Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Team-Building Lessons
From Kevin Towers  

Baseball has so many excellent lessons for team-building because it's central (long-term success in the game depends completely on it), and conspicuous (it's all right out in the open). Well, conspicuous to some degree. Reasons for some moves are obvious, but others seem cryptic.

Baseball Prospectus' Jonah Keri has been conducting very smart and pithy interviews with major league teams' G.M.s. This week, though, he outdid himself with a two-part interview of Kevin Towers, the San Diego Padres' general manager.

The Padres have a weird past. Nepotism in the front office, some of the ugliest uniforms ever unleashed on an unprepared public, firing one of the best managers in history, Dick Williams, for no apparent reason after a winning season and just a year after taking them to their first World Series, and a cornucopia of incoherent player signings. That's the past, but Towers is the present.

Towers has been looking awfully sensible building the team over the last couple of years as it prepares to move into a new ballpark. His approach, made explicit in the Keri interviews, reveals some great foundation for team-building in your own organization.

TOWERS LESSON ONE: Know the competitive and environmental landscape you expect your team to play in.

Keri asked him how he thought the new park would play. His answer in part was:

Kevin Towers: I hope it's a pitcher's park. We studied clubs going into new parks over the last few years, and we found that a few clubs, Seattle and San Francisco especially, had some success in pitcher's parks. There are factors we won't know for sure until we get in there of course. The wind direction we won't know for example. It will be tough to hit homers to the gaps, and will probably favor left-handed pull hitters: It's 410 feet to the right-center field gap, with a short porch in right field at 325, plus 395 to center, 385 to the gap in left-center. It's 330 down the line in left, with a building--the old Western Metals building--in play there. The two corner outfielders will probably have to be pretty good athletes, considering how big the gaps are, plus there are quirky spots in the corners. There's only about six to eight feet of foul territory in spots, so if you're in a dead sprint toward the line you'll have a hard time stopping before you crash into wall.

It's obvious he's given a lot of thought to the place his team will play half its games. He's thought about what kind of players he needs, and the defensive demands of a couple of positions. He's scripted scenarios based on the environment, and thought about ways to prevolve to meet what the environment gives his team and what it tends to take away.

TOWERS LESSON TWO: Prepare a plan with a clear ideology, but be flexible in its application.

Jonah asked Towers about acquisitions, specifically his mid-season trade for star left-handed outfielder Brian Giles. His answer:

I mentioned that the park is going to favor left-handed hitters. I'm a big believer that you can never have enough left-handed hitters or left-handed pitchers. Players with pull power should get the biggest advantage out of the new park; somebody like Kotsay with gap power may struggle a bit more. But Giles and Klesko, it should favor them because they have pull-type power. I'm a little concerned with moving Klesko to a corner spot though because of how difficult we expect it to be to play outfield defense in left and right. What we'd like to do is get into the park in December, see which outfield position is more difficult, put Giles in that corner, Klesko in the other.

Through he's convinced Giles is a better outfielder than Klesko, they're going to experiment in the actual park...they're not going to let preconceived notions of the two outfielders' skills dictate who plays where.


TOWERS LESSON THREE: Be realistic, don't manage by wishful thinking, everyone has weaknesses, so know them and work around them without rancor.

Towers' words here are fantastically mature and something that makes for an exceptional manager in any organization.

Overall I think we've improved our outfield defense with Kotsay and Giles out there, but with Klesko, left field or right will be tough--it'll be a struggle for him defensively. An option would be to trade someone like Klesko, but we don't want to give up that offense from our lineup. With Giles-Kotsay-Greene-Burroughs we're a much-improved ballclub (defensively). With Loretta-Nevin-Klesko we're below-average there, so hopefully our pitchers will try to prevent opposing hitters from pushing the ball to the right side.

He has the guts not only to recognize some of his players have specific "weaknesses," but he presents them as "realities", without rancor. He even has the insight to recognize a player like Mark Loretta, with a decent rep for his defense, is actually not very good at it. And he's willing to just say it. It's realistic but courteous, the kind of exposure that allows team members to hear their evaluation and at the same time, to strive to improve themselves.

TOWERS LESSON FOUR: Aim high, but do your homework and wherever human beings are involved, be prepared for results different from what you planned. Blend the statistical and the human factor analysis, and ignore neither.

The trade for Giles was a big deal for the smaller-market Padres. Pulling the trigger on that deal puts a G.M.'s neck on the block.

BP: When you looked into trading for Giles, you were talking about a player already 32 years old, with multiple years left on his contract. What types of studies or research did you look into in terms of players with similar profiles aging well?

Towers: The beauty of the contract is that it just takes him until he's 34. Age 32 in our research is when players start to drop off. But for the remaining two years of his contract, we felt the protection we could put around him, with him coming home and feeling comfortable, he had a chance to put up comparable or better numbers for a few more years.

Towers and his front-office team did their homework, looking at both the statistics and the human factors in deciding to add this individual to their team.

TOWERS LESSON FIVE: Be hopeful but realistic about team members without a lot of track record. Monitor them, give them chances to succeed, but don't overlook their weaknesses or hesitate to move them out of the picture eventually if they don't perform well enough.

The Padres started the year with rookie Ramon Vazquez getting a shot to play middle infield. The Padres gave him a chance, but after a season, they realize his limitations and are looking to give Khalil Greene, a highly-touted prospect, a shot at the job.

BP: You've got the young pitchers to work into the mix, but you're going with some young position players as starters too. Looking at someone like Khalil Greene, his numbers from any given level don't necessarily jump out at you. What is it that you like about him that makes you confident he can do the job starting at short as soon as next season?

Towers: His defense is his biggest plus right now. We've had some problems with players with horrible range factors. Khalil will be our number-eight hitter next year; he'll eventually hit, but he may not fulfill his full potential with the bat for a couple of years. What he can do with the glove already though--he's got tremendous range to his left, to his right, he can turn the double play. Khalil can be a .220-.230 guy for now, maybe hit up to 10 homers, and improve as he goes. I see Ramon Vazquez more as a very good utility player. Vazquez lacks range, and he doesn't have power.

Again, no rancor. Towers isn't mad at Vazquez for who he isn't. Towers sees in him a set of aptitudes that offer the team some opportunity (that is, his low salary and actual abilities make for a good, useful utility player).

I don't know if Kevin Towers and his front-office team will contribute to the Padres having a great upsurge in their quest for a title. But I do know he's thinking, and talking, about it like an exemplary manager. His lessons make tremendous sense to anyone building a team in a non-baseball organization.

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