Wednesday, July 26, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part I:
Coaching Your Players, Don Cooper Style  

A big part of both First- and Second Base in the Management by Baseball Model is coaching. That's observing, monitoring and analyzing (OMA) your team members, helping them to refine their skills so that you can apply them to your (and their) advantage.

Major League teams' pitching coaches have primary responsibility for the OMA part of the equation, and depending on the individual team manager, have varying responsibility for the application. The current World Champion Chicago White Sox had the leading bullpen in the majors last year, and top-notch starting pitching as well.

In this decade, it's popular to suggest the coaches and managers don't make much difference in baseball and beyond. As a management consultant, I suggest that's a cynical view fed by episodic thinking -- people tend to focus on good management having failures or more commonly truly craptastic management getting by or even (temporarily) succeeding. The U.S. likes to think of itself as a meritocratic machine, and outside of baseball (which is relentlessly and chronically and perpetually meritocratic and accountable), it's obvious that over the last ~25 years, merit has weighed less and less in the equation of apparent success.

True, if you're the Yankees and you have an well-known star filling most of your individual roster slots, one can argue the good results are indendent of the coaching and managing. That's an exception (and I take exception to it).

The White Sox have Don Cooper as their pitching coach, and while the organization has dozens of people who share responsibility for OMA of developing pitchers and the talent on the big league team's squad, Cooper has lead responsibility for it. And when it comes to application, it looks to me as though manager Ozzie Guillen shares more than an average amount of the authority and responsibility with Cooper. So while Cooper is differnt from most managers beyond baseball in that he carries a higher proportion of coaching burden and less other management load, his winning approach is instructive to managers beyond basbeall, all of whom need to have some coaching methods and skills.

I interviewed Cooper earlier this year when the White Sox were in Seattle for a series. The Chisox staff was very helpful and Cooper was generous with his time -- thanks to both. I had multiple purposes for the interview (I was working on a research paper for the SABR National Convention and wanted to do some fact-checking on motivations I had ascribed to White Sox management decisions), I'd like to share pieces of our conversation and call out some of Cooper's practices that you should think about using yourself.

Don Cooper: So when you talk about Management by Baseball, you're talking about reading numbers and reading numbers only, right?

Jeff A: No. I'm talking about everything. People management, resources…

DC: First of all, I'll say the main thing about my job is people management. And challenging each individual to be to be best…We look at different areas, isolate them. We ask, "how can we improve the lot we have now, no matter where we're at?". So with Buerhle we ask "how can we improve his game", and with Contreras, we look for how can we work to improve his game"?

We set up everybody. We don't have artificial paper-goals but verbally we set goals. And they're not wins and losses. The goals are in how to be successful with the pitching. And it's really simple and we do that with everybody.

Two important points.

1) Coaching plans are customized to each individual, the Chisox don't harbor the delusion that one-size-fits-all.

2) The objectives (what Cooper is calling goals) don't have to be complex, and they certainly aren't based on metrics the generation of which are out of the control of the individual. Pitchers certainly carry statistics called wins and losses, but most sensible people inside baseball realize teams win and lose games, and only sometimes is it the pitcher alone that caused either outcome. While it's almost a norm in American management to attach an employee's performance evaluation to factors outside her control, it's very lazy and ultimately destructive. Measured objectives and accomplishments are great, critical in many jobs, but make sure they're the right ones. Outcomes are not pure indicators of the context in which the work was done

Cooper continued, describing his coaching approach with the team's #1 starter, Mark Buerhle. He talks about "columns". He uses a tool that evaluates pitchers by what they surrender, the frequency with which they give up hits and the frequency they yield walks.

DC: First, there's Buerhle. With Buerhle, there's never any problem in the walk column. I will sacrifice a few more walks to the point of him never giving in to a hitter and saying "here, hit it" because when that happens, it's not just that simple "here hit it" but it's going ahead & trying to make a nasty pitch or a real good pitch. And when he does that, he attacks, he does attack, but sometimes you don't want to attack. What I mean by that is "don't give in 3-1". You don't walk many guys & I always have the confidence that you'll throw strikes. And if now there's a guy on first, you hold runners well and get ground balls. But when you give into the hitter, it turns into doubles and triples and possibly home runs. At the very least there are going to be guys in scoring position.

If you can keep a guy just at first, now it's going to take a couple of hits for them to put it together to put a chink in your armor, or pin one on you, and I believe good pitchers don't allow that many hits in a row. There are times…situations and days, yes, where they do that, but over the long haul, that approach will make him less vulnerable.

And the other thing we're challenging him to do is to get the ball down when he wants to be down and either hit the glove or miss below. And be in when you want to be in, and that eliminates the stuff that you see on Sportscenter, the stuff out over the plate. And remember…he has a good pick off move and gets ground balls so the guy on first base maybe he'll be picked off or doubled up - he has the ability to do that.

So it's subtle. Not really "simple" but relative to the craft, pretty simple. And stochastic. Be aggressive and attack in general but not automatically -- there's a time for alternatives.

Cooper is preparing his starter to make independent decisions, giving him heuristics to follow, not a computer-programmed routine. When you coach your own team members, keep in mind the better you prepare them for exceptions, trends, general rules meant to be riffed off of, the less tied down you are to having to manage sub-tactical chaff better managed by the team member -- he can do it more quickly and less expensively. And he can proliferate these subtleties to his peers.

My next entry will continue the Cooper interview and his important insights you can use in your coaching of your team members.

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