Monday, September 04, 2006

Don Cooper & The Crown Jewel:
9 MBB Lessons From the 2005 Chisox Championship  

Since late July, I've issued four parts of the conversation Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper was generous enough to share with me this Spring.

I've given you his background and his approach to preparation & analysis, and in this fifth section, what I consider the crown frelling jewel of the insights he shared with me: how the team managed a complex and contrarian (discredited by the mainstream) bullpen scheme and carried it off so well. TThe team rode it to a surprising 2005 World Series victory, cutting through top opponents like a chainsaw through butter. Yes, they had a balanced attack, and yes they had fine starting pitching, but on the field it was the extraordinary and evolving bullpen, a device of GM Ken Williams, Manager Ozzie Guillén & Cooper, that made them the unstoppable force they were.

That device was "Closer By Situation". I've written about it at Baseball Prospectus, an article called "Smartball & Moneyball: Sabermetric Innovation Helps Power White Sox' Championship" (registration required). Further, I wrote an exhaustive paper (I hope not merely exhausting) on the innovation for the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) National Convention. If you write to me I'll send you a copy of that paper (the e-mail address is on this page in the left-hand menu under "Contact Me"...you need to put in the punctuation manually). The two paragraphs below are the ultra compressed (like a Portuguese Man of War on the surface of Jupiter) version of that paper.

There's a vast body of research, bloviating and argument that asserts standard bullpen configuration is more costly than it should be, and worse, less effective. What's "standard" isn't cast in concrete, of course, it evolves over time, though not in a smooth way. In baseball, there is a rough equilibrium, uniformity of accepted standard practice that changes suddenly around individual teams' or player's innovations. When an innovation is successful, other teams generally not universally adapt when they have affordances to adapt by adopting others' successful new practices. 

The invention of the now-standard closer role, assigned (incorrectly) to Tony LaRussa in the 1990s distorts best practice to the point of building the bullpen solely as a means to maximize one pitcher’s accumulation of Saves. The White Sox escaped that practice by following others' contemporary attempts to create innovative alternative models, such as “Closer by Committee” (2003 Red Sox) and “Bullpen by Situation” (2005 Cubs), and then riffing off it, not only by tweaking the basic design, but by adapting it to the talent they had at hand. Further they showed an unsurpassed courage in re-designing it on the fly during the season, and that, in itself was an exemplary innovation organizations beyond baseball should be trying to emulate. That practice, changing one's changes and tuning them to adapt to staff and competitive needs, is common in "lean manufacturing" but in few fields beyond baseball. The Chisox bullpen had four phases during the 2005 season. They started the season with their best 2004 reliever, Shingo Takatsu, as their closer.

Jeff (JA): Let’s talk a little bit about last year’s bullpen. It looked to me like last year you had what I call four “Phases”. You started the season and it looked like you were going to have (Shingo) Takatsu as your closer.

Don Cooper (DC): He was closing, he was. And we were trying to get him to be able to handle that job, and he did it not nearly as efficiently and confidently as the year before. And we had to make a change.

JA: Had he changed? Was there something physical?

DC: The stuff was fairly close, not a big increase or decrease, but he wasn’t a stuff guy. I think he got a little bit gun-shy and he just wasn’t efficient with the pitches. I think he got hit a little bit, and he wasn’t dictating the pace of play because he wasn’t ahead, wasn’t throwing as many strikes. And he wasn’t therefore in a position to use his major pitch which was the change-up, the real real slow off-speed stuff.

People started getting a real look at him, the novelty of the deception had worn off a bit. Lefties became a bigger problem for him. And I think it was more of a mental thing than a physical one and we had to make a change, as much as we wanted to try to get him through to handle the role…

Which leads us to the first MBB lesson here. 

Takatsu wasn't a talent who could overpower batters -- he did something nobody else did, throw much slower than anyone else did. Without disrespect, I call this a "gimmick". The competitive advantage was the novelty. Unlike Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball or Mariano Rivera's cutter or Billy Wagner's heat, all of which, when they work, fundamentally overpower a hitter's ability to track and connect, Takatsu's performance rested on the sheer novelty of a speed far from what anyone else was throwing (with an odd delivery and some movement). Figure out the timing -- he would go from very hard to hit to eminently rake-able. It took courage on the part of the White Sox to install Takatsu in a key role, because he was so unorthodox -- if he failed they would have ridiculed by fans and peers as though they had chosen Pee Wee Herman to be their closer.

Beyond baseball, in business especially, management frequently forgets to draw the distinction between successful gimmicks and fundamentals. It takes some courage to go with non-standard practice in business, as in baseball. But in business, the gimmicks, especially if they are financial, can 
become internalised as standard practice, and then they become unquestioned, "invisible". One good example was when Apple Computer in the 1990s figured out how to make some extra money playing currency markets, taking earnings made in one currency and parking them in another, squeezing out extra gains during lower-growth times. Apple had the talent on-board to do it, and kept the process in context. They acted as though it was a sideline, not the core business. In contrast, many companies that adopted this strategem, including Proctor & Gamble, lost sight of the idea it was a side-business and started counting on the revenues as though it was detergent or coffee.

So, smarter than those wacky Cincinnatians who bring us Oil of Olay, Pringles and Tide, the Chisox moved on to Phase II when it was time. Good Baseball management is smarter than most corporate management because they almost always have their back-up plans elaborated.

JA: So you went to Hermanson. And Hermanson is another one of these pitchers who had been good in the past, then had some ordinary years, and came to you and started producing at a higher level.

DC: Would you say “middle of the road, average success”? That’s what I would say his career had been prior to coming here.

JA: Good years and bad, yes.

DC: A different role. He’s now a relief pitcher, which suited his personality much better – because he was a little out-there, a little wild; he wants to be aggressive. And as a starter he couldn’t do that more than five innings. And the level of his efficiency went down from what I understand. And putting him in a smaller role where he’s in charge of, say, 25 pitches, let’s say (it worked for him). 

He started as the setup guy which meant it was possible a lot of times he’d be used for two innings. A lot of times the set-up man’s role is tougher than the closer’s. You’re facing more guys, more pitches, more on the line, more responsibility, better hitters some times.

Which brings us to MBB lesson two, one I've discussed a lot in the past.

When Hermanson didn't work out as a consistent starter, Cooper knew to give him a job he was better shaped to succeed at. In Baseball, you squeeze the maximum value out of staff members by tweaking job descriptions to match what they do well, even while trying to stretch their abilities. Baseball rarely makes the almost universal and expensive Procrustean error of dumping a staffer with talent because they don't match her job description well. Of course, to succeed at the Baseball approach, you have to observe every moment, monitor different contexts and then analyse the results as a pattern, just as managers in Baseball do.

DC: Hermanson started as the setup guy which meant it was possible a lot of times he’d be used for two innings. A lot of times the set-up man’s role is tougher than the closer’s. You’re facing more guys, more pitches, more on the line, more responsibility, better hitters some time.

JA: From a raw numbers perspective, technically, the best pitcher in the league last year is not a starter or a closer, but your set-up guy, 

DC: (Neal) Cotts?

JA: Cliff Pollitte. From a purely statistical point of view.

DC: You know what? I thought Neal got the set up man of the year award.

JA: He pitched beautifully. They both pitched beautifully.

DC: They were both beautiful. They both had career years. 

We challenged them both to throw more strikes, but we also challenged them to keep the (sum of the) walks and hits below the innings. Because what are you doing then? You’re eliminating baserunners, and if you eliminate baserunners you improve your Earned Run Average, and the numbers go down.

JA: Did you turn it into a game for them?

DC: Absolutely we did. 

JA: Tell me how.

DC: Pollitte was dynamite, dynamite against righties the prior year, but lefties got him too much, so we sat down and said “Let’s analyse this? What are you doing and what can we do?” So we came up with a little better plan and he executed the plan. 

The plan was, "Okay, you can use the change-up". He’s always had a good changeup. Didn’t use that quite as much. Didn’t throw up in the (strike) zone to lefties, went ahead, and didn’t use his breaking ball enough. And aside from that, let’s command the fastball (?every height and level?).

We gave him a better assortment of pitches and something they hadn’t seen before, and he went out and hit the glove with those pitches and was more successful against lefties. So now he combined lefties and righties and had a dynamite year.

The thing with Neal Cotts was: in the off-season prior to last year, I told him the challenge would be "Can you take one more big step forward as a second year reliever in the Major Leagues. And how are you going to do that?"

"Throw more strikes," he said. Okay. He did that. He made the step forward. And I remember talking to him in Colorado. And I said, "whether you realize it or not, you’ve met the first goal which is to make the next step forward. Now, can you meet the next challenge which is to put yourself into the elite?"

And he said “yes, I can”. And I said “How are you going to do that… not think about it or talk about it…how are you going to do this? Give me something tangible". He said, “throw more strikes?” I said okay, but be more specific. “First pitch strikes…get ahead. 
For relievers, get ahead and then make them chase a couple of pitches…don’t throw a couple of strikes". There was another mechanical thing we did, but it was nothing more than keeping his eyes on the (catcher’s) glove a lot longer. In order to hit the spot you’ve got to see it. The longer you see it the better.

There are exceptions to rules – some guys have to look away or look up and still throw the ball inherently there. He can’t.

Which gets us to multiple lessons.

As Cooper says, the setup man, at least in the traditional closer application model, is facing more batters than the closer and likely to face better batters. The latter is presuming that the closer is going to start a clean 9th, the beginning of an inning with no out and none on, when the team has a lead that's of the size that qualifies for a save. So that could happen anywhere in the lineup. The other relievers are more frequently brought in to face a hitter because the hitter is relatively "tough"; if the next hitter is a weenie, a manager will take incremental extra chances to allow the incumbent to face that player and preserve options for the future.

Beyond baseball, managers too frequently conflate title or pay with how critical the participant is. In many hospital settings the quality of nursing determines medical outcomes to a greater degree than doctor quality. Those with excessive Faith in the religion of "the market" can miss out on the many seams it leaves in reality. I won't deny it's important to "alias" decisions...that is not consider every single possibility regardless of how remote it might be, at every single juncture. There are some choices it pays to just keep constant as long as everything is progressing well. 

If you've never stood back naively for a few minutes and examined the presumption that a better title or a more robust paycheck is dictating the way you apply staff, trust me, it's an exercise almost assured to yield positive results.

Most (not all) business employers understand that you can turn achieving objectives into something like a game. For Cotts and Pollitte, Cooper and Guillén turned their advancement into a game, with clear objectives and with measures both staff and management can track daily and hold themselves up to.

Baseball executive Mike Veeck understands this totally and has created seminars and a readable, actionable book in how to bring this from baseball to the rest of human workplaces, both called "Fun Is Good". It uses lessons from his toolkit as well as from his Dad, Bill Veeck. You can make it as dull as a Scott Bakula performance, and you can serve it lukewarm like French Coca-Cola, or you can make it a blast and something to look forward to every day. Between the three approaches, your high performers are much more likely to respond to the latter.

Rather than just tell Cotts what to do, he asked questions. There might be multiple paths to the same outcome, and if a manager asks the talent how you should get there, the talent may choose one that works as well and is easier to for that particular contributor to internalize. There may be only one path the manager can live with, and this method reveals whether the staffer understands the path. For anyone getting mentoring, this getting questioned approach gives incentive to pay attention. The White Sox (not just in the 'pen) try to collect individuals who can achieve in more ways than just following orders. This creates more flexible behavior that's more likely to be effective in more different kinds of environment.

Once Cotts reached his target, Cooper tantalized the pitcher with another. That's fun for some students, and always for the teacher when it works. Note, Cooper didn't try to get Cotts all the way in one set of challenges. He broke up the objectives into smaller, more easily achieved sets and let Cotts achieve a set that seemed reasonable, before giving him another set. It set Cotts up for self-confidence, because for many people "success" is a practice more than an event.

For Cotts, the incremental approach works best. But Cooper and most of his peers know one size doesn't fit all. What works for Cotts might not for Takatsu or Freddy Garcia. If you respect each contributor's individuality, you're more likely to reach each successfully and reap more torque from their efforts. And get returns for a longer amount of time. The better the job of customizing your mentoring you do, the more likely you'll get the results you seek. The means guide the ends.

As Cooper concludes with, "There are exceptions to rules".

Back to the Phases. Phase I was Takatsu as close, Phase II was Hermanson as closer. Phase III was Closer by Committee. Change upon change. But how a management team institutes organizational change can be as important as the choice of solution -- how shapes just how effective it is likely to be.

JA: In looking over the game logs in the transition from Takatsu to Hermanson, it didn’t look like a panic move, it wasn’t…

DC: It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like “Hey we’ve got to do something.” Hermanson was throwing the ball good, let’s give him a crack at it.

JA: Because Takatsu’s last outing wasn’t bad, on paper anyway…

DC: We didn’t lose total confidence in Takatsu. We had more confidence in Hermanson.

No panic. They didn't make a move when it might even look like panic. They waited until Takatsu had a decent-looking outing to move him back into the corps.

...and it's not only mandatory to be fearless in making changes, even knowing they may not work out, it's mandatory to show staff, competitors and upper management no signs of panic. 

DC: The roles got reversed -- now we needed Takatsu to setup and he was a one inning guy. So if you have a one inning guy it’ very difficult to be setup, and he couldn’t be our longer guy. And we didn’t need a long guy because we had a lot of pitchers. We had seven guys I want to say. And he just had difficulty handling that (new) role and the other guys were throwing the ball well. Neal started throwing the ball better, Pollitte was throwing the ball better, Hermanson, too. Those three guys had career years. And you had Marte there and Vizcaino. Vizcaino was a guy who kept everything in order. He picked up a very unheralded role. He picked up all the innings that would allow Cotts’ and Politte’s roles to remain the same for a long time and so their confidence took off and were pitching fantastic any time we asked them. 

Confidence is an amazing thing. Confidence is what it’s about in the bullpen. If you go out there for a handful of times and you come out unscathed, you’re going out there thinking, “they can’t get me”. With all this stuff we’re talking about, if you don’t have confidence and belief and trust, it ain’t worth it and I don’t care if you throw 95 (mph), it ain’t 95 any more.

JA: Back to the bullpen. You now go into Phase III. And Jenks is now in the mix.

DC: Jenks really came on for us. I want to say, a couple of times he pitched three inning outings. And we went to the well with him…50 pitches (JA note: August 16th v Minnesota) and this guy gobbled up everything we threw at him. He was extremely confident, physically gifted pitcher who throws above hitting speed with four above-average pitches.

And then Hermanson’s back started to go, so we started to give him a little bit more, and he ate it up, doing good.

JA: It looked like you were trying to get more closer work for Marte but he wasn’t getting lefties out…

DC: He wasn’t as efficient as he needed to be or as he’d been in the past. He was still good, he just wasn’t as efficient, we didn’t trust him as much because at that time he just wasn’t throwing enough strikes. Simply that. He was jumbled up mentally, to where he was so jumbled up mentally that physically he couldn’t perform. Again, it goes back to mental. 


JA: So this bullpen organization you used last year was unique in my lifetime.

DC: It was, it was. We went by our gut.

JA: And did it just develop over time?

DC: Yes.

JA: Or did you say you know what, there’s the model but we’re going to throw it away and do whatever we need to do to make the bullpen effective against whatever comes along.

DC: You know last year, in many ways everything just fell into place in so many different ways. And the bullpen was just another thing that just fell into place and rolled our way. It seemed like anything we did just worked. But the guys grew, they grew more mentally tough and they were more locked in, more focused, more committed. And then they executed more and when they executed more and had success, their confidence grew, and grew. And the pitching, the bullpen and the starters – I’m prejudiced here – was our backbone.

JA: Yes. All those 1-run games you won, way out of proportion with any other team (JA NOTE: The 2005 Chisox finished 35-19 in 1-run games; the Angels were next closest with 33-26).

DC: Yes, it was a ride, it really was. It was like automatic pilot. And I realized for last year the best caution was “Don’t trip ‘em, stay out of their way now” because it had a life of its own.

And eventually Closer by Situation came to a temporary end. The Chisox could have stuck with it -- it was working. And having changed away from it and moved to something else successful (Jenks as primary closer), they could have changed back.

When everything is going well, too much tinkering may undo the subtle balance. This doesn't mean one doesn't change any process. But it does mean emotional tinkering holds more potential danger.

Cooper, like most professional management in baseball, understand that when outcomes are poor, it may have been the end of decent choices, and that the reverse is true, that poor performances can still result good outcomes.

That means no matter how well you're doing, you shouldn't get to big for your britches. In baseball & beyond, life can toss you an 0-2 knuckler. Just because you're winning doesn't mean you can't lose, and just because you're not winning doesn't mean you can't turn it around.

There is more pithy stuff from the Don Cooper conversation, and I'll finish it off in a subsequent post.

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