Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Orioles' Third Base Wisdom: Just In the Time of Nick  

In some work, ego (in this use, the sense of self) plays a major role in performance. An employee failing at something new, or getting rejection in an area of past success, can implode into a cycle of loss of self-confidence, triggering behaviors that reduce the chances for success, reinforcing the implosion like a demented Maximillien Schell moment in Disney's underappreciated epic "The Black Hole" (the most sensitive portrayal EVER of a doomed love quadrangle between a space-time anomoly, a mad professor, a metrosexual robot and Yvette Mimieux).

Helping a struggling employee isn't always possible. Depending on the employee, sometimes a manager can only make it worse. An underachiever who's riding herself already can implode faster if the manager adds to the pressure. And while a manager can usually try to relieve the pressure by offloading all expectations and shifting the contributor to a different project or task or assignment, that shift usually has to have a closure date on it.

Sometimes, like the Baltimore Orioles' management of rookie Nick Markakis, you can see the contributor is staying on an even keel, still alert, still trying, focused on getting better. That requires a healthy dose of Third Base in the MBB Model on the part of the individual. The player has to realize enough about ego to break the cycle, and management has to be able to go along. 

In Markakis' case, he has the advantage of a team that's still rebuilding -- the Orioles wanted to have a good season, but the difference for them in having a great season out of this well-considered young player was not going to affect their ultimate standing very much one way or the other. They could ride out early (or season-long) difficulties more easily that organizations needing to squeeze out every possible win.

He had a tragically cruddy April but a mediocre May.  The upswing has continued each month, quite unusual. Usually a player as young as Markakis with an upswing gets more difficult pitches to hit the second time though the league as pitchers tend to test new batters with their fast ball the first time they face the batter and, if he's hitting it, more breaking pitches subsequently. Note the steady climb in slugging percentage.

Nick Markakis
Apr 20 66 8 12 1 0 2 5 7 16 .270 .288 .182 .558
May 21 71 8 18 4 1 0 8 8 10 .329 .338 .254 .637
June 20 65 9 22 2 1 0 6 5 11 .403 .400 .338 .803
July 22 77 14 31 6 0 2 10 6 9 .440 .558 .403 .998
Aug 23 83 20 29 5 0 8 21 7 11 .396 .699 .349 1.095
Season Totals 116 362 59 112 18 2 12 50 33 57 .370 .470 .309 .840

Since the All-Star break, he's had over 150 plate appearances and has produced .377/.428/.667 for a 1.094 OPS. I don't believe it's likely he can improve on August's figures in September, but odder things have happened. Still, if the O's management wasn't playing this career growth plan carefully, they easily could have dropped him like a hot potato in April or May and missed out on this valuable contribution, one that'll likely to grow in value in the future as the team starts to contend for October play.


A recent Ken Rosenthal piece from The Sporting News featured a section on Markakis, his early season struggles, his external unflappability about it, and his managers' view of how he dealt with it.

Another young player to watch: Orioles rookie right fielder Nick Markakis, who has hit seven homers in his last 10 games and leads the majors with a .393 batting average since June 28.

Most teams would have benched Markakis or demoted him in early June, when he was batting only .219; Markakis, after all, entered the season with only 124 at-bats above Class A.

The Orioles, however, loved Markakis' demeanor and work habits.

"Never once did he make an excuse," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley says. "He would do things for me in early batting practice, I just knew he would be something special. I would ask him to put a certain swing on the ball, and it would end up in the seats."

Says Orioles right fielder/DH Jay Gibbons, "Usually when you see a young guy struggle, he struggles for a while — he crawls into a shell and has to start over. But the thing with him is, his attitude was exactly the same. You could never could tell he was struggling. And now he's on fire."

Management gave him some slack, and kept on working with him towards his improvement (see Crowley's statement above) and he was able to run with it.

Finding the balanced management approach between inaction, busy work and excessive criticism can be a challenge. Early this year I was coaching a manager in a department responsible for long-range planning. He has always been a high performer, and the line of work this agency is in means they really need the department's insights. The manager had given a presentation to the executive team about two years previously, frozen up on some questions and lost his confidence in his ability to deliver in those settings. So he was avoiding the meetings, canceling at the last minute or sending surrogates, and this was leading to the department's loss of influence. They were doing the work, just not delivering it credibly.

I couldn't talk him into presenting face to face again, but I did manage to convince him to take the week off during the next presentation, and deliver a pre-recorded presentation by VHS tape, which he aced. We plugged him in on the phone from "his vacation" to answer questions. Since he couldn't see faces and he knew they couldn't see his, and since he could refer to his notes without having them see he was doing that, he was fine...not great, but effective enough. I'm still trying to talk him into presenting live next time, but either way, he's getting what he needs across.

His perfectionism is his constraint; since he's not convinced he can be perfect, he evaded trying anything at all. As Dave Kurlan says in his book Baseline Selling, perfectionism is based on fear of failure. While the book is aimed at salespeople, it has value for anyone who works away from a desk and interacting with other people -- and even better, as I've mentioned before, it's built around baseball as the teaching model.

Kurlan's suggestion for the perfectionist: Do what you do have control over perfectly (starting on time, prepping appropriately), and accept that what you don't have control over may have blemishes. Easily said, but with training, possibly done, too.

Nick Markakis didn't beat himself to a pulp over April, and he didn't stop seeking coaching when he got to mediocrity in May. He kept striving and the Orioles' coaching kept working with him.

He didn't get sucked into the Black Hole with with the mad professor. He got very very successful and your staff can too, if you find a balanced way to help them with soul-sucking work adversities they run into.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Omar Minaya Knows Whatever Doesn't Make You Stronger Kills You  

Some of the most interesting trades of the season have hit the ticker after the trade "deadline". The most interesting from a Management by Baseball perspective, the one that holds the largerst, nay Nabuchodonosor-sized lesson is the New York Mets' (76-48, .613, 13.5 games ahead of second place team, 10 wins better than any other team in their League, estimated by Baseball prospectus of having a 99.99448% chance -- let's just round that to 99.9%, shall we -- of making the playoffs) acquisition of Arizona Diamondback outfielder and middle-of-the-lineup batter Shawn Green & some "financial considerations" for a minor league player.

Coals to Newcastle? Arteriosclerosis to Pizza Hut? Ron Coomer to Pittsburgh?

None of the above. I think it's a bright move, and I don't even like Green very much. I'll tell you why it's worth considering in a little bit.

For long-time readers, you may remember an entry I wrote in 2004 with the same theme as this one. It was about the Cardinals' acquisition of Larry Walker. The similarity is the Cards were in much the same position then as the Mets are now. The big difference is Larry Walker was in a slight decline after a long run as an elite five-toolplayer, while Shawn Green never was an elite player, is in more than slight decline, and on the surface, you'd think he is really struggling this year.

There are statistical reasons to see the positive, and non-statistical ones.

To quote from the 2004 article.


But in that binary situation, where being #1 is the only alternative to being a total loser, Confucian stillness can be fatal. Teams that are playing this well can get too relaxed (2001 Mariners) or smug (1995 Angels). Whether it's chemistry or the individual consciousness of key individuals or physical wear-and-tear, few teams embody the start-to-end excellence of the 1998 Yankees who had the best season record and rolled through the playoffs and World Series.

The G.M. of the Cards, Walt Jocketty, knows this, so he fixed what wasn't broken. {SNIP}

By changing the recipe, the front office has been able to achieve a few things:

  • The move adds offensive quality to the line-up. {SNIP}
  • It juggles the batting lineup, forcing the hitters and fielders to re-focus on new situations (for example, how fast is the guy in front of me on the basepaths? where should I stand in the cut-off for that guy, given his pattern and arm?).
  • It provides the team as a whole with a new social/communal task of integrating a new contributor.

Jocketty has made some measurable improvements, but he's also given this winning machine other reasons to pay attention, stay sharp, be a team.

It doesn't guarantee they'll win in the playoffs -- nothing the front office does at this juncture can do that, only the players can. But it does provide a number of small edges, it does provide more supports for winning this binary game the Cardinals are playing.

The Walker move improved the Cards fielding. With Cliff Floyd down, the Metropolitans' OF features star Carlos Beltran, rookie Lastings Milledge, and old hanging-on-as-fourth-outfielder Michael Tucker and I-can't-believe-he's-hanging-on-as-a-fifth-outfielder Ricky Ledee, As poor as Green's range factors and zone ratings are, they are an upgrade over the defensive accomplishments of both Lastings Milledge and Ricky Ledee.

As a batter, as a composite, he's better than Ledee, about as useful as the small sample of Michael Tucker the Mets have got this season. And he doesn't have to be platooned to be effective -- he's pretty balanced versus both right- and left-handed pitchers, so you can leave him in against a lefty if you need to.

vs. Left 124 6 1 5 18 12 3 25 .274 .350 .460 .810
vs. Right 293 16 2 6 33 25 3 39 .287 .348 .416 .764
Total 417 22 3 11 51 37 6 64 .283 .348 .429 .778

He's not great, but he's not a massive pothole you have to spackle.

But the player is not the average; the average is not the player.

Regardless of how Green plays, the Mets are close to certain to be in the playoffs, so his October contribution is going to be more important than what he does in the next five weeks. And October is where Green's hidden potential lurks. Because Green's record against the most-likely playoff opponents is much better than against the rest of the league. After the Mets, which are the most likely NL teams to be playing in October? No one really knows, but I'll use Clay Davenport's numbers from Baseball Prospectus (and I'll round to whole percentage numbers, and arbitrarily cut it off at 25%).

Team % chance
Cards 75%
Dodgers 74%
Reds 58%
Padres 38%

I'll call these teams "contenders" in the subsequent text. If you split Shawn Green's 2006 season between these teams versus the rest of his appearances (minus the Mets), you get this.
















Non-Contenders 268 39 66 11 2 7 32 23 5 38 .246 .318 .381 .698
Contenders 112 18 44 7 1 4 15 10 1 20 .393 .447 .580 1.028

He doesn't walk any more frequently, he just hits more and for more power. Please note, he doesn't hit equally well against all these teams. In his few apperances against the Cards, he's been only Ricky Ledee quality.

Dodgers 41 .439 .511 .732 1.243
Reds 23 .348 .400 .696 1.096
Padres 36 .417 .447 .444 .891
Cards 12 .250 .308 .250 .558

If you're Omar Minaya, and you're shopping for someone who might help you in October, and you've done your statistical research, there's a good argument Shawn Green is the best fit on the market. I just have to say, "Who'd have thought?" And I'd bet Murphy Money that the Mets' front office team meeting to discuss the research they had on outfielders they might acquire said the exact same thing.

In Shawn Green's microscopic October history, there's a last potential plus to consider. He appeared only in 2004, and for the Dodgers went 4-for-16 with 3 homers. One can argue that's pretty good since the teams that make it to October (in his one appearance, the Cards) have better than average pitching.

There are two basic lessons to take from Minaya and the Mets' acquisition of Green

First, even very successful teams need improvements and tuning because in a competitive situation, whatever doesn't make you stronger can be the source of your demise. (This isn't really true in a non-competitive situation, if you're a monopoly or, like the U.S. armed services or Microsoft, because of your massive resource advantage, you can essentially put out of commission any competitor you choose, excellence or not. Very few organizations, though, have either of those two luxuries). Whether it's smugness or a lack of a day-to-day need to excel or simply a loss of sharp focused attention, competitive organizations need to shuffle the deck a little to stay fresh.

I've seen good workgroups sour slowly. It happens way too often. They don't need to be demolished, like a Godzilla attack from the original Sim City. They just need to stay challenged. A handful of common techiques include adding a new senior person (as the Mets did) who can bring additional prespective and expertise into the group's tool box. You can add a junior person to learn how to be successful or to acquire domain expertise (be sure to allow everyone a little extra time for this longer-term investment). You can expand the team's span of control, giving them new, related tasks to handle. In an organization that has teams that are struggling you can (I love this one) lend them out as internal or external consultants to struggling teams so the two teams can collaborate together on improvements (remember, you need to create some slack for this, and make sure you're letting the successful team get public credit before you try to use them as consultants).

Second, in a competitive endeavour, you're never "too good". I once ran marketing for a company whose president was a finance guy, and like most finance guys, he had a "tin ear" for corporate image and positioning. This company was a leader in its field with unprecedented margin and return on investment. It had gotten there on creative product development combined with unrelenting commitment to the customers in the form of customer service and technical support. And it had beautfiul marketing that a strong team had established before I started, and all we needed to do was keep it fresh and aligned with emerging trends. The president, I'll call him Al Luplow, wanted to cut expenses, and when he asked his buddies in the Junior Presdients' Club what the "right" ratios were for companies, it brough up some noteworthy exceptions. Including the marketing budget. Without knowing any more about marketing he did than about how to hit a knuckleball, he not only cut marketing way below the industry standard, but randomly picked the programs we would fund and for how much.

When I pointed out to him the number was pretty small for the goals he planned to achieve and that he should trim his expectations and resources he was continuing to throw at things that were the results of the marketing he was trimming, he suggested our marketing strength would continue at the same level, unabated. "It's all about ROI," he said, "that is ... Return on Image". He believed once you won, you could just glide on your success.

He didn't. That company is deader than a printing contract to produce Kansas City Royals 2006 World Series tickets. If he had been able to convince his competitors to stop marketing, too, he might have had a chance (but "Al Luplow" was, and still is, one of the most clueless executives on the face of the planet, so even then he would have frelled it up).

This is one of those noteworthy areas where baseball management just makes the path clear. You can never be "good enough". If you think you can sneak into the playoffs with 92 wins, some oddball thing will happen that knocks you out -- a little injury to a #4 starter or a week of lax play or a gaggle of blown calls by home plate ump Rick Reed -- something. If you want it to rain, wash your car, and if you want to lose a division flag, coast on your lead.

That doesn't mean throwing money randomly across the landscape like Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE in The Magic Christian. It does mean observing, measuring and analyzing your team's strengths and weaknesses and the changing competitive environment and never ignoring a weakness that you can afford to address.

Because there is no "return on image". Whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Bosox' Josh Beckett:
When Determination Decays into Auto-Devastation  

Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim. -- George Santayana

New Boston Red Sox starter Josh Beckett was signed (a) to be a big-game pitcher and (b) to continue the relative consistency of positive pitcher performances. So while he's had a decent year overall, New England's faithful are tormented by his two obvious shortcomings this year: he's been (a) very inconsistent, and he's (b)had what are the two statistically-worst games of his last three seasons against (of all teams) the New York Yankees.

Fans seem ready to defenestrate him. It's actually justified, just not for the reasons they imagine. He's earned the disdain for a behavior that he has exhibited, one that's too common among non-baseball managers and management teams -- not acting on Management by Exception. I'll get back to that in a short bit, but first a bit of the data around Beckett's season.

In shifting from the National League to the American, he's gone from being one of the best dozen pitchers in one league to being ordinary or a bit below in quality, and fairly unchanged or even improved in his endurance and ability to burn up innings. Of course, the Sox gave him a big contract, so they're more likely to want to leave him in, even when he's off his feed, to justify their decision and the sunk investment. That's what my buddy Jon Wells calls the "Olerud Gambit", named after the Seattle Mariners' left-handed hitting first baseman who spent three years on that team unable to hit left-handed pitchers with any greater success than the Venus de Milo could have, and the team's unwillingness to platoon him, even though it cost the M's wins every one of those years and though right-handed first basemen who can hit better than de Milo against lefties and more common than HandiWipes in a barbecue joint. Because of the Olerud Gambit, Beckett is getting to burn up more innings than most contending teams would be dying to give to a contributor performing at that level.

WHY IS BECKETT STRUGGLING? In this New York Times article by Jack Curry, Beckett and his manager, Terry Francona, cite his stubborness as both a virtue and a vice (emphasis mine).

Francona called Beckett stubborn and meant it as a compliment, saying Beckett’s stubbornness is part of his personality and part of why the Red Sox like him. Still, Francona acknowledged that stubbornness, which can translate into refusing to stray from what is not working, can be a problem. “I think he believes in what he’s done and what has got him here,” Francona said. “I think in this league, you have to make adjustments as you go, especially when you’re facing the Yankees. I think he’s trying to.” Beckett also cited his stubbornness in explaining why he faltered against the Yankees.

Is Beckett sticking with the familiar paths to success?

I believe the data suggests "yes", with one additional factor that's hopeful for his future.

If you segment his performances, you can see two clear dualities with a single theme. The first is his work against American League (a league he's new to) teams contrasted with his work against his old National League rivals.













NL teams 2.74 4 0 4 29.6 17 10 5 8 24 .166 7.6
AL teams 5.91 9 8 22 129.6 134 90 27 51 104 .257 12.9

Familiarity breeds contentment. He just has murdered NL rivals in his four starts, allowing a microscopic opponent batting average and not walking many, either. All four games were against NL East teams (Atlanta, New York, and a pair against Philly), and these were the teams he faced most often in his career up until last year. Beckett is pitching better against those teams because he knows how to play his game with the best chance of beating them. He can succeed by falling back on "what he's done and what has got him here".

The other duality is his split between his new home stadium, Fenway Park, and his pitching on the road.







































The numbers are indicative (not incontrovertable) that he is adjusting to Fenway Park. His ERA and batting average yielded and homers are all better than average, not spectacular, but tend to justify the management team's faith in him. Further, Fenway has been an environment in which about 3% more runs than league average normally score, so that 4.13 home ERA in the table is a little inflated over his real performance. (Note the oddity in the table, in italics, that he has identical walk and strikeout ratios and numbers home and away).

On the road, he's pretty bad, mostly on the nibs of allowing a homer every 3-1/3 innings, and more hits in general. His "what he's done" routine just isn't working well against American League teams. To restate, he's pretty much the same pitcher he was last year, but while that's a blessing in some starts, it's a detriment in many of the environments in which he's supposed to succeed.

Curry cites the emergent conventional view that the American League is just significantly superior to the National. The data that people use to support that are overwhelming A.L. advantage in Interleague games, which a team plays under different rules than they are accustomed to in half the games and with a roster designed for their own rules. It's not impossible that A.L. superiority is a fact, but there's no meaningful foundation on which to base that judgement yet.

You put the two dualities together -- opponent's league and home park, and it makes a strong argument that Beckett is succeeding at what he's accustomed to and what he's having plenty of chances to become accustomed to. And that faced with something he's not accustomed to (American League batters and parks and rules away from his home park), he's not doing an adequate job.

He's stubbornly relying on his National League success factors when he's pitching in a different environment. Under stress, instead of applying Management By Exception (MBE), he's stripping down his repertoire -- "getting back to basics" as they say in the business world.

Getting back to basics is not a bad approach. In fact it re-triggers successful behaviors quite often. But organizations (and pitchers) under stress can try to escape the anxiety-filled present by living in the pleasurable past. While it's a logical first place to go, one has to observe and monitor whether it's working, because if it's not, one has to quickly move on to the next question in the MBE drill.

Here are the first three questions I ask clients to ask themselves when faced with routines that clearly worked before & that clearly don't work now:

  1. What are we doing differently?
  2. What is changed and how so that we're not getting our past successes?
  3. What are the minimum, quickest changes we can make to our tried-and-true that will enable us to be succesful once more?

I don't think you'll be surprised to find out that frequently just asking and working to answer these questions gets many clients to develop their own understanding of why "what has got them here" isn't working any more.

Question 1 is where most businesses, especially those dominated by their finance functions, get stuck. I suggest Beckett has asked that question; I suggest that's where he's currently stuck.

But you wouldn't be surprised, either, that many management teams are like Josh Beckett, either so focused on trying to get back in the groove that they won't stop to redesign their approaches, what Francona calls making mandatory "adjustments as you go". Getting past question 3 involves discarding the past and expanding organizational repertoires. Delivering on the answers to question 3 doesn't always work...and when that doesn't work, management has to build, in some cases from scratch.

Baseball generally succeeds because successful adaptation to change is implicit in baseball, and not in corporate or public service life.

Presuming he can escape the cycle of stress --> attempt to just get back in the old groove --> struggle --> stress, it looks to me like Josh Beckett is on a path to eventual success, committing to and succeeding in adapting to his new home park, but still needing to learn about other new parks and their environments and how to tune his approach to make the most of them. Perhaps a winner who's not a fast learner, or perhaps someone who under stress grips the steering wheel more tightly.

¿Could your organization do even as well as Beckett?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Detroit Tigers' Give a Lesson in Bounce:
Jim Leyland's Navigation After Adversity  

An organization's after-the-fact reactions to adversity
make more difference than
their success in the immediate moment of the challenge
-- Angus' Fifth Law of Organizational Behavior

Last week the turbo-charged steamroller that is the Detroit Tigers team had their first 5-game losing streak, the last 3 games of which were a drubbing every which way by their division rivals, the relentless Chicago White Sox. Everything was going so beautifully for this out-of-nowhere phenomenon, and then the sudden Mr. Bill haircut intruded.

Given the binary nature of management, the most common supervisorial reactions to adversity after a long period of either peace or success are:

  • Smugness in the belief difficulties can't continue ("what's worked before will still work"), or
  • Hyperreaction, in an attempt to obliterate what the manager fears is a new status quo.

The key is to get the right amount of change, emotional pressure, urgency into the message to the staff. While getting yer knickers in a twist is almost guaranteed to undermine future success, you can overshoot on the keeping clam side, too.

When I was a college freshman, I worked in the St. John's College Bookstore (Robin Dunn...I told you one day I'd relate this story to you). The manager was a super individual named Charles. Charles had been a monk for what I think had been over a decade. Charles was unflappable..he made Joe Torre with a 10 run lead over the Royals in the 8th inning look like Bobcat Goldthwait in comparison. Everything he did, he did gently, slowly, like a tai-chi master demonstrating part of a gesture. He sometimes walked as though he still wore a cassock, with his wrists crossed in front of him.

One day, one of the other clerks, Jack, was surreptitiously smoking a cancer stick back in the book storeroom, and as anyone who has worked around a lot of new books already knows, "book dust", small motes of paper that come loose from the cut pages, is not just flammable, but downright explosive in the right situation.


Jack set the storeroom on fire. Not a 1906 San Francisco Fire, but a fire nevertheless. My buddy Michael was the closest fully-conscious person to the back room and he circulate quickly to another staffer and to Charles. "You," he said, "tell people in that part of the store there's a fire and they need to leave, and you," he said to Charles, "go tell those people".

Michael extinguished the fire and when he emerged, he found Charles in conversation with people who were still there. Not converastion, actually. Charles was telling them in a whisper so soft and low-affect that it couldn't be taken as an instruction, arms folded in his imaginary hassock, body language wholly uncommunicative of urgency, "Good afternoon. There's a fire. In the back room. You should leave the store. Please". An outsider observing would have assumed he was discussing the best way to grow tomatoes in the Northern New Mexico climate, or mentioning that vespers next week would be half an hour late. And these were the first people he was supposed to alert.

Charles did avoid the over-the-top Full Metal Jacket panic most corporate and government managers inhabit when adversity strikes. But he undershot the required response, too.

Tiger manager Jim Leyland, though, has been right on target all year. Early in the season, he recognized the team needed additional confidence more than anything else he could add.

Clearly, there was something to his belief and his implementation. The got off to a very good start and stayed better than than that

DETROIT TIGERS - 2006 - By Month







April 16 9 (-1.5) 133 83
May 19 9 1.5 130 116
June 20 7 2.5 157 96
July 15 10 7.5 129 123
August (15th) 8 6 6.5 61 51

They had a great April, their great start justified by their ratio of runs scored to runs allowed. AT one point, they had a four game losing streak. May was not so hot from a Runs Scored and Allowed prespective, but they won games at a better clip, even with a three game losing streak. June they were one cruise, playing the equivalent of 120-42 baseball, although losing three in a row at one point. In July, they played their least effective ball, still a winning record and losing only two in a row at the most extreme.

But August came along, and as they entered the home stretch, external observers suddently started taking the Tigers' run more seriously. Pundits had been waiting for them to get flustered, either collapsing or perhaps just losing enough wind that the relentless White Sox or Minnesota Twins (who struggled early but had run off a pair of hot streaks -- 21-2 and 20-6 -- that made them look like a team of destiny) would catch them and the Bengals would go all 1964 Phillies on us.

The "scary" swath of time was their first 2006 five-game losing streak, the last three of which (last Firday, Saturday & Sunday) were to the White Sox who beat them every which way. What did their manager do (an what should you do when a project or effort that looks like a walk in the park suddenly looks very endangered very quickly?

Clearly, your response needs to be in proportion to the context...the level of the struggle and to its relative importance. In this Detroit case, here's the valuable managerial stance Leyland took and you should observe closely. Quoted by Daily Southtown columnist Phil Arvia:

"There's two things you can't do," he said. "You can't walk around like you've done something, because there's a lot of time left. And the other thing is you can't walk around trying to hang on. You've just got to go do what you've been doing all year — you've got to play. However it comes out in the wash, it comes out."

The exact homeostatic angle of repose required in this case. Neither arrogant passivity because you think you deserve it, nor sweaty-palmed anxiety. It just wasn't time for a chair-throwing, water-cooler dumping fallujah-fication of the clubhouse. It was a frelling five-game losing streak.

Let me provide some historical context for five-game losing streaks. Here are the ultimate two League Champions from each year for the previous six seasons, whether they had a five-game losing streak along the way, and what their longest losing streak was.



5-Game Losing Streak?

Longest Losing Streak

2005 AL Chisox Yes 7
2005 NL Astros Yes 7
2004 AL Bosox Yes 5
2004 NL Cards No 4
2003 AL Yanks Yes 5
2003 NL Marlins Yes 6
2002 AL Angels Yes 6
2002 NL Giants No 4
2001 AL Yankees No 4
2001 NL Diamondbacks Yes 5
2000 AL Yankees Yes 7
2000 NL Mets No 4

It's not impossible to make it to the World Series or win the Championship with a five game losing streak. Twice as many of the teams that made it had five-game losing streaks as didn't have one.

Leyland found the balanced approach that matched the context.

The Tigers had to try to pick up the pieces while still on the road, and against an excellent Boston team that had taken two of three from them during the Tigers' blistering June.

The result?

The Motor City team took the first two games, winning two different and telling ways. They took the first game by ripping off three runs in the 1st and a pair in the 3rd to put the game away quickly and decisively and establishing their intentions. They won the second, a close game, in the ninth on a lucky break, proving to themsleves they could win the close ones, too.

A Larry Bowa meltdown might have been good for the manager's stress, but it wouldn't have worked as well. A Charles The St. John's College Bookstore manager meditation with soft words might have soothed some listeners, but it wouldn't have worked as well.

Jim Leyland's masterful navigation of the middle, steady glacial pressure, found the spot. Look for that balance for your own post-adversity management. And keep in mind, the outcome is not so much about what happens in that moment of adversity, as it is about how you and your team handle what comes after.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part Four:
Don Cooper's Coaching Practices  

In this fourth part of the interview with Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, we got around to the way he customizes his coaching for different individuals. Cooper's staffs have featured what I think of as an unequaled number of pitchers who had (a) had adequacy or success, then (b) were seen to have failed, and then (c) had years as good as or better once they came to the Sox and worked with Cooper and the rest of the staff in Chicago. The examples in my head are Freddy García, Esteban Loaiza, Javier Vázquez (at the time I interviewed him), Dustin Hermanson, José Contreras. Vázquez' first ten starts had him 6-3 with an ERA a whisker under 4.00, and while he got incinerated in a pair of losses, he had no cheap wins. He's subsequently turned back into the second-half of 2004 New York Yankee version of Vázquez, that is, a pumpkin.

JA (Jeff): Let's talk a little more about the success pitchers have had coming to the White Sox, and being on your staff. Mostly guys who had had success before, not necessarily out of nowhere guys, but pitchers who'd had some good times in the past, like Contreras…

DC (Don Cooper): Contreras…I'll tell you what I've seen since I've known him, and I've known him a little bit on the Yankees and certainly a whole lot here. I don't believe he's ever had the success he's having right now…he's doing this against the best players on the planet. So what he's doing and the amount of improvement he made in the course of a year in the big leagues (and against even the worst team, if you don't have your thing together, you're going to take your lumps) is great. I've never seen a guy improve that much and he deserves the credit because he worked his ass off, and if you believe hard work equals success, he pays that price. You have to pay a price for your success, you have to work hard. And if you work hard, you deserve that success. And if you work hard that should be a suit of armor, of confidence, around you, knowing you've covered that part of it. Hey, pitching in the game is like a test in school; if you prepare every day for the tests, you walk into the classroom saying, "Hey, give me the pencil. I'm gonna ace this because I know the material". That's part of the mental preparation.

JA: What about Loaiza and Vasquez?

DC: Loaiza was this - I looked at video when we first get a guy to see if there's anything mechanically we've got to do or talk about.

I don't jump into their world. I'll ask the pitcher, "What do I need to look at for you?" I'm asking them, because I think maybe right away, that my be helping the trust part the belief part, and they have a say in all this. Nobody's trying to force anything on them. And I'll get my point across if and when I need to. I'll look at video, and then I'll look at numbers. I'll look at his career. And say wait a second. Look at Loaiza - hell, he's got good stuff, but his hits are 20 and 30 above innings, sometimes 40. Alright. Simple. That means we've got to attack this hits column.

In general, but especially when the talent is the product, teachers and coaches get better success when they elicit the student's opinion than when they just dump advice on the victim like a Monty Python 16-tonne weight.

"Why are you giving these hits up?" I told him this the first day. I said, "You're giving up 30 or 40 more hits than innings, you are seriously underachieving with the stuff you got." Now, I said, "Are you giving them up early in the count? Because if you are, we've got to look at the quality of those pitches. Are you giving them up ahead in the count? If you're giving them up when you're behind in the count, we have to turn it around so you're not pitching in those counts.

He said, "No, I'm getting ahead in the count, I'm throwing strikes", and I suggested he's leaving too many pitches (over the plate) when you're ahead. So we have to dissect when you're giving up those hits.

It came down to he was throwing too many strikes, not pitching inside, and not trying enough to get guys chasing pitches when he was ahead. So that's how we tried to focus on affecting the hit column. That year, it was unbelievable, he turned it around I want to say about 30 hits below innings. And the same number of walks with a lot more strikeouts. Why, because he was smarter about letting the hitters get themselves out, too. "Here's that slider in the dirt...Go Fish for that".

He threw too many strikes, he didn't pitch inside enough and he wasn't letting the hitters chase something.

He took it as a bit of a slap in the face when I told him he was underachieving. But I did that for a reason. I asked him, "Why? You tell me?".

JA: You're letting him put the lesson into words, do the analysis himself…

DC: I don't want to give people the answers. I want the pitchers to give it to me because if they give it to me it means they understand it, and if they don't, then I'll fill in the blanks.

Let me tell you something. I'm a coach, I deal with personalities. In a lot of ways, you're a teacher. And you have to get your students trained. Here is the Major Leagues it's so different from the 16 years I spent in the Minors - I paid my dues, I like to think, learning the craft - it was so mechanical down there. You have to get their bodies into the correct position to be able to throw the ball where you want. Focus comes on top of that. I'm blessed to have some of the guys with the best talent, and so all we're talking about is focus, the mental side. It's not as much physical. I'm going to say my work is 95% on the mental aspects.

You gotta play the mental game, and you also have to keep a carrot in front of their mouths. You ask them, "What are your goals? What are you trying to achieve?"

Pitchers are competitive guys. It starts with playing catch - can you do that right. When you warm up. Your routines need to be done a certain way. We can change the routine - it doesn't run us, we run the routine. And we're trying to make the best use of our time when we're playing catch - working on things, instead of just standing there, saying, "C'mon Moose, let's do this". We're going to go out on the field and play catch 15 minutes. Then we're going to shag (flies), then we're going to get up in the bullpen - starting pitchers gotta go first. The best players have a routine, but they run the routine, the routine doesn't run them, and you can set your watch by it. I know what each of our starters are going to do on their sideline, how they run it, and how they run their game, and I think you can get your point across sometimes without them even realizing it.

I certainly don't have all the answers.

JA: Do pitchers ever teach you stuff?

DC: YEAH. I watch the games and I see what they do. They're teaching you what they can and can't do, where the work needs to be. And the highlight of my game is watching the other team's pitchers.

And here are an exaltation of additional coaching tips from Cooper's toolkit.

  • Not only is it true that no-one has all the answers, it's critical for a coach or manager to (a) know that, (b) act upon it, and (c) in the general case, admit it.
  • Always have achieveable and reasonable goals in front of the staffers' eyes. Make sure you plan in advance for the next objective after the one each staffer is presently working on. Challenge them to succeed, but be supportive.
  • Have staffers run their routine, not be run by it. In business especially, stand practices become unconscious routines, just acted through autonomically and not embraced in each repetition. Real teamwork in baseball and beyond doesn't happen in that mindless zone -- it's too brittle. Real teamwork happens when everyone is paying attention, knowing the routine can come off the tracks but also that one can get it back on track.

There's more of Don Cooper to come in a subsequent entry.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part Three:
Coaching Insights From Don Cooper  

In two previous entries, I excerpted my interview with one of the more extraordinary coaching talents in the major leagues, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and started explaining how you can apply his coaching wisdom in your own In this section, we spoke about his own mentors, and how he collected tools and techniques along the way.

Cooper was a very good pitcher, good enough to make it to the majors, but had little success and no signficant career there.

Believe it or not, I think this combo "good enough to make it to the Majors" and at the same time "little success there" is a magnificent foundation for being a successful coach. It requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness and a determination to succeed, too, but this experience means the coach can empathize with both what it's like to be there, how important it is to stick, and how to face the inevitable rough days. Cooper seems to have all this in spades. He's intensely competitive, he's got a natural, not-poseur, swagger about his ability and craft, and it's not a zero-sum Jim Fregosi kind of swagger related to establishing dominance, but more like "I'm great at what I do, and you will be, too" mutual uplift swagger.

People who are really great at something tend to tap into themselves for most of their coaching insights. Those who had to work harder to achieve the same results are usually more focused on collecting isnights from others, what I call mentors. I asked Cooper about his mentors. When he answered, he rattled off a bunch of names very quickly (he talks quickly in general, but he didn't have to reach. I strongly suspect from the way he said it (sorta invisible within a transcript like this) he had been very deliberate about learning from as many people as he could, and the names that came up were just the most significant, not the full list.

JA (me): I want to talk about who your mentors were. You’ve been a mentor to a lot of players. In the last few years you’ve had great success with pitchers like Freddy (Garcia) or (Jose) Contreras or (Esteban) Loaiza who everybody recognized were good…

DC (Don Cooper): or lucky.

JA: Okay, well or really lucky. But who’ve been kind of given up on and then had their best season with you. You’ve been a part of the difference…

DC: I’m a part of it.

JA: You’ve got to be. And there are some other pitching coaches that have this reputation, Dave Duncan had it for a long time…

DC: I’m flattered that you think I have that reputation. Flattered. I’m confident that I’m as good as anybody and better than most, I’d say. Because I’m anal about this…I’ll go to the grave with a passion for what we’re talking about. I don’t think it’s cocky but I’m confident because I’ve been doing this for an awfully long time, and I don’t care who you are, if you do something for 20 or 25 years, even the dumbest guy is going to get better at it. But it’s simple stuff. It’s basic. I didn’t invent this.

My mentors are Sammy Ellis, Pat Dobson, Hoyt Wilhelm, Johnny Podres, Stan Williams. These are a lot of different kinds of coaches, and each has his strong suits in what they taught and how they taught it. Stan Williams was a lower body guy, Sammy Ellis was a whole body guy but leaning more towards upper body mechanics.

JA: Is it additive? When you go to your management tool kit, do you have some Ellis in there, some Podres in there…

DC: Absolutely. I think if you’re smart, you take everything with you from the time you’re growing up in the neighborhood. In New York…you had to size people up pretty quickly. You had to know, “is this guy going to try to come and get me? Is this guy going to try to kick my ass? Does he have a knife? Does he have a gun? You had to know how to size things up and you had to know how to deal with people. In some ways you had to be able to talk good.

Growing up gave me lessons. And certainly I was a sponge with all my coaches. I respected the hell out of them, I listened as best I could and tried to learn as much as I could. I think I did learn a lot.

As I said before, if you work at something long enough, you’re going to pick up certain things you believe in and you’ll take to your grave. And then what you add after that is you bring your personality to it.

I’m a positive guy; I’m not negative, I don’t have time for negative, and who wants to be around negative stuff anyway? We can see the reality of what’s happening. We see the shortcomings. Okay, but we isolate them and work on them and try to turn those maybe-negatives into more of a positive, and try to create that positive work environment.

And people enjoy working like that. This is a give and take. I don’t cram this up anybody. We simply talk and verbally challenge them to meet certain goals. And the prerequisite of being here in the Major Leagues is to throw strikes. And if you want to be successful, you gotta throw 1st pitch strikes. You gotta get ahead. {snip}

JA: Let’s go back to your own mentors again. There are little pieces, little how-tos you inherited from those guys…

DC: Absolutely.

Sammy Ellis taught me the pitching delivery. He’s as good as I’ve been around. Certainly the best in the business at being able to look at a guy quickly and judge what he’s doing right and where the work has to be done and why. Mechanics. I can remember a conversation with him one time when I first come into coaching where I said, “Sammy, Sammy, slow down. You’re rattlin’ this off and I don’t see it that quickly”. And he said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve been working it and talking about it a long time, and you’re going to get it”. And then he mentioned Moe Drabowsky, who’s been a different type of mentor to me for a long time…(Ellis) said to me, “Don’t feel bad…Moe’s been doing this for 30 years and he doesn’t see it.”

JA: How was Drabowsky your mentor?

DC: Moe was more the psychology and the sequencing of pitches. And more teaching the individual pitches rather than the delivery, the way Sammy was.

Hoyt Wilhelm was more they psychology of pitching and hitters. He’d tell you to (imitating light Southern drawl) “Knock that one down his throat. You get that hitter 0 and 2 and it’s like he’s laying down in the desert, it’s time to kick sand in his face…kill him." It was older school, which is really really good but you can’t ever shut your eyes open, you need to keep your ear to the ground for some new things.

I always listen to what everybody says because maybe I’ll steal that and put it in our repertoire. I don’t think anybody invents this %*!@, but I do put a lot of time and effort into this.

And it is a lot about effort. As Cooper says, if you spend years working on it (to which I add, if you pay attention a nd work to make yourself better by learning from others and your experiences along the way), you're going to get better at it. That's true of most everything, but especially coaching.

I'll give you more Cooper and his insights in a future entry.

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