Monday, September 06, 2004

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

Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm -- Winston Churchill

In the last entry, 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 continue the management discussion by talking about an NL Central rival, the Pirates, and how their 2004 experiences cast some light for managers beyond baseball.


Before I continue the discussion, and to better contrast the Pirates, I wanted to add a thought about the Brewers and how their experience is useful to a manager.

Like the Brewers, all teams/groups, have their flat days or weeks. The difference between a melt-down and a temporary glitch is in how the individual team-members and the manager use that experience as a spring-board or alternatively as an excuse to pancake. From Larry Stone's column in today's Seattle Times:

If it looks like the Brewers — 12-34 since the All-Star break — are going through the motions, manager Ned Yost saw it that way, too, last Sunday, when Milwaukee lost 10-0 to the Phillies. It was loss No. 11 in a losing streak that reached 12.

"I would say, to be perfectly honest, that for one day the team had quit," Yost told reporters on Monday, when he called a 45-minute meeting. "It's an air that you feel inside the dugout, an intensity you feel inside the dugout. That was totally gone (Sunday)."

Yost called a meeting, and the team has been 4-2 since. You can't draw an absolute relationship between the team meeting and the temporary trend in the team's recent win-loss pattern, but the manager held a meeting after a four-game losing streak, and the results have been better since. Even if the this didn't happen because of the meeting, some players are likely to see the events as linked, leading to better morale in the future, more faith in the manager, and that can't hurt. In short, if you're in a situation that looks like a temporary flat spot that you have the power to turn, do something constructive, communicate with your staff, talk about what you could achieve.

The manager, insofar as she can change a situation like this, has to be somewhat realistic. Puffery and falsehoods are of little long-term value, pretending the season/project/effort/war/school year/concert/product was a success when the group knows it wasn't merely undermines the remainder of your credibility among the sub-set of staff who are smart enough to be useful the next time around. Certainly market what good stuff you have attained, but don't pretend, for example, the Battle of Gallipoli or the 2004 Royals or Mariners season was a success.

While the Keg-folk crapped out, the Pirates are a very different response model. Take another look at Jonathan Boyd's magnificent graph of the NL Central this season. While the Bucs were at 23-24 on May 31, their next three and a half weeks were a frelling nosedive of Mauchian proportions. In their next 23 games, they went 4-19, moving to 27-43 and losing 10 games on the division leader.

A lot of teams/groups would choke on this -- the season as ashes in their mouths, and never come back from it. The Pirates, though, even with no chance of coming back and taking the division (or really much of a chance at a wild card pity berth), put on a stretch of 31-18 that by August 19th had them in fourth place at 58-61, flirting with respectability.

The Gipping Point of this, the stick that seems to have stirred their comeback, was the absurdly good performance of rookie Jason "The Say-Bay Kid" Bay. On June 18th he woke up and started a warm streak over the next-16 game stretch, he started every game, he hit 370/450/880 an in his 51 at bats, conked 5 doubles and 7 big flies, scoring 13 runs and driving in 23. That alone is not enough to have carried the team, but other Pirates started picking up their performances, too, when this child-shall-lead-them character burst forth. The Pirates started playing as though they believed they could be competitive, led by the pitching staff (powerful cognitive stuff for pitchers knowing that there's someone in the line-up who's whacking the ball around and plating runs, even more powerful because their "closer", Jose "Joe Table" Mesa, was even better than major league average during this time, another cognitive blessing). Even with the loss of their perceived #1 starting pitcher, Kris Benson, in a "deadline" deal didn't undermine their winning ways through mid-August. Note: Since August 19, they have been playing in a listless stretch.

In and beyond baseball, a healthy group/team that is prepared to succeed can use as a fulcrum almost anything as an excuse to succeed, just as an unhealthy one can use as a sinkhole almost anything as an excuse to sag. The individual performance of The Say-Bay Kid as pure fact really doesn't amount to much -- in baseball, as in most endeavors, it's almost impossible for one single person in a team/group of 25 (exemption from this general rule: Barry "Seven-Sigma" Bonds whose team is 4-11 in games he didn't start, 72-52 in games he did. But this is extra-extraordinary, as my buddy Steve Ballmer would say) to so alter the output that it changes significantly the metrics. Realistically, though, that one person can change the team/group's perception of the effort, and if the 24 others each just ratchet it up a small bit, or 8 of them break out of their doldrum and drive with a bit of fire, it will change the output of the team/group.

As with the Brewers, whatever advantage you acquire might not be enough to meet the original goal, but success tends to be self-amplifying. The Pirates are in a good position to take advantage of this next season. If they can pass the Cincinnati Reds (1-½ games ahead of them in the standings, and with whom they have 6 manos-a-manos), they can achieve 4th place, a small but not invisible accomplishment for a young team in a six-team division, and something to use as a fulcrum/excuse to succeed more next season.

Beyond baseball, these moments are frequent, these points in a project or fiscal quarter or product launch where you're not going to get crowned with a laurel wreath because it's just not going very well. How you pick up what's available and drive on will make some difference in the remainder of it and most certainly in the next effort. Churchill's self-deprecating quotation I used as the epigram is worth remembering, because while pride/enthusiasm for the future is no guarantee of success in the future, Droopy-Dog-ism is almost a guarantee of not succeeding.

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