Sunday, August 20, 2006
New Boston Red Sox starter Josh Beckett was signed (a) to be a big-game pitcher and (b) to continue the relative consistency of positive pitcher performances. So while he's had a decent year overall, New England's faithful are tormented by his two obvious shortcomings this year: he's been (a) very inconsistent, and he's (b)had what are the two statistically-worst games of his last three seasons against (of all teams) the New York Yankees.
Fans seem ready to defenestrate him. It's actually justified, just not for the reasons they imagine. He's earned the disdain for a behavior that he has exhibited, one that's too common among non-baseball managers and management teams -- not acting on Management by Exception. I'll get back to that in a short bit, but first a bit of the data around Beckett's season.
In shifting from the National League to the American, he's gone from being one of the best dozen pitchers in one league to being ordinary or a bit below in quality, and fairly unchanged or even improved in his endurance and ability to burn up innings. Of course, the Sox gave him a big contract, so they're more likely to want to leave him in, even when he's off his feed, to justify their decision and the sunk investment. That's what my buddy Jon Wells calls the "Olerud Gambit", named after the Seattle Mariners' left-handed hitting first baseman who spent three years on that team unable to hit left-handed pitchers with any greater success than the Venus de Milo could have, and the team's unwillingness to platoon him, even though it cost the M's wins every one of those years and though right-handed first basemen who can hit better than de Milo against lefties and more common than HandiWipes in a barbecue joint. Because of the Olerud Gambit, Beckett is getting to burn up more innings than most contending teams would be dying to give to a contributor performing at that level.
WHY IS BECKETT STRUGGLING? In this New York Times article by Jack Curry, Beckett and his manager, Terry Francona, cite his stubborness as both a virtue and a vice (emphasis mine).
Francona called Beckett stubborn and meant it as a compliment, saying Beckett’s stubbornness is part of his personality and part of why the Red Sox like him. Still, Francona acknowledged that stubbornness, which can translate into refusing to stray from what is not working, can be a problem. “I think he believes in what he’s done and what has got him here,” Francona said. “I think in this league, you have to make adjustments as you go, especially when you’re facing the Yankees. I think he’s trying to.” Beckett also cited his stubbornness in explaining why he faltered against the Yankees.
Is Beckett sticking with the familiar paths to success?
I believe the data suggests "yes", with one additional factor that's hopeful for his future.
If you segment his performances, you can see two clear dualities with a single theme. The first is his work against American League (a league he's new to) teams contrasted with his work against his old National League rivals.
NL teams 2.74 4 0 4 29.6 17 10 5 8 24 .166 7.6 AL teams 5.91 9 8 22 129.6 134 90 27 51 104 .257 12.9
Familiarity breeds contentment. He just has murdered NL rivals in his four starts, allowing a microscopic opponent batting average and not walking many, either. All four games were against NL East teams (Atlanta, New York, and a pair against Philly), and these were the teams he faced most often in his career up until last year. Beckett is pitching better against those teams because he knows how to play his game with the best chance of beating them. He can succeed by falling back on "what he's done and what has got him here".
The other duality is his split between his new home stadium, Fenway Park, and his pitching on the road.
The numbers are indicative (not incontrovertable) that he is adjusting to Fenway Park. His ERA and batting average yielded and homers are all better than average, not spectacular, but tend to justify the management team's faith in him. Further, Fenway has been an environment in which about 3% more runs than league average normally score, so that 4.13 home ERA in the table is a little inflated over his real performance. (Note the oddity in the table, in italics, that he has identical walk and strikeout ratios and numbers home and away).
On the road, he's pretty bad, mostly on the nibs of allowing a homer every 3-1/3 innings, and more hits in general. His "what he's done" routine just isn't working well against American League teams. To restate, he's pretty much the same pitcher he was last year, but while that's a blessing in some starts, it's a detriment in many of the environments in which he's supposed to succeed.
Curry cites the emergent conventional view that the American League is just significantly superior to the National. The data that people use to support that are overwhelming A.L. advantage in Interleague games, which a team plays under different rules than they are accustomed to in half the games and with a roster designed for their own rules. It's not impossible that A.L. superiority is a fact, but there's no meaningful foundation on which to base that judgement yet.
You put the two dualities together -- opponent's league and home park, and it makes a strong argument that Beckett is succeeding at what he's accustomed to and what he's having plenty of chances to become accustomed to. And that faced with something he's not accustomed to (American League batters and parks and rules away from his home park), he's not doing an adequate job.
He's stubbornly relying on his National League success factors when he's pitching in a different environment. Under stress, instead of applying Management By Exception (MBE), he's stripping down his repertoire -- "getting back to basics" as they say in the business world.
GETTING BACK TO BASICS
Getting back to basics is not a bad approach. In fact it re-triggers successful behaviors quite often. But organizations (and pitchers) under stress can try to escape the anxiety-filled present by living in the pleasurable past. While it's a logical first place to go, one has to observe and monitor whether it's working, because if it's not, one has to quickly move on to the next question in the MBE drill.
Here are the first three questions I ask clients to ask themselves when faced with routines that clearly worked before & that clearly don't work now:
- What are we doing differently?
- What is changed and how so that we're not getting our past successes?
- What are the minimum, quickest changes we can make to our tried-and-true that will enable us to be succesful once more?
I don't think you'll be surprised to find out that frequently just asking and working to answer these questions gets many clients to develop their own understanding of why "what has got them here" isn't working any more.
Question 1 is where most businesses, especially those dominated by their finance functions, get stuck. I suggest Beckett has asked that question; I suggest that's where he's currently stuck.
But you wouldn't be surprised, either, that many management teams are like Josh Beckett, either so focused on trying to get back in the groove that they won't stop to redesign their approaches, what Francona calls making mandatory "adjustments as you go". Getting past question 3 involves discarding the past and expanding organizational repertoires. Delivering on the answers to question 3 doesn't always work...and when that doesn't work, management has to build, in some cases from scratch.
Baseball generally succeeds because successful adaptation to change is implicit in baseball, and not in corporate or public service life.
Presuming he can escape the cycle of stress --> attempt to just get back in the old groove --> struggle --> stress, it looks to me like Josh Beckett is on a path to eventual success, committing to and succeeding in adapting to his new home park, but still needing to learn about other new parks and their environments and how to tune his approach to make the most of them. Perhaps a winner who's not a fast learner, or perhaps someone who under stress grips the steering wheel more tightly.¿Could your organization do even as well as Beckett?
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