Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Kenji Johjima & Seattle Mariners' Lessons
in Integrating Senior Talent  

When you bring in a successful manager from outside the organization, you're faced with a lot of decisions. Depending on the scouting and planning you do, you have choices in whether you follow her lead and bend that part of your organization (or mre than just that group) towards what made her successful, or bend her standard practices to your own model.

One beautifully elaborated example of the consequences of that decision and how they play out is illustrated by the Seattle Mariners.

Before the 2006 season, the Mariners brought in the Japanese Leagues' most highly-valued veteran catcher, Kenji Johjima. He performed very well in his 10-year career there, and over his last five seasons, averaged 30 homers with an on-base percentage of about .373 and a batting average right around .300. He won three gold gloves during those five seasons, so his defensive reputation, especially around throwing out would-be base-stealers, was positive.

Expectations were he'd be a better than average major league catcher, in all respects. During his first American League season, Johjima met his expectations offensively, but not defensively.

According to this John Hickey story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

{SNIP} It wasn't so much that he had trouble catching balls in the dirt, although he did, but that he was inexperienced in the ways of major league baseball. It's not that he didn't have the skills necessary, it's that he needed to understand umpires and situations as they play out in America.

So in the early days of spring training, the Mariners are putting on a tutorial for him.

"It's as simple as changing the way he sets up for pitches," manager Mike Hargrove said. "He's got to realize that sometimes things just don't go right. If you call the right pitch and the pitcher executes the right pitch, there's nothing you can do if a hitter still hits the ball. I understand that in Japan, when something goes wrong, it's the catcher's fault. It's not that way here."

Japanese catchers have a habit of setting up for pitches at the last possible second. Johjima did that, but it doesn't wash in the U.S.

"If you do that here, the umpire is not going to give you the call," Hargrove said. "So we're talking to him about setting up earlier. He's smart. It'll happen."

Hickey's notes alone bring up a pair of considerations the M's could have, perhaps should have, had before they deployed a proven, but in a different context, talent on the field. There are other considerations, as well.

The examples are especially profound because the imported talent was a catcher, the closest analogue to a managerial role you'll find on the field.

If you bring an expert from an outside organization into your own, you should always "scout" her previous organization's design and dynamics to simulate, at least in your imagination, how the patterns that brought her success will fit into your own organizational context. Good in one place doesn't mean effective in another.

You'll rarely have it as easy as the Mariners did: the process of the work is very open, there are Japanese players on the M's and American players who played in Japan available to discuss and scout the differences in roles and methods. So the M's had every reason to know in advance that Johjima would have the habit of setting up pitches at the last possible second, a potential irritant or confusion factor for umps. They had every reason to know, and so did know, that in Japan, when something goes wrong, it's "the catcher's fault".

You have alternatives. Good questioning will force to the surface some process habits of the previous employer. If you have a competitive intelligence (CI) unit, you can sic them on the task, too. Personally, I like to play an informal game of "What would you do if?", playing out scenarios. You can do this formally up front (it's a logical part of any recruitment process), but if you play it with trusting staff involved, everyone can pool knowledge and learn good practices, and perhaps synthesize new ways of doing things.

You should always gather the intel you can before you hire an deploy a new established manager or high-or medium-impact talent.

So while the M's knew Johjima was going to have to, in general, make adjustments, and specifically some in the areas Japanese catchers have different methods. The M's didn't try to get him to change before his first major league season. as it the optimal choice? There are solid arguments on both sides, and the right answer is highly correlated with the individual talent, the old context and the new context.

The M's decided not to load a lot of defensive adjustments on Johjima, and I suspect it was the optimal call. They let him focus greater energy on learning to hit MLB pitching (which he did well enough, and OPS+, according to Baseball-Reference of 106), learning how to play the field and get used to the batter's eye in 17 new ballparks, beef up his skills in dealing with a new culture, a new language, and new demonic press guys. Ted Williams may have said hitting a baseball is the hardest work in the world, but I suspect having to hit a baseball adequately and play catcher adequately is actually harder. Or in the immortal proof of Irish mathematician W. R. (father of Slidin' Billy) Hamilton , much harder.

If they had pushed upon him in addition how to set up pitches plus the change management task of getting him to think about his job in a way that's counter to his entire experience (reinforced, btw, by years of high-level success within his old belief system) that you can make the right call and it can still have a bad outcome -- it doesn't mean you were at fault, they cautiously allowed for the fact that it might overwhelm him. And it's normal among human beings, and Maury Povich Show watchers, too, that if you get overwhelmed with too many things, you end up doing none of them effectively.

So plan on who will bend, and in which spots, and err on the side of under-loading (though explain you are doing that so you don't instill the assumption that change isn't necessary). Do some testing and observation -- your new contributor might be able to adapt in more ways than you allow for, and you can ratchet up the pace. And, of course, don't hesitate to learn new methods she's mastered while you do it.

As I stated, I suspect the M's made the right choice. How will it play out for them and for Kenji Johjima?

Well, he's 30 years old, which suggests he's more likely to decline a little than grow his skills a little. Still, he has a history of learning new methods in the Japanese Leagues -- picking up his power numbers as most good batters do, and growing his on-base percentage through a slight icnrease in his walk rate and a significant increase in his hit-by-pitch rate (the latter he already applied in his MLB debut campaign). The contributor knows how to learn. So I suspect that ability will outstrip Father "Pop" Time in 2007.

Now all he has to deal with is a radically overhauled pitching staff that has more new faces on it (at least three new starters and three new relievers) than about any team in the majors, an Ebirah-sized task all by itself.

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