Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Red Sox' Thriller in Wade Miller:
Finding the Golden Meanie  

If you read this page regularly, you'll already know I'm highly critical of the majority of American managers' general lack of courage and judgment. Here, though, I'm going to express some sympathy for managers who have to face one of the toughest areas in which to find a "right" solution. It's difficult because there's no roadmap for success; every instance is an experiment and requires the manager to be attentive to context and how it's working. The poster child for this problem is going to be the managerial handling of the Boston Red Sox' recently acquired starting pitcher Wade Miller, thought he problem is one you will face as a manager on a regular basis yourself.

That area is in dealing with an employee whose approach is "different" from the norm.

Large organizations, especially business ones, work very hard to create standards and to hire people who appear standard and to impose standard ways of doing things. Standards are generally require the amputation of excellence to get a corresponding reduction in the chances for total failure. I call it "guaranteed mediocrity".

The standards-based approach seeks mediocrity in pursuit of safety, but at the same time, it acknowledges the reality that most of the possible variants will fail most of the time. Accepting that "most variations of off standards will fail most of the time" while not slipping into the binary quicksand of believing "all of the variations of standards will fail all of the time" is one unusual accomplishment.

Wade Miller is a starting pitcher notorious within the game for having unusual mechanics that are generally regarded as being a set of actions that (a) can't work well, and (b) guaranteed to cause injury.

Normally in baseball (and other kinds of endeavors) this will filter you out of advancement, even if you are successful. No one wants to be the lightning rod who tells her superiors that Implosion Lad should get a chance because as soon as they see his deviations off standards, especially the ones that are almost-universally accepted as failure-inducing, the recommender gets 14 lashes with a soggy canelloni and her personal mojo is downgraded to a lower level making her subsequent recommendations marginally less appealing because of the Implosion Lad one. Over time, her influence will decline. Recommending the determinedly non-standard what my smart buddy Dave Perkins calls a CLM (a Career Limiting Move).

In most big American organizations the math is more punishing than what I just described. That's because people remember mistakes more than successes in the average large organization.

I wish I could tell you how Wade Miller made it to the majors with his universally-regarded-as-self-immolating cross-body delivery. Maybe we owe a tribute to the Houston Astros' courage. Maybe they were simply willing to ride his superior performances until he broke. But the Astros promoted him to the majors and for a few years, he was a valuable contributor.

 1999 HOU 5 1 0 1 10.1 17 11 11 4 5 8 9.58 2.13 .362
 2000 HOU 16 16 6 6 105.0 104 66 60 14 42 89 5.14 1.39 .257
 2001 HOU 32 32 16 8 212.0 183 91 80 31 76 183 3.40 1.22 .234
 2002 HOU 26 26 15 4 164.2 151 63 60 14 62 144 3.28 1.29 .249
 2003 HOU 33 33 14 13 187.1 168 96 86 17 77 161 4.13 1.31 .242
 2004 HOU 15 15 7 7 88.2 76 35 33 11 44 74 3.35 1.35 .228
 Career   127 123 58 39 768.0 699 362 330 91 306 659 3.87 1.31 .244

Table source: BigLeaguers.Yahoo.Com

His production is actually a little better than these straight-ahead collected numbers show. ALast year while pitching quite well (at about his normal level of accomplishment), he blew out his shoulder during his June 25th start and was on the disabled list the rest of the season.

The Red Sox signed him during the offseason to a low price upfront welded to a lot of performance-based incentives, protecting themselves pretty well if he can't recover. That financial bit is fine, a win-win from which both sides benefit. But the financial bit isn't intrinsically interesting.

The challenge comes from the next step: Do you make re-training part of Wade Miller's physical rehabilitation? In standardizing Miller, you might will erase parts of the very approach that made him successful. You might succeed in making him more durable long-term but at the cost of guaranteeing his mediocrity (perhaps good enough to have a role in the Majors, perhaps not).

According to Peter Gammons' 4/22 column:

...Miller is inching closer to Boston. In his last rehab start, Miller got up to 93 mph and sat at 91-92, although his Kinston opponents felt he was far from dominant. To take pressure off Miller's shoulder, Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace has tried to smooth Miller's delivery so that he directs to the plate and isn't so pronounced throwing across his body. "It's worked well," Miller said. "There's less stress, my slider and curveball are fine & the one thing that's different is that I don't have as much movement down in the zone. So I have to try to pitch more like Curt Schilling, commanding both sides of the plate down on the corners."

The Bosox are opting for change and hoping they can teach him to be a different successful pitcher than the successful pitcher he was before..pretty ambitious stuff. After all, if he had been successful with standard pitching mechanics before, the homogenization machine that college and minor league coaching represents would have shoe-horned him into that model already -- that's their job.

In your own organization, the challenges of non-standard people and non-standard practices are always soemthing you have to balance. Can you afford mediocrity (the word is not an insult -- it just means ordinary adequacy)? Most big organizations are built on the idea that mediocrity is survviable or even survival itself.

Most non-standard approaches do underperform, while some exceed standard performance by light years. You have to judge these on a case-by-case basis, and there's no magic tool that guarantees success.

The Red Sox approach insulated them a little. While they hope Miller will pitch as well as he did for the Astros, they aren't banking on it -- the deal they structured with him allows for him to be of value even if he's a C- quality contributor. They will watch and track and monitor his performance.

I think that's the best approach to non-standard people and processes. Certainly don't try the two-out sacrifice bunt (something almost sure to fail), but unless you're passionate about maintaining mediocrity, don't fear experiments. Try them, but hawk-eye them. Learn as much as you can from them. Don't aloow things to get too out of hand, but at the same time, show a little patience and allow enough wiggle-room to give them an opportunity to succeed.

Tough advice to follow,as I said before. No hard-'n-fast code, more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules.

But Millers can be thrillers if you're willing to experiment. I think so, and clearly the Red Sox do, too.

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