Monday, May 28, 2007

In Which Abba Embraces
the San Francisco Giants' Bullpen  

Can you hear the boos...Armando?
I remember long ago, another starry night game lit,
In the towers' light...Armando.
You were mumbling to yourself and softly shaking off Molina;
I could hear the ringing bats
And sounds of razzing fans were coming from between us.

They were closing on our lead...Armando.
Every out, every pitch seemed to last eternally.
I was so aghast...Armando
We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to lose.
And now I am surprised to hear
Opponents' bats and runners lit our fuse.
ABBA, "Armando" (1976)

In large organizations, criticism accumulates to people I call "lightning rods", or, sometimes a related species, "sh*t magnets". Once people start getting blamed for failures, it becomes easier to attach blame to them even when they are only partially to blame or perfectly innocent. A strong organization will face this head on and determine if the lightning rod's actual conduct is culpable. If not, they will fight this tooth and nail...not just because losing a good performer to a blame campaign is costly, but because once people can scapegoat someone without serious responsibility, it is likely to happen again and again and get ingrained as a norm.

Accountability is the fuel of effectiveness; lack of it fuels ineffectiveness.

So when Swedish Disco's fave closer, Armando Benitez, came into a clean 9th in a tie game last Friday against the Colorado Rockies, poured gasoline on hisself and lit it in the form of three hits and a walk and an "L" for both the Giants & Benitez, the booing was stentorian. Giants fans were already hypersenstive to Armando's legendary inconsistency (well, he is consistent in that every season he's pitched, he's thrown more pitches per three outs than average, even in some remarkably "effective" years). The booing went up a notch the next day when in the San Francisco Chronicle Armando was quoted nipping at his teammates.

Moreover, the ticket-holders might not be happy to hear that the closer rendered himself blameless.

"I did my job," he said when asked if it was tough to give up two runs when he was not hit particularly hard. "I got three groundballs. It happens. We had opportunities to win the game. How many times did we get somebody on base and we don't move him over? Somebody had to pay and today it was me."

At least one columnist, Ray Ratto, characterized Benitez' comments thusly:

Armando Benitez walked out of the dugout to do his turn around the Photo Day circle, and was booed by the people wielding the cameras.

It wasn't a universal boo, not like Friday night. There were some cheers as well from the true believers who worship the shirt and all who wear it, but it was a fairly striking juxtaposition -- "Boo! You suck! Now stand here so we can take your picture." The American Fan Experience in all its mutant beauty.

But credit where it is due, and all that, for Benitez tipped his hat anyway, and spent 35 minutes circling the rope and accepting any and all lenses pointed his way. He knew many of the people on the field openly reviled him the night before, and plenty of times before that.

Plus, he had chosen the wrong time to haul out his image-suicidal "I did my job" defense -- a 5-3 defeat in which he gave up the go-ahead runs in the ninth. He complained that the Giant hitters didn't make enough of their opportunities, pointed out that he had induced enough ground balls to get out of the inning with no damage, and in general credited himself with a job well done and delegated blame for all the jobs undone.

He has done this before, of course, which is part of the maddening pattern with Benitez.

I both disagree and agree with Ratto. I've snipped out the part of the piece where he defends Abba's Closer as someone whose done better than a gaggle of unreviled closers (Mariano Rivera, for example), and where Giants manager Bruce Bochy defends Armando's point of view about opportunities squandered.

BEYOND BASEBALL It's critical when blame is being doled out that it "stick" to the right persons. That doesn't mean people have to endlessly point out and replay the video tape every single error, but it does mean showing you care & trying to make sure in the cases where people did the wrong thing and the outcome was bad, they understand the link.

Life, of course is not always so clear cut.

┬┐What happens when the involved staff did the right thing and the outcome was bad? Or did the wrong thing and the outcome was positive?

The answer is one of the most important of the thousands of lessons Baseball can bless you with. Because in Baseball and beyond, you can execute the optimal plan flawlessly and still lose/have a bad outcome. And you can sub-optimize your approach or execute fumblingly and still win/get a good outcome (for example, every operating system Microsoft have shipped since Windows 3.1). You have to come back the next day and still do your best to execute the right process as flawlessly as the environment permits to have a chance in a competitive environment.

...AND BACK So I disagree with Ratto because Armando induced 4 ground balls, three of them tractable, and the defense didn't convert them into outs. He essentially is being scapegoated here, he calls it out, but because he's already hyper-sensitized the fans with "so many" blowups (I'll get back to that in a sec), they want none of it. And in Baseball's case (Baseball being the beacon for accountability among North American lines of work), you don't point out teammates' errors publicly. What's not-done in Baseball isn't fatal to it because there' so much accountability culture ingrained in every process and norm that calling out teammates in public is unnecessary...perhaps even piling it on.

In fact, Abba's fave closer has 9 saves and only 1 blown save. Opponents are batting .246 against him with a .316 on-base and a .369 slugging; better than adequate And the ugliest situations that can be hidden (when a reliever inherits runners for which his actions can allow to score without being on his own record), he has been in four games where he inherited runners and the team has gone 3-1 in those games.

But let's look at Benitez' Baseball-Reference game log for the year. I'm going to characterize it as outcome fine / process not-so.

Date       Opp DR GmReslt Pitcher Result  IP   H  R BB SO HR   ERA  BF Pit Str IR IS Situat. In/Out Inn Rnr O Scr  DP
Apr  4     SDP  - L  3-5   9-9f           1    1  0  1  1  0   0.00  5  22  13  0  0  9t --- 0 d 2   9t end   d 2  0 
Apr  5     SDP  0 W  5-3   9-9f ,S  1     0.1  1  0  1  0  0   0.00  3  10   4  2  2  9t 1-3 2 a 4   9t end   a 2  0 
Apr 10    @SDP  4 W  6-5   9-9f ,S  2     1    2  2  0  1  1   7.71  5  20  14  0  0  9b --- 0 a 3   9b end   a 1  0 
Apr 18     STL  7 W  6-5   9-9            1    0  0  0  1  0   5.40  3  11   8  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t 3 out tie  0 
Apr 20     ARI  1 W  4-2   9-9f ,S  3     1    0  0  2  0  0   4.15  5  22   9  0  0  9t --- 0 a 2   9t end   a 2  0 
Apr 21     ARI  0 W  1-0   9-9f ,S  4     1    1  0  1  2  0   3.38  5  29  18  0  0  9t --- 0 a 1   9t end   a 1  0 
Apr 24    @LAD  2 W  5-3   9-9f ,S  5     1    2  0  0  1  0   2.84  5  17  11  0  0  9b --- 0 a 2   9b end   a 2  0 
Apr 25    @LAD  0 W  6-4   9-9f ,S  6     1    0  0  0  1  0   2.45  3  12   8  0  0  9b --- 0 a 2   9b end   a 2  0 
Apr 26    @LAD  0 W  5-4   9-9f ,S  7     1    0  0  0  1  0   2.16  3  16  10  0  0  9b --- 0 a 1   9b end   a 1  0 
Apr 30     COL  3 W  9-5   9-9f           0.2  1  0  0  1  0   2.00  3   9   7  2  1  9t 12- 1 a 5   9t end   a 4  0 
May  4     PHI  3 W  6-2   9-9f           1    0  0  0  1  0   1.80  3  12   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 4   9t end   a 4  0 
May  9     NYM  4 L  3-5   9-9f ,L  0-1   1    3  2  1  1  0   3.27  7  28  16  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t end   d 2  0 
May 11    @COL  1 W  8-3   9-9f           0.1  0  0  0  1  0   3.18  1   6   3  2  0  9b 12- 2 a 5   9b end   a 5  0 
May 15    @HOU  3 L  5-6   8-9  ,BS 1     1.1  1  1  1  2  1   3.55  6  26  14  1  1  8b 1-- 2 a 2   9b 3 out tie  0 
May 17    @HOU  1 W  2-1  12-12f,S  8     1    0  0  0  2  0   3.29  3   9   7  0  0 12b --- 0 a 1  12b end   a 1  0 
May 21     HOU  3 W  4-0   9-9f           1    0  0  0  1  0   3.07  3  12   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 4   9t end   a 4  0 
May 22     HOU  0 W  4-2   9-9f ,S  9     1    1  0  0  0  0   2.87  4  10   8  0  0  9t --- 0 a 2   9t end   a 2  0 
May 25     COL  2 L  3-5   9-9f ,L  0-2   1    3  2  1  1  0   3.78  7  19  10  0  0  9t --- 0 tie   9t end   d 2  0 

Some factoids pop out at us.

  • Of the seven runners Armando inherited, four scored.
  • I have a simple/simplistic way of evaluating relief appearances for thumbnail purposes: If a reliever yields 1 or fewer non-homer baserunners per inning, that's a "good" outing, and it's a "frustrating" one when it's more than that. Using that as a standard, Armando has eight "good" and ten "frustrating" ones.
  • Even when he's induced ground balls (for example, the stretch of April 20-24 inclusive and that game on May 25) with runners he's put on, he hasn't had a double play turned behind him (frustrating for the fans, and Armando, too, methinks)

These are not significantly awful marks. But they do increase the fans' frustration factor, especially fickle ones'.

So here's my conclusion and why I find myself as a management consultant agreeing with The Ratto: If Armando wants to embrace process in the face of bad outcomes, he needs to have attached to him the barnacles of infinite doom a la Bootstrap Bill, when he has good outcomes in spite of bad process.

NOTE: I may be a little extra sensitive about this particular reliever since he pitched for my home team part of one season, and I saw every single game in which he blew up. And probably further sensitive because in 1991 or 1992, I went with and old Baseball man, Bill McCarthy (he'd worked in the Reds' system long enough & long enough ago ago to have worked with Rogers Hornsby -- and watched a game with Cy Young) to Jack Lang Stadium for a Spring Training tussle between two of my favorite talent-development teams...the Orioles and the Cardinals. The Orioles had this monster-sized pitcher with great posture and demeanor who threw incredibly hard and seemed to have some control, a lot for the pre-20 years under his belt. When I looked up the giant's name, I realized I couldn't wait to see Armando Benitez pitch in the majors. Bill told me I was crazy and that the kid would break my heart, and when I asked why he couldn't put it into words...he just told me the kid was going to be a heartbreaker. I was hemi-semi-demi right; he was almost completely right.

...AND BEYOND AGAIN It's critical in a competitive endeavor to manage "blame" & crush scapegoating, and Baseball's insistence on accountability is essential. But so is Baseball's wisdom about looking beyond pure outcome to try to assure that good process is continually reinforced regardless of outcome.

That's what Abba was singing about so presciently in 1976.

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