Thinking Outside the Bullpen: Strategic Innovation

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This week my baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, secured a playoff berth and home field advantage for the American league playoffs. Their meteoric rise to success in the second half of the 2015 season has been a popular subject for many baseball analysts. While their playoff run is a great success story, I believe that the teams Sr. VP has also taught us a valuable strategy about thinking outside-the-box. Or to use baseball language, thinking outside-the-bullpen.

The pitching bullpen is where the Jays have struggled this year. At the All-Star break, they were an average team and had won 50% of their games. They were not out of the playoff picture but they weren’t a contender. They were an excellent batting team – the best in the league! However, their pitching was average and their opponents typically scored a lot of runs. In fact, their pitching rated 23 out of the 30 teams in the league.

Baseball statisticians teach us that successful teams score more runs than their opponents (big surprise!). More specifically, exceptional teams have a healthy gap between the amount of runs they earn versus the runs given to up to their opponent. It’s called the ‘run differential’. At the half-way point of the year the Blue Jays’ stats showed that their differential was not big enough.

As baseball pundits reviewed this data they suggested that the Jays needed to make some trades which would strengthen their pitching. This made sense!  It seemed like a reasonable strategy to increase their run differential by addressing their pitching problem.

However, the Blue Jays’ GM, Alex Anthopoulos did something else.  Instead of trading for pitchers, he traded for even more great batters (with one exception named David Price)! Instead of striving to be strong in both pitching and hitting, he chose to make their strength an even better  strength. After all, there are two factors which can change the run differential – pitching and hitting. Improving either will increase the run differential!

To this point we do not know whether this strategy was due to a lack of viable pitching trades or if Anthopoulos simply thought outside-the-bullpen. We do know that it has worked. Since the All-Star break, the Blue Jays have won 72% of their games and are marching into the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

So what does Anthopolous teach us about strategic innovation?

  1. There is more than one path to excellence. The obvious path, in this case pitching, wasn’t the only way to improve. We need to look beyond obvious strategies, not matter how much they make sense.
  2. You don’t need to be excellent at everything to succeed. While it would be wonderful to be ranked #1 in both pitching and batting, it has seldom been achieved. However, excellence in their strength of batting was sufficient to achieve their playoff goal. This “strengths-based” model of performance is an important lesson about embracing what you have and not getting hung up on what you don’t.
  3. You can be better than #1. Based on batting averages, the post-All-Star break Blue Jays can beat the pre-All-Star break Blue Jays. Being number one did not mean the Jays had reached their ceiling. We often have room to increase our capacity in things we already excel at!

We all want to win and succeed. But the example of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015 helps us rethink exactly how we do this. What assumptions are keeping you from seeing new strategic options? What areas can you be ‘just’ average in order to pursue your greatest strength?  Can you be better than #1?


 

Head ShotDr. Jeff Suderman is an armchair athlete, professor, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

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