Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rick Peterson's Masterful, Mets-erful Makeover of Tom Glavine: A Model for Low-Margin Addict Businesses  

The longer an organization has success with the same methods and processes, the harder it is for that organization to change once the context that enabled the success changes. The more the details of that success have passed into folk wisdom, the harder it is for the organization to change, because they have to change the mechanics of what they do and they have to change their emotional state about what it is they do. Those factors are just as true for individuals as they are for organizations.

So when the New York Mets signed Tom Glavine after the 2002 season, they were putting into their rotation a 36 year old pitcher who had assembled a 242-143 won-loss record, cruising on methods & processes of his own and of pitching coach/genius Leo Mazzone. The Mazzone method is to keep it simple. Work low and outside, and having established your reputation with the umpires, explore early in games stretching the home plate ump's perception of the strike zone, seeing if you can get strike calls on pitches ever farther from the rulebook strike zone.

This had worked magnificently for Glavine in his career. (table from MLB.com)

1987     Atlanta 2 4 5.54 50.1 55 34 5 3 33 20
1988     Atlanta 7 17 4.56 195.1 201 111 12 8 63 84
1989     Atlanta 14 8 3.68 186.0 172 88 20 2 40 90
1990     Atlanta 10 12 4.28 214.1 232 111 18 1 78 129
1991     Atlanta 20 11 2.55 246.2 201 83 17 2 69 192
1992     Atlanta 20 8 2.76 225.0 197 81 6 2 70 129
1993     Atlanta 22 6 3.20 239.1 236 91 16 2 90 120
1994     Atlanta 13 9 3.97 165.1 173 76 10 1 70 140
1995     Atlanta 16 7 3.08 198.2 182 76 9 5 66 127
1996     Atlanta 15 10 2.98 235.1 222 91 14 0 85 181
1997     Atlanta 14 7 2.96 240.0 197 86 20 4 79 152
1998     Atlanta 20 6 2.47 229.1 202 67 13 2 74 157
1999     Atlanta 14 11 4.12 234.0 259 115 18 4 83 138
2000     Atlanta 21 9 3.40 241.0 222 101 24 4 65 152
2001     Atlanta 16 7 3.57 219.1 213 92 24 2 97 116
2002     Atlanta 18 11 2.96 224.2 210 85 21 8 78 127
Career Totals 242 143 3.37 4017.0 3862 1684 304 59 1359 2401

Then came QuesTec, MLB's technology that was installed in a bunch of stadia to reinforce umpires' adherence to the rulebook definition of what constitutes a strike. Questec made Glavine's strategy  non-viable. According to this morning's New York Times story:

Glavine, Peterson explained, had made his living inducing batters to swing at pitches off the plate because umpires were calling those pitches strikes.

"If you're getting five, six inches off the plate, no hitter in baseball could cover that," Peterson said. "There was no need to pitch to both sides of the plate." But a few years ago, Major League Baseball installed QuesTec, a computerized system of tracking balls and strikes. Those wide strikes disappeared, and with them went Glavine's dominance.

Rick told me last year his approach to Glavine, a star with a strong ego, could not be the same as it would have been to a young pitcher struggling to learn success. The ego that all major league pitchers need to have to be successful, combined with the once-successful patterns etched into Glavine's memory meant that Glavine would not be able to "hear" Peterson's advice until he was ready. Glavine's career as a Met until the moment he was ready looked like this:

SEASON          TEAM      W  L ERA     IP   H   R  ER HR  BB  SO
2003            New York  9 14 4.52 183.3 205  94  92 21  66  82
2004            New York 11 14 3.60 212.3 204  94  85 20  70 109
2005 to 6/19              4  7 4.70  59.4  79  33  31  4  18  25
TOTAL                    24 35 4.12 455   488 221 208 45 154 216

The coup de grace for the old Glavine was the June 19 outing in Seattle, a bloodbath for Glavine against a below-average offense in a pitcher's park (2.1 innings, 8 hits, 2 walks, 1 HR, 6 runs). The team immediately got on the airplane to fly to Philly. Rick, who'd been watching Glavine for signs he was ready looked in his eyes and believed he was ready. He approached him on the plane and started both directly & indirectly addressing the issue. Since Glavine is an avid golfer,  Rick used golf as a foundation for the conversation, insulating Glavine's ego while still delivering the observations he'd made about the pitcher's struggles. 

Peterson said, "{SNIP} He's actually played a round of golf with Tiger Woods. One of the things I brought up to Tommy was how Tiger Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes and immediately afterward recognized that he needed a new swing.

"I said: 'You've pitched like you've had two clubs in your bag. You've got a bunch of clubs that are great clubs that you know how to use and you just haven't used.' Tommy had a curveball, he could cut his fastball, he could throw a slider, he had two different fastballs, he had two effective changeups, he could change speeds on his changeups." {SNIP}

"Tommy," Peterson said he told him, "now is the time to commit yourself to this change. I know it's tough for you to change. Let's give it four or five games. Let's see what happens. I know what's going to happen."

In his next start, against the Yankees, Peterson said, "he made the transition and beat them. From that game on," Peterson added, "it was a total commitment."

 Since that initial conversation, Glavine's record as a Met looks like this.

                          W  L ERA     IP   H   R  ER HR  BB  SO
TOTAL                    16  8 2.91    217 200 75  70 12  65 131

Peterson gives all the credit to Glavine:

Glavine's transformation involves two aspects: preparation and pitching.

"He never prepared for opposing hitters," Peterson said, "because he threw fastballs and changeups down and away. It didn't matter who the hitter was. That's what he was going to do. Now he studies film and looks at about 45 minutes to an hour of the opposing lineup before he faces them. His preparation has been tremendous."

In the pitching part of it, Glavine throws to both sides of the plate, whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed. "When he made that transition in his game," Peterson said, "you could see hitters going back to the dugout talking to their people, almost like, 'I thought this was going to be away and his pitches are inside.' Now the preparation for the other team had to totally flip because this is not the same game."

Glavine's makeover has produced an ancillary benefit. He is striking out more batters. Before this season he averaged 5.35 strikeouts per nine innings. This season he has 51 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings, or 7.03 per nine. "By pitching to both sides of the plate," Peterson explained, "he's getting a lot of swings and misses where maybe the hitter is looking on the outside corner and he throws a fastball or changeup or cutter inside."

The midseason makeover has injected a new enthusiasm into Glavine's career. "He looks forward to going in and looking at film and preparing for a game," Peterson said. "He looks forward to talking about the game plan. That's why I have the utmost respect for Tommy. He's not only a Hall of Fame pitcher; he's a Hall of Fame person."

Glavine, having become successful and resting on the one great technique in his kit, never prepared for opposing hitters. He didn't have to. 

But he did make the changes when he was ready. Which is mroe than we can say about most people and organizations that achieve competitive goodness and then stagnate by not responding until it's too late.

Many of the star pitchers of America's economy over second half of the 20th century, most obviously automobile manufacturing and passenger airlines, rested in the business model & techniques that made them multi-billion dollar giants and rode 'em right into the ground. Whether it was imagining fuel prices would remain low forever or not listening to the customers' needs, the lead players in both industries are like big-ego starters getting whacked around.

The next wave of  battered lines of work will be those that are resting too heavily on low-margin commoditization, thinking what they lose on each unit they can make up for in volume. The hope for most of these businesses that succeed through dominating a market through lowest-cost of production and high-volume and thin margins is that few of them are really enjoying flush times themselves. Once the dominos start falling on this model, without a Glavine-like appreciation for their own handiwork some, perhaps many, will be able to switch to a more viable model that involves a reasonable margin, a reasonable investment in Q.C. and customer service.

That low-and-away, out-of-the-definition "strike" won't cut it forever. I hope for their sake there's a Rick Peterson lurking in their organizations, too.

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