Friday, November 14, 2003

2003 Management Awards Part II:
What Would Peña Do?  

Here's the next installment of going through the 2003 management awards baseball gives out and discussing what each recipient did to earn it and what might have been a contributing factor outside their control. That is to say, why was the award given, and how was it deserved and not deserved.

The A.L. Manager of the Year was Tony Peña, an former catcher for the Pirates during his lively heyday and five other teams afterwards. He had a swell, long career that most people won't remember, but he made a point of being different. The following may seem off-topic, but I'll reel it back in. His crouch, for example, was like a comfortable dog position, legs splayed, knees forward. The advantage any catcher would have in that position is bad pitches right at you can't get through you. The disadvantages are (1) bad pitches to either side (less frequent) are very hard to get to, and (2) it's hard to get off a good throw to try to beat a would-be base-stealer. Pena, though, figured out a way to be laterally mobile, and his gun was so strong, even sitting down he had a very good delivery down to second. His baserunning was unusual, too, with a lot of decoy moves. He was a funky trickster with some skill.

I think that's what earned him the award for his management of the 2003 Kansas City Royals.

Tony Peña inherited the weak-start 2002 Royals at 13-23, and the rest of the season for him they went 49-77, the same winning percentage as before he started, limping along under him like Droopy Dog. More than anything else, the rookie manager wanted to fix that one thing he knew he couldn't change once the season started. He reacted to that experience and addressed it forcefully. According to todays' Kansas City Star (tedious, offensive registration required) he started stoking the fires in spring training. Teams generally benefit most in spring training by letting everyone play, letting them warm up to the season slowly, work different players in different situation and experiment a little with players you don't know too well to see what they can do.

The 2002 Royals season was basically like that (as the 2003 Detroit Tigers season was, too). So Peña had already racked up that experimentation. He mostly ignored the by-the-book application of Spring Training, and convinced his team to play to win every game. For many teams this would be wasting opportunity, but Peña wanted his players to be confident and charged up, which they hadn't been when he inherited them.. It is a funky trick, because the standard operating procedure of other teams (it's not the win or loss, it's the training) played right into his confidence-building team. After all, it's easier to win when your own team is playing to win and your opponent isn't.

Peña kept fueling this approach with incessant optimism, cajoling, reinforcing, back-patting-fu, shoulder-patting-fu, positive thinking. They went 9-0 to open the season and 16-3 through 19 games according to the Star story. And this process feeds on itself, as y'all already know. Add in the fact that his optimism had him using all his players, letting no one sit too long, and that meant when the team had injuries, he had players who'd racked up at least some playing time before they were thrown in as injury replacements. And it's easier to be optimistic when you're getting to play.

Outside His Control

He had some advantages that were factors outside his control. They play in Kauffman Stadium, a park that has changed as an environment since the fences were tweaked two seasons ago. After years of being an offense-neutral park, it's become a real hitter's park, producing about 17% more runs than average when you factor in teams' home and road performances. Visiting teams didn't seem to adapt to this change as readily, favoring the home team a little. Moreover, the home team in Kansas City was built on a lot of speed and aggresive play, and this kind of park rewards that more than most offenses. The Peña exuberance was rewarded by the park, and he used it to help his teams win games.

He had a young team, too. Because incessant optimism only really contributes when you're winning, over time, this style of management wears out in most environments with ups and downs. Older players have a more jaded cognitive setting; they've seen this approach succeed and fail. Younger players havn't learned its limits yet.

Overall, I'm nor sure Peña is a great manager, but he deserves credit for a wonderful year of managing this season. If he can adjust himself, as all managers must, to changing conditions (a veteran team, a plate-discipline-and-power team, a team that plays in a pitcher's park) he'll prove himself a star.

Beyond baseball, managers have to master this, too. Personnel changes, budgets change, strategy changes, technology changes, customers evolve. About 85% of American managers will never be good, except through luck or a cozy position. About 10% can succeed in a gig that plays to their strength (the way the 2003 Royals did to Peña's). Only 5% can repeat success in multiple environments. Earl Weaver could. Sparky Anderson (crud, I hate to admit this) could, Dick Williams could. Dusty Baker just did. And that's the trick of change (Home Plate in the MBB Model), the highest, rarest management accomplishment of all.

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