Saturday, September 11, 2004

Ichiro Suzuki: The Field Marshall Foch of Swat  

WWI French Field Marshall Foch at the Battle of the Marne: My center is collapsing, my right flank retreats...situation excellent! I shall attack!

In the previous parts of this series of entries, I started the discussion of keeping a team/group sharp and advancing 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 discuss various ways a few individual contributors cope positively with an organizational bloodbath, and what managers can do to harness that torque.

As you may know, the winningest team of the previous four regular seasons, the Seattle Mariners, melted down like a Moon Pie on a steel sidewalk in the Libyan Desert. I won't belabor that meltdown-- there's a ten-volume Will & Ariel Durant set of management lessons from recent Mariner strategy & execution, some laid out by bloggers at places like Mariners' Wheelhouse, Mariner Musings, Sodo Oh-No & Grand Salami Blog.

But this meltdown proffers lessons worth learning for managers in non-baseball organizations. Because those times when the fecal matter hits the rotary ventilation device (and all organizations face a disastrous quarter or project or product or operation or program, at least once in a while) are some of most important moments managers will ever face, moments in which they can make the most difference. Usually, American managers fuel the flames with one of two neurotically-inspired behavior patterns: Denial (where they act as though everything is alright and work to cover politically their behinds) or Surrender (not salvaging what there is to salvage, marinating in negativity, glooming up their environments and their next effort as well). These most common responses both tend to be a contagion that infect staff for both the immediate- and longer-term, reducing the group's interest and intensity about work.


There are many contributors in all kinds of organizations who are rate-busters (people whose personal currency is doing "better" or "more" than anyone else they measure themselves against). A good manager can tickle the interest of a rate-buster in a melt-down situation and sometimes change the work environment to a significant enough degree to snap the neck of the doom-and-gloom thing and help the group turn the next effort into a winner. But it takes a fairly extraordinary rate-buster to do it when management is part of the problem.

Ichiro Suzuki is an example of that extraordinary individual.

The Mariners' new batting coach in spring training convinced Suzuki to alter the approach he'd been taking at the plate his whole professional career. The outfielder has unique mechanics and pitch selection -- it's rare that he strikes out and rarer that he walks. He makes contact with pitches, good and bad, and runs like hell. The batting coach pushed Suzuki to take on more normal mechanics and pitch selection models. (This is a lovely example of the ultimate disaster that is the whole QA cult -- to sacrifice excellence for consistency, but that's an entirely different subject I'll, perhaps, tackle sometime).

The Mariners started the season with a disastrous April, losing twice as many games as they won against their AL West rivals (these are more important than other games because every win you achieve guarantees a loss to a rival -- and verse-vica, in this zero-sum game).

Texas 13 9 .591 - 11-8 0-0 7-3
Anaheim 13 10 .565 0.5 11-8 0-0 6-4
Oakland 11 12 .478 2.5 10-9 0-0 3-7
Seattle 8 15 .348 5.5 6-13 0-0 3-7

Suzuki blew chunks, too with a .310 on-base percentage and a .305 slugging percentage, rendering him useless as a lead-off hitter. Apparently, he gave the hitting coach's experiment one month. Starting May 1st, he had four consecutive multi-hit games.

By June 7, he'd increased his OPS by more than 50% over April, with .435 on-base and .500 slugging percentages during the 5 weeks. The Ms weren't doing better, having gone 14-21 during that period, still in 4th place, 9-½ games out of 3rd place and 11 games behind the leader. Their season was toast. For reasons I explained in an earlier post, it's not just the 11-game deficit...if a team is 11 behind in 2nd place with 106 games to play, they have a vague fighting chance -- but with two other teams both 9+ games ahead of the caboose team too, winning the flag requires all three teams to go ghost dancing, and when they play each other within the division (a significant plurality of games) they can't both lose -- the loss for one team is a win for the other. Like Tantalus, each apparent victory becomes illusory. And for that reason, too, the wild card becomes out of reach, too.

So by June 7th, if not earlier, the Ms playoff hopes were liquidated for the season.

Suzuki kept rolling along. He coped with this meltdown by setting his own targets, rate-busting for his own pride or glory or fame or just personal satisfaction. Like any good contributor (in or out of baseball) he makes himself totally accountable, embracing it as a moral imperative or perhaps just a self-inspriation tool, unlike the accountability-sluffing norm among American managers and contributors. The outfielder seems to be able to go through moments, sometimes games, where he seems to violate the laws of physics or luck. His 200th hit this year was a home run, an very unusual event for him. One of his home runs earlier this year was at the end of an at bat where the pitcher had thrown one that arrived where his head had been, and he thought it was intentional. Reggie Jackson did that payback more than once, but Jackson was worth over 30 homers a year.

I strongly suspect Suzuki is not only a rate-buster, but an individual who can hyperfocus on a goal and run it down. He's Seven Sigma when he wants to be. He decided that with this season in the septic field, he'd get through it by setting himself some targets, chasing some measures he could meet or exceed.


By mid-August, Suzuki was maintaining his .400 on-base percentage, most of it through his .360 batting average. The Mariners had gotten a little worse, and had done one of those Stalin-style roster purges that make sense for Dead Teams Walking that have minor leaguers who are untested. He had had two months with over 50 hits each, and was projecting to have a third such month (three 50-hit months for a player in a single season is about a once a decade achievement).

At that point, he had nothing else but chasing his own hitting targets to get him to work every day. The team encouraged it because there was nothing else to market, no other inspiration to get casual Seattle (that is, "unsophisticated") fans to attend the ballpark and empty their wallets. So Suzuki buckled down and aimed for a few superlatives -- one a "real" record, the other two more what I would call "marks".

The marks (one he's going to shatter, one he's almost certain to) are Most Singles in a Season by an American Leaguer (Ichiro Suzuki 2001, 192), and Most Singles in a Season by a Major Leaguer (Lloyd "Least Valuable Member of the Hall of Fame" Waner 1927, 198). Wee Willie Keeler, probably the player in history most similar to Suzuki (hit 'em where they ain't and run like hell even on a ball that looks like a sure out), had 206 singles in 1898 in a 155-game season; it'll be a close thing for Suzuki to pass Keeler in that number of games. Through games of September 10, he had 194 singles among his 229 total hits.

Most singles in a season is an odd superlative, because as a rule the value of singles hitters is partialy an illusion puffed up by a conventional belief in the batting average as a measure of offensive value. The singles mark is interesting, but fairly trivial because one could break the single-season singles record and still be a third less useful to one's team than a player with one more hit but with a lot of them being home runs or doubles. The absence of power actually helps Suzuki attain these marks.

Singles are overrated, but Suzuki's performance is currently being underrated by some sabermetrics people because they've forgotten Angus' Eleventh Law (if they ever knew it). I'll touch on that Law in my next entry because there's another management lesson in it, one that has nothing to do with the central topic of this one.


The record is George Sisler's all-time major league record for most hits in a season, notched in 1920. Here's the all-time leader board, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:

Rank Player Hits Year Bats
1. George Sisler 257 1920 L
2. Lefty O'Doul 254 1929 L
Bill Terry 254 1930 L
4. Al Simmons 253 1925 R
5. Rogers Hornsby 250 1922 R
Chuck Klein 250 1930 L
7. Ty Cobb 248 1911 L
8. George Sisler 246 1922 L
9. Ichiro Suzuki 242 2001 L
10. Babe Herman 241 1930 L
Heinie Manush 241 1928 L

A quick note, purely baseball hsitory. You'll notice that of the 11 seasons on here, nine of them are between 1920-30 inclusive, an era that was a veritable Chemical Brothers Dance-a-thon of hitting. Only Ty Cobb's 1911 season & Suzuki's own 2001 rookie campaign are exceptions. That 2001 Suzuki season was another example, I think of intentional goal-setting. When Suzuki came to the majors from a very successful career in Japan, no other Japanese league position player had been in the majors and been a success. There was widespread skepticism about his chances for success. And he was representing his country as well as himself. Like a few contributors I've worked with before, he seems to have set himself objectives and pursued them relentlessly.

But this is a real record, not just a mark. It requires hitting well and staying healthy. Sisler played in all 154 games his team played, hit for a .407 average. It takes some team circumstances, too. His St. Louis Browns played in a home park that was friendly to hitting. He had three full-time playing teammates who hit over .300, and the team lead the league in plate appearances, giving him more opportunities for the lineup to work its way around to him. He was a very good hitter in excellent circumstances.

Suzuki plays on a team that is essentially tied for last place in getting on base (potentially reducing times the lineup will come around to him, even batting lead-off) and plays in a home park that depresses offense as much as any stadium in the league. And yet he's driving himself towards this record.

I'm pretty confident he can't do it in the 154 games Sisler did (he only has 14 games left for that), but with 21 games to go, he needs 28 to tie Sisler's mark and it's possible he could match or exceed Sisler. I'm also confident that if he goes into a slump, he'll set himself some other targets, anything to keep himself sharp and advancing. Maybe it'll be his personal best of 242. But he's clearly set a series of objectives for himself anbd is driving himself to meet them.


In non-baseball organizations, this behavior is just as valuable. Individuals set themselves high targets and failing to meet or exceed them, re-set objectives that can still attain. Managers can do this for groups, set realistic if ambitious targets and try to attain them. Managers have to avoid the common error of overshooting and inventing something unachieveable.

Acheiving some objectives is not the same as ultimate total success, but it does provide positive feedback, a (realistic) sense of advance, a reason for hope. You can't always change the course of history, get a do-over, but you can overcome the torpidity of being a losing organization and recycle your experience of that failure to build something for the future.

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