Saturday, October 06, 2007

Gold-Glove Management, In Which Malcolm Gladwell
Learns at the School of Gary Pettis  

How can you expect to play at game speed unless 
you practice at game speed? -- Gary Pettis

In the previous entry, I introduced Managing Like A Centerfielder, based on insights from one of the 20th Century's top Centerfielders, Gary Pettis. These insights are useful to all managers in competitive endeavors, because (as I found out in talking with Pettis) the skill set most useful to being a Gold Glove Centerfielder is surprisingly parallel to that demanded of managers. It's particularly useful to managers who not only face a competitive environment, but one that requires very quick decision-making, too fast to allow for executing rigorous analysis starting from the moment at which you know the context fully. In Malcolm Gladwell terms, Blink decision-making.

In this entry, we'll explore how important it is to practice making decisions, even if you don't execute them, and using those phantom decisions and projecting how they would have played out against what really happened keeps you sharp and ready to make functional quick decisions when the time comes to execute on them. Some of the interview gets repeated here -- because it's supporting an additional insight.

I know lots of enthusiasts for the kind of intuitive decisions made instantly Malcolm Gladwell describes as Blink. Some people just have a knack for doing it in a particular domain (but not in others). Most have no knack for doing it in any domain. But you can increase your chances of success if you have a foundation of knowledge, made a habit of accumulating data in the past, shadowing decisions, and then examining what happened to see if the choice you made could have been right. 

Too many Blink enthusiasts saw Gladwell's work as an excuse to just make it up as they went along, to ignore the hard work of pattern observation that's the foundation for successful pattern recognition. A naturally good Blink manager, and there aren't a ton of them (I suspect about one in seven) successfully interprets observed patterns with few cases. A naturally adequate Blink manager attains adequacy not because the pattern recognition part of her brain is excellent, but because it's good and she has acquired experience over time -- probably by filter-feeding and not by attacking the data rigorously or forcing herself to shadow this decision-consequence practice Pettis describes in the following interview snippets. Those adequate Blink managers are maybe two out of seven managers. 

Which leaves four of seven who just plain stink at it. Many of those used the book's (accurate, worthwhile) observations as an excuse not to study, but just "feel" their way through decisions. An empty gut makes gut decisions that are empty of insight. 

On to Pettis...

Gary Pettis (GP): If there is anything a good or great centerfielder needs to learn is that they can play shallow.

MBB: Interesting. I once asked Amos Otis, who was super-great, the same questions I asked you, obviously a long time ago. He said, “I’m the only really good centerfielder in the league right now”. He had a cockiness about him…he was joshing me to some degree, but I think he also meant it. I said “Okay, okay, well, what about Rick Manning”…another guy who had good range then…and he said, “He doesn’t have an arm”. I said “Tell me what you mean”, and he said to me “If you’re ever on base against him, this is worth knowing…he plays shallow to cover for his arm, which isn’t very good.”

It didn’t ring true to me as a rule we could make general. It was Amos Otis telling me this, so I can’t dismiss it. But he argued that centerfielders who play shallow do it to cover for a weaker throwing arm.

(GP): Some guys might do that. Overall, the great ones play shallow because the hits that most frequently break the pitcher’s back are the ones that come off the end of the bat. It’s not the ones that go over your head, because most often, if you’d been 10 or 15 feet farther back, they’d have gone over your head anyway. That’s not the one that usually breaks the pitcher’s back.

But decisionmaking comes into play, too. You don’t play the guy the same way if it’s a 2-0 or 3-1 count as if it was 0-2 or 1-2.

MBB: That’s another reason I asked you if you saw the catcher’s signs.

(GP): No, not the signs, the count, and you know the batter is more defensive when they’re down in the count, so they are more apt to put balls that are not strikes in play. That results in more balls being hit off the end of the bat or they got jammed on because they don’t want to strike out and they will try to put any ball in play somewhere. 

So you play a little differently. When it’s 2-0 or 3-1, well, they’re not as likely to do that.

MBB: If video had been as broadly available in the beginning of your career…it was pretty common by the end…but would you have scouted hitters’ individual patterns and how they approached hitting in various counts?

(GP): No. But what I still do is take his swing…what is it like, where is he most likely to hit the ball…the majority of time he puts it into play. I can look at the spray charts (to more quickly get the information I could get from video).

The one thing you can’t change much is your swing. Your swing is your swing. If you’re an opposite field hitter, you’re going to hit the ball to the opposite field more often than not. That’s not to say you’re not going to pull a ball down the line occasionally. You play to the hitter’s tendency. When the count goes in his favor you might move back a little bit, or if he’s in a hole you would creep up a little. You might move to one side or the other…you need to know about the individual hitter at the plate, and take into consideration who’s on the mound.

If your pitcher throws in the upper 80s, and there’s a guy to hits the ball the other way lot, he’s not going to hit it as much the other way. Those are the kinds of things you have to consider. Just because his chart shows his pattern is some way, there are still a lot of little things you need to consider.

(MBB): (When you're playing Center) Are you looking at the catcher’s signs?

(GP): No. I can see where the catcher is setting up & you have an idea. Whereas, if you’re playing a left-handed hitter and he (normally) hits the ball to left-center field but the catcher moves inside, you keep the idea, “he might pull this ball. You have to be ready to go either way. You don’t necessarily lean, because what of the pitcher misses his spot?
So there are all kinds of variables when playing centerfield. 

I always say “Do what you see, not what you think”.

MBB: You’re coaching outfielders now, right?

(GP): Yes.

MBB: And so you try to get your outfielders to disengage their minds and just react.

(GP): That’s right.


(GP): You were asking me before if stealing home runs was something I practiced.

Well, Jimmy Reese [the most legendary fungo artist of the last 70 years] and I used to play a game; he was very good with the fungo. I would go to the ballpark early, I’d go out to centerfield and we’d play games.

We’d play for ice cream. He would try to hit balls over the fence and I would try to catch them.

MBB: So you were really practicing stealing homers specifically. Let me ask you a related question. Do you believe it’s possible to skip shagging flies before a game, even at your level, and not have that affect your day’s game?

(GP): I don’t. You can’t be sharp that way.
People have done it, but it doesn’t mean they were as sharp as they could have been. I wouldn’t do that.
I believe that when you practice you have to get at least to the point where you break a sweat. However long it takes to get t that point, five or ten minutes. I wanted to make sure I broke a sweat and played some balls hard. That was the key, whether they were ground balls or hard balls, play them hard.
How can you expect to play at game speed unless you practice at game speed?

Mental exercises like case studies are good for building up knowledge and thickening up cause and effect judgment. It's critical to know that count and swing type are likely to affect the outcome, and to build deep knowledge of it so you can internalize it. But when the time comes to make a quick decision, there won't be time to go to the video or spray charts -- you have to act in the moment based on internalized knowledge and with the tendencies the current situation tends to make happen. Note, as Pettis said in the previous entry, you don't react to the swing, you pre-act, based on this knowledge base you've built, and on watching the ball (the core issues) not the swing (the competitor's intent).

Further, as Pettis stated, you have to do it every day. Yesterday's practice is diminished today. You have to keep it as fresh as you can or you won't be be as sharp as you could have been.

And Beyond Baseball, managers too often respond to the competitor's intent (swing), not to what the likely outcome of putting that intent into action will create. I worked for a company that had a main competitor that cut prices to win market share -- the un-Pettis Sales people insisted on arguing to cut prices without examining the history of price cuts and what it meant to market shares and profitability. They let intent, not historical patterns dictate their direction; they always ran to the last place they saw the ball.

To be successful as a manager, you have to face the future, not the past. The past informs, but you can't make decisions assuming the situation right now is the one that will be in effect at the moment your decision takes effect. From a management school point of view, it's described almost perfectly by The Beer Game, and author Peter Senge does a fine job of illustrating the risk of reacting to the present and not interpolating based on the likely evolution of the current context in his classic book The Fifth Discipline. I won't elaborate on the lesson the Beer Game has to offer beyond what I said in this paragraph -- if you don't know it already, check out that Beer Game link.

The fact is, though, that the lesson the Beer Game has to offer is more elegantly presented by Gary Pettis, describing going back to catch a ball hit over your head.

MBB: You were exceptionally good at breaking back on a ball, taking your eyes off it completely, and then finding it on the other end 

(GP): Well, I’m not sure I was so special…

MBB: …I can get to the vicinity – I know pretty much where it’s going to land and I’m there, but I can’t see it again. Is there some technique you used? Or is it something you’re born with?

(GP): You see the trajectory the ball was hit on. And over the years you get to know the angle it’s going to come out, greater height means less distance. You get to know where they are.

And also, you practice during batting practice and spring training. That’s one of the drills you do. Someone hits a ball and you try to run to the spot. By knowing the angle it came off the bat, you have an idea.

Take playing in the Metrodome in Minnesota. If you happen to lose the ball in the ceiling there (which a lot of people do), the mistake is to look where you last saw it. 

 It’s never going to be there. If you lose it you have to stay on the line of where the ball was going when you last saw it…you have a chance of finding it.

MBB: It’s a physics problem. 

(GP): and if you look for it where it was before, you’re never going to find it.

MBB: So let’s talk about stealing home runs. If there was a record for Stealing Home Runs, turning balls that were going to over the fence into outs, you’d have the record, in my lifetime anyway. I saw six or seven either at a game on t.v. 

Do you remember a bunch of them?

(GP): I do remember some of them.

MBB: Is it any different from the problem we just talked about…going back on a ball, turning away to make the most of your speed and then finding it again? 
Do you train for it?
Do you say to yourself, “I know I can do this”? 
How does it come about?

(GP): A lot of it comes from practice.

Before you catch the ball over the fence, you have to be aware of where you are. That’s the biggest thing.

The warning track. I don’t know if guys do it now. But when I played, I used to go out and measure the depth of the warning track. Not so much to measure how many feet between the grass and the wall, but how many steps it took me, at speed, to get to the wall. Because you know when you hit the warning track…you feel the difference of grass to gravel. Once you do that, you know about how many steps you have.

For me it was maybe 2-1/2, sometimes I could get three strides in. And I knew that. That was just running back on a ball. Now once you knew the ball was hit high enough and you knew it was going to be a home run that you were trying to catch, the first thing you had to do was run back as fast as you can. Taking your eye off the ball comes into play there. You get a good look at the fence…you actually have to get a good look, you can’t just look back at it. You look at it to see where it is. Then when you get two or three feet away from it, you start preparing yourself to get ready to jump.

MBB: Do you remember some of those…an elbow getting banged or holding onto the top of the fence.

(GP): There are a few. Jesse Barfield (hit) one. On that one I thought I might jumped a little too soon, but I didn’t have time to get as close to the wall as I would have liked because he didn’t hit it as high as some other guys…

MBB: He hit a lot of hard liners…

(GP): Yes. It wasn’t as high so I didn’t have enough time to get all the way back there. I jumped on the way…I was just barely able to get my glove over the wall and pull it back. 

MBB: Are those especially satisfying (when you pull it back over the wall)?

(GP): ALL good plays are. I would rather make a play that saved the game…but anytime you make a nice play it’s a good feeling.
There was another one. Harold Baines

My favorite…I wish it had been someone else…was Brian Downing who was a good teammate [they played together for the Angels for five years: 1982-87]. I was playing for Detroit and he was still with the Angels. He hit a ball that even to this day, I don’t know how I was able to catch the ball. Because I got back to the fence, and as I jumped, my chest was facing the fence. The top of the wall is under my armpit, and I reached down behind the wall, I can’t even see the ball and I reached with my glove and caught it.
When I saw play later on that evening…they had an angle from left field…I just said “WOW”. It was like watching someone else do that. That was a special play. But there were other plays I made that I really liked, but they weren’t ones that robbed someone of a homer. Diving catches…all kinds of different things.

As Pettis said so clearly, if you look to find a moving ball at the location you last saw it, you'll never find it. And if you presume the context of a problem you noticed is the same as it was when you noticed it, you'll never know it, either. You have to judge not the problem's exact state back then, but you have to both know what it was and project the likely change over time so you can meet it by leading its trajectory and intersecting with it when your decision takes effect.

The next entry will have the last insight from Gold Glove Management Guru Gary Pettis. Last, perhaps the most important, a reminder of something all managers should know and did at one time, but tend to forget in the heat of the moment.

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