Tuesday, August 01, 2006

White Sox Lesson Part Two:
Don Cooper's Coaching Wisdom  

In a previous entry, I started excerpting my interview with one of the more extraordinary coaching talents in the major leagues, White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, and explaining how you can apply his coaching wisdom in your own organization.

To rehash how I introduced the topic (skip this paragraph if you read Part I), 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 different 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 baseball, all of whom need to have some coaching methods and skills.

Part I ended with Cooper mentioning his pitcher Mark Buerhle has an effective pick-off move.

Me (JA): Do you ever work on pick-off or is that just in the minors?

Don Cooper (DC): We don't come out an work on it. Some of it is just going out there and learning trial by fire. How many starters come to the big leagues and grab the brass ring the first time around the merry-go-round? It almost seems to be the norm to go get your lumps for a while, and learn on the job, learn what works, learn through experience.

Cooper incorporates into his approach this given: the beginners have to learn some things on the job. In a perfect world, his staff would come fully equipped with all the operational and mental and emotional skills they needed to be successful. In the real world, a manager/coach has to nurse novices through their trial by fire. This requires him to practice OMA (observe, measure, analyze) all the time, but at the same time keeps his focused on what a staffer can do instead of just what he can't, so he's more able to be positive with the trial-by-fire novice.

JA: Did your own career help you come to that insight? That doesn't seem like an insight (JA aside: very successful All-Star pitcher, and ultimately a pitching coach) Orel Hershiser would have necessarily had.

DC: Let me tell you. I think all your experiences throughout your life help you with coaching. Certainly all my baseball experiences have helped. But I really believe growing up and living in New York City - having to deal with people of all different ilks and I do have the ability to talk, to communicate (means something).

And I know what kind of an environment that I would want to work in. I think the job of a coach is to create a healthy, positive working environment. I think you get the chance to get max out of your people if you can create that. A place where they like to come to work. I don't care if you're a street sweeper…if you're happy, you're going to be a better street sweeper. And if you feel comfortable where you're at, you'll supply support to the people around you...

Check. Almost universally true. Remember that Cooper wisdom yourself; yes, we all know it, but in the heat of pressure, too many managers forget to maintain the positive working environment. Cooper and seems relentless in his will to maintain a positive working environment. Personally, I also believe that someone whose past experiences include some adversity have more depth to their coaching/mentoring ability than those who were natural geniuses. Clearly, Hershiser was a good coach -- however, I think at the same stage of development as coach, he'd have a hard time being as good as Cooper who knows more about struggle and adversity than Hershiser.

DC (continued): I don't really care if you're the best guy on the team, the hottest guy or the coldest guy, you get the very best that I have, and I'm in your corner whether you're going good or bad,. We talk and communicate openly all the time. I'm a big believer in communication -- in any relationship if you can't communicate, that relationship may not be successful. And you have to be honest. I think gaining trust through that approach - not in a manufactured way - if you're on our team - our, I don't like to say "mine" or "I", you get my backing and it's unconditional. If you have a tough outing, I say "screw it, get ready for tomorrow".

Check. To get the most out of most competitive people, you integrate them into the mission, give credit, insulate them from inevitable imperfections in execution or even just poor outcomes. And keep people looking forward (not forgetting the past, just moving beyond it).

DC (continued): For pitchers, it's all about focus. What is focus? Bottom line is you gotta execute pitches, regardless if you throw 85 or your throw 105. And a well-executed pitch is #1 location, #2 movement and #3 stuff, in that order and not the other way around. You have to trust your stuff. The guys who throw it over the plate, who simply throw it over the freaking plate more often are going to be the more successful guys -- you have to attack.

And again the focus and the commitment to the task at hand - which is this pitch whether it's fastball, curveball, slider or change, to a specific spot, with the very best of your god-given ability and once it leaves your hand %#!@ it because you can't get it back. But if you ain't doing that, what are you doing? If you're not attacking with the first three pitches that dictate the count and get ahead or induce contact, what are you doing? You're either going to suffer a slow death (maybe a slow survival), and you're not looking for either one of those outcomes. You're looking to dominate - so you've got to go mano-a-mano and come at the glove and dare 'em to hit the 1st, 2nd or 3rd pitch. And if they don't hit it, you're ahead 0-2 or 1-2 and I don't care who you are then you become more dangerous. If you've got good stuff to go with it, you can become lethal. If you've got great location and movement…you got some slide in your slider and some curve in your curve and some split to the splitter, you can become lethal when ahead. And if somebody's getting a hit off of you in the first three pitches…well if it's a groundball hit off one of those pitches, well keep doing it, somebody's going to catch those things. Now if it's a line drive in the gap, well, we've got to look at the location of those pitches. Are they up when they're supposed to be down? In when they're supposed to be out? And we'll go from there.

It's about how you attack the hit (column) and the walk column. That's what makes up runs. You've got to look at the end result - no pitcher likes a high ERA - everyone is concerned about their numbers. Alright, but what makes up that number? The hits and walks. So if we take care of those two columns simply, we take care of the ERA.

Now how do you take care of the walk column. Let's talk Strike One and get two of the first three (pitches) over the plate. I guarantee you the walk will go down if you can do that. And if you're doing that with quality pitches, you're going to cut down on the hits also.

I can give you some good examples.

Buehrle's walk column is not a problem. It's a little different for Matt Thornton. Thornton's walk column has always been trouble, so we're attacking that. We're trying to get him to induce more contact early, not sacrificing anything - we're not talking about backing off - I want the best of your ability with each pitch. It was more his mindset, his approach, that was blocking him. He was trying to pick at the corner; NO - you throw 96-97…use the plate.

I was irritated with one of your (Seattle) writers today. He wrote that Matt Thornton was over here with the White Sox and he's carried his same control (problems) over there because he's walked 4 guys in 5 innings. Well, 3 of those guys were intentional, so that's 1 walk in 5 innings, and if you prorate that out, that's 10 innings and 2 walks, and that's not looking too bad, if you can keep it at that ratio. (JA aside: as of July 30, Thornton had 12 unintentional walks in 36 innings, not 1 in 5, but slightly below the 2006 AL average which would be 13 for his 36 innings, and well below his historical, pre-Cooper efforts which were at over a 26 walks per 36 innings pace). What ails him are not the opposing hitters. He's been shooting himself in the foot by not throwing it over the plate for strikes.

This is the actionable essence of the Chisox organization pitching theory, not about coaching, but I left it in because I found it interesting, and thought readers might, too.

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

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter