut oughta increase sales 36%.

Intensification is a trap for lazy managers, just as it is for ambitoous ballplayers. Almost nothing in nature follows a straight line function (nor does it tend to fall into the other pattern favored by American managers, the Bell Curve, a really rare distribution).

In the next entry, I'll throw some high cheese at other general management trends illuminated by these supplement fads and supplement regulation fads.

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