Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Orioles' Third Base Wisdom: Just In the Time of Nick  

In some work, ego (in this use, the sense of self) plays a major role in performance. An employee failing at something new, or getting rejection in an area of past success, can implode into a cycle of loss of self-confidence, triggering behaviors that reduce the chances for success, reinforcing the implosion like a demented Maximillien Schell moment in Disney's underappreciated epic "The Black Hole" (the most sensitive portrayal EVER of a doomed love quadrangle between a space-time anomoly, a mad professor, a metrosexual robot and Yvette Mimieux).

Helping a struggling employee isn't always possible. Depending on the employee, sometimes a manager can only make it worse. An underachiever who's riding herself already can implode faster if the manager adds to the pressure. And while a manager can usually try to relieve the pressure by offloading all expectations and shifting the contributor to a different project or task or assignment, that shift usually has to have a closure date on it.

Sometimes, like the Baltimore Orioles' management of rookie Nick Markakis, you can see the contributor is staying on an even keel, still alert, still trying, focused on getting better. That requires a healthy dose of Third Base in the MBB Model on the part of the individual. The player has to realize enough about ego to break the cycle, and management has to be able to go along. 

In Markakis' case, he has the advantage of a team that's still rebuilding -- the Orioles wanted to have a good season, but the difference for them in having a great season out of this well-considered young player was not going to affect their ultimate standing very much one way or the other. They could ride out early (or season-long) difficulties more easily that organizations needing to squeeze out every possible win.

He had a tragically cruddy April but a mediocre May.  The upswing has continued each month, quite unusual. Usually a player as young as Markakis with an upswing gets more difficult pitches to hit the second time though the league as pitchers tend to test new batters with their fast ball the first time they face the batter and, if he's hitting it, more breaking pitches subsequently. Note the steady climb in slugging percentage.

Nick Markakis
Apr 20 66 8 12 1 0 2 5 7 16 .270 .288 .182 .558
May 21 71 8 18 4 1 0 8 8 10 .329 .338 .254 .637
June 20 65 9 22 2 1 0 6 5 11 .403 .400 .338 .803
July 22 77 14 31 6 0 2 10 6 9 .440 .558 .403 .998
Aug 23 83 20 29 5 0 8 21 7 11 .396 .699 .349 1.095
Season Totals 116 362 59 112 18 2 12 50 33 57 .370 .470 .309 .840

Since the All-Star break, he's had over 150 plate appearances and has produced .377/.428/.667 for a 1.094 OPS. I don't believe it's likely he can improve on August's figures in September, but odder things have happened. Still, if the O's management wasn't playing this career growth plan carefully, they easily could have dropped him like a hot potato in April or May and missed out on this valuable contribution, one that'll likely to grow in value in the future as the team starts to contend for October play.


A recent Ken Rosenthal piece from The Sporting News featured a section on Markakis, his early season struggles, his external unflappability about it, and his managers' view of how he dealt with it.

Another young player to watch: Orioles rookie right fielder Nick Markakis, who has hit seven homers in his last 10 games and leads the majors with a .393 batting average since June 28.

Most teams would have benched Markakis or demoted him in early June, when he was batting only .219; Markakis, after all, entered the season with only 124 at-bats above Class A.

The Orioles, however, loved Markakis' demeanor and work habits.

"Never once did he make an excuse," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley says. "He would do things for me in early batting practice, I just knew he would be something special. I would ask him to put a certain swing on the ball, and it would end up in the seats."

Says Orioles right fielder/DH Jay Gibbons, "Usually when you see a young guy struggle, he struggles for a while — he crawls into a shell and has to start over. But the thing with him is, his attitude was exactly the same. You could never could tell he was struggling. And now he's on fire."

Management gave him some slack, and kept on working with him towards his improvement (see Crowley's statement above) and he was able to run with it.

Finding the balanced management approach between inaction, busy work and excessive criticism can be a challenge. Early this year I was coaching a manager in a department responsible for long-range planning. He has always been a high performer, and the line of work this agency is in means they really need the department's insights. The manager had given a presentation to the executive team about two years previously, frozen up on some questions and lost his confidence in his ability to deliver in those settings. So he was avoiding the meetings, canceling at the last minute or sending surrogates, and this was leading to the department's loss of influence. They were doing the work, just not delivering it credibly.

I couldn't talk him into presenting face to face again, but I did manage to convince him to take the week off during the next presentation, and deliver a pre-recorded presentation by VHS tape, which he aced. We plugged him in on the phone from "his vacation" to answer questions. Since he couldn't see faces and he knew they couldn't see his, and since he could refer to his notes without having them see he was doing that, he was fine...not great, but effective enough. I'm still trying to talk him into presenting live next time, but either way, he's getting what he needs across.

His perfectionism is his constraint; since he's not convinced he can be perfect, he evaded trying anything at all. As Dave Kurlan says in his book Baseline Selling, perfectionism is based on fear of failure. While the book is aimed at salespeople, it has value for anyone who works away from a desk and interacting with other people -- and even better, as I've mentioned before, it's built around baseball as the teaching model.

Kurlan's suggestion for the perfectionist: Do what you do have control over perfectly (starting on time, prepping appropriately), and accept that what you don't have control over may have blemishes. Easily said, but with training, possibly done, too.

Nick Markakis didn't beat himself to a pulp over April, and he didn't stop seeking coaching when he got to mediocrity in May. He kept striving and the Orioles' coaching kept working with him.

He didn't get sucked into the Black Hole with with the mad professor. He got very very successful and your staff can too, if you find a balanced way to help them with soul-sucking work adversities they run into.

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