Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Three Final Competitive Management Edges from Gary Pettis  

"By Jove man, you act as though you can never  
have too much Gary Pettis" -- Martin Marshall

In the previous two entries (this and that), I covered how Gary Pettis' methods for achieving excellence as a centerfielder would serve you as methods in your own management endeavour. In this final entry, I'll cover a three more, and save the most important for last. Just remember, though, it would be very hard to have too much Gary Pettis.

More transcript from our conversation...

MBB: Let’s talk about plate patience for a second. You had this healthy career and then you get traded to Detroit…Actually since we’re in Detroit, let’s talk about centerfield again briefly. In Detroit you play in what I call the three centerfielder outfield, Ken Williams out there (not exactly a legendary centerfielder, but played that position) and Chet Lemon (exactly a centerfielder). What was that like? Challenging? Extra fun?

(GP): It was fun when we played together because the one thing that ALL great centerfielders have is the ability to communicate. That’s the thing. I can remember distinctly balls that were hit into right-centerfield and I would break on the ball and I could hear Chet Lemon yelling right away, “Go for it go for it, I’ll back you up.”

Lemon was more recognized as a star than Pettis (3 All-Star selections + a World Series appearance vs. 0 and 0 for Pettis), and yet when the Tigers acquired Pettis and moved Lemon to Right Field, the better known player, and perhaps mmore to the point, well-known himself for his fielding prowess, didn't waste cycles struggling for supremacy or jockeying for a hierarchical advantage against the newcomer. Lemon collaborated, Pettis collaborated, Williams collaborated (yes, that's the Ken Williams who is the remarkably effective GM of the Chicago White Sox), and they had an immense amount of fun (a benefit to them and to the organization.

Beyond Baseball, most ad-hoc teams usually only have one or at the most two "communicators", people who make sure the things that need to get discussed because the output benefits from collaboration. Enlisting multiple such players to your own teams boosts productivity. It's not just raw player quality that counts on your teams, it's their ability to work together to exceed the sum of their parts that makes teams in and beyond Baseball remarkably effective. And aggressively practicing communication like a centerfielder makes that much more likely to happen.

One of the things that had amazed me the most about Chet Lemon's career was that he dropped off a cliff defensively. He was never a blindingly-fast runner like Pettis was, and most players lose a step or two in their early- or mid-thirties, but Lemon went from went from world-class fly-hawk to sub-mediocrity overnight. Or so it appeared if you believe the then-available metrics.

Here are Lemon's career fielding numbers as an outfielder...the most telling being RFg (Range Factor) and lgRFg (League composite Range Factor).

 Year Ag Tm  Lg Pos   G    FP   lgFP  RFg  lgRFg   LF   CF   RF
 1976 21 CHW AL  OF  131  .992  .981  2.79  2.21    1  130    0
 1977 22 CHW AL  OF  149  .978  .978  3.52  2.03    0  149    0
 1978 23 CHW AL  OF   95  .983  .979  3.07  2.13    0   84   12
 1979 24 CHW AL  OF  147  .977  .981  2.86  2.13    0  147    0
 1980 25 CHW AL  OF  139  .981  .979  2.58  2.15    0  139    0
 1981 26 CHW AL  OF   93  .984  .983  2.60  2.16    0   93    0
 1982 27 DET AL  OF  121  .984  .982  2.09  2.15    0   29   93
 1983 28 DET AL  OF  145  .988  .981  2.84  2.16    0  145    0
 1984 29 DET AL  OF  140  .995  .983  3.09  2.17    0  140    0
 1985 30 DET AL  OF  144  .990  .982  2.90  2.10    0  144    0
 1986 31 DET AL  OF  124  .985  .980  2.60  2.06    0  124    0
 1987 32 DET AL  OF  145  .992  .980  2.44  2.00    0  145    0
 1988 33 DET AL  OF  144  .974  .979  2.11  2.14    0    0  144
 1989 34 DET AL  OF  111  .985  .980  1.76  2.12    0    0  111
 1990 35 DET AL  OF   96  .973  .981  2.25  2.04    0    3   94
Stats: Baseball-Reference.Com

I italicized the two years Lemon moved to right field to make room for Pettis in center. In both years he played alongside Pettis, his range factor slipped below league averages after only once (1982) posting a mark that was less than 20% better than league average. So to replay a little of the transcript and advance through more...

(GP): I can remember distinctly balls that were hit into right-centerfield and I would break on the ball and I could hear Chet Lemon yelling right away, “Go for it go for it, I’ll back you up.”

MBB: Interesting story and you just solved a statistical thing that was a bit of a mystery to me, and one I had wanted to ask you about.
Take a look at this…these are your year-by-year range factors for your career. Your range factor compared for the league’s composite for Center is way over the top. For your whole career, even including what should be your “decline phase” (I’m guessing you weren’t quite as fast at 34 years old as you’d been at 29), your average was so far over the top that it was the kind of achievement that you would only see for a single year maybe three to five times in a decade. Remarkable performance.

And here are Chet Lemon’s numbers. He’s got really really good range; your level, high…and then when you go to Detroit and he moves to Right, all of a sudden he’s very mortal. I was wondering if he had been injured, but you just explained it. 

(GP): Yes, a lot of time the balls he could have gotten to, I’m calling.

Numbers take on a life of their own, especially for observers who use them. One of the key lessons Baseball offers because it's such a transparent system is that meaningful measures can fool you if you don't take context into consideration. Yes, it's true that Lemon's range numbers (apparent range) were squeezed way down, but his ability to be rangy wasn't down. He was yielding to the centerfielder in conformity with standard operating procedure.

Lemon wasn't down. His numbers were down.

Beyond Baseball, too many managers take the numbers as fact, when in most cases, numbers are artifacts that represent facts. And the move from reality to artifact always poses the potential of distortion through lack of taking context into consideration. ¿Do you have of these mostly-true number artifacts that sometimes distort reality in your own organization? And are personnel sometimes under- or over-appreciated because of it?

If your organization isn't investing as much as Baseball in training, its short-changing itself. No exceptions.

Yes, it's the staffer's responsibility to keep up with knowledge and methods in the field, but the organization that doesn't cultivate employees misses out on harvesting tasty, low-hanging gains. No exceptions -- undercutting training and coaching and mentoring always results in self-inflicted inefficiency. I'll get back to that, but first, Pettis' career offensive numbers (a key whoa! in bold).

Year Ag Tm   G   AB    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG *OPS+ 
1982 24 CAL  10    5    1   0  0   1    1   0  0   0   2  .200  .200  .800  160 
1983 25 CAL  22   85   25   2  3   3    6   8  3   7  15  .294  .348  .494  131 
1984 26 CAL 140  397   90  11  6   2   29  48 17  60 115  .227  .332  .300   78 
1985 27 CAL 125  443  114  10  8   1   32  56  9  62 125  .257  .347  .323   86 
1986 28 CAL 154  539  139  23  4   5   58  50 13  69 132  .258  .339  .343   88 
1987 29 CAL 133  394   82  13  2   1   17  24  5  52 124  .208  .302  .259   53 
1988 30 DET 129  458   96  14  4   3   36  44 10  47  85  .210  .285  .277   61 
1989 31 DET 119  444  114   8  6   1   18  43 15  84 106  .257  .375  .309   97 
1990 32 TEX 136  423  101  16  8   3   31  38 15  57 118  .239  .333  .336   88 
1991 33 TEX 137  282   61   7  5   0   19  29 13  54  91  .216  .341  .277   75 
1992 34 TOT  78  159   32   5  3   1   12  14  4  29  45  .201  .323  .289   73 
Stats: Baseball-Reference.Com

MBB: Let's talk about your evolution as a batter.
You didn't walk much except…

(GP): …Except the year in Detroit.

MBB: Yes, in Detroit. Tell me a little about this. You were so consistent for a career and then you have this new ability that was such an upward spike - it appears to just come out of nowhere.

(GP): That year in Detroit…Vada Pinson was the hitting coach. What I had found over the years was that I had put balls in play - swung at pitches - when I didn't necessarily have to. 2-0, 3-1.

MBB: Looking fastball.

(GP): Yes, and then you ground out to the second baseman and you're walking back to the dugout saying, "You idiot. Why did you swing at that pitch?".

You leave that pitch alone, maybe it's 3-0 maybe it's 2-1. Maybe that 3-1 is a ball and you walked. Now you wait until it' 3-2. Now I'm either going to walk or I'm going to put the ball in play. You might strike out. You got two good things that can happen and only one bad one. It's in my favor.

That's what happened. I started getting more serious about when I should and when I shouldn't swing.

MBB: Twenty-twenty hindsight…why couldn't Vada have come over and told you that years earlier?

(GP): Vada was probably the closest (thing for me) having a hitting instructor who aimed me at figuring out how to do things left-handed. Until then, it was just athletic ability, but not trained. I had no idea what I was really doing. I wish I had found out earlier; if someone had just told me to go back before you go forward, so you can recognize the pitch and do more with it…
Back then the common theory was "stay back". I'm staying back. But then what do you do? You launch yourself forward. As I said, you have to go back before you go forward.

Right-handed, I did that, but I had learned to do it trial and error from Little League onward. It was a natural thing.

Take a quick look at the BB walks and on-base percentage column in Pettis' line above. Learning plate discipline is normally soemthing that comes later in a player's career, and it's usually self-taught, a technique the smarter ones latch on to so they can extend their career, powered by years of observation and advertent or inadvertent study. Pettis, though, ran into a fellow Centerfielder who had been a very good offensive player and they worked out a new approach to the switch-hitter's approach when he was batting left-handed.

I omitted a long ramble Pettis and I had around him becoming a switch-hitter; in short, when he showed up at camp after being drafted by the California Angels, the coaching staff unilaterally decided he would not be an outfielder, but a shortstop (the Angels had some higher-profile outfield prospects then, but tended to use acquired veteran stars out there), and that as of the day he arrived, he would become a switch-hitter. In the latter, he would not get much coaching -- they just figured he'd figure it out. He did just well enough to make it to the majors that way, though his offensive production was really justified by his Gold Gloves and his base-running and base-stealing prowess.

The Angels shot themselves in both feet by not investing more in training. They counted on him to train himself, as he had been doing batting right-handed, when they could have adjusted him years earlier. Understand, the worst Major League Baseball team invests more in ongoing training and coaching than the average corporation or government agency. But even with all their efforts, they shorted themselves. Because if Gary Pettis could have started producing a .375 on-base percentage in 1985 at age 27, he would have been on base for them about an extra 50 times in the next three years, affording them more opportunities to use his base-running ability to score runs for his team. Perhaps they would have had to trade him or if they had, they might have gotten someone more valuable than Dan Petry (who stunk up the majors for a few more years and then was gone).

NOTE: You may notice Pettis regressed the following year. I wanted to ask him about it but our conversation was cut short because he needed to get to work. If I get to talk with him again, I'll ask him why.

The two lessons here, though are: (1) There's always at least one more valuable thing to learn and get better at, even when you've been working at a position for a long time, and (2) The organization always leaves signficant gains on the table when it pimps on quality training that's customized to each contributor.

actually said that. A clever physicist, journalist, Australian-Rules Karaoke champ, poet and Expert chess player, Martin said that epigrammatic quote above in response to my Earl Weaver Baseball quirk of trying to draft multiple light-hitting switch-hitting gold glove center fielders (and always Gary Pettis amongst them) for the sim. Most seasons, I got enough offense out of slugging middle infielders (Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg) to balance it out, but it was, I admit, a quirk.

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