Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

Strictly Business – another Zambrano post

Posted by dannmckeegan on April 29, 2010

CCB, Incorporated has close to 125 years of history.  They grew from an outpost in a meatpacking city and railway hub to an internationally recognized name.  They had expanded to three branches at some point long ago and, through many ups and downs, found a way to keep all three going.  Let me tell you about their recent struggles.

Three Regions, All Different, with Three Different Issues

One of the regions has more to do with development and research than sales, but still does its share.  It has been doing its best despite despite their top producers being down for the better part of a month.  With many years of experience, these two are more likely than not to return to form at some point soon, but the prolonged wait has the customer base wondering if CCB is able to change with the times, or if the company is instead reaping the harvest of ill-sown plans.  The other departments of this region are doing quite well, especially some of those who are the newest hires.  Chad in accounts receivable looks like a bit of a screw-up, but he really hasn’t had much chance to prove otherwise, yet.

The second region I’ll tell you about is the main region, the hub.  Most of the big decisions and big sales are made here.  It’s high profile and high reward.  Now, the sextet of top sellers have different backgrounds.  Four have been doing this for years, while two others are still pretty green.  The two youngsters and one of the vets are newer and have more to prove.  Quarterly returns are strong so far, and with the sixth of these men returning from leave, they almost have too many guys for the territory.  As good as they are, there simply aren’t enough sales calls to be made.

Meanwhile, the third region is in shambles.  The best guy – the guy can walk into a sales call and melt the toughest of execs with his proposals – can barely get anywhere because he’s not getting any fresh leads.  The assistants have no clue what they’re doing.  They might someday, but they were all brought in together when upper management swept house after the previous cadre of employees went belly up with awful quarterlies throughout 2009.  One holdover is doing well, but he isn’t getting any better.  One of the kids can make certain calls, but most will eat him alive.  The one grizzled vet out there lost his mojo and can’t seem to make a single call on time.  They’ve tried a bunch of kids in different roles, but nothing’s worked.  And losing one of their best to a health problem makes matters worse.

Upper management knows there’s a problem.  No matter how good the second region’s quarterlies look, the third’s been a financial black hole that prevents CCB from doing anything more than breaking even.  The first is plugging along with disappointing performance and output that would be temporarily sustainable if, again, the third region could just stay afloat on its own.

The Search for a Solution

The president of CCB’s spent a week talking with the Sales Director about what to do.  They obviously have too much sales power in region two, but not enough in region two.  There are some résumés in the inbox, but those guys don’t seem to have the stomach for business travel anymore.  And the kids in the office aren’t ready yet.  Moving them up too early to sales would kill their confidence if it was too soon.  And at this time of year, nobody’s ready to let you take a real pro away from them.  The options seem limited, and it looks like somebody from the second region will be asked to relocate.

Six guys.  Certainly, the two best will stay in the main sales region.  And there are the two younger guys, who stand to gain more in the home region, since this is where the company envisions them for the long haul.  Two guys remain, both vets; one a new face, the other one of the most widely known.  The second guy, he loves where he’s at.  The city, the profile, being Mr. Bigshot…it’s him.  And he loves the money.  The other guy?  He’s starting the quarter with good numbers after some struggles over the past few years.  His style is a bit unorthodox, and he’ll never blow you away, but he gets something from his calls and looks to be making the kinds of changes necessary for success in the company and region.

As much as Mr. Bigshot might hate the idea, he’s the best guy to invigorate the struggling region.  He’s got a physical presence that, honestly, the others don’t have.  He demands attention, and the raised profile of the new region certainly will afford him one, albeit with fewer accolades.  And the way the bosses see it, he’s the only one with the potential to have enough impact to put this region into the black.  Will his base be a ridiculous sum of money for a region with commissions so low?  Sure.  Is it a risk that he’ll dislike or struggle with the day-to-day minutiae compared to the individual big calls he’s used to making once or twice a week?  Of course.

Them’s the Breaks

But this is a business.  The job of a business is to turn a profit.  An employee’s job is to contribute to the business turning a profit.  The big shot out there now, as well as one of the younger guys in the main office, started out in R&D at a satellite plant in region one, but their talents were moved elsewhere.  One of the guys down in region one knows that he’s keeping the office warm for a hotshot at another of the satellite plants as I type this, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be transferred or let go.  It’s a cutthroat industry, especially when every year is sink-or-swim.

The goal of a baseball team is to win the World Series.  Anything else is failure.  A position player plays whatever position a coach assigns.  Ask Soriano what happened in Washington when he was reluctant to move to the outfield.  Ask Sean Marshall or Kyle Lohse how much they like left field.  How does Jake Fox feel about learning to play third base, period, at the major league level while in the shoes of Aramis Ramirez in the midst of what was expected to be a playoff race?  How about Dempster and Wood each moving between the rotation and pen?  Cubs fans all still remember Gary Gaetti pitching against Philadelphia and striking out Kevin Stocker.  How should we look at Rick Ankiel or Brooks Kieschnick?

And a final point from a business perspective: if it’s wrong to transition a pitcher from one pitching role to another, what is it to use a “staff ace” and “opening day starter” as a pinch hitter off the bench?  The latter is not preferable to the former because of occurrence rates or the player’s clear preference.  A pitcher’s job is to pitch.  Nothing more, nothing less.  That’s actually codified in the AL.  Throw, field, repeat.  This idea that Zambrano is “starting pitcher,” as opposed to “baseball player,” is ludicrous.  He’s not an entertainer with a trapeze act being told to tame the lion.  This isn’t some fun endeavor.  Zambrano’s job is to try to win.  If the manager tells him to win by reassigning him within the company, so be it.

This might blow up in someone’s face or, knock on wood, elbow.  But this is the right move for the business of winning baseball games.

Sabermetric wisdom says use the best pitchers for the highest number of outs possible.  A four-man rotation with a 90-100 pitch count models perfectly, they say!  Anyone with real knowledge of baseball laughs at that.  One single 8-10 pitch plate appearance murders the plan.  Not to mention that power pitchers don’t bounce back on three days’ rest with full velocity.  Or that models are imaginary and have no bearing on reality.  Rather, reality dictates the actual data points that people graph and to which they then ascribe post hoc narratives.

The best use of the Cubs’ pitching staff can be summed up as follows:

  • Carlos Marmol is the closer.  He pitches 9th innings, occasionally an out or two in the 8th.
  • Sean Marshall is a reliable lefty in the mid- to late-inning lead-preservation scenarios.
  • James Russell has shown the ability in a small sample size to get tough lefties out.  LOOGY/sub for Marshall
  • Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster are the most consistent and reliable starting pitchers on the team (#1 and #2).
  • Randy Wells has been the picture of reliable since coming up in 2009 (#3).
  • Tom Gorzelanny looked quite good in 2007 before pointless overuse threw off his development in subsequent years; with youth and growth on his side, he remains a good option (#4).
  • Carlos Silva has changed his approach to lefties, always an issue for him, and has started hot.  He was injured in 2009 and had numbers in 2008 that were not nearly as bad as a few raw numbers suggest; his style and stuff are better suited for the long haul, especially since contact pitchers generally can keep a low pitch count (#5).
  • Carlos Zambrano, while certainly in possession of what can at times be by far the best stuff on the staff, is also the more consistent of himself plus the top 3 starters.  While Zambrano and the 5 others may all appear able to provide some similar overall rate stats by years end, it is foolhardy to think of these as comparable numbers in reality.  Zambrano’s mean and that of Wells or Dempster for a given rate stat may be within a few points, as may their median value.  However, Zambrano’s range will almost certainly be greater than the other pitchers.  Thus, the question must be asked:

Is it better to have the team’s worst starter consistently in the rotation for 3 runs over 6 innings per start with Zambrano serving as a successful setup man, or to have Zambrano in the rotation for an average of 3 runs over 6.1 innings that in fact varies from 1 run over 8 innings to 6 runs over 3+ innings, while Silva or Gorzelanny provides no solution in the bullpen?  What is the marginal value of the occasional Zambrano gem compared to the expected decent mediocrity of a #5’s 4.50 ERA, vs. the marginal value of the #5’s 4.50ERA compared to Zambrano’s occasional 6-run debacle?  And how do these values change when Zambrano’s efforts or those of the otherwise reassigned pitcher in the bullpen are taken into account?  I’m not interested in the loaded dice of a Gaussian model.  I want a leather-and-wood answer.  Models can’t guess, even though there is a bit of a confusion in some online enclaves between Mr. Dewan and Miss Cleo.  They can only tell a story (and the narrative fallacy is a debate to be had another day).

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