Babe Ruth would languish in a world of business process outsourcing

Stephen Baker

Last night in Philadelphia, I watched a pitcher almost singlehandedly win a baseball game--with his bat. The pitcher was Cuban-born Livan Hernandez. He's a veteran for the Washington Nationals. He throws slowly, moves sluggishly, and looks (from afar) like someone who spent most of spring training eating donuts. His pitching was OK, but his hitting was positively Ruthian. His first time up, he non-chalantly slugged a home to left, and then took about three minutes on a painfully slow jog around the diamond. Next time up he tomahawked a double down the left field line. A couple innings later, he smashed a liner to the wall in right field and chugged again into second base.

This was a National League game. If if had been in the American League, we wouldn't have seen Hernandez hit. This is because the American League is modern. It believes in statistics, averages, and the power of what consultants call 'business process outsourcing,' or BPO. It has concluded that pitchers, on average, are miserable hitters. This is undeniable. So the hitting side of their job has been outsourced for the last few decades to designated hitters.

For most of our economic history, workers, being humans, embodied virtues and shortcomings, each one in a unique living, breathing package. Employers had to learn to deal with it. Getting the best out of workers, and minimizing their shortcomings, was the essence of management. But in recent years, employers have begun acting more like the American League. They look at their workers as combinations of skills. And they shift the work, piece by piece, to the workers best equipped to handle it, whether in Silicon Valley or Sri Lanka. This is BPO.

The trouble with BPO, like most statistical systems, is that it can eliminate surprises in the name of efficiency. This includes good surprises as well as bad. On average, a pitcher is a bad hitter. But if you give him a chance, he can do something surprising--perhaps something that will change the entire sport. Sound far-fetched? The legendary Babe Ruth broke into baseball in 1915 as a fabulous left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. It turned out he could hit, too. Who knows if he ever would have been discovered as a hitter if the American League had outsourced the pitchers' turn at bat. Because pitchers hit, perhaps the greatest hitter ever emerged. He slugged homers. Fans thronged to see him. An entire industry oriented itself toward a more tightly-wound home run ball. This changed the sport (for better or worse). In a world ruled by business process outsourcing, the Sultan of Swat wouldn't mean squat.

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