Thursday, October 13, 2005

Part II: In Scioscia's Words:
People Who Think They Know All The A.s
Haven't Asked the Right Questions  

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds
wake in the day to find that it was vanity:
but the dreamers of the days are dangerous men, for they may act
their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. -- T.E.Lawrence

Last week I wrote about the that fact that while the Los Angeles Angels' offense operated in a way contrary to a numerically strongly-supported sabermetric approach, their operation is very numbers-driven. It just happens to be based on different numbers than the community usually works with or sees as particularly valuable.

One of the reasons the community that shares the big sabermetric tent doesn't examine some of the numbers the Angels use is they're not widely available (for each batter, the number of opportunities to go from 1st to 3rd on a single, for example). That's a shame, of course -- while it works to the Halos comparative advantage from a business intelligence (BI) perspective to have the numbers and for them to be relatively low-diffusion, as researchers it's not easy for us to marinate in them long enough to verify, reject, refine or just have a wholeheckofalotoffun with 'em. The team's data provider needs to make money like the rest of the world -- it doesn't spray them around the media, and media isn't demanding to pay for them.

Anyway, I have an entire philosophical essay in me on the nature of sabermetric revolutions, evolutionary processes, Counter-Reformations, the Thirty Years War, Punctuated Equilibrium, the persistence of Taylorism, and Toad Ramsey, triggered by the Baseball Think Factory discussion thread on Part I of this topic. That will come in a Part III some day (I'm on deadline for a book, and need to empty a backlog of client work). For now though...

I mentioned I would excerpt some of the potentially interesting pieces from the transcript of the discussion with the interesting Angels skipper, Mike Scioscia. The tape was unintelligible in some places when the background noise overwhelmed the technology. I put the expressions in where his words were missing; those words are my paraphrasing of what he said, and those are in italic -- his expressions, my words.

JA: You won a WS, you manage a team w/a very unusual profile for a SUCCESSFUL team. I want to learn about it. Who were your mentors?

MS: First of all you never go through your childhood and you never dream of being a manager or managing in the 7th game of a World Series. You don’t fantasize about that. You fantasize about playing the game and that’s what this game is about. I’ve been very fortunate to play it at a high level and be part of World Championship teams. & anything in this profession that I accomplish will be secondary to that. That’s the thrill, the good or bad, that’s what it’s about. There’s a little bit of a drop off when you stop playing the game, a little void that’ll never be filled. And I think once you come to grips with that, you’re going to be a much better coach or manager.

Just thinking back, there are a few things that really influenced me. I was very fortunate to be in the Dodger organization with some great baseball minds. Roseboro, Campanella, I can never thank those guys enough. Roy would take me out on the field and he’d just say a few things and I always learned something from him. Walter Alston, Tom Lasorda, John Roseboro.

And Tommy had a bench coach, Monty Basgall. And when Tom was moving around, he just sat there calm and still. It was his job to think the game. It’s important to remove the emotion from the consideration of what to do. When something goes bad, you have to be the anchor. As a manager, you have to separate your emotions from your decisionmaking process.

JA: Any other influences?

MS: Yes, my parents. My mother was a schoolteacher and my dad sold beer. He taught me that the foundation of dealing with other people had to be respect and humor. Respect for people, for institutions, for what you’re doing (working at).

He also taught me that people who think they know everything haven’t asked the right question.

JA: So Lasorda had this complementary bench coach, Monty Basgall, who would think the game. How about you…you are already thinking the game, what do you look for in a bench coach?

I’m looking for a bench coach who can think the game., too. We have specialized coaches for other things {snip}. But Joe Maddon is shadowing my decisions. I thinking the game and he is, too.

JA: That’s like having two managers.

MS: (laughs). Yes.

JA: So many managers played catcher...

MS: When you play catcher, the most important part of the game is to channel the flow of the game. That's what a manager does,too. And the relationship between the pitcher and catcher is a key to the game.

There’s a lot of talk about fundamentals. People will say about fundamentals, ‘Oh, it’s how the pitcher covers first on an grounder to the 1st baseman'. But that play may happen only once a game. The decision your catcher and pitcher will work out happens 150 times a game. That’s going to have more effect on the game. So that's the fundamental aspect of the game on the field.


At this point we talked about walks and runners in motion, Scioscia's own lack of speed during his career, Joe Torre's affection for carrying a catcher who can't hit and what that may say about Torre's psyche, and BeanebalL The tape was useless during that stretch.

JA: So you’re saying you don’t necessary choose the game, you manage the game to the roster you have.

MS: Yes that’s it. We manage with the roster we have.

I do think running the bases aggressively is something that should be the tendency in every team. I do. I think the Yankees do a great job. That aggressiveness is part of baseball whether you believe in waiting for the 3-run homer or not. You’re going to get a hell of a lot of singles with a guy on first. No matter which team, you’re going to get a lot more singles than home runs. If you can get that guy to third instead of to second that’s a lot better statistical position to be in. If you can create more of those situations, you’re going to have more runs on the bottom line.

That has to be part of our program no matter who it is. Bengie Molina. He’s not a fast runner. If there are only ten balls a year he needs to get from 1st to 3rd on, he’d better be on third base on ten of them. You have to apply yourself that way. And I think that’s important in our organization when you talk about our development, that’s lot of the {garbled} in our development. And when you see a player come up here, that seed’s been planted.

The results, the game we play, are going to be based on what the player can do. If we get a guy like Dallas MacPherson coming up who has the potential to hit 40 HRs, we’re not going to play that game as much in front of him as far as the hit and run. The straight steal is different. Putting guys in motion.

But if you don't put our guys in motion, we’re not going to get runs. We’re not going to create the situations we should.

JA: So you said 'create'. You're not waiting to find opportunities, you're looking for ways to create them.

MS: We can’t manufacture on base, so we can’t afford to have any wither on the vine. Last year, we went from 1st to 3rd {base} 99 times; we were thrown out six times. Conversely, the Oakland Athletics who play a very passive running game because they don’t want to run into outs went {from}1st to 3rd, I believe it was 31 times...you can get those numbers...and they got thrown out 4 times.

JA: That’s like your stealing. Angel stealing is not just prolific, but high-percentage.

MS: It has to be, as I said, our on base is like .325, so how can we compete with a team that has on base of 350, because they’re going to pressure you every inning, they’re going to be out there. We’ve got to do it by maximizing the on base percentage we do have. We can’t let on base percentage die on the vine. Some of those teams that have on base of .350 or .360, they can let on base die on the vine because it’s going to be there again. Ours is only going to be there .325 and you’d better grasp the opportunity when you can or there’s going to be stagnation. We hit few home runs, our slugging percentage is down near the bottom of the league.

I could have conversed with him for a long time, but he'd given me more time than he could spare already. We never touched on pitching, of which he'd have had a lot more to say and have been interesting about it, too. Very generous person, opinionated, a quick mind, a gentleman, knows how to have a real conversation. Leonard Koppett would have found him fascinating and original.

1. He is a patient teacher, and I think he learned that from his mother who was a teacher. I think there are advanatges in and beyond baseball in having a manager who has that skill set. Certainly, since the Angels are working this set of tactics up and down the organization, systemically, then having a teacher at the top to reinforce lessons is a very high-return choice.

2. His skeptical (in the Greek sense) observation model is of great use to a manager in any competitive endeavor. He is set up not to take any givens as eternally given.

3. He, as he says, "thinks the game". He uses numbers to validate progress. Very "left-brained", constantly measuring, balancing, looking for an edge. Again, beyond baseball, this is a super code of conduct in most management positions.

4. He has what appears to be a perfectly-balanced ego. He didn't look for a Lasorda to be his bench coach, someone he could delgate the emotional stuff to. He got another thinker to tap into, a potential "competitor" to those with less self-awareness, but a net addition to the in-game decisionmaking and observation needed to be sharp. The theory they use on offense absolutely requires close attention all the time because there's not going to be a lot of margin in most of their victory opportunities (if you doubt me, ask Josh Paul).

Again, I thank the Angels media relations staff for their cheerful, professional attitude and efficient delivery, and Scioscia for his time and thoughts. With luck, I'll get to have that pitching conversation with him some time.

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