The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

 

Jeff Angus Turns Two

I'm about the last person in the world who needs a management book. Most of the work I do, whether graphic design or writing about baseball, is done from home by a squad of one... unless you count my bobbleheads, a/k/a the Futility Infielder Executive Board. They're pretty much a bunch of Yes-Men, as in, "Fellas, should I write another rant about Barry Bonds?" Nods all around; they're an easy bunch who, aside from regular dusting, require little attention from the boss.

Nonetheless, back when I was attending the SABR 36 Convention in Seattle, I talked my way into a copy of Management by Baseball by Jeff Angus. I'd seen the renowned blog of the same name, and heard Angus' presentation the night before at an Elliot Bay Bookstore panel and was taken by the author's engaging, accessible style and persuasive approach as he described his a-ha moment of combining baseball with his management consulting skills: an unsuccessful steal of second base bay the Mariners' lumbering Jeff Burroughs as ordered by the worst manager in the history of history, Maury Wills. A couple days later, Angus presented a paper titled, "Punctuated Equilibrium in the Bullpen: The 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox Blend Sabermetrics & Sociology to Deliver a Successful Innovation," a mouthful of a title, but one of the best presentations of the convention.

So despite my prejudices against management books, I quite willingly gave Management by Baseball a shot, and I was pleased to find a book every bit as engaging as its author's presentations. Angus' central thesis is that whether you're talking about the old-school, cigar-chomping by-the-Book game of yore or the post-Bill James variety, baseball is managed far more rationally than most other endeavors, and its openness makes tracking the effects of decision-making relatively easy. As such, there's no shortage of lessons that can be drawn from the national pastime and applied to the workplace. "Baseball management," he writes, "reflects more general management principles, more clearly and more broadly, than any of the academic teachings we normally use in organizations." From the anecdote about Wills and Burroughs, for example, comes a lesson about the pitfalls of expecting that the talents that have been most important to a manager's career are the key to success: "a classic management blunder," as Angus notes in the intro.

I'd be doing the book a grave injustice if I simply reduced my take to a clich├ęd "it's a hit!" endorsement, because first and foremost, Angus does a very good job of avoiding such groaners. This is not a book about "getting to first base" with your client, "hitting a home run" with your big project, or invoking the kinds of trite, baseball-flavored phrases which make a true fan want to throttle a boss awkwardly invoking the ol' ballgame simply to connect with his underlings. Though Angus works with a four-base diamond model that may seem a bit clunky at first, each base refers to a set of management skills that become progressively more difficult to acquire yet important -- an effective conceit.

If that's all Management by Baseball was, it would hardly be worth mentioning in this space; I'd have put down my copy long before finishing. What kept me coming back was the myriad examples Angus uses in drawing from his baseball background (he was a sportswriter for the Seattle Sun, now writes a sabermetrics column for the Seattle Times, and is an active member of SABR) to find examples of innovation in management and their applicability to the rest of the workaday world. From long-dead icons like John McGraw and Branch Rickey to successful skippers of yesteryear like Earl Weaver and Dick Williams to modern-day winners like Joe Torre, Ozzie Guillen, and Mike Scioscia, to off-the-field deep thinkers like the aforementioned James and Leonard Koppett, Angus deploys a richly diverse cast of characters while mining the game's history and literature to illustrate his points.

Now, to cover those bases. First base is what Angus calls "operational management," or "managing the mechanics," the ability to master the nuts and bolts of the inanimate objects that make up a job -- money, time, schedules, tools, rules, processes, and so forth. In baseball, this covers a fairly wide scope of a manager's job -- setting the lineup, researching the opposition, knowing the rule book, deploying strategies. The fundamentals, in other words. Here we get sage advice from Rickey on time management, Weaver and Williams on keeping practice drills interesting, Lou Piniella on turnaround skills (accompanied by a chart showing Sweet Lou's successes in taking over the Mariners, Reds and Devil Rays; Angus doesn't shy away from offering up actual data to back up his assertions throughout the book). We also get a telling quote from Scioscia (whom Angus interviewed) about the Angels' aggressive, contact-centric style, its suitability in relation to the talents of the team, and the sabermetrics underlying the style. Contrary to what you might think, Scioscia knows and understands his run-expectancy matrix as well as the next man, which is why he so emphasizes going from first to third on a single.

Second base is "managing the talent," and here Angus hammers home one of the book's most important points. In baseball, the talent IS the product; it's the players' skills which are the difference-maker, not only determining its winners and losers but selling the game and ensuring its long-term survival (think of the lessons of the '95 lockout's replacement players). So should it be in your workplace, counsels Angus. Take an active role in hiring the right people, understanding that you not only need the raw talents of superstars but the diverse skill sets of those jacks-of-all-trades like Tony Phillips (an Angus favorite) and even "chemistry" types like Doug Glanville. Improve performance by experimenting with roles to reveal otherwise-hidden strengths and weaknesses that may become valuable as circumstances change. Observe, measure and analyze what works and what doesn't; baseball's ability to collect data to facilitate analysis may not have easy parallels in some workplaces, but the rewards of finding means of measurement are worthwhile. Apply what's been learned from that analysis to put employees into situations in which they can play to their strengths; hello, platooning! Coach them on the side to help shore up those weaknesses to build a stronger team. Among the baseball examples here, we've got McGraw breaking in a young Frankie Frisch at third because second base was occupied by Hall of Famer Dave Bancroft; Weaver recording pitcher-batter matchups on his legendary index cards; Allen Roth talking Dodger owner Rickey into his stat-gatering services; Dick Cramer's Edge 1.000 data collection system making its way into front offices, where it was run by underlings such as future GMs Dan Evans and Doug Melvin; George Stallings using platoons to drive the 1914 Miracle Braves from worst to first; Rick Peterson learning from his students in order to facilitate passing on his own teachings; and Ozzie Guillen using his double-wide bullpen to deploy "closers by situation" on their way to a world championship.

Third base is "managing yourself," applying those second-base skills to oneself by being emotionally and intellectually self-aware and avoiding "the Six Deadly Skins" as Angus calls them, six common behaviors generally imprinted from one's upbringing. Each deadly skin except one -- Anxiety -- is linked with a manager of some notoriety: Uncontrolled Anger (Piniella), Perfectionism (Williams), Intimacy (Bobby Bragan, Williams' inappropriately parental mentor), Denial (Hank Bauer, Weaver's predecessor), and Uncontrolled Niceness (Chuck Tanner). Alas, while there are an interesting handful of baseball examples here -- the "Management by Terror" style of George Steinbrenner, the psychology of the imagined curses of the Red Sox and Cubs, the virtues of Ichiro Suzuki, and the raw deal that Hank Sauer got early in his career -- the section feels thin, its lessons the most nebulous.

Home plate is "managing change," being flexible enough to respond and adapt to evolving conditions by recognizing the importance of patterns and probabilities rather focusing solely on facts and results. Angus gets a bit heavy here as the syllable count rises, but his points are worthwhile. He discusses punctuated equilibrium, the way cataclysmic events (asteroids hitting the earth, the strike zone being expanded) wipe out existing paradigms and leave room for experimentation and variation until a new order emerges. He advocates "prevolution" via stochastic strategies -- investing resources in alternate means of distribution, deploying a lineup of both righties and lefties, and a rotation of power and finesse pitchers -- as the key to success in this difficult-to-master skill set. From the history books, he invokes McGraw hanging onto his Deadball-era offense long enough to find dead-pull power hitter Mel Ott, whose swing was tailor made for the Polo Grounds' short dimensions down the line; Rickey creating a farm system out of minor league teams to save on scouting and profit from surplus player production; Walt Jocketty trading for Larry Walker in 2004 to improve an already-winning team's offense and defense; and Ed Barrow deciding a talented pitcher named Ruth would be more valuable to the team as an everyday outfielder.

Throughout the book, Angus draws not only on his model and the baseball examples but also his own real-world experiences in the workforce, a diversified resume that ranges from picking citrus as a teen to working on a manufacturing in a plastics factory to starting up a test center for computer products to serving as the marketing director for a $45 million computer company and ultimately as a management consultant to mid-sized and larger entrepreneurial ventures. The variety of his experiences enhances his tales from the trenches; he's not just some MBA simply telling you about the dysfunctional corporate megaliths whose cubicles and boardrooms he's graced. His vision of the workforce is ultimately a refreshingly humane one; if talent is your product, then it's vital to nurture the skills and development of your employees in these ever-changing times so that everyone wins.

I'm no veteran of the genre, but I've watched enough pained laptop jockeys fly coast to coast to know that management books aren't supposed to be fun; their jargon-laced blend of didacticism, drill sergeancy, and self-help fills up many a bookshelf in Hell's anteroom. But ultimately Angus has written a book that not only comes off as a handy how-to for managers but that's pleasantly readable even for such a cynical outsider as myself. Even better for seamheads, he's written a concise, entertaining history of baseball innovation along the way. That's a pretty cool way to turn two.

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