I’m a pretty avid baseball fan, especially when it comes to my hometown team, the Washington Nationals. But, it wasn’t until I learned how to keep score and understand the data and analytics that are inherently part of baseball, that I really fell in love with the game. I often find myself comparing what I’m seeing on the baseball field to what I know about people data in organizations.
Recently I’ve been interested in trying to understand what the Nationals should do with one of their key players who is not performing as well as he has in the past. This situation often comes up in organizations as well. What does an organization do if the employee who has historically performed at an A/B level is now performing at a C level? Do they keep the employee in the current position? Do they move the employee to another position? Do they terminate the employee?
With baseball, teams have daily individual productivity metrics that help them understand and compare players’ performance. Unfortunately, access to this kind of up-to-the-minute data and clearly defined comparable positions is not something most organizations have available to them.
Traditionally in baseball, position players who have made it to the major leagues are good at both batting and fielding, but sometimes, depending on the position or the player, it may be okay to be below average in one and above average in the other. Organizations often make these trade-offs in employee competencies/skills as well. Take the case of Nationals’ shortstop, Ian Desmond, who is a great athlete, but seems to thinks too much and commit a high number of errors.
Baseball analytics recognize that different positions have different benchmarks. So while these metrics are not great for Desmond, they are comparable to others who play the same position. If I look at a more sophisticated metric called Fielding Percentage that takes into account not only errors but other opportunities in the field, and compare Desmond to all other shortstops in baseball, he ranks 24 out of 26. Not so good. This pattern is consistent ‑ in 2014 he was number 20 out of 21, in 2013 he was 17 out of 20,in 2012 he was 19 out of 20. Not so good there either. In general, we can say that Desmond has not traditionally been the best fielding shortstop, but the team has kept playing him in the position. Why do the Nationals keep playing him year after year?
The answer comes from the second set of key metrics for position players which is offensive production. Historically, Desmond has been significantly above average here. If we look at his OPS which is a comprehensive measure of his ability to get on base as well as his power (slugging), we see that in 2012 Desmond was first among 17 shortstops. In 2013 he was third out of 17. In 2014 he was fourth out of 21. The pattern shows that he's usually one of the best. He’s also won a key batting award, the Silver Slugger. Historically he’s a highly recognized and valued player not only by his team, but by his peers and other management. Unfortunately for Desmond, this season is not going well. At the moment his OPS is 18th out of 21 shortstops. His overall batting average is only .220 and he has the most strikeouts (82) of any shortstop currently playing this year.
With over half the season left, the Nationals and Desmond still have a long way to go. He could improve, or he could continue to underperform. The question the team leadership must face now is: what should they do in this situation? This is especially critical because they want to win a World Series.
The Nationals have two other players on the team who could play shortstop, both of whom are outperforming Desmond. To get one of those others players into Desmond's position regularly, they could choose to stop playing Desmond every day but keep him on the major league team, or they could demote him to the minor leagues (similar to a transfer or termination) and bring up someone else to take his place.
These types of decisions are difficult for any organization to make. They need to consider how important the historical performance is compared to the current performance. What are the effects of underperformance on the rest of the team? Does Desmond’s continued underperformance this year put the Nationals overall at risk of under-performance? Does allowing a historically high performer to continue in his position affect not only his performance but the performance of others on the team?
The problem is that they have a longstanding employee who has proven his worth to the team over many years of high performance. How long do they stick with him? The Nationals have settled for mediocre to average performance in one area for great performance in another. Is that the right way for them to staff their team?
The Nationals have a lot of numbers and data to back this up, but right now they are maintaining their faith that Desmond will improve. For organizations that don’t have that same amount of data, how are similar decisions being made? What data does the organization need to support their decisions? Having consistent ways to measure and compare job performance is key. Ensuring that organizations have access to historical trend information is also important. As organizations become more sophisticated, they should continue to focus on ensuring they have the right data and analytics to make the right decisions, but at the end of the day there are no easy answers.
Read some of our other posts on workforce analytics.