Saturday, November 25, 2006

Mastering Improvisation Phillies-Style:
Pat Gillick, Shane Victorino & the
Arcane Bourbaki of Juan Thomas  

One of the biggest challenges big organizations struggle with is the imperfection, the stubborn refusal of actual events to match up perfectly with plans made. Baseball is extraordinarily good at improvising contingency plans compared to the norm in any other industry. And one of the outstanding practitioners within baseball is Pat Gillick, the senior sitting GM, if my quick research is correct. He had cut his teeth as a minor league pitcher in the the most innovative organization of the 1950s, Paul Richards' Baltimore Orioles, and then started his management career in Richards' Houston Colt .45s. Since 1978 (with three one-year hiatii), he's been a GM for the Blue Jays, Orioles and Mariners, and last year he came out of retirement to take on his first National League assignment, the Philadelphia Phillies. 

The rumor was, he really really wanted to retire and that his frustration of the last couple of years working for the Seattle Mariners challenging ownership team had left a bad taste in his mouth. The rumor was that he wanted a retirement on a high note, like a World Series to go along with the pair he got with the early 90s Blue Jays. I spoke with him at last year' GMs meeting about his goals, and while he's too much of a gentleman to trash-talk about even the worst employers he's had, he left me with the clear impression that the rumors reflected the essential truth of why he was taking on a new management position. He could have chosen from a number of open positions, but he told me chose the Phils because he wanted a quick return, not a long term building project and the thought the Phils had a significant chance in 2006.

He was generous with his time this year at the GMs' meeting in Naples. Specifically, we spoke of improvisation. His Phillies had had an unusual set of circumstances and in Gillick's choices in guiding them showed a responsiveness, a willingness to improvise that is a useful set of lessons for managers beyond baseball. Because most teams either find themselves within striking distance of the playoffs or out of practical contention by the significant (but not impermeable) July 30 trading "deadline", teams frequently try to be buyers of talent (even rent-a-body for the 1/3rd season left) to put them over the top or sellers of talent looking to save salary and/or stock up on young talent for future campaigns.

This year, Gillick executed both, being a seller around the July 30 when his team looked cooked and then a buyer starting August 19 when the team looked within striking distance of the wild card. Beyond baseball, a lot of managers might have been able to bite the bullet on a campaign he wanted soooo badly, but very few would have been able to pull the switch a second time, basically admitting the initial contingency plan had proved imperfect.

Beyond baseball, too few organizations plan at all. Managers tend to pull what I call a Stewk -- because one cannot have absolute confidence that unfolding events will exactly match the set of conditions considered as possibilities, they feel "why bother at all?". At the other pole, there are managers who build five-year plans and have no "touch" for figuring out what differences are significant and which irrelevant or cause for a small fine-tune, and simply refuse to change the plan. In baseball, of course, there are no Stewks at the major league level...this level of incompetence, so common (perhaps 30% of managers in business and government) wouldn't get past their first minor league gig in baseball. Building a baseball club (organization & roster) from scratch, the way the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are trying to do is a four- to six-year project, so the subtlety of fine-tuning or even improvising in the face of the need for a bigger change is the ultimate challenge. 

Planning for the future while trying to win in the present is a Holy Grail of managing change, or Home Plate in the MBB Model. Gillick's 2006 is a great example of how to do it and when and why.

To understand the environment Gillick was working in, you need to be familiar with the specifics of the Phils' 2006 season. If you're already familiar with it, skip the next section.

They started the season 0-4, a blowout and three close ones. They then went 10-10, and at the end of April, they were tied for second six games behind the hot 16-8 New York Mets. They ripped off their first streak, starting May with eight wins, lost a game to the Mets and then won four more. So by May 14th, they were 22-15, one game back. Things looked promising.

A 5-12 interleague record low-lighted the Phils stretch through July 1. By that date they looked cooked. Not only where they buried divisionally (3rd place, 12 games behind the Mets), but there were ten teams ahead of them for the wild card (this from baseball-reference). 

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    48  32     -    .600     417     347
CIN    44  37   4.5    .543     410     413
STL    43  36   4.5    .544     394     378
SDP    43  38   5.5    .531     357     338
LAD    41  39   7.0    .513     422     377
COL    41  39   7.0    .513     375     363
SFG    41  40   7.5    .506     376     365
MIL    40  42   9.0    .488     383     442
ARI    39  42   9.5    .481     395     408
HOU    39  42   9.5    .481     368     401
FLA    35  42  11.5    .455     357     355
PHI    36  44  12.0    .450     381     424
ATL    34  47  14.5    .420     382     412
WSN    34  48  15.0    .415     356     420
CHC    29  51  19.0    .363     316     414
PIT    28  54  21.0    .341     373     429

As I've written before sometimes it matters less how far behind you are than how many teams are contending with you -- the math of everyone doing well enough to knock each other off just right, of no one getting warm even if you get torrid, makes it unlikely you can take the objective. Further, their runs-scored and runs-allowed didn't hold out secret hopes they'd just been unlucky to get that Infernal Gate -- they were about where they "should" have been, based on their playing performance.

From there to July 29th, the day before the trade deadline, they went 10-10 (47-54 for the season), and the Philly phront office, phrought with the phantasy they'd phailed, executed on their plan to sell off current assets for future ones. The last week of July, they traded the phranchise player, Bobby Abreu (.277/.427/.434, 20 SBs) with starter Cory Lidle (21 starts, 8-7 record, 4.74 ERA) to the Yankees, saving roughly $5.6 million in salary & acquiring four minor leaguers. Cash and potential assets for the 2007 Campaign.

Gillick's front office team had already shed veterans David Bell, Sal Fasano, and Rheal Cormier in separate deals that each brought a young player and saved in the realm of a further $2.4 million in payroll.

But then, behold and lo...they spent the next three weeks going 12-6 and the team chemistry seemed different. Young starter Cole Hamels  got more chances and looked good with them. Young batters like Shane Victorino & Abraham Nunez were getting more chances and started producing, respectively, a lot and a little more. Fourth outfielder David Dellucci started hitting up a storm. 

By August 16, they'd cut the number of teams ahead of them from 10 to five, not so much because they'd had a very warm streak, but because some of the jammers in front of them had skidded out and gone over the railings.

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    71  48     -    .597     621     541
LAD    64  57   8.0    .529     603     554
STL    63  56   8.0    .529     577     575
CIN    62  58   9.5    .517     593     622
ARI    61  59  10.5    .508     598     597
SDP    60  60  11.5    .500     534     532
PHI    59  60  12.0    .496     628     614
COL    58  62  13.5    .483     549     529
MIL    57  63  14.5    .475     546     625
HOU    57  63  14.5    .475     543     555
SFG    57  63  14.5    .475     543     550
FLA    56  64  15.5    .467     559     575
ATL    55  64  16.0    .462     616     614
WSN    53  67  18.5    .442     551     615
CHC    52  68  19.5    .433     509     616
PIT    46  75  26.0    .380     532     609

And of the teams ahead of them, only the Dodgers were playing very good ball. It became conceivable the Phillies could contend.

So Gillick flipped the switch and started looking for pieces to complement the revised squad.

On August 19, he swapped a pair of minor leaguers to his old team, the Seattle Mariners, for one of the more consistent (not brilliant, but reliable) veteran starters around, Jamie Moyer. Three days later he got interesting utilityman Jose Hernandez and six days after that captured the services of Jeff Conine, traditionally a nice platoon piece, and in nether case did he surrender minor league talent. He'd increased the team's versatility by deepening the bench and tweaked the pennant-race veteran quotient and for not a ton of money (in the realm of $2.3 million).

While the team played out the rest of the season fairly well (26-17) they finished out behind the NL West's second best for the wild card (though they finished the season with a slightly better record than the NL Central's champion Cardinals.

NL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
NYM    97  65     -    .599     834     731
SDP    88  74   9.0    .543     731     679
LAD    88  74   9.0    .543     820     751
PHI    85  77  12.0    .525     865     812
STL    83  78  13.5    .516     781     762
HOU    82  80  15.0    .506     735     719

You don't get that much closer to a wild card than that. It made sense for Gillick to consider the sell-off when he did, and it made sense (in 20-20 hindsight) for him to try to shell out some dollars three weeks later for a bit of a run at the wild card.

Gillick's only disappointment, and it didn't sound very deep, is in the quality of young talent they acquired in late July during their selling period (see the interview below.

Here's the edited transcript (edited down to just the parts about improvisation) of my conversation with Pat Gillick this November 15. He was pressed for time, but very generous, and I thank him again for his willingness to chat.

Jeff Angus (JA): Improvisation. Most business are really bad at it. Baseball tends to be quite good at it. And you had a master stroke of improvisation this year when you sold your marquee player at the end of July but acquired four veterans after August 19. To the outside world it looked like you were cashing in your chips in late July, but when the team’s performance picked up, you changed course significantly.

Pat Gillick (PG): Well, I think in baseball things have changed dramatically. You have to be very flexible, you have to be able to move very quickly. Consequently you have to improvise. I think you have to be ready for everything. In baseball, because of free agency and large contracts, things are not the way they were years ago; you have to be able to move, to improvise, to move at a moment’s notice.

JA: At some point of the season, one has to decide if you’re going to try to build up for a playoff run or sell off current value for easing the salary budget and for future assets (Or neither). Who helps you decide, and when do you do that?

PG: Going into the season, the first 60 games are a feeling-out process. Not only for the manager and players, but it’s a time when you evaluate the personnel. After the first couple months of the season, you’ve gotten a pretty good idea of the people you want to retain on your club and the people who’d bet better served playing in another location.

JA: And then how well do you have to do for how long to have enough confidence …that it’s not just a little streak…and flip the switch back from selling to buying?

PG: It’s more of a gut call than anything else. I don’t know if you can put a percentage on it. 

JA: It’s intuitive, yes?

PG: It’s instinctual. It’s an instinct you get when you see the club on a daily basis and you evaluate the club and you get a feeling that you have to go in another direction.

JA: So you executed the late July sale, responded to the team’s improvement and bought pieces meant to improve gaps. Looking back, are you content with the way you played the hands you were dealt?

PG: (pauses) Yes. We gained a few things that gave us flexibility. In the exchange of players we probably didn’t come out with as much talent as we’d have liked to. But at the same time, last year provided the chance for some players to get some playing time who had not had much playing time in the first half of the season and who wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise. Shane Victorino, Abrham Nunez, Cole Hamels, Scott Mathieson. David Dellucci had been playing on a limted basis and he got a chance to play. About five of our players got more opportunities than they’d gotten the first 60, 90 days.
There were some pluses and some minuses. But I think overall the pluses probably outweighed the minuses.

JA: You haven’t been a GM in the National League before last year, right?

PG: I hadn’t. My whole career as a GM has been in the American. Since 1974. When I started out in 1963, I was in the National League. About 30 years. This is the first year.

JA: Did you find any subtle personnel decision differences where you had to catch yourself, prevent yourself falling into an A.L. pattern?

PG: No, not really. I think the people we have in (the front office in) Philadelphia…we planned it out well. The key difference is in the National League, you have to have a better bench because of the strategy around pitching changes. In the National League, when you make up your club you’ve got to have a better bench, because if you double-switch or when you pinch-hit for the pitcher a number of games…if it’s tied 1-1 in the 7th inning, in the American League you would likely let the pitcher pitch, and in the National you’ll need a pinch hitter.

JA: You draft a little differently, yes? As an American (League) team, you might draft a player who can’t play a position if he hits well enough. As a National League team, you wouldn’t draft, say, a Juan Thomas (a power-hitting DH not capable of playing 1b), no?

PG: No. I don’t think so.

JA: So it changes decisions in a fine way. Another need to adapt.

PG: Yes.

JA: Change of subject…what do you think of the new conventional wisdom that the American League is stronger than the National now?

PG: I think it is stronger. Offensively they have better offensive players than we do in the National League at the moment.

JA: Put ‘em in a World Series though and they execute like a Beer League Softball team…

PG: They needed some PFP (pitchers’ fielding practice), I’ll tell you that.

He had to move on at that point. But you can use Gillick's wisdom as a navigation tool, grist for your thinking in your own adaptation of plans to shifting realities and situations. If any of us got that good, maybe there'd be a place for us in baseball.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Naples: Lessons for Business in MLB's Move to Audit Baseballs  

I was in Naples (Florida) last week for the GMs' meeting, and as you probably wouldn't expect, it's an event where the front-office types mostly sit behind closed doors & media types get to stand around for hours trying not to look bovine, hoping for a scrap of news or a slug-batch of news or an interview with the teams' front-office types.

Something pretty exciting came out of it, at least for MBB types: an initiative that's pretty instructive for your own, non-baseball, efforts, especially to those of you in for-profit business. According to this story by Troy "Red Bull" Renck of the Denver Post:

Before arriving Sunday at the general managers' meetings, Joe Garagiola Jr. met with team equipment managers last week to determine how teams store their baseballs. The league would like more uniformity, which is why there will be discussion midweek about the feasibility of other clubs adding humidors, the computer-calibrated, climate-controlled shed used by the Rockies.

"We want to know where they go from the moment they arrive until they are used in the game," said Garagiola Jr., MLB's senior vice president of operations, Sunday afternoon. "We didn't know as much as we would like about how the baseballs are kept."

I got to talk a little with Garagiola, Jr. about a couple of issues including the handling of baseballs, and he's a very thoughtful, well-spoken guy. I didn't go into the specs for balls, but he did explain to a group of us some of the mechanics of collection.

How the ball is handled, its temperature in storage, the humidity of the storage, the relative humidity of the storage, the ambient humidity & temperature of the playing environment are all going to affect the ball's response in a game, though usually not very much in most situations. And the environment is going to affect how easy the ball is to control and how much bite the spin of the ball gets against the air. The logic of non-auditing except in Denver is reasonable on the surface: in most places, the honest differences won't make a very marked difference, but in Colorado, the low humidity makes a big difference that amplifies the effects of the altitude. So after playing a pinball variant of baseball for almost a decade, the Rox tried the humidor and found it drove the ball's performance towards the equivalent of how it responded elsewhere in the majors.

As Colorado Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd mentioned back in March:

The Humidor has made a dramatic difference; we think it could make more of a difference if we were allowed to use it the way we’d like to use it. We have specifications we have to follow – where we store the baseballs and what (temperature) we can store them in. I believe if we were allowed to crank (humidity) up a little higher, it would have even more effect on the games.

So MLB has a specification for the handling of baseballs in Colorado, and a specification for the specs of baseballs everywhere, but except for tracking the Rockies' exceptional humidor-affected results, they apparently don't audit results.

Many people there made out that this audit process was not important. I disagree; measuring factors that dictate "fairness" in any competitive endeavor is the very core of assuring meritocracy. This was, I think, a truly important initiative.

REGULATION WITHOUT UNIFORM ENFORCEMENT... ...is a classic Tragedy of the Commons problem. It potentially rewards fudgers or outright cheaters while providing no possible margin for those who adhere to the specs. (If you don't know this concept, I strongly urge you to read the linked article; this, more than any other single article you'll ever read explains why most organizations are dysfunctional -- where it talks about farmers and cattle, insert managers and initiatives).

If you know regs or rules exist and you know that enforcement is either non-existent or lax or spotty, it actually pays to encourage people to adhere while fudging yourself.

Imagine you're as honest as can be expected in the real world and the GM of a team, say someone like Doug Melvin (salt of the earth). You know the regs are there so you do your best to conform to the League's standard. No advantage. Both teams play with the same ball performance.

Imagine you're competitive enough that tweaking the rules (not smashing them) gives you a little edge, say like Jeff Passan or Earl Weaver. Earl used to put all game balls in a chiller before games. Both teams played with a temperature-deadened ball, reducing potential offense and helping pitching. Fair in one way, that both teams still played with an identical ball, but Weaver believed a lower-scoring game advantaged his squad because he thought they were better at winning close low-scoring games. Plus he knew something his antagonist in the opponent's dugout didn't know.

Imagine you're only concerned with winning and think rules are for losers, say Ray Bullock. Without audit or enforcement, you could store half the game balls on Mercury and leave the other half immersed in liquid nitrogen and if you knew the usage norms, you could deliver batches of balls to the umps in a predetermined order. It wouldn't always align perfectly that your batters would get all the superjuiced balls while your pitchers would get the absolute zeroed ones, but in most games you'd have an edge.

If there are no rules, the "playing field" is leveled...anyone with intelligence and organization can harvest the same advantage. If the rules are monitored and enforced, it's a level playing field because eveyone has the same lack of personal advantage. It's when rules exist and there's no monitoring and enforcement that virtue is punished and rule-breaking rewarded.

This Tragedy of the Commons is why office politics are so destructive, and why in governmental regulations "voluntary standards" always punish the law-abiders and always reward the accountability-evaders in every area you can apply it. The Leninists will always trump the Kerenskyites who insist on palying by the rules, and those on the fence will see these powerful lessons and follow what they need to do to win, slowly making the situation less and less viable for the whole. And for the office politicos, they will always benefit from lax enforcement, because they will sluff work in favor of investing their time in campaigning, and if the system allows that, they will concentrate more power while behaving in ways that undermine the system.

If there are NO rules, everyone has the same chance, of course, to benefit by degrading the organization. In some situations, it can be a viable system, but not very often.

Do the healthy act -- be like MLB Operations and their headman, Garagiola: if you have rules, monitor and audit, measure compliance and enforce the rules.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Four Coaching Lessons from John Sain: Via Jeff Merron & 108 Magazine  

Johnny Sain, solid but unspectacular pitcher and revolutionary pitching coach, died this month. He was such a brilliant pitching coach and noble person that he's left a whole corps of people, from Jim Bouton to Leo Mazzone who consider Sain their prime mentor. They have been so appreciative of his human and teaching skills that many spin his two great seasons and two very fine ones into memories of a great pitching career. But there's little doubt that he was the most influential pitching coach since World War II, and perhaps in the history of the game.

Jeff Merron, contributing editor and senior website editor for 108 Magazine, posted earlier this week a fantastic collection of interviews about Sain (not with him). Like the magazine for which he writes, it's entertaining brain candy, and they are well worth reading in their entirety.

Most importantly, there are some great lessons from Sain in Merron's piece, lessons in teaching that you can use in your own, non-baseball setting. Here are four.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #1 - NEVER WASTE DOWNTIME; USE IT FOR REFINING SKILLS Denny McLain relates how after a long time trying to learn Sain's slider technique, he mastered it during a workout on a day his start was rained out.

I can't tell you how predominant it is beyond baseball that interruptions or failures that leave you work hours free (you go for a sales call and the prospect decided not to show; the servers are all down again; the key person you need for a meeting is late, et.al.) don't get applied well. People view those hours as gifts to be played with, where in reality, they offer opportunities to learn/teach. Tracking I've done in big organizations indicate there's a mean average of a little over two hours out of a 47 hour week that get lost this way when they could be turned into torque.

This tool is easy to apply. Just make a habit of having a Plan B for events, a pile, ordered by importance, of work skills to master or practice, people to instruct or from whom to learn. Reclaiming just half of that would provide an extra 50 hours per year of training, a larger investment than most big organizations make in training the talent -- and at no extra cost.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #2 - TO DELIVER THE BEST RESULTS, ALIGN W/YOUR TRAINEES Sain was a successful pitching coach who got fired a boatload of times. That as the by-product of his insistence on aligning himself with his staffers, not management. Obviously, one needs a balance. As I describe in the book, if in cases where management's and your talent's interests don't align well, you are too loyal to management, your roster knows it and won't give you the extra effort that can make the difference between adequcy and excellence. On the other hand, siding against management all the time is a CLM (Career-Limiting Move), which Sain undoubtedly realized after his 2nd or perhaps 1st firing

Sain could have had an easier coaching career if he had been more management's guy, but he wouldn't have been one of the great coaches of all time with dozens of advocates who argue he should be in the Hall of Fame. In choosing between impact and comfort, he chose impact.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #3 - PRACTICE KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT... MAKE SURE YOU'RE LEARNING WHILE YOU'RE TEACHING Sain always made himself open to learning while teaching...adding new methods and insights even as he was passing wisdom on to his charges. As fellow coach Hal Naragon said to Merron:

There's other ways to do it besides John Sain's way. But his way has been very, very successful. John was always willing to learn. Once he told me, "I learn as much from my pitchers as they learn from me.” If he found a pitcher maybe making a movement with his arm to make the ball sink a little better, well John wanted to know about it right away.

And all the current major league pitching coaches do it this way. Among the best, Rick Peterson and Leo Mazzone come right out and say they do it.

NOT IN-SAIN LESSON #4 - TEACHING IS MORE THAN DRILLING; IT'S ABOUT THE TRAINEE EMBRACING As Jim Bouton says in the Merron interview, "He wouldn’t tell you what to do. His genius was that he would make you think." This is a lesson I know and still struggle with. When you just know something and you're trying to teach it to someone who doesn't, the temptation is to drill, push enforce. And if the recipient isn't getting it, the fallback is what I call Nixon Bombing Haiphong (when your approach fails, just turn up the intensity). Sain understood and got monster results from two generations of pitchers in leading to the conclusion, not imposing.

Rick Peterson and Don Cooper both do this; their norm is to let the pitcher come to them for help, not reach out. Peterson was able to remake Tom Glavine late in the 2005 season, as he told me and was documented by Murray Chass by hanging back and not approaching until he was competely sure that Glavine, having been hammered into a Fullujah-pile by the lowly Seattle Mariners' lineup, was ready to embrace change.

Beyond baseball, we don't always have time to leave this slack, waiting for the talent to learn what they need to know to help us ramp up performance, but it almost always works better when we can.

John Sain is one of the seminal figures of modern baseball. There are few finer rôles to play than being the person who remade a profession and is recognized for it. Like all of us, Sain's body was mortal, but unlike most of us, his consciousness is replicated across an entire line of work.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Adam Dunn: The Rewards & Risks of Refining Outliers  

You can never do just one thing
--Garrett Hardin

In making adjustments to complex systems, as biologist Garrett Hardin says, you can never do just one thing. Classic case in wildlife biology is the Australia's seemingly clever counter-attack on the native cane beetle...a non-native cane toad to chow down on 'em. Two problems: the cane toad is baboon butt ugly, looking exactly like some weird bio-engineered synthesis of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal) and Rep. Denny Hastert (R-Ill), and without any natural predators, there are even fewer organisms willing to eat it to keep its population down than those willing to eat the deep-fried burritos the Baltimore Memorial Stadium concession stands used to sell.

The more unusual the system, the more risky it is to pull on a pick-up stick...if you don't think it through, it's likely to come crashing down, and if you do think it through, it might just fool you and do it anyway. Normal everyday systems respond better to crisp pre-planning, but the outliers on your staff roster, the ones who have unusual palettes of talents or eccentric personalities or work styles are very risky to experiment with. That doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment, by the way, especially when their results could be better, but it means there's a goodly amount of risk that generally outweighs the potential reward.

So it's with a little concern, but a bit of hope, too, that I read that new Cincinnati Reds batting coach Brook Jacoby is looking to address team slugger Adam Dunn's way-over- the- top-strikeout rate (about 183 per season). Dunn is an outlier the way a Taliban Convention in Vegas is an outlier. He's a platypus amongst ducks, a Starbucks in South Dakota.

As reported by Marc Lancaster for the Cincy Post:

Dunn Job 1 for Jacoby
New coach has ideas

Brook Jacoby will work on fine-tuning the other 24 players' swings, too, but his prior experience working with Adam Dunn could prove his biggest asset. The Reds hired Jacoby as their hitting coach Friday, hoping his well-rounded approach will help Dunn and others rebound from a late-season collapse that doomed Cincinnati's playoff chances.

Jacoby spent the previous four seasons tutoring hitters in the Texas organization, but spent three years in the Reds' farm system prior to that. Among his pupils was Dunn, whom Jacoby first encountered in 2000 when the outfielder was in Dayton and the former big-league third baseman was the Reds' roving hitting instructor. They also worked together in Louisville the following season.

Jacoby said on a conference call Friday that he has some ideas for working with Dunn. Will cutting down on the slugger's strikeout total be among the talking points?

"I consider 194 of them a little bit of an issue," said Jacoby. "If he were to put the ball in play a little more, I'm sure it would mean some more RBIs and possibly some more hits. It might be an approach thing with him with two strikes; it might be a mechanical thing. I'll have to sit down and talk to him and we'll figure it out. I'd like to think something could be improved there."

In some ways, Dunn is the Reds' most potent hitter. He uses most of his 6'6" frame to swing very hard. He gets great leverage and has had at least 40 homers in each of the last three seasons. He's part of one of the two clusters of persistent strikeout victims: he's patient, tending to see about 4.25 pitches per plate appearance compared to his league's norm of 3.82. He's not a member of the swing at anything crowd; he walks over 100 times in a typical campaign. (Here's some great analysis, beautifully presented, from Cyclone792 at the Reds Zone weblog on Dunn's approach). But by trying to work the pitcher into a hitter's count, he gets deep enough into at bats to get to two strike counts, and once he does that, with his tall physique creating a big strike zone, he's becomes Sir Whiff A Lot.

2001 286 244 19 7% 38 13% 74 26% 0.262 0.371 0.578 0.949
2002 676 535 26 4% 128 19% 170 25% 0.249 0.400 0.454 0.854
2003 469 381 27 6% 74 16% 126 27% 0.215 0.354 0.465 0.819
2004 681 568 46 7% 108 16% 195 29% 0.266 0.388 0.569 0.957
2005 671 543 40 6% 114 17% 168 25% 0.247 0.387 0.540 0.927
2006 683 561 40 6% 112 16% 194 28% 0.234 0.365 0.490 0.855
Total 3466 2832 198 6% 574 17% 927 27% 0.245 0.380 0.513 0.893

There aren't a lot of batters like Dunn -- 44% of his plate appearances end without a ball being put in play (walk or whiff) and at the same time, he's a potent slugger, a bit like Darryl Strawberry but better (a bunch more walks, a handful fewer whiffs).

But he's not a superstar. The Reds have had a feast or famine kind of offense, and there's nothing more feast or famine than the strikeout/homer combo. He might be more in the specific context of the Reds team if he yielded a few dozen Ks and a couple of homers to snare a handful of extra less prodigious hits in specific situations. In general, there aren't very many players who produce offense at the rate Dunn does.

Note in the chart above the admirable consistency of the lad's output after his partial campaign as a rookie in 2001. The consistency's especially pronounced in the BB%, K% and HR%.

So he's an outlier in two dimensions: how he achieves what he does, and how uniformly he continues to produce.

BEYOND BASEBALL (we'll come back to Dunn)
This two-dimensions of outlier makes him a particularly risky candidate to tinker with. I've seen a few cases of this in my consulting. I was brought into an aerospace-related concern that had lower productivity than they wanted in an office that produced analysis reports. They believed there was a lack of discipline in the office because there was a lot of overtime booked, more than normal days-off taken and because they didn't get the normal early drafts a month or so before the final.

When I nosed around, I saw that one of the researchers was responsible for a vast percentage of (a) the work output, (b) the overtime, and (c) the extra days-off. It was his work pattern (the other three analysts were near the norm for all three, he alone was skewing the totals). The workhorse researched a lot up front, started writing late in the process. When he was on a roll, he'd stay late as long as he was productive. After a project was delivered, he tended to take some "mental health" days. He was a high-performer but an outlier in both his work hours and his pattern of grinding through a lot of research before committing it to paper (ergo, no moth-before draft). But he was the departmental asset.

They wanted to cut off his overtime and make him deliver an early draft a month before the review draft. This was one consult where I was successful in getting this client to bend to their high-performer's pattern. He just wouldn't have been able to produce as much or as well if forced to conform to formal "norms" that were essentially irrelevant to the deliverable's timeliness or quality. I suggested that if they wanted to change his approach to high-performance work, they needed to do it in ways he'd already proved himself good at...that is, cherry-pick other practices of his that he'd done better before than he was doing now. It's not guaranteed to work, but it's less risky, and can sometimes remind a staffer of some practice she's set down and forgotten about.

The equivalent tool for Dunn might be the following. Between 2005 and 2006, his OPS dropped markedly in specific two-strike counts, not all of them.


0-2 1-2 2-2 3-2
2005 .417 .334 .497 .887
2006 .235 .379 .469 .783

As you can see, there's essentially no difference in the OPS value of the outcomes of Dunn's plate appearances that resolved on pitches thrown on 1-2 and 2-2 counts. But there's a big shear-off in 3-2 pitches resolved and a monstrous one of 0-2. But there's a context that's important to note, too. Dunn had fewer 0-2 pitches resolving plate appearances in 2006 (38 instead of 48). That may be the result of intent -- being a little more careful in trying to avoid 0-2 with certain kinds of pitchers, or it might be noise. And he had 90 appearances resolved at 3-2 in 2006, compared to 80 in 2005. Again, perhaps a different work style or perhaps noise.

But as a coach, it's well worth asking the players on your rosters how this might have come about. Since Dunn's homers are half as frequent at 0-2 and 1-2 counts as they are in other appearances, it might be worth seeing if he could develop a special two strike swing that the many top sluggers incorporate (Ted Simmons & Rico Carty, for example, told me they did this). But there's no more guarantee Dunn can add this to his repertoire without degrading his success in other situations than it is the aerospace analyst could work 8-5 and deliver early drafts and still produce at the high level he had been.

When the talent is the product, you always take a chance trying to make successful producers more productive by changing that which may be the root cause of the their success.

Have you succeeded with that in the past? Failed? Do you find it hard to leave your Adam Dunn's alone or to find the formula to make them even more productive?

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