Saturday, September 25, 2004

A Red Sox Lesson on Managing "Otherness":
The Vicarious Wakefield  

"Ninety percent of this game is half mental"
- Jim "The White Tony Oliva" Wohlford

There's a management bromide that declares a good manager can manage anything, a belief that management is content-independent. To some degree, it has a basis in fact; a good and experienced manager can manage related but different endeavors based on existing tools and a determination to learn new information and an openness to temporarily dispose of one's own habits and embrace others. It drives a manager to bend to a new environment, and perhaps bend the environment a little, too.

But there are limits to the capacity of managers to bend, and the Boston Red Sox coaching staff are facing an exemplary case of that right now that shows the limits of managers to bend to "otherness". That otherness is Tim Wakefield, on the surface, merely a cotter pin on the vehicle of their playoff hopes but in reality, a pretty important small element that might prevent a wheel (or more) falling off at a critical juncture.

"Otherness" comes in different flavors. Insofar as a manager actually can manage "anything", it helps if that thing has some common points of reference. Someone who can handle a warehouse, its staff and operations and paperwork, and inventory objects can generally manage those if you change, for example, the objects from electronics to furniture, or from toys to drugs. Hire new staff and move to a new facility, and she can accommodate that otherness. Change the support technology (forklifts, wagons, software, racks), and a good manager will learn the new (at least) well enough to get by. But take the greatest CFO in the world, and thrust him into this role, and he might or might not succeed. The otherness of people-supervised and systems one uses as tools and the rhythm of the work might just overwhelm even the best financial manager. Worse, under stress, people tend to revert to the tried-and-true methods that have brought them success in the past, reducing how well they can bend to accommodate to the otherness.

But the key element that limits the ability to a good manager to manage "anything" is coaching. Coaching is a mandatory element in any managerial assignment that has reporting staff. And while you can coach what you can't do all that well yourself, that ability takes a lifetime of effort or the kind of luck that wins lottery grand prizes to succeed at it.

That limit is proving a hard nut for the Red Sox in their pursuit of success in the playoffs.


The limit is the recent swoon of the Red Sox' putative #3 starting pitcher, knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

In playoffs, one competitive edge is to have a "stopper", a monster of a starter who both has great stuff & nerves of steel. Someone like Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown or Curt Schilling, a pitcher who even if beaten on a specific day, you know plays pretty consistently at a high level and who you can be confident gave you their best on that day.

But the best situation to have is three pitchers who are all reliable and get you into the 6th or 7th inning while either dominating or keeping it close enough that a rally can get you back into the game.

If you have that troika, it means you can be creative and aggressive with bullpen matchups because you have a little slack in preserving your bullpen for the next game. And because in a seven-game series it means you won't be rolling out as a starter some designated victim who is likely to be overmatched, because your troika can usually start all the games in a seven-game series. The Red Sox have two outsanding starters in Curt Schilling (playoff record in 87 innings is 5-1, 1.86 ERA, 91 K and a miniscule 73 baserunners allowed), and Pedro Martínez (53 Innings, 4-1, 3.10 ERA, 54 strikeouts, 53 baserunners allowed).

But their third "best", by tradition, would be Wakefield, a veteran who has "been there before". But Wakefield, aftre having a perfectly fine #3 starter season through the end of August (11-7 record, team record of 14-11 in games he started), turned into a pumpkin in September, a bit premature for Halloween one might note. His gruesome September (in reverse chronological order) looks like this:

Date Opponent Score Dec IP H R ER HR BB K   W L   IP ERA BAA
 Sep 20 BAL L 6-9 L 4.1 5 8 7 1 5 7   11 10   176.0 4.96 .251
 Sep 15 TAM W 8-6 - 5.0 6 4 4 0 3 2   11 9   171.2 4.72 .251
 Sep 9 @ SEA L 1-7 L 4.2 7 7 2 1 3 2   11 9   166.2 4.64 .251
 Sep 4 TEX L 6-8 L 6.0 8 8 8 2 2 4   11 8   162.0 4.67 .250

Except for Texas, these teams are not offensive powerhouses. The team needs Wakefield to snap out of it, though it's not necessarily fatal if he doesn't, but to have the best chance in the month ahead, they need all the help they can get, and benching Wakefield means putting (probably) their #3 hopes on Bronson Arroyo, a promising young pitcher with a good 2004 but who has some extreme splits a manager would need to cover for (he's a much lesser talent when pitching in Fenway, and while he's very good against right-handed hitters, he's C- against lefties, so most opposing managers can stack a lineup with lefties against him).

Why is Wakefield struggling? ¿Is it because, as Jim Wohlford might say, 90% of pitching is half-mental? Nobody on staff can point a finger with any confidence, because Wakefield's "othernress" is too powerful, because as a knuckleballer, he's a staffer who's hard to coach because pitching coaches usually have no experience successfully throwing a knuckleball, an unusual pitch that the vast majority of pitchers don't throw because it's so different from other pitches.


The first tack most pitching coaches and other advisors take with solving a pitcher's bad-stuff problems is the dreaded "mechanics". I think a player messing up mechanics is a frequent cause, but I also believe "mechanics" is a placeholder word many use when they have no idea what the problem is.

But in baseball it's the first place a coach will look because it's something there are tools to analyze and, as a rule, something a coach could have an effect on. A brief search engine attack turned up Johan Santana, Sir Sidney Ponson, Matt Morris, Victor "Not The Entertaining" Zambrano, Jeff Weaver, and Bartolo "Are You Gonna Finish That?" Colón as pitchers whose mechanics problems were addressed this year when things started to turn sour for them over an extended period. In all those cases though, the pitching coaches who worked with them had themselves thrown those pitchers main pitches. Each, therefore, had personal insight into the physical and mental sequence required to be successful with that pitch.

The knuckler, though, is Other. Sure, about every pitcher (and non-pitcher) in the game has messed with one occasionally in warm-ups, but it is mastered by a few, and a small percentage of people who master get to use it in the bigs (for the change management and internal political issues around the game's prevention of knuckleballers, I recommend Jim Bouton's fun & informative memoir, Ball Four). Furthermore, the variation in the way individual knuckleballers throw the pitch when they're being successful is much higher than it is with the more common pitch choices. And because virtually all knuckleballers count on that pitch as their main or only pitch, they can't fall back on another when it's not going well.

But the worst constraint on a struggling knuckleballer is that the pitching coach and other team advisors are unlikely to help the butterfly artist in the way the coach could help Ponson, Morris, Colón, et.al., because the pitching coach never mastered its feel himself. And it's logical that a pitching coach who was a career knuckleballer would almost never be able to cut the mustard helping more standard hurlers because if the coach had been mastered a normal three-pitch toolbox, the coach wouldn't have fallen back on the knuckleball, a last resort.


So that makes any prospective coach or other helper fall back on the mental approach -- positive thinking, a pat on the fanny, few words of confidence. Phil Niekro once said knuckleballers don't think like other pitchers, and that makes some sense, because the central organizing principle of a knuckleballers work is the opposite of any other pitcher's. The standard pitcher's success depends on spin/rotation -- even most 98 mph fast balls that don't have a tail or cut or some x or y axis movement beyond that applied by gravity are hittable once timed by the hitter. Obversely, the successful knuckleballer relies on the absence of what all others rely on the presence of (spin). The standard pitcher is trying to throw predicatably, the knuckleballer unpredictably (well, not trying...there's just no way to know which movement the good pitch is going to have once it leave the hand).

It's not surprising, then, we haven't seen news stories about some Boston organization coach looking at Wakefield's mechanics. Even a consiglieres from outside the organization, the indomitable Charlie Hough, a long-lived knuckleball specialist himself, doesn't try to counsel Wakefield on his mechanics. In this recent Boston Herald article (courtesy Baseball Think Factory's News Blog discussion), about Hough's view, the essence was:

``Remember, it's hard to win with this (knuckleball). He's just fallen into some bad habits, but they really aren't much of anything.

``It's just confidence. That's all he needs to get going.''


Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace, who was in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization with Hough during the 1980s, asked the knuckleballer, who lives in Anaheim, to stop by and meet with Wakefield at Fenway.

``More than anything I just came by to offer some support for the things he knows,'' Hough said. ``I've known him since he was in Double-A or Triple-A with the Pirates and I know he has a lot of ability. And I know he has the ability to repeat (his success).''

Even one of the more successful practicioners doesn't want to try to analyze and coach what he can't understand.


Have you known a manager who could coach what he doesn't do well? It's possible, but when an experienced employee is stumbling or in a funk or a fallow period, the less the manager knows about the content, the fewer tools she'll have to choose from and the more likely she'll need to rely on confidence-building or "mental" approaches. For the recipient, that technique is undermined if the report knows she knows more than the manager (and trust me, when these situations occur, the reports usually know they know more). And if that mental aspect is not the primary cause of the slump, it most likely won't work. It doesn't make it impossible for that manager to to do a decent job if other things fall very well -- just a challenge that should be attempted only in the most dire of situations.

If a manager's job has direct reports, even the manager who can manage "anything" is going to face a big challenge without decent craft knowledge or a passionate commitment to learning it.

If he doesn't, it's like hitting a knuckleball. And as Charlie Lau, the Royals' legendary hitting coach once said: "There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works".

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