Saturday, April 17, 2004

The Joe Torre Conundrum:
Self-Awareness as Strength or Weakness?  

Joe Torre is the most wonderfully self-aware manager in the Majors. I don't know if he was always this way, but if you read his pseudo-management book, Ground Rules for Winners, self-awareness cascades off the pages like water off a wet tarp being rolled up after a long rain delay. Self-awareness may be his second greatest strength (the ability to absorb all those damned hit points off the functionally-sociopathic King George and still look and act calmly has to get the gold medal).

Self-awareness is Third Base in the Management by Baseball model, the ability to reflect on your own ideas, emotions, experiences at work & away from it, and then act on that knowledge by preventing your own inner demons or prejudices or limitations (or for that matter, your aptitudes & abilities) from skewing your decisions or actions or plans away from external reality.

Thnaks to Baseball Primer, I found my favorite regular baseball columnist, Steven Goldman, wrote yesterday about Joe Torre and used the Bill James "manager in a box" tool to break down various components of Torre's style as a (baseball) manager. There's a great Torre lesson for managers in non-baseball organizations in the following section of the analysis:

He has something against catchers who can hit. With the Braves, he kept Bruce Benedict in the lineup, even though he had the switch-hitting Bill [actually Biff] Pocoroba on the bench. Not that Pocoroba was Yogi Berra, but Benedict couldn't hit at all. In St. Louis, he moved Todd Zeile, who was a good hitter but a poor receiver to third base and kept Tom Pagnozzi, who was the opposite, behind the plate. When he came to New York, Torre urged the Yankees to let go of Mike Stanley and sign Joe Girardi, then kept Girardi for a couple of years after the emergence of Jorge Posada made him expendable. This is quite odd considering that Torre himself was a defense-second catcher.

I'm going to suggest that Goldman is being arch in the first sentence...I'll argue he's really saying, "He has something against catchers who can't field".

Torre was an All-Star with the bat for a catcher, but was not an outstanding defender. I saw him play in about 20 games I attended and probably 40 more on television during his career (small but not meaningless sample for this purpose), and my wrap on his defense would be: strong arm, slow release; heavy legs, no quickness, soft hands, looked mechanically sound, good at working the umps, slow up the line to back up first on grounders, didn't make stupid mistakes or flub catchable pitches. A solid receiver who wouldn't embarass himself, but was not the poster boy for catcher defense.


As a manager, knowing what you can and can't do well is an essential first step in applying self-awareness as a benefit. Catcher is the most mentally demanding position on the field, and requires total concentration on every pitch, which is why you'll rarely see receivers who while being immensely gifted tend to drift mentally (think Jack Clark or Manny Ramirez) playing the position, while you can find multi-year careers from guys like Bill "My Middle Name Is Better Than Yours" Bergen and Moe "I Don't Need No Stinkin' Middle Name" Berg who were mentally and physically sharp if nowhere near complete players.

So most players who take the field as catchers in professional competition pay a two-fold price in their hitting: the wear and tear, up and down, overflexion motions and more-usual-than-elsewhere catastrophic collisions tend to erode the health of most humans who play catcher more rapidly on the average than players who take other positions. And the relentless focus on every component of every event at home plate that makes for a great defensive catcher drains focus from hitting craft and investing ergs on in-game observations that help hitters.

Management gravitational field: If you're someone who hits a ton but is ordinary at your key position on the field, you're likely going to gravitate to one of two extremes. 1) The most common, that is, presume, "If I didn't need to field, then neither does this player". In other words, whatever I am/do must be the right way because that's how I am/do-it. Or 2) "Shoot, I know how painful it could be when I couldn't turn things around for my team because of my limitations, so I'm going to make sure we have this missing ingredient". In other words, the desire to dampen what one's own limits were by recognizing and accentuating the complements.

The first, majority, approach usually undermines the manager's success, and shows a lack of self-awareness, although it's possible someone has thought through the implications and decided the pattern is generally valuable.

The second approach usually shows off self-awareness.


The challenge is the inspiration of managing against one's weakness can show either great insight or over-compensation, and rarely something "just right".

Goldman believes (I think) that Torre overvalues the thing he himself didn't do well, that investing too many at bats in defense only catchers is frittering away precious outs, and that his teams probably would do even better if he shifted towards catchers who can hit. In defense of his position, if you run the math, it's easily proven that if you're a good enough hitter, you can overwhelm any defensive disadvantages your game may have. And I agree with him at the extremes -- a 90th percentile hitting catcher who's a 10th percentile for fielding is much better for most teams than the obverse case, the 90th percentile fielder who's a 10th percentile hitter. But defence is not a straight-line function (twice the range for a player at each position simultaneously result in stopping stopping twice as many runs).

Some teams, because of the context of what they bring to the lineup and put on the field, can do net-better with, say, Jorge Posada (very good hitter, mid-range defender) over Mike Piazza (over-the-top hitter, net-negative fielding), although on paper, Piazza's statistical reality stomps Posada's into the Sixth Circle of Dante's hell, comparitively. The general case will almost always have contextual variants that make it less true, or even untrue in other contexts.

The question, for which I don't have an answer, is this: While Torre's decision is insightful and self-aware, is he over-compensating? ┬┐Is he autonomically over-valueing that which he felt he couldn't do himself?


You see this all the time in organizations outside baseball, and it can be pathological. I've worked as a staffer and freelancer for a bunch of weekly newspapers. Weekly is the toughest deadline environment of all. Counter-intuitive, I know, but it's true. At a typical daily, there are multiple editions, and some news that's news on a Tuesday is still news on a Wednesday, so if you miss that deadline, you can reshape the article and get it in the next day. At a monthly, of course, almost nothing is really breaking news, so if you miss the dealine, you can pretty much run the piece the following month. But at a weekly, news is as dead as Jeff Cirillo's career if you miss teh deadline by 30 minutes.

Reporters tend to push deadlines and are MBLMHE (Management By Last Minute Heroic Effort) type personalities. Editors, people who manage reporters tend to be reporters who were promoted. Ergo, most editors are people no good at personal time management themselves.

Editors assume that all reporters are as bad with deadlines as they themsleves are. Editors, therefore, generally lie to reporters about the real deadline. It builds this pathological complex compound infrastructure of obvious lies in an organization that makes scheduling and deadlines a dysfunctional malignancy, undermining in the general case, and an existential nightmare for writers like me who happen to be really good at meeting deadlines (I'm sort of the Tom Goodwin of reporters...my production is not better than most of my peers, I just get to home plate a lot faaster than any of them).

One more case. A company with a good process for quailty control but that that has been sued once 15 years ago for product liability will become terribly gun-shy and over cautious about every product they release, creating all kinds of overhead processes to "trap" potential problems. Sort of a 180 degree opposite of the Ford accountants' decision to let the Pinto gas tanks explode under people driving the car because it was cheaper to pay out law suit awards than it was to change the design.

Are there managers in your organization who ignore weaknesses of their own when they appear in other staffers? Are there managers in your organization who pathologically overfocus on their own weaknesses and turn them into giant piles of overhead?

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