Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Minimizing Talent: Lou Piniella, Jesus Colome &
Learning When an Experiment is Over  

Earl Weaver was the master at experimentation, a key factor in his mastery was knowing when to hold and when to fold, as Kenny Rogers has been quoted as saying. There's no magic formula in or outside of baseball, it's intuitive. And even the best can be wrong, usually tending, when they make a mistake, to make that mistake on one side of the hold/fold duality.

Knowing when to pull the plug on a failed Prune-Pepperoni-Peanut Butter Pop-Tart of an experiment is not one of Lou Piniella's personal strengths. Back when he managed the Seattle Mariners, Piniella got a wonderful 1994 season out of reliever Bobby "Ay-Ay-AYIEE" Ayala, and a special gift it was, too, worthy of an O. Henry write up. Because while it wasn't quite as good as the 2.86 ERA indicated it was, the year was highly functional. And like a Staffordshire Terrier who's caught the car he was chasing down the street and locked his jaws on the left-rear Michelin Pilot® Exalto® 195-60h-15 radial, Lou sticks with his decisions, even when the discomfort of being flump-flump-whumped on the macadam would have convinced a lesser Promise-Keeper to release his hold. Piniella let Ayiee's subpar '95 go by, stood by his man during a sucko '96, rode him to death during a positive '97. In '98 Lou descended into the Sixth Circle of Dante's Hell holding on mightily to an Ayala who racked up a legendary 7.88 run average over 75 event-packed innings of Mariner baseball.

Lou finally folded. But he didn't exactly learn his lesson. In 1999, he used to regularly let Brian L. Hunter (the one that can run but hot hit a lick, as opposed to the one who could hit but not run a lick), who that season sported a .277 on-base percentage, hit for himself late in games that were on the line, when he had at least two guys on the bench (in one game, Edgar Martinez) who could hit notably better. He stopped doing these past-their-value experiments in Seattle only when he became the Tamnpa Bay Devil Rays' skipper.

Apparently, he's at it again. This, according to Steven Goldman, the most-consistently amusing of the well-informed baseball commentators, in his recent Pinstriped Bible piece:

On Sunday, in an outing that lasted approximately 80 of our Earth years, Devil Rays reliever Jesus Colome pitched two-thirds of an inning against the Yankees, allowing three hits, two walks, and four earned runs. He also winged Derek Jeter on the hand. In Colome's last 16 regular season innings against the Yankees, he has walked 13, allowed 19 hits, and six home runs.

There is nothing left for Lou Piniella to explore in the Colome-Yankees relationship, and both pitcher and his team would be well-served if he never again faced New York. It's rare that a prohibition on a match-up is strictly enforced by a manager, but it has happened. On September 15, 1986, Don Mattingly hit a game-winning home run off of Baltimore bullpen ace Don Aase. It was the second time Mattingly had done that to Aase in less than a year. To that point in his career, Mattingly was hitting about .750 against the reliever. After the game, Orioles manager Earl Weaver said that Aase would never pitch to Mattingly again, not even to intentionally walk him.

Discretion, Shakespeare wrote, is the better part of valor.

We all come to the management table with strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are harder to lose than others. Usually these won't be the drop-dead obvious ones, I've found in coaching managers, because when failure is complete, or the results consistently hurt (flump-flump-whump), it's easier to shed them. Usually it's the ones that don't guarantee failure so often that are hard to shed. A World War I French cavalry charge into entrenched German machine guns or rolling out Bobby Ayala is an easier mistake not to repeat than calling for a sacrifice bunt (usually net-negative, but in the right situation is a great move).

To become an acceptable manager, you need to learn from your mistakes. Not overlearn (that is, refuse to ever again consider anyhting like what you did before), but flexibly reject moves you recognize from past failures. In subjecting Jesus Colome to all the stations of the cross, and then cycling him through it again, Piniella is re-living the failures of his past.


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