Monday, December 06, 2004

PART II: Stealing 3rd - Ichiro Suzuki's Mastery
of Tools & Self-Awareness  

As I wrote in the previous entry, 3rd base in the MBB management model is self-awareness, knowing how your own personality traits and biases and habits invisibly tug you towards certain responses to situations, and how to control those impulses so you can get better results & make better decisions.

Most of those common impulses are based on individual personality. But one of them, not seen often, is one of the hardest to break.

That impulse is resistance to going back to an old, useful tool once we've been successful at moving forward to better ones. It's tough enough to change away from things that made us successful (one of the main topics of the previous entry). A minority of individuals are capable of creating and recognizing success. And only a minority of those individuals are capable of adapting from a successful model to another without having to experience failure as an incentive to change. Ichiro Suzuki's is one of the minority of that minority of that minority case, who has mastered and attended to his tools well enough that he has been able to move back to a rejected set of tools in order to perform in a changed environment.

Ichiro is one of the planet's great masters of self-awareness, and this was hammered home for me when I read his recently released book, Ichiro on Ichiro: Conversations with Narumi Komatsu (Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2004). As I said, it has some great insights of use to managers in their everyday work, because Suzuki is totally rigorous in his mental approach to the game.

You can look at his record in the Japanese League and see he achieved remarkable success there from his "rookie" season there (1994, the first year he had enough appearances to be considered a regular).

Year Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI Avg
1992 Orix 40 95 9 24 5 0 0 5 .253
1993 Orix 43 64 4 12 2 0 1 3 .188
1994 Orix 130 546 111 210 41 5 13 54 .385*
1995 Orix 130 524 104 179 23 4 25 80 .342*
1996 Orix 130 542 104 193 24 4 16 84 .356*
1997 Orix 135 536 94 185 31 4 17 91 .345*
1998 Orix 135 506 79 181 36 3 13 71 .358*
1999 Orix 103 411 80 141 27 2 21 68 .343*
2000 Orix 105 395 73 153 22 1 12 73 .387*
Total 951 3619 658 1278 211 23 118 529 .353

* = Batting average champion

Seven seasons, seven batting championships. It wasn't exactly foreshadowed by his cup of coffee in '92 or his refill in '93.

To succeed, he had to create a change (Home Plate in the MBB Model). In this case, the change was in the way he delivered his swing. Japanese pitchers' standard delivery has extra motion in the wind-up, a hesitation that allows them to hide the ball a little more, create more visual artifacts for the batter to have to deal with. (if you've seen Hideo Nomo's tornado-style wind-up, or Shingo Takatsu's near-glacial motion in action you've seen flavors of it).

To succeed in Japan, to move from his performance in those 92-93 seasons to what he accomplished in '94 and on he says in his book, he had to incorporate a lift in his lead leg. He was still starting his motion at the same time, but the leg lift kept his balance back.

He adapted successfully in that case by adding an element to his swing, something that's very difficult to do both in baseball and beyond. Managers in non-baseball organizations have a heck of a time succeeding if they have to change long-held behavior patterns that had made them successful -- most won't do it in a meaningful way, and the ones who do tend to lose their way...following the new set of behaviors in a rigid way without really internalizing the subtleties of them or being able to make skillful mid-course corrections or variations in response to mutating situations.

Adaptation successful. But when Suzuki came to spring training for the major league baseball in the U.S., he could see from up close that North American league pitchers don't generally have the hesitation, the extra motion. From weight-fully-back to release, the MLB pitcher simplified the motion, cuts the time relative to Japanese pitchers. Ethnological differences between populations mostly isolated from each other.

The leg lift invented and mastered to the tune of seven batting titles was now in the way. For Suzuki, the physical process has a strong intellectual component -- he understands his body/tool mechanics as thoroughly as if he had written a Chilton's on himself as an outside observer. (Curt Schilling is the only other ballplayer I know of that both seems to understand this and verbalize it for the public -- if you know any others, I'd be grateful to hear from you about one).

As the dialog in the book describes (interviewer question in italic):

I have noticed a definite change in your batting form from before you joined the majors - the way you don't life your right foot anymore {snip}.

Right. All the basics are the same though, It isn't like I've changed from tracking the ball as a line to seeing it as a point or anything. I still bring the bat so it strikes the track of the ball...just the timing has changed.

Does it feel like you're moving faster?

It's not faster, it's omitting a part. I time things without that pause a pitcher might add. Compared to Japanese pitchers, there's less excess movement in major league pitchers' from so I've got to cut out excess myself so I can stay in tune with them.

{snip} But doesn't that mean you can't get set yourself? In theory, batters, too, need that pause to gather their strength? {snip}

Omitting that pause and getting set up are two different things. Before, I used to get all set without doing that. {snip}The movement of my right foot, and the lower half of my body have become more compact. But this process of getting set isn't done by raising the right leg, but why what the batter does with his left leg, the inner part of the left leg. It takes place in your adductor muscles, and the inner part of the knee. Getting set isn't necessarily linked to raising your right foot. {snip}

I find it fascinating, though that when you had just become a pro (back in Japan) you found you couldn't hit consistently with the kind of batting you'd been doing up till then, which led to this form where you raise your right foot, and then your batting average went up. But now what's save you in the majors is the batting form you'd discarded in Japan.

I thought I'd never need to use that older batting form again. Lifting my right foot like that let me hit the way I wanted so I thought there wasn't any need. But in the majors I discovered I needed to resurrect that old technique. Discovering this and finding a solution to my problem was definitely a turning point for me as I was starting out in the majors.

A side note: I was terribly disappointed when I started writing about baseball and talking to players and coaches, because I had always imagined the thinking process was in this integrated body-mind zone, that is, problem-solving the way I did it at work, with examination, testing, synthesis, re-examination. It turned out, with too few exceptions, that what they were willing to verbalize was a very limited range of things, excluding this kind of palaver, usually just shorthand retellings of "see the ball, hit the ball".

While, in general, managers who have the capability of adopting and using new tools throw away the old ones they've replaced new one with, to be truly effective, we need to keep the self-awareness of what worked for us before and why, and keep those replaced tools at hand for later resurrection. We have the capability of carrying tools we've used in the past with us. Experience, to frequently a barrier to change, can be additive, as opposed to assuming you're just replacing the "good" with the "better".

Paul Heath, perhaps the very smartest marketer on the planet, has always been able to add to his tools collection without throwing anything away. Like a handyman, he won't try to use every tool in his toolbox on every job, but he sets them aside. He's moved from industry to industry, always with rate-busting success (he started out with Japanese electronics giants, moved to an Australian modem manufacturer and made them the biggest in the hemisphere, and then on to a cell phone service provider. Now he works for a monthly magazine). He sometimes invents new things, he frequently sets aside techniques that he recognizes won't work in the in the new industry, but he doesn't throw them away, shut his mind to them. He just sets them aside and both periodically for no reason at all, or in response to a specific need for a solution, shuffles through them mentally to see if there's one that'd be useful in the some current or future plans.

There's a certain anti-Zen to this process. It's not "see the ball, hit the ball", which is what I had thought Suzuki did before I read the new book. It's very deliberate, like Paul Heath's process, a commitment to archiving techniques and re-examining the currently-used ones constantly for synthesis and places one might improve them.

Do you do that yourself? Are you able to resurrect discarded tools when confronted with successful adaptations that might not work as well anymore? It's hard to score runs if you can't even get to third base.

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