Saturday, July 11, 2009

Part II: Switch-Pitching: When Killing Innovation
Can Be a Good Thing  

Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision. --Peter Drucker

In the previous post, I wrote about minor-leaguer Pat Venditte, a switch-pitcher for the Yankees' feeding Charleston Riverdogs of the South Atlantic League.

Venditte goes against standard analysis for young pitchers because part of his effectiveness is the switch-pitching (giving him a small platoon advantage against most batters regardless of whether they bat right- or left-handed), and since this method is so rare, it cannot fit any category with the word "standard" in it. But the coup de boule here that keeps the Yanks skeptical of Venditte no matter how well he performs, is that his skill set doesn't include power that can overcome most opponents -- he's a finesse pitcher who had succeeded "only" in finessing raw A-league batters.

I raised the argument that it made sense to promote him until he failed, and as long as he was such an unusual talent, it would take longer for opponents to get used to him and adjust.

Well, since I wrote the entry, the Yanks have promoted Venditte to their Tampa A League team and in the subsequent three innings over two appearances, the port-starboarder has performed at the same statistical level against very slightly-better competition. He has a long way to go and a lot of success at more levels before one can imagine the very definition of non-standard getting a crack at pitching to major leaguers in a regular season major league game.

While I'm pretty militant in my advocacy of experimentation, and while Baseball is probably the most testing-refining-test-again line of work in North America, I am ready to also argue the case for not investing a lot in Venditte.

When the management work requires a lot of decisions (as I've written before, a major league manager makes several hundred decisions a game...and that's only during the game itself, and excludes all the pre-game decisions about line-up and preparations for likely contingencies), it becomes critical to shorten the amount of time from realization a decision is required to delivery because in most competitive systems, waiting too long to act is a choice to not act -- the situation passes you by before you can apply your will to it.

It's vital, therefore, to reduce the number of decisions you will invest innovation in. What's worked generally in the past will work generally in the present...until it doesn't work well or sometimes at all. That's evolution, and while you have to be prepared for it, because there are sunny days even in an Ice Age, you can't simply ignore what generally works. You should relentlessly make experimental decisions that riff off of generally-true, even if only by a little. But unless you commit to doing that automatically, any attempt to innovate on every decision will result in Decision Entropy -- randomness leading to, at best, overall mediocrity.

One has to just quickly make decisions with proven tendencies because in most situations, the results will be adequate and the time saved in the decision process will provide slack to invest in bigger, more variable situations/decisions.

Repeating what was successful and low variability tends to be a winner in more cases than exceptions. And the good pitchers like Venditte tend to be successful until the reach a level where their gimmicks can't overcome the Seven Sigma performance of AAA and major league baseball players. And so passing on investing in Venditte and the other very talented but abnormal players leaves coaches and team staff more time to invest in the individuals who embody the more-likely-to-succeed characteristics.

Which leads us to ...

In a competitive endeavour where, as in Baseball, The Talent Is The Product, any laxity in hiring the best and making them better assures falling short or even failing. That's true in a minor league system and in your own organization, too. So in baseball, they have this model: Up or Out. To oversimplify it, if you are not succeeding to a large degree at a given level by a given age (alternatively, by a given amount of field experience), it's time to go and make room for someone else who might be able to succeed.

It seems bloodthirsty, but resources (coaching, roster spots, et.al.) are limited, and it's educational suicide to spread your resources so thin that the candidates with a good chance of succeeding don't receive enough to get critical mass. If you had nine adequate outfielders on a team sharing plate appearances and field time, none of them would get a critical mass of experience to experiment, learn, recognize patterns. So you cut the four or five that seem least likely to make it to the majors. Of course, it doesn't mean focusing all the attention on one is a path to organizational success, but in general, Up or Out succeeds at focusing resources on the individuals most likely to succeed.

A side-effect of this good system is something bad...what will probably happen to Pat Venditte. Because they are just waiting for him to hit his ceiling, they are likely to "see" that result, even when it's just a slump or a short chain of poor luck, than if he was a guy with a 98 m.p.h. heater.

Presuming your own organization is not a sheltered workshop, you have to make sure every single hire adds to your quality or quantity or both. Everyone who is not making you better or faster or more capable to respond to a changing environment or boosting overall morale while holding her own is taking up a spot for someone who might.

Even, too often (grrrrr), if you lose the chance to harness the talent of a person whose approach defies everything that usually has limited achievements.

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