Major League Baseball Works on Standardizing the Ball… For What Purpose?

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Back in 2014, I wrote an article for The Lean Post:

Standardization is a Countermeasure, Never the Goal

I'm a big fan of Taiichi Ohno's advice to “start from need.” I cringe when I hear people say that we should standardize the way work is done “because Lean says so.” There's no substitute for judgment in the grey areas related to standardized work.

What should we standardize? For what purpose? How standardized should the work be?

Here are some previous posts on this topic, including one that touches on the level of standardization that's seen with NCAA basketballs:

My Thoughts on Standardized Work and #Lean

Standardized, but Not Identical – College Basketballs

Standardized doesn't mean identical.

For many products, there are specifications for key dimensions and characteristics. These specifications usually include a range. There is variation in everything. Look at the size and weight of baseballs used in Major League Baseball, for example.

According to Wikipedia, the spec for balls used in MLB play reads as:

Under the current rules, a major league baseball weighs between 5 and 5 14 ounces (142 and 149 g), and is 9 to 9 14inches (229-235 mm) in circumference (78-3 in or 73-76 mm in diameter).

Every ball doesn't weigh the same. They're all supposed to be within 7 grams of each other. I wonder what the variation is, in practice. What's the “process capability” for the baseball manufacturing process? Are the “control limits” of baseball weight well within the specs? Or does Rawlings, the manufacturer, have to sort out defective balls before shipping them?

This article claims Rawlings produces balls with far less variation than the spec:

“Rawlings makes baseballs with a much, much, much tighter spec than they are required to do by the actual spec itself,” Nathan said. “So we recommended altering that and tightening up the spec, and so that when you say the ball is within spec, it has some meaning to it, and they followed that recommendation.”

There are other characteristics of the ball that are said to make a difference in play, including how tightly wound the core of the ball is, how raised the stitches are, etc.

The official rules read:

“Major league balls have rubber pills at the center, wound over by three layers of yarn that is 85 percent wool and 15 percent synthetic, and then a thin layer of cotton. The cover of hide from Tennessee dairy cows is hand-sewn with 108 stitches.”

These differences are said to create a “live ball” — one that flies further and leads to more home runs. At times, it's said the ball is “juiced.” There are conspiracy theories, at times, that say MLB leaders want more home runs and more scoring because the game will be more popular (but professional baseball is also focused on keeping the length of games down, but more scoring means longer games).

An intentionally live ball could be considered a good business decision… or one could worry about “the integrity of the game.”

So this ESPN article caught my eye the other day:

Juiced baseballs, starting relievers and MLB's next big thing

As the article mentions, the Colorado Rockies started storing game balls in a humidor in 2002. When there were a ton of home runs hit in the early years of the franchise, many attributed the high scoring to thin air at the mile-high altitude. But, as the result of a hunch (and an employee suggestion, which I love), the team learned that balls kept at 50% humidity didn't bounce as hard off of the bat, compared to “dried out” baseballs (and there are other effects, as described by Popular Science).

So, there's an interesting variation in “standardized work” — but maybe it's an acceptable variation in the standard process for Denver in the name of getting standardized play and outcomes.

As the ESPN article mentions, the Arizona Diamondbacks added a humidor for the 2018 season since, well, they're in the desert.

So we have two teams with a different standard, but it's a reasonable countermeasure for the low humidity there. If other teams and cities don't have the same problem (low humidity), should they copy the countermeasure?

From ESPN:

“Most interestingly, the league is going to review the environmental conditions of how balls are stored in all 30 ballparks and determine whether to require each team to use a humidor — a la Coors Field and Chase Field — to store all game-used baseballs.”

The ESPN writer says:

“This last thing strikes me as a no-brainer for a simple reason: If we can do everything to ensure that the ball — the literal core of the sport — is standard from one city to the next, shouldn't we do that?”

I don't think it's a no-brainer. I don't think we should standardize for the sake of standardization.

There are many other opportunities for standardization or “standardized work” (what we'd call a standardized way of doing work in the Lean terminology), including tightening up manufacturing specs and standardizing the process for how mud is rubbed onto baseballs before the games (something that's traditionally been done by umpires, which probably opens the door to a lot of variation). But, does that variation really matter?

With the recent surge in home runs, MLB had previously claimed the ball was not the cause of the difference. Commissioner Rob Manfred said, in late 2017, that he was “absolutely confident” that the balls aren't juiced.

Except studies have now shown they are. Oops. It makes me think of a hospital CEO who might say they are “absolutely confident” that the hospital isn't short-staffed or that there aren't other patient safety risks.

An independent study “found evidence that the ball became bouncier during the 2015 season, which explains about half of the home run surge.” Balls became smaller and their seams became lower, said the researchers. The study confirms what the players (the equivalent to the front-line staff at “the gemba”) have been saying about the balls being slicker or different in various ways.

I'll bring the discussion back to business goals and purpose. If somebody suggests standardizing a process, I ask, “Why? To what benefit?” If they say, “Because it's Lean” or “Lean says so,” I suggest that they think about goals and measures.

The ESPN writer brings up that same question:

“If baseball is able to truly standardize how baseballs react to being thrown, spun and struck with a stick of wood, and keep it consistent from season to season, then we arrive at a very fundamental question. That is, what kind of a game does baseball want to be?

Does it want to be the 2018 version, with sky-high home run rates, record-level strikeouts and rock-bottom levels of balls in play? Does it want to be the 1907 version, when there were fewer homers hit in all of baseball than 30-year-old Justin Upton already has in his big league career? Does it want to be the 1930 version, in which the National League hit a collective .303? Does it want to be the 1968 version, when the big league ERA was 2.98?

The appropriate answer is none of the above.

What baseball needs to strive for is balance.

What's your organization's view on standardization? What's the purpose? What does your organization want to be?

 

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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent book is the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus. His latest book has been released as an "in-progress" book, titled Measures of Success.

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