Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Tale of Two Setbacks: Guardado & Zambrano -- Managing Failing Personnel Demands Context  

Over lunch this week with W, I heard from her why she turned down an offer for a first management position from a fun-sounding employer that matched most of her many, and well-thought out, criteria in a new employer. The prime reason they wanted a new manager was the group had a problem. The problem was a staffer they have already concluded needs purging. So the hiring organization had already decided the keystone for the new manager's agenda was getting rid of someone.

W is an ultra-competent IT pro with all the ingredients to be an excellent IT Director or Manager: hands-on chops (network installation, configuration and management; end-user computing), human skills (emotional intelligence, empathy for and ability to train and nurture users) and conceptual, strategic understanding. She recently earned her MBA, and has that set of knowledge, too. She was just nervous that she wouldn't be able to lay off, or perhaps lay off properly, someone she didn't know.

Knowing when, and how, to pull the plug on a team member is one of the biggest challenges many managers face. It requires a lot of knowledge from two of the four bases in the Management by Baseball model, and a little each from the other two. There is no single "correct" approach. More than anything, the how, and when to do it is a function of context.

The context didn't work well, and she's smart enough to realize even before her first big management gig, that it wasn't going to work for her. We'll get back to W in a little, after a detour through New York and Seattle, where we'll look over a Tale of Two Setbacks, two pitchers (with very different histories) for whom two teams (with very different contexts) had great hopes: "Everyday" Eddie Guardado and Victor Zambrano.

The New York Mets are the hottest team in the majors this year. By April 23, the standings looked like this:

EAST      W L  PCT GB 
NY Mets   12  6 .667 - 
Atlanta    9  9 .500 3 
Phila      7 10 .412 4.5 
Washington 7 11 .389 5 
Florida    5 11 .313 6 

How they got there was pitching. Their quite decent offense was 15th of 30 teams in on-base percentage, and 11th in slugging percentage, a better than average performance in the context of their home ballpark which suppresses offense. But they are 2nd of 30 in batters allowed per inning pitched (whip) behind only the Detroit Tigers.

So when Victor Zambrano, a controversial figure from his start with the team in late July 2004, got yet another bad start to a season, the fans were grumbling. Why Zambrano is controversial is part of the context you need to know to dissect the decision the Mets have made about his role on the team -- he was traded for at the late July "trade deadline" (not a real deadline, just an imaginary line) from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for the Mets' top pitching prospect -- for a stretch drive that never happened. Zambrano pitched 3 games, one good, one bad, one awful. So he's the punching bag for fans who wanted it all right-then and for fans who were looking to the future with the top young prospect. In 2005, he showed a ton of inconsistency. After a bad start, he ended up with 12 good starts, 7 medium starts and 9 bad starts, as measured by Bill James' Game Scores, a rough, easy-to-calculate stats for measuring the value starting pitchers' outings. But his bad starts we so bad, he ended up with an average game score below the middle point.

The Mets' pitching coach, Rick Peterson, is one of the giant achievers in the game, known both for building youngsters and repairing those who had great potential but middling or poor results. I've written about him before and if you don't know much about him, check them out -- I think he's got some of the most interesting and useful management tools in any field. But to date, he hasn't been able to execute a successful intervention with the up-and-down Zambrano, who kicked off the 2006 season with 3 ugly starts.

One fan, in an April 24 online chat with former Met pitcher, now team announcer Ron Darling, asked the following:

Why are Petersen and Zambrano given so much slack? Zambrano needs to be sent down to the minors like Trachsel was years ago, or just flat out dumped. Obviously, he needs more than Rick Petersen. He reminds me of Jeff Weaver. He just can't handle the pressure. Why won't Omar do something?

Darling's insightful answer shows why baseball practices much more effective management than any other lines of work (abridged here).

I also remember that Rick Peterson was very confident that he could help Victor become more consistent. That has not been the case so far but Victor has shown flashes of quality major league pitching. What is wrong? This is only my opinion because I am not working day in and day out to fix the problem, only observing from afar. There comes a time in anyone's baseball career that you have to get the job done. The problem is that by 30 years old some of the bad habits you might of (sic) acquired earlier in your career are so ingrained that "getting it" becomes at times almost impossible. Rick Peterson has been very successful with so many different styles of pitchers that obviously his philosophies are sound, so therefore the problem is that Victor has not been able to incorporate those into his work on the field.(i.e. Jorge Julio's good work lately) How do you fix the problem? I believe that the Mets and Victor will continue to try to work it. Willie can be patient because of the quick start but it will have to be addressed in the near future if the results don't change. {SNIP}

So Darling is citing two reasons to allow it to keep going with Zambrano, two parts of the context of this particular disappointing staffer.

  1. Peterson's track record of success, and
  2. The team's success to date which allows wiggle room, time for the failing staffer to work it out without it being a failure for the team's project/season.

Byt the wa, there's a third factor arguing for patience that he doesn't include -- it's not as virtuous as the previous two. The third factor is "saving face". Management, having been blistered by noisy New York fan heat about the Zambrano acquisition, has more incentive to try to see him succeed than if he was just another team member; letting him go will peel the scab off the issue, and cause them public discomfort. But the first Darling reasons argue for riding it out for a while. But then he goes on to balance that -- because like all good management decisions around a failing employee, you've got to do your best to make her a success and equally, know when to cut your losses. Back to the former pitcher's answer.

Playing in NY can be difficult, with that being said, I'll leave you with a story that might work for Victor...

In 1992, I began the season very slowly for the Oakland A's and as we were having batting practice, the manager Tony LaRussa came over to me and asked me if everything was alright. I said I was going through a "couple of things" but that I'd be fine. Well he looked me up and down and replied, " Well as a human being I really feel what you're going through but as a manager you need to win some *%#@*% games." I ended up winning 15 games that year and I wish the same for Victor.

That LaRussa quote, and his ability to execute on it is an essence of management practice. You have to be a human being and have enough empathy/sympathy to deliver human concern but at the same time, as a manager, you need to win some *#@$%! games. Finding that balance between nurturing a struggling employee and lowering the boom isn't easy and there's no turkey thermometer that pops out and gives you a visual cue as to when the employee is just cooked. For Darling, the cold fact presented by his manager, he believes, was enough to help him turn it around, and that might or might not be true for Zambrano.

In the New York Mets' context, though, they believed they could work further with Zambrano and have him continue in his role, although using him less frequently (pushing him back in the rotation when the schedule permitted).

But it's a Tale of Two Setbacks; the other leads one to a very different context. Instead of being a surging team's bottom of the rotation starter, it's a struggling team's marquee reliever.

After a truly craptastic 2004, the Seattle Mariners had some turn-around last year, improving by six games, but they started looking a little more competitive. Realistically, this could be a year the M's could hit .500, perhaps a little above with a little luck.

But 2006 hasn't been any better. The team, in a malodorous annealing of Major League and Groundhog Day , has for the third year in a row started the season 12-18. The difference between being a .500 team through 30 games and where they are is the 4 blown saves in 8 save situations for marquee reliever Eddie "The Stockton Creeper" Guardado. His performance has actually been worse. Here's his game log from ESPN.com

Regular Season games through May 5, 2006
Apr. 4  LAA  W 10-8 1.0  3 3  1  1 1   41  7   - -            27.00
Apr. 8  OAK  L 3-0  1.0  0 0  0  0 1   14  3   - -            13.50
Apr. 12 @CLE W 11-9 1.0  3 1  0  0 1   25  6   - Sv(1)        12.00
Apr. 15 @BOS W 3-0  1.0  0 0  0  1 0   21  4   - Sv(2)         9.00
Apr. 17 @BOS L 7-6  0.2  2 2  1  0 2   17  4   L(0-1) BlSv(2) 11.57
Apr. 20 TEX  L 4-3  1.0  0 1  0  4 2   38  7   L(0-2) -       11.12
Apr. 24 CWS  W 4-3  1.0  2 1  1  0 1   20  4   - BlSv(3)      10.80
Apr. 29 @BAL W 8-6  1.0  2 0  0  1 1   21  6   - Sv(3)         9.39
Apr. 30 @BAL W 4-3  1.0  1 0  0  0 1   14  4   - Sv(4)         8.31
May. 3  @CWS L 6-5  1.0  1 1  1  0 2   13  4   - BlSv(4)       8.38

After his ugly 2006 premiere, taking 7 batters and 41 pitches to get the three outs he needed, he had a clean outing -- 3 up,3 down -- his last of the season. The BF in the previous table is "batters faced" and PIT is pitches thrown. An average inning takes 15-16 pitches; that's not exact but a good working thumbnail number.

In his following games, he needs 25 pitches over 6 batters to get his three outs -- while yielding a run. He hasn't blown a save yet, but he's not pitching well. He starts walking opponents, then grooving pitches to avoid walks, putting the ball in the sweet spot and giving up homers. There's no aspect of his game, except perhaps fielding, he's executing properly.

The difference of the Seattle context is that they really need to be at .500 or better this season. Attendance is melting -- they've set some new lows for warm bodies since they moved to their expensive new stadium and while we're not in Florida Marlins territory for neutron-bomb depopulation, the trends are scary for a team ownership that values as its core mission finishing every season in the black.The other is Guardado's history. Unlike Zambrano, Guardado has built his career on unsurpassed reliability and consistency. When he was a Minnesota Twin, he was known as "Everyday Eddie" because he could pitch so often and with such consistent results. And in a role that is one of the hardest in sports to be consistent at, he ripped out 9 consecutive seasons of better- or much-better-than average accomplishment.

So while Zambrano is likely to either turn it around or get cut, the M's had shorter-term need for change and longer term need to ride it out. Manager Mike Hargrove announced earlier this week that Guardado wasn't going to be the 9th inning reliever in close games until he worked out his glitches. The right decision here: his receord of success should give management more faith in his ultimate resurrection, and getting him out of the situations where his consistent lack of quality is costing the team needed wins is essential. In 2005, it wouldn't have been mandatory. Now it is.

Back to the ultra-competent W, and her prospective employer looking to hire a new manager with the focus of their agenda getting rid of one or more probelm employees.

It's lousy when executive management make the new hire do the dirty deeds they & the existing management allowed to fester. Baseball is much smarter about that. When a pitcher has dug a hole for the team and the next sequence requires a new pitcher and an intentional walk, baseball tradition says the outgoing failure delivers the intentional walk before the new pitcher comes in. There are three reasons for this. First is accountability: the runner getting the free pass goes on the books for pitcher who dug the team a hole, and if the runner scores, it's on that pitcher's runs-allowed, not the (innocent) newcomer's. Second is the intentional walk is basically a freaky event -- it's intentionally committing an act you want to avoid (throwing consecutive pitches that are not strikes), so it tends to put the new pitcher in the wrong midset/groove right away. Third is wear and tear -- just about anyone, even Oliver "The Culiacan Tomato" Perez, has the wherewithal to issue an intentional walk, so why not use up the outgoing hole-digger rather than the newbie -- you might stretch the replacement's effectiveness a little.

There's no magic to deciding when a failing employee needs to be shown the door. Most organizations way too impatient and ready to pull the plug without giving a hire the training or job description tweaking or complementary staffing they need to succeed. A smaller number, but still too many, are way too tolerant of the mission-critical failures of people whose aptitudes don't allow them to succeed in a role, when, if like a the M's shift of Guardado, you might get a win-win for both team and team member.

The defining factor in what constitutes the "correct" approach is context. It can be as different as The New York Mets' or The Seattle Mariners', or 28 others. Baseball knows.

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