Friday, September 24, 2010

Baseball Book of the Decade: Doug Glanville
Synthesizes Systems Engineering & Emotional Intelligence  

I was stoked to read Doug Glanville's recent book, but for some reason I let it sit for a while, unread, while I plugged away at novels. I think it was because I appreciate his insight so much that I was concerned I'd be disappointed.

Turns out Glanville's book falls into the category of zero disappointment possible. It's got the inside skinny on how contemporary players live and think and act when they're at work and how they balance their Baseball careers with their Beyond Baseball lives.

The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer's Inside View (Times Books, 2010) is, literally, a unique book. Unique, because never before has a major league player written both about the inside game and explicitly knitted in autobiographical details. Unique, more importantly, because no major league player who has written a book has been a person who combined high brainpower (more players are intelligent than choose to allow it to show) and high emotional intelligence. To objectors who want to use Jim Bouton's Ball Four or Jim Brosnan's Pennant Race as having both "boths", I'll tell you they were both high-brainpower guys, but neither was a mature adult (which, of course, gave them great insights & humor and amplified the joy of reading the books).

Unlike any other volume I know of, The Game From Where I Stand talks in a fascinating and revealing way about how ballplayers live with, and feel about, the issues on and off the field, from the quotidian (living arrangements & sense of home, balancing personal relationships and commitment to the most challenging zero-sum endeavor in Western Civilization, working with media, what it's like to decompress just enough during a rain delay or never decompress if you're on the bench and might need to be called upon to pinch hit) to the headline-scraping (supplements and the challenge to interpreting records in an era where no one can know who didn't use legal or banned supplements and when there's zero valid science that defines their effects on performance).

Like many baseball books, Glanville's has dish on individual players he competed with or worked alongside and while all reveal a little about individuals we know better as images on a television screen or the front and back of baseball cards, the finest examples are this insightful observer's impressions of known eccentrics, such as Carl Everett and Ugueth Urbina are treated well (I won't share them with you; it'd undermine your enjoyment of them). And he shares some inside language I'd never heard before (some of it spectacularly useable, such as "French Toast").

It's not perfect; a lot of the material in the final third is ordinary material that feels like it was requested by the publisher or an agent, and what makes Doug Glanville such a special person and observer is somewhat wasted on some topics.

But no matter how much you already know about the game, it is exhilarating to get so much extra background you never knew about. And if you don't care much about the game, The Game From Where I Stand is lovely and rich anthropology reported by a native observer.

I have to state this is one of the three most important books about baseball written in the last 50 years, in part because it covers so much about the game, in part because the author shares his sincerity, authenticity, intelligence and love for the game with the reader. It's a gem.

Friday, September 03, 2010

PART IV - Advanced Experimentation 410: Not Letting
Falling Off A Cliff Cost You Cliff Lee Money  

In Parts I, II and III, I laid out how the Mariners, if they intended to advance their record over their 2009 campaign, had to do something very different from the blend that had gotten them (to everyone's surprise) over .500 last year.

And I explained that the front office had taken the exhilarating but risky course of a Bold Experiment, and attempted to do what no team in the last 90 seasons -- maybe longer -- had tried: Build a team around team defense so far above the norm that it would allow them to transcend the gravitational field that is the Pythagorean winning projection. I described the Bold Experiment and how it failed, quite miserably because the offense, already well below adequate, was undermined by business side of the team, a part of the organization that was priapic for the promotional opportunities of re-signing an already-below average DH instead of acquiring any of the relatively-available talent of left-handed batters who can pull the ball but can't field. I described just how it failed by falling below the event horizon, a universal function that happens in all endeavors mechanical and human and in the making of movie sequels (see Mission Impossible XXVIII: Highjinks in the Retirement Home Complex)

But I asserted the architect of the baseball side of the equation, G.M. Jack Zdurienck, had shown genius in spite of the total failure of the Bold Experiment, and I said I was going to explain why he was, in this respect, a manager to emulate in your own endeavor. That genius was not just the willingness to implement a Bold Experiment (mandatory but usually avoided) but building in a contingency plan to buffer the consequences of that unprecedented experiment's failure. So here we go.

CONTINGENCY PLANNING In the off-season, as part of rolling out the Bold Experiment, Zdurienck traded for the guy who has been the best starting pitcher in the majors, Cliff "The Benton Bandido" Lee to compliment his existing top guy, Félix Hernández, one of the top 10 starters in the majors. It's tough to acquire talent like that, but Lee's contract is to expire at the end of the 2010 campaign, so while his immediate value is high, the long-term dollar value of the guy is less certain because of the uncertainty both of how much he would cost to re-sign and his actual value in the final years of his -- inevitably long because part of the cost of buying Six Sigma brilliance is not just high per year salary but paying for years when the player has matured to an age that it's unlikely the performance will still be dominating -- contract. And as a premier starting pitcher, his cost would be either very high, or higher than that, something the on-field investment sensitive Mariners' ownership strongly prefers avoiding.

For many front offices, the normal thing to do would be to sign Lee (eliminating part of the uncertainty -- the uncertainty of price-tag) and make him part of the team. And then if the signing didn't work out for any reason (didn't like the city, team faltered making the value of a two-ace strategy less valuable) one could trade him and more likely than not recover the full investment (sometimes called "sign and trade").

But the Z-Man understood that since the experiment was far from normal, the normal context of sign and trade wasn't an optimal process to insert into it...too risky, since failure was more likely. So he didn't pursue the (normal) courtship of the new, one-year-left-on-contract star, and in fact, politely but bluntly declined to talk contract between the trade & the beginning of the season. Lee and his agent were a little surprised, maybe even disappointed.

For the Ms front office, though, it made some sense. Publicly admitting the lack of courtship signaled potential trading partners Lee might be available, and that was almost certain to stimulate acquisition lust among contenders and wanna-bes and mediocre-but-ambitious teams (offer not good in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and other cities where teams make as much $$ losing as winning). And more interested parties lead to more possible bidders lead to better returns on a trade.

Keeping Lee through a melt-down of a season was, of course, an option...not a good one. Beyond Baseball, companies, militaries and non-profits routinely stick to their decisions even when it's become crystal-clear the decision was a fatal stinker. In Baseball, it happens occasionally, but Baseball is not as forgiving of incompetence as the Fortune 500 is of failed CEOs or the Pentagon or Kremlin are of failed commanders.

Because the Bold Experiment was so unprecedented, Zdurienck didn't plan just on winning; he understood and shaped the processes to account for stumble or failure as well.

¿What chances did he take that might have backfired on the benefit/cost ratio he hoped for? Not an injury to Lee that would erase his trade value if the experiment failed -- because if they inked an about-to-be-injured Lee to a long-term deal, they might be stuck with damaged goods. That the experiment would succeed beyond their wildest dreams and earn them a trip to the World Series? Not really a bad risk, since the good feeling from that would be a counterweight (in part or entirely) to the possibly-perceived personal tort of not courting Lee early.

So when the Bold Experiment imploded in the dark matter-infested regions below the Mariners' offensive Event Horizon, Z-Man traded Lee to one of several contending teams seeking his services. And since the Ms had so many holes in their everyday line-up, Z-Man could choose from amongst the contenders the several that had a prospect or young developing potential star that filled, specifically, one of his several on-field black holes. And the curse of the total meltdown of the Bold Experiment had within it the relative blessing of giving Z-Man more latitude, because this was a team that wasn't on the verge of contending, so the talent he acquired didn't have to be shovel-ready to appear in the 2011 line-up as star-quality already; he could trade for a player or players who were more than a year away.

So looked at from a good management perspective, the magnitude of the meltdown actually afforded Z-Man more possibilities to improve, more ways to succeed. Cognitively, it's a hard place to go Beyond Baseball, but on July 9, the Ms traded Lee and a longer-term but lower ceiling guy, Mark Lowe with a dab of cash to the Texas Rangers for Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, Matthew Lawson and Justin Smoak. Smoak is a 1b prospect, Lueke is a reliever whose pitching is lights-out at AAA and whose personal behavior has been mirror-image dark matter, the kind of employee that, if he wasn't producing brilliantly, you'd have no qualms about jettisoning.

While fans tended to cry loudly that Lee had been lost, there was close to zero margin in keeping him. His value was certainly high...the Ms had gone 9-4 in the games he had started (and should have been 11-2, by Game Score Won-Lost, a stat that more accurately reflects a starting pitcher's contribution to team wins than the actual W-L record that appear on stat sheets), they were 25-48 in the games Lee hadn't started. That means even cloning Lee and replacing their worst starter with his clone wouldn't have made the team a .500 one. There was no point in paying him big money to excel for a team doomed to last place with or without him.

There's another essay or two in the Ms acquisition of Lueke and Z-Man's

apparent willingness to acquire for a team that prides itself more on its off-field warm-fuzzies than its on-field accomplishments an apparently awesome relief talent who's got a massive character failure. Will the genius of Z-Man's contingency planning be cancelled out by the potentially Lueke-warm or catastrophic social revulsion of the secondary prospect's violations? Still to early to tell. But since this is not a Mariner blog, I'm not, at this point, going to jump on that news hook to rush something to print about it.

Jack Zdurienck is a management beacon to follow for both understanding the absolute need to execute a Bold Experiment even when the organizations feels like its in a comfort zone, when anything less than bold is close to assured failure. And he's equally a beacon to follow for contingency planning.

Are you comfortable? Are you planning for what's changing? Are you planning for how to deal gracefully with what the most likely turns might be that would foil your plans for what's changing? Zdurienck is. You should, too.

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