Sunday, February 29, 2004

Chisox Pitching Coach Don Cooper:
Aikido in the 'Pen  

In a competitive environment, keeping antagonists off-balance almost inevitably provides a temporary advantage. Some temporary advantages have permanent benefits.

I keep several tools available in my own management toolbox for this organizational aikido, though I don't try to teach it too often, because it's not easy to do successfully and failure can be politically fatal. In baseball, the risks/costs are a little lower, but surprisingly aikido is not a ploy managers frequently deploy. Thanks to Baseball Musings, I found a lovely illustration with an explicit rationale written up in the Chicago suburban Daily Herald. I do love seeing these efforts.

According to the story:

The White Sox feel they have a secret weapon in the bullpen and they aren't eager to break out Shingo Takatsu in exhibition games. That's why the Sox are planning to keep the 35-year-old Japanese relief pitcher in the dugout when they play American League teams this spring.

With a funky, sidearm delivery, Takatsu has been baffling White Sox hitters during batting practice and his off-speed pitches have been particularly nasty. "I don't want to pitch him against any American League team down here unless I have to,'' said Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. "I'd rather make it a complete surprise attack. Nobody's seen him, so let's keep him under wraps.''

Pitchers with unusual deliveries, wind-ups or pitches (like a screwball, kuckler or eephus) tend to have an advantage disproportionate to their overall effectiveness in their first appearances against individual batters, and that advantage can extend to a few appearances. In the immediate term (his first appearance against most A.L. teams) Takatsu has a chance to be more effective if the opposition doesn't get to see him in spring training, but only "when it counts".

Now this advantage isn't eternal in most cases. Eventually when a batter has seen the guy a few times, unless the guy changes or, like Orlando Hernandez, just has 34 configurations of wind-up/angle/pitch combo to mix up, the batter zeroes in on whatever disruptive wierdness the pitcher is pulling.

Cooper's take on this is lovely because it has the immediate effect of giving his team an incrementally-better performance out of Takatsu, especially if they use him frequently but for short bursts concentrated against hitters who haven't seen him. Long-term, it has a chance to make a bigger, permanent difference, because Takatsu has been very suuccessful in the past (Japanese leagues' all-time leader in Saves), but his competitiveness in the majors is somewhat in doubt by pundits. (This is actually a little surprising to me because there have been a goodly number of effective Japanese League pitchers who did better than "well enough" since Masanori Murakami broke through the Rice Paper Curtain 40 seasons ago).

But Takatsu is being given a chance to be more effective in his early outings, and with ballplayers, like any staff in other lines of work, early success frequently breeds confidence, and confidence frequently engenders better performance.


Strategically, not showing off your strategy before you have to is a no-brainer. In a competitive or military environment, giving your antagonists a chance to play through scenarios to counter your drives never pays (unless you false-card them by shifting to a different approach while they are grinding through the development of counter-moves). In the ongoing Iraq War you saw this on both sides; each side surprised the other strategically, the U.S. surprising the Iraqis by not rolling out the carpet-bombing shock and awe offensive it promised, and the Iraqis surrenduring by not surrenduring and melting away to fight a non-traditional war instead of defending Baghdad. It always amazes me when a company puts out a press release that lays out its new strategy for everyone including competitors. Given the ineptitude of most American executive teams, the odds that they'll accurately be able to reverse-engineer your strategy quickly if you don't tell them is close to nil.

Tactically, it's trickier. If you're a manager in a predatory organization (managers work to undermine each other for sport, or play the zero-sum advancement games I call "roller derby"), this kind of aikido can make you a very dangerous person to attack.

I used to run a eight-person organization in publishing for an editor-in-chief who was a very disturbed individual. (Publishing, more than most lines of work, attracts the poorly-socialized and people with untreated emotional challenges because the quality of the product is not "measureable" the way fungible products such as food, fabric or metals are. This makes accountability rarer, and this incrementally attracts accountability-sluffers and repels accountability-embracers.) The group I was running worked most closely with another eight-person group managed by a guy I'll call Gene Mauch. The head man had told both of us that if we could get rid of the other guy, we could have his job, too. I didn't care to have my peer's job (more work, same money, plus, he did a pretty good job), but my peer was afraid he was in a "grow or die" scenario...that if he couldn't prove to our handgun-toting editor in chief that he wanted it badly enough, he would "lose".

So Gene Mauch would make a move on the department I was running. He had a host of strengths, but imagination was not among them, and he'd never managed before. When he came at us, he always came with an approach totally optimized to take advantage of the arguments/positions I had made the previous time. And, prepared for that obvious Maginot approach, I would push back again with an entirely different set of approaches. I never showed him the same set of defensive moves twice. And given the predictability of his assaults, I generally turned them into moments of humilating foolishness for him, like the Union Army's sappers creating a death crucible for their own division at the Civil War's battle of Petersburg, or like Rip Sewell's second eephus pitch to Ted Williams. After about the fifth time, he started sending his assistants to try their skill. They weren't as smart as he was. I became a guy with a reputation greater than my actual abilities, & no one but the headman himself wanted to mess with me.

Learn from White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. Whether it's external competitors or internal antagonists, it pays to grab little edges that give you short-term (and potentially permanent) advantage.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter