Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Part III - Turnaround in Tampa Bay:
¿How Much Pressure to Perform?  

This is the last installment of the interview I did with Tampa Bay's then-rookie manager Joe Maddon about his approach to turning around the historically struggling Devil Rays franchise. Maddon's piece of the task is with players and field staff, and establishing a culture of excellence in an organization that has been so far from excellence it has been color-blind to it.

In organizations beyond baseball, most failed turnaround efforts fail because of a shortfall in a single Second Base practice: applying the right amount of pressure. Managers in a turnaround situation need to show sufficient urgency, serious determination to change to indicate to surviving staff that change will happen with or without them, and that it's going to start pronto. If management doesn't execute that, staff can come to believe they'll be relieved of the burdens of change, or that management is just talking about transformation and not serious about execution. Equally, though, management can instill a fire-drill mentality, intimidating and exhausting even engaged staff.

Few managers beyond baseball understand this. Maddon clearly does.

Jeff Angus (JA): I sent you about sixty questions I thought we should talk about some time. But the one I had thought was the big question really was framed in the game last night (August 7?).

You want to be encouraging, you want to be supportive. You want to win. You want to keep the pressure enough that people feel like you care, but you can’t be Lou Piniella and give up on a AA pitcher who had to come up because of a roster move or injury or disciplinary and then comes in and makes some ignorant mistake.

Joe Maddon (JM): The great point you just made there, that’s the key. It’s applying just enough pressure to let them know that you care.

JA: That’s got to be one of your big challenges.

JM: It is. That’s huge. You just described what’s I’ve been feeling, and I hadn’t been able to put it into words.

And there are times I just want to relax, but I see if I do that, I may not be showing enough caring. I want them to just go out and do it – I know it’s the players who go out and win the games, so I try to stay out of the way, but there are times if you stay out of the way too much, will they get the perception that I don’t care enough about winning?

The first and most important lesson: you have to deliver a homeostatic level of pressure -- enough to show you care, but not so much pressure that you destroy focus or concentration. In a turnaround, there have been performance issues and it's unrealistic to think your staff can go (in practice, in psychology, in team coherence) from clearly inadequate to excellent in one smooth hyperjump.

JM: But I think when you’ve got the kind of team that allows you to stay out of the way, truly allows you to stay out of the way and just let them just play, that’s when you truly do win. That’ the fine line to be balanced. That’ what happened in Anaheim – we finally arrived at that point where I knew and I’d encourage the (coaching team), “Let them just play, let’s just stay out of the way.”

It happened one time this year…We got to a brief period this year where everybody got healthy and it was going along nice and I told Andrew (G.M. Andrew Friedman), “it’s a good moment. It’s everyone’s job to stay out of their way.” I did not want to try to influence the game by asking them to do a whole bunch of different things.

JA: Was the green light on?

JM: Yes. There green light was on and there were no red lights. We’d already covered what’s a good time to run and not.

JA: But you recognized they were at the right moment to do that, yes? It wasn’t a random experiment, correct?

JM: True. It is truly a tricky thing to be able to do I show you care enough and still be able to stay out of the way.

The next lesson: there's a time to control fiercely, a time to have loose guidelines and a time to let staff experiment by riffing off your baseline  This may be the most difficult practice to handle deftly because no matter how well you choose your times for loosening the reins, staff will have some poor outcomes (that's the nature of testing/experimentation of new practices and methods). If your own management has a tin ear for turnaround (and let's face, the likelihood is they do -- which is why things need turning around, eh?), you can be in the position of being criticized for the mistakes that result from necessary experiments. Ugly but true. Maddon is a little luckier than you are here...his executives are committted to change and, for now anyway, resigned to investing the cale ndar time to make it happen.

JA: So do you handle someone who you every reason to assume they’ll succeed and they struggle for quite a while. And is it different for a young player than a vet?

For example, you have Jonny Gomes and he was Mr. April and then tailed off in May, and not doing so well since and striking out about 25% of his plate appearances.

You have pitchers like that are high variance guys – the ways they succeed and lose are very different game to game (like if I use QMAX to chart their outings), unlike a guy like Jamie Moyer whose starts cluster in a couple of spots – his good starts all look pretty much the same and his bad ones have a commonality, too. But then you have Seth McClung. I’m an outsider, I haven’t actually seen him pitch much, but the numbers indicate he’s all over the place.

How do you handle it when you have a guy like McClung who can pitch at a major league level but you just don’t know when he’s going to?

JM: He’s in the bullpen now. He’s come out of the bullpen three times since he’s come back. And he’s done well three times.

JA: How many pitches does he use?

JM: Mainly fast ball. And slider, but fast ball primarily, and his curve ball a little bit. We wanted to really limit the number of things he’s trying to do.

JA: So far it’s working?

JM: Yes. He was three weeks in AAA. Walked two, struck out 26. Sixteen hits in 16 innings, batting average about one-something against him, and converted all his save opportunities.

JA: And who thought of this?

JM: We’ve been talking about it. Comes up here. And I told him the first plan is to put him in the 7th or the 8th inning. He went 1-1/3rd, 1-1/3rd, and then 1 inning. And I was going to close him in the game last night – flip-flop (Brian) Meadows with him. I kept Meadows apprised of this, but I did not tell McClung last night he was going to close.

You’re right on. He totally deserves to be here, but he was totally ineffective.

With Jonny Gomes, it’s different. I used something like this with Kazmir. I used paradox. He was having a problem hanging his slider. So I went up to Kazmir and said “the next time you go out to pitch, every time you’re going to throw the slider, I want you to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to hang this thing I’m going to hang this slider, and they’re going to crush it’ “

So I went up to Jonny, and I said, “A little paradoxical intent. I want you to strike out. I want you to swing and miss every pitch. He hit a double.

JA: That’s interesting…that wouldn’t work for everybody.

JM: Everybody wants to not strike out.

The third lesson is how you loosen the reins and how you show the right" level of concern is going to be different for each staffer. You need to have an overall message that's consistent, but when you get to implementation, it has to be customized to each talent's tendency.

And in a turnaround, one way to show determination to change is through staff turnover. You want to keep your good performers, but some may be good and not fit into the new practices. Some may be good, but have attitudes that blunt effective turnaround. When you bring new talent into a turnaround organization (in or out of baseball), you'll need to choose carefully.

JA: In the balance between “team” and a star…a franchise player, or in the case of the current what you call expansion stage Devil Rays, the player most likely to be your All-Star team choice, how do you handle that balance? In the next few years you’re going to be close enough to striking distance that the front office will load up some vets pre- or mid-season. And if you’re successful, you have this highly cohesive group of players that have matured together. It sounds to me that when y’all choose vets, you’ll need to be as careful on the human side as on the abilities side.

JM: Yes. you really have to be careful who in your locker room carries the biggest stick. If this person is going to have the sense of humor…if he’s sarcastic or cynical, that it can drag down a group of young people…that impacts everybody. Right down to the ticket-takers and the parking lot attendants and the first base coach and the first base coach’s wife, and anybody else who shows up for the game.

I really am aware of that. When I talk about clubhouse chemistry, about getting that room right, about shaping that culture, that impacts so many people. Ray fans want to watch the game and listen to the game and read the newspaper and see that the Rays are on top. And they want to see positive things coming out of the Rays. Well, when you permit a situation or a group of people within your group who you know are taking your people the wrong way, it’s your fault, it’s not their fault, for allowing it to happen.

As a decision-maker in the Angels organization…when I had to hire minor league coaches, if I knew within a month or two that I was wrong and that we’d have to get rid of this person, it was my fault for doing a poor job of selection in the first place. We always try to give the person a year or two and try to flip them and be very honest give them information and say “Listen, this has got to change” but if they did not change, we obviously had to do something because that one person could have a negative effect on so many people. I don’t even know what the multiplier effect of that is. It’s incredible to me that so many people don’t consider that…I do consider all of it. IT ALL MATTERS.

Right now, here, our coaching staff here is tremendous, and I know that the positive and complementary impact they have on that room is wonderful and it’s probably at it’s at it’s highest point right now, though I think it can get better. That group in there really influences our group in such a good way daily. Major league people sometimes miss that point when they choose their coaching staff. For years the coaching staff was viewed this group of people who just throw batting practice, hit fungoes and then go out and have a beer with the manager after the game. That’s farthest from the truth of what you need. What you have to be able to do is communicate and I think as a major league coach the most important skill that’s required is listening. If you lack listening skill, you truly cannot be a good major league coach.

These are the things I see as being important. For example, last night you watched the Rays play, it was very impressive, I thought even though they lost, it was impressive. But the reason the Rays played so well was because all these little things are starting to come together and promote the camaraderie and the good play and the support that makes those possible. And we’re not looking for that to happen over a few days or a one or two years; we’re looking to build a tradition of excellence here. That needs to be nurtured through relationships.

JA: When I look at your roster, I see the 1974 Royals. Not a great team, but a young team with more young players right underneath them that pushed the guys already on the roster. And a few older guys, role players who performed better than any outsider would have thought they could. In your case I’m thinking about (Greg) Norton, for example.

JM: And how about (Ty) Wigginton? Wiggy is having the year of his life. Travis Lee is having a little bit of a comeback; even though his offensive numbers a re not good, he’s having a bit of a renaissance right now. But Norton’s a prime example.

JA: His performance, age 33, seems out of the blue. When I saw his name on your roster, I thought it might be a different person with the same name.

JM: He’s been wonderful. He’s a big part of our club now.

JA: One last question. Bench Coach. When I talked with Mike Scioscia, he told me where he got his model, Monty Basgall. And he said Monty was the thinker and Tommy Lasorda was the feeler. And I said to him, so since you are the thinker, is your bench coach the feeler for you? And he said “no, he thinks the game right along with me”.

So you have a bench coach – are you more interested in him being complementary or is he a shadow (like how Scioscia used you)?

JM: What I was looking for was someone with a lot of baseball experience, someone who’d managed a lot because the biggest thing I wanted was the managing instinct to draw from. Bill (Evers) has had many years as a minor league manager, and he’s constantly on top of the game. And I’m getting all that I had expected. I knew he would not be as computer-savvy as I am, and he’s been learning, so I hope next year we can turn it all over to him and let him do all this other stuff (sweeping his hand at a pile of reports he’d produced).
It’s the manager’s job to intellectualize the data. The bench coach’s job is to allow that to happen by doing all the other work I shouldn’t be doing so that I can use my time to think, to talk with the players and with people like you. Truly my significant contributions are I can think and talk. Make sure everything stays on task.

I was speaking with the GM here (Mariners) GM Billy Bavasi, and he likes to say, and it’s true, “You know you’ve done a good job if you feel like you walk in the door and you feel like to have nothing urgent to do.” That truly is the essence of delivering good leadership in the organization. So when I walk in and I feel like everything is under control, that I’ve done a decent job.

JA: That involves a lot of delegation, which I’d like to talk about with you the next time you’re here.

The Devil Rays don't get back to Seattle until September, by which time some of the turnaround developments and how well it's going should be more obvious. Maddon is a blast, and a great role model for managers beyond baseball.

I can't wait.

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