Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gary Pettis: Management's Obi-Wan Kenobi  

Everybody should get the opportunity to play the game from Centerfield and get to see the game through the Centerfielder’s eyes -- Gary Pettis.

As it turns out, the rangiest living centerfielder is also one of the globe's sagest management pundits -- it you manage using the techniques he applied to his craft, you are guaranteed to have a better chance to succeed at your craft.

Gary Pettis now coaches for the Texas Rangers, but from 1982-1992, he patrolled the outfield for the California Angels, the Rangers and the Detroit Tigers. His range factors regularly blew away league averages for the position, and his career composite range numbers are high enough, even including the years when he had lost a step or two, are so excellent, most outfielders don't even reach his average in their very best single year.

 Year Ag Tm  Lg Pos    G     PO    A    E   DP    FP   lgFP  RFg  lgRFg FPRO
 1982 24 CAL AL  OF    8      5    1    0    0 1.000  .984  0.75  2.15   --
 1983 25 CAL AL  OF   21     49    5    1    2  .982  .982  2.57  2.16   --
 1984 26 CAL AL  OF  134    337   11    6    4  .983  .983  2.60  2.17  120 
 1985 27 CAL AL  OF  122    368   13    4    5  .990  .982  3.12  2.10  150
 1986 28 CAL AL  OF  153    462    9    7    3  .985  .980  3.08  2.06  150
 1987 29 CAL AL  OF  131    344    2    7    2  .980  .980  2.64  2.00  132
 1988 30 DET AL  OF  126    361    5    5    0  .987  .979  2.90  2.14  137
 1989 31 DET AL  OF  119    325    1    4    0  .988  .980  2.74  2.12  130
 1990 32 TEX AL  OF  128    285   10    2    4  .993  .981  2.30  2.04  114
 1991 33 TEX AL  OF  126    248    4    6    1  .977  .983  2.00  2.03   98
 1992 34 TOT     OF   60    164    2    2    0  .988  .983  2.77  2.12  131
+--------------+---+----+------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----  +++
 Position Total  OF 1128   2948   63   44   21  .986  .981  2.67  2.09  128

FPRO is a thumbnail measure of range (and to a small degree,
fielding percentage, as a proportion of league average efficiency
at the fielder's position. So for Gary Pettis' CAREER, he was
128, producing about 28% more outs as a defender than the
league average at his position. Context: In most seasons, there is
a single outfielder with an FPRO of 128 or more. More Context: The
career 128 is well above Mickey Mantle & Ty Cobb, around Willie
Mays, clearly below Tris Speaker.

He made the challenging look effortless, but Pettis also had a special flair for "stealing home runs," leaping high and extending his glove over the fence to bring back a ball that had the distance and trajectory to escape the park if he didn't stop it..

Pettis was the kind of player who doesn't look as important as he was. He had no appreciable power, and until later in his career, he didn't eke out enough walks to justify that lack of power...on paper, anyway.

What Pettis could do was be so proficient in Centerfield (a key defensive position) that the teams he played on could put slug-like or even injured players in Left or Right and buffer the consequences. An extraordinary offensive blue-chip like Brian Downing wouldn't have been as easily afforded starts as a Left-fielder without an extraordinary talent like Pettis to cover his flank in the field. And I found out when I interviewed him in August that he's an extraordinary sage about management, as well because the special techniques he applied to being a great centerfielder are equally valuable for managers to use, too.

In this entry and the following two, I'll share a few of the most important ones with you.

I started the discussion asking him a question I ask all the great defenders when I can.

Jeff Angus (MBB): In your opinion, what distinguishes the great center-fielders from the perfectly-fine ones?

Gary Pettis (GP): The first thing for me, and this is not just center-fielders but all outfielders, is how they get ready. The guys who get ready when the ball is in the hitting zone are going to generally be the better outfielders.

MBB: And are they moving because the know what the pitch is? Or is it twitch reaction?

(GP): A lot of times, when you’re on-time, your body recognizes that, and when you’re not on-time, your body recognizes that, also. But when you’re not on time, you have a tendency to take a step back no matter where the ball is hit because you feel like you’re late.

MBB: Are there pieces to this? Do you break it down to abilities to, say go back well but doesn’t come in exceptionally well (like Ken Griffey, Jr.)? Or center fielders who have great range to one side or both?

(GP): No, I don’t look at it that way. But I know that in centerfield, because you’re looking directly at the batter, you get a better read. I know if you watch the ball from the pitcher’s hand all the way to home plate, you get a better read of when you need to get ready, and it takes the swing of the hitter out of play.

Some fielders get fooled. If they don’t watch the pitch the whole way, if you just look at it at home plate and the batter takes a big swing and if that’s what you’re watching, and you think he’s hit the ball really well, when he might have hit it off the end of the bat. If you follow the ball all the way, you have less chance of seeing the swing – you’re focusing on the ball going in and the ball coming out. {SNIP}

(GP): I always say it’s the fast-twitch muscles that make the outfielder special. I always say when you play balls off the bat, the ball doesn’t necessarily have to be hit to you for you to get something out of it.

If you don’t keep those fast-twitch muscles working, you’re at a disadvantage. For instance if I’m in center field, and I get ready when the ball is in the hitting zone, but the ball is hit to right field, if I don’t break that way, then I’m teaching my muscles to react slower. See? So when I react to a ball hit to someone else, I’m training my muscles to go that way. At some point during the game, I’m going to have to go left or right or forward or back. The ball doesn’t have to be hit to me for me to work on playing balls off the bat.

MBB: I think that works even in recreational ball. If you have an old s4itkicker like me, he's still going to be able to cover another outfielder’s miss if he makes a habit of breaking with the hit.

Beyond baseball, managers have to shadow Pettis' practice -- analyze the situation at hand and not just react to the actions taking place, but pre-act before the action takes place based on the most likely outcomes. This is most important with the kinds of decision that require quick action, as opposed to those that benefit from study groups and long discussion cycles. But if a manager can simply master this fast-twitch decisionmaking . Pre-action isn't the same as committing all your resources to an approach, but leaning and breaking in the likeliest direction gives you a head start in the correct direction more often than not. Practicing thinking "what would I do if?" means when you do need to act, you've trained your brain-muscle how to do it more decisively.

As a basic exercise, if you're not already doing this in your own management practices, start Pettis-izing.

As a more advanced exercise, pre-consider cascading consequences...pre-act to the action in your mind, prepare to act because when you need to, you'll have handled many of the details already, leaving your mind free for the more subtle decisions that separate the great managers (and centerfielders) from the perfectly-fine ones.

This "what would you do if?" exercise is intrinsic to Baseball (all coaches and managers play this game constantly, in-game and in preparation for facing specific teams). People in baseball are usually amazed when they discover most managers beyond baseball don't exercise their thinking like this at least daily.

Using the eyes, seeing the game through the Centerfielder's eyes, is a great technique, but a single great technique doesn't make for a great Centerfield or management practitioner

MBB: That fits snugly with something Rick Miller told me – you remember him?

(GP): Sure.

MBB: Miller said to me, ‘I listen to the ball. How the ball sounds tells me where I need to go.’

(GP): Yes. There are certain ballparks where you can hear the loud crack and you know that ball was struck very well. But I gauge when I should be ready by watching the ball from the pitcher’s hand to home plate.

For Pettis, the visual in the key data, and for Miller it was, too. But for Miller in most ballparks and for Pettis in certain ones, sound modified their decision as to where and how to play a ball.

Beyond baseball, managers too often use a single form of data (or none), rather than embrace a range of tools and data and staff input and academic work and common sense. The single form of data may continue to be the single "best" indicator, but that doesn't promote excellence, only relative adequacy. And like a great Centerfielder (Pettis or Miller), more data is not an excuse to practice analysis-paralysis to run the clock out on yourself; it's a way to fine-tune decisions and take more context into the final (quick, necessary) decision.

In the next entry, we'll continue getting insights from one of my favorite Druckers of the Diamond, Gray Pettis.

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