Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Astros & Ichiro Suzuki:
Chemical Imbalance, Hot-Wiring  

I guess there IS crying in baseball
-- Jose Vizcaino

In the previous parts of this series, I started the discussion of keeping a team/group sharp and progressing as the prospects for success shift, a topic triggered by Lisa Gray's note about a period of Astro torpidity and off-kilter team chemistry. In this entry, I'll finally get to Gray's team, The Houston Astros, and how their 2004 experiences cast some light for managers beyond baseball.


The Astros have been one of the more interesting teams this season. Like a trinary star's solar system, they had been built around a trio of forces: young, skilled starting pitching, a nucleus of players in their primes (like Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman) and the old smoothie class act guys, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

In the recent past, this seemed like a solid citizen team, perhaps even a bit hypothyroid and bland, very unlike the city they call home. But before this season started, something happened. Perhaps their acquisitions of the anger-management challenged Roger Clemens or the quiet but gritty Andy Pettitte affected the chemical balance of the team. Or perhaps it was the Roller Derby of the Mind race for the title that set them off-kilter (every team but the Pirates has held first place in the div sometime this season).

Whatever it was, it's been a strange trip. Like a lot of organizations both in and beyond baseball faced with a highly competitive environment, they had their ups and downs. They started the season 21-11, enough to put them in first place, though not by a lot.

  Houston 21 11 .656 -
  Chicago 18 14 .563 3.0
  Cincinnati 17 15 .531 4.0
  St. Louis 17 16 .515 4.5
  Milwaukee 16 16 .500 5.0
  Pittsburgh 13 17 .433 7.0

BTW: for day-by-day graphs of all divisional races, you can go to Hardball Times' page authored by Studes. The NL Central, for example, is here.

For the next 36 games they were off (14-22), and the Cardinals started their run of excellence. Worse, the other teams in the division were playing roughly the same kind of .500-ish ball they had been earlier in the cycle, and while the Astros weren't buried, they looked buried under the weight of competitors.

  St. Louis 41 28 .594 -
  Chicago 39 30 .565 2.0
  Cincinnati 38 31 .551 3.0
  Milwaukee 35 31 .530 4.5
  Houston 35 33 .515 5.5
  Pittsburgh 26 39 .400 13.0

By July 14, the team was playing more .500 ball (44-44), they had acquired all-star caliber Carlos Beltran, which should have improved their defense in a a key position, yet they were still in 5th, & the Cards had buried the whole division. Given Houston's close ties with France and French history, and the front office carefully chose Bastille Day to change managers, switching from Jimy "Beyond the Valley of The Apparently Bland" Williams to Phil "Insert Nickname For Fiery Kind of Guy Here" Garner (lifetime managerial record with poor teams, 708-802).

The immediate results of adding Garner's kick-ax fire to the mix were scary. For one thing, the team started losing more. Then they started fighting with each other. Lo. And behold...the good citizen thing seemed to transmogrify into a Roger Clemens-channeling pack of crank-smoking chihuahuas looking for a Piazza to impale. ┬┐Paxil anyone? As documented by Gray here and here and here, the chemistry got wacky. Feuding, exploding heads, pitcher fu, Joe Bob says "check it out".

And then, they "simply" came together and started winning. Bad chemicals and a Beltran hot streak make for Reanimator moments. From August 20 (60-61) to today, they've gone 15-2, they're squarely in a clearly-difficult wild card chase (Cubs and Giants and Astros all within a 1/2 game, Florida and San Diego a couple back).

All organizations are chemistry experiments, some more than others, depending on staff make-up and the environment. Part of people management (second base in the MBB model) is channeling that and, when necessary, slowly changing it. If you can't do that, the odds are you won't be able to succeed as a manager in the long run.


Successful managers rarely make chemistry in a situation like this, they sculpt it. Garner didn't defuse the Astros bad mojo, he just seems to have turned it, like he has before, on the opponents.

Garner is not a manager loved by baseball fans, nor by sabermetric cognoscenti. A college man, he's not an intellectual like fellow-middle-infielders B obby Cox and Earl Weaver nor a psychotically-motivated blue-collar genius like Billy Martin. Of course, he outhit them all during his own major league tenure, and when you do something with relative success you have less need to .

Like many of the middle-infielder-turned-manager breed, he's a scrappy (go to a search engine and enter the search terms "scrappy" and "Phil Garner" if thou disbelievest) fellow. He played for two of the most successful high-strung teams (The brawling mid-1970s Oakland A's and the late 70s Pittsburgh Pirates), was a three-time All-Starand was a fine post-season player (in 21 games, he had a .390 OBA and .455 SLG, both markedly higher than his regular season marks).

Every team he has helmed as improved in the first year reacting to his management, the Brewers 9 games from their previous season, the Tigers 10 games. After that, things don't seem to improve much. It's a small sample (three teams now), but there's only so much you can do with chemistry. It seems the tools Garner deploys are enough for specific moments, but not enough for the evolving set of circumstances managers, in and beyond baseball, face. Garner was hired as a temp/intirim/we-can-ashcan youse anytime we like manager, perhaps with that pattern in mind. But he's never managed a team with as much balanced talent on the roster as this and talent is a real constraint.


As managers, we all have a specific set of tools in our tool chest. If we're successful, we tend to go back to them again and again. The situation can change, the comeptitive environment can change, the staff can change, and the tools we apply need to change with them. You don't throw away the tools with which you crafted success, but it's critical not to pretend even the best tools work in all situations (a great hammer is less useful than a cheap beat-up pair o' pliers if your trying to unwind a hex-head bolt, if you know what I mean & I think you do).

We all have chances to improve on our past managerial performances, if we can bottle and re-use the techniques that we have had success with, while adding in new ones that work in the current situation. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the Astros if they get into the playoffs (it'll be interesting to read Gray's weblog if they do...while I maintain a great personal aversion to the use of exclamation points, her writing is of such high quality, her insights so original, I find I can read w/pleasure about anything she's writing about her team).

If they do make the playoffs, I suspect the front office will have to keep Garner. ┬┐Will he be able to break his old p[attern of immediate success and subsequent regression? And would you be subject to the same limitations in your own management work?

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