Monday, September 19, 2005

Part I:
The Atlanta Braves' Leo Mazzone
Synthesizes Flexibility & Relentless Focus  

Atlanta Braves' pitching coach Leo Mazzone is one of the few celebrities in the field of pitching coaching. In a culture where most celebrities have all the talent of an apparently vacuum-skull millionaire, a man who was convicted of murdering his wife, or somebody so devoid of talent one couldn't find it with an electron microscope, I guess it's to be expected that it's Baseball, the accountability industry, that produced the exception.

Leo Mazzone is a celebrity with talent and a history of great results.

He's well-regarded for his work at reclaiming pitchers who disappointed in other franchises. He's well-regarded for his everyday tuning of established, top-tier pitchers. He's well-regarded as a human being. Jeff Merron of ESPN.com this week delivered a beautifully crafted article about Mazzone, interviewing over a dozen people he's worked with to get the story behind this remarkably consistent high-achieving coach, and there's probably an entire short book of Management by Baseball lessons therein. I'm going to write up a few of them here, starting today.

A key part of 2nd base in the MBB Model is training and mentoring your contributors. Mazzone's success rests partially on his theory of teaching, a key trait of which is to reduce overhead and focus the student on learning to do a few things really well. This he learned from his own mentor, Johnny Sain, a good pitcher who was also the best-known pitching coach of his era.

According to the Merron article, Mazzone's throwing program is unique in the majors -- instead of having starters throw once between starts, he has them throw twice, so they can reinforce their craft. To make room for that focus, he also clears out overhead activities. According to his student Greg Maddux (three Cy Young awards during his time with Mazzone) he reduces activities like running drills, and there are "no 10 different meetings talking about something that doesn't concern you. All the other stuff, you don't partake in." Maddux also indicates the coach squeezes out down time (or idle time, something common to baseball and work beyond it) in favor of working more at pitching. "You spend all your time doing what it is you have to do to get better on the mound," Maddux added. As Mazzone was quoted, "Your first priority is to get on the mound & practice your craft, without being fatigued from drills that are not going to mean near as much as you trying to make pitches"

It's not just pitching as opposed to non-pitching activities where he applies this relentless focus: it's on the pitcher's choices during a game. If a pitcher can do just one thing really well, Mazzone believes, he has a chance to succeed: that thing is being able to throw strikes that are down and away from the hitter. According to pupil Kent Mercker, "I think there is an understanding, whatever team you are on, whoever your pitching coach is, whoever is hitting, if you can go knee-high down & away on the corner, you are going to be successful. I don't think that's a mystery, but I think it's the fact that he stresses, he harps on it, he doesn't let you forget that. There is not a 10-minute period that goes by in a day where he doesn't say that to somebody."

This is something Mazzone likely picked up from his own mentor, Sain. Sain's approach is worth knowing, too, since Mazzone probably subscribes to this training practice, too. Jim Bouton, one of Sain's successful students, described the teacher's approach. "Johnny's genius was that he would make you think. He would ask: 'What do you think is your most important pitch? What's your second most important pitch? What's your third? How much time do you have to spend on keeping your pitches sharp?' With those questions, you'd realize you were spending 70 percent of your time on your least important pitch. It would just give you a different perspective about where you were spending your time, & why." Thios is an excellent way to guide first things first, focusing on what's critical and doing that really well before branching out on the second- or third most important thang.

Mazzone repeats that primary focus over and over. His teaching is not centered on a chain of mechanical issues -- it's centered on a simple (to track, not necessarily to do), measurable outcome. A pitcher might feel the mechanics were good when they're not, or vice-versa, but knee-high down and away is either there, close or not there, and that's not about feelings, so there's immediate feedback that doesn't require an internally-motivated student to seek verification.


Two lessons to take away from this.

One is that to achieve excellence, it usually helps to clear out overhead activities. You can't always do that, but in your own shop, if you can clear out the demands of extraneous meetings and seminars on the new time-card system, and trim the contributor's idle time not with busy work but with important core work or training for it, you'll have contributors who achieve near the best of their potential.

The other is to simplify training to work on a few most important things. In baseball, if a pitcher can establish the knee-high low and away pitch, then going inside works, but without establishing low and away, it usually doesn't. If you can focus your training on a few essentials that provide obvious outcomes, other good things spring from that: contributors can work on their own feedback, needing less of your time, and essentials are usually the foundation of other successful processes and methods.

Mazzone is really really good, but he's also lucky in a couple of key ways. He has the support of his immediate boss, Bobby Cox, who is a very skilled manager, and Cox' boss, G.M. John Schuerholtz is remarkably skilled, too. That's not normal. It's normalcy that made the career of Mazzone's mentor, Johnny Sain, so challenging. Sain and his struggles in being both the best pitching coach of his era and the most-fired one make for a good MBB lesson, too, that I'll cover next..

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