Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ichiro Suzuki: Lessons in Personnel, Interpreting Metrics & Getting the Most From Your Talent  

An A.P. story indicated that Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki was willing to play center field for the team next year. It helps the team in three certain ways & one possible one:

  1. He's a very capable center fielder, a position that requires more skill than right field (and, in fact, he may be a better CF than RF; more on that later).
  2. It protects a secret "weakness" of his other teams are starting to discover and act upon and turns it into a strength.
  3. It enables the team to be flexible in its approach to add a left-handed bat over the off-season (M's DHs were dead last in the AL in OPS and in RBI and in Runs scored).
  4. It overcomes a rumored gnarly shard of office politics that has possibly created a bit of resentment on the roster.

In this entry, I'll elaborate on the first benefits I mentioned and the lesson it offers beyond baseball, and in a future entry, I'll cover the rest.

When Suzuki played in Japan, he was a center- and left-fielder. When Suzuki came to the Mariners, they already had a premier center fielder in Mike Cameron. He really has good range and a better throwing arm than most left fielders, and perhaps he saw playing right field as either a way to showcase his arm or as a new challenge (Suzuki is relentless about setting himself challenges and then vanquishing them).

Suzuki has had a great reputation as a right fielder. Fielding measures are tricky and highly context-sensitive. Most fielding measures don't support Suzuki's reputation.

The readily available measures I look at are Stats Inc.'s Zone Rating (what proportion of balls in the area of the field for which a right fielder is responsible does he turn into outs) and an old standby, Range Factor. They don't always agree, and both are imperfect, though if a player is ranked highly in both or sucks wind at both, it gives me a strong suspicion the player is better than average or not. If you want a fuller explanation of why I take these as dead reckoning number and why I don't accept them fully, I've written about that here.

But Suzuki's reputation in RF and his measures don't align well. Beyond baseball, you see this a lot, where a staffer with a great reputation doesn't really produce superior measured results or overlooked staffers produce beyond the norm and remain overlooked. Most frequently that happens because measures are poorly designed and they're measuring something that has less to do (or even nothing to do) with success.  It happens almost as frequently because the reputation is there and management chooses to not let fact get in the way of a perfectly comfortable opinion. (If you're slapping your forehead and saying, "Jeez, ain't that the truth" and you want some more ammo on that subject, I can heartily recommend Pfeffer & Sutton's wonderful book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management; it's a subject I've written about many a time, but they have done a better job than I ever have.) And sometimes (this happens in the baseball research community, too) people tweak the way measures are delivered to confirm their pre-examination bias. It's not necessarily a bad thing...if Puckett is your department's perfect picker-packer and you deconstruct what it is that made her so effective, you could build a measure based on that profile and measure in units you call Pucketts. BTW: If you do this, I encourage you to name the units after the person for two reasons. First, it gives recognition and credit to your high performer. Second, it calls to management' attention why they have refined the measure this way -- when circumstances change, and they inevitably will, it gives them better perspective on exactly why they measure that way, making it easier to move on to a new, better adapted measure. But tweaking measures to confirm a bias can be awful, too, a way to protect underperformers by institutionalizing their mediocrity into "standards".

Suzuki's Zone Ratings in RF from about 2002-2005 were not uniformly stellar.

MLB Full-time Right Fielders -- Source = Stats, Inc. via ESPN.Com

Year Suzuki's Rank/
Total Ranked
Suzuki's ZR MLB Starters'
Median ZR
MLB Starters'
High-Low ZR
2002  17th of 18 .845 .891 .929 - .833
2003 4th of 16 .897 .880 .918 - .802
2004 14th of 16 .863 .877 .856 - .924
2005 14th of 19 .869 .878 .819 - .916
2006 4th of 17 .900 .864 .834 - .924

He's fast and he gets a great break on the ball, and goes back and to the sides especially well. Team insiders have leaked to the press that he's more careful about hitting a wall or going down to the ground than most, and while I'm not sure they're absolutely right, my observation of him in a couple of hundred games supports that as a generalization. So as a right fielder, he's "cautious" or "less aggressive" in two directions: back towards the outfield wall and to his left towards the stands in foul territory. He picks his spots, I believe, and is more aggressive in more leveraged situations, but he has been quoted in the press as saying he'd rather preserve his body and play 160 games than do a Jim Edmonds Flying Wallenda Daredevil Triple Axel  Spontaneous Combustion Thang and miss 40+ games a year to injuries linked to such behaviors.

This season as you can see, his Zone Ratings were up from past seasons. Keep in mind that his .900 means a trained observer has used judgement (not perfect micrometer measurement) to determine on each individual chance whose zone the ball was hit to, and in Ichiro's case, he's gotten to 90.0% of them. In his lowest ZR year, he "only" got to 86.3% of them, a 3.7% difference or a a rough difference of a ball every 20-something games. It could be chance in that a few extra balls in his zone are going into the right-center field gap (where he doesn't have a wall to avoid becoming-as-one with), it could be statistical noise. Based on my own observation, I'll suggest he was being a bit of a ball-hog. There was a parade of center-fielders out in Marinerland this year, and none of them were particularly studly-veteran types -- I saw him call off center fielders and then snare flies in the gap more often this year than in the past.

The context changed. Instead of a full-time partner out there, he was playing with a variety of associates he didn't know all that well and chose to take the alpha rôle normally reserved for a center-fielder. Yes, his metrics looked better this year, but it wasn't because he changed his behavior on balls that might involve going to the ground. Within the range of skills he always executes well, he took incrementally more opportunities and, unsurprisingly, succeeded more.

But in-season, he shifted to Center Field. For most right-fielders this would mean lower effectiveness. Most right fielders don't have the foot speed and instinct of a centerfielder. Suzuki does, of course, because he played the position as a professional and it fits his best skills (foot speed, quick start on a hit ball) really well, so instead of exposing potential weaknesses, it harnesses his strengths. As anyone who plays outfield recreationally could have told you in advance, he's done really well in this shift. Here's a table of A.L. starting centerfielders with not-enough-games-to-qualify) Suzuki dropped in so you can see how he's stackin' up at a position he hadn't played regularly since he left Japan in 2000.

Corey Patterson, Bal 132 1073.2 4 .989 2.93 .925
Ichiro Suzuki, Sea 37 320.0 0 .991 3.12 .917
Vernon Wells, Tor 148 1280.1 3 .988 2.33 .904
Grady Sizemore, Cle 158 1361.1 1 .993 2.73 .887
Curtis Granderson, Det 155 1291.0 0 .997 2.67 .884
Johnny Damon, NYY 130 1083.2 1 .990 2.57 .883
Brian Anderson, CWS 132 949.0 1 .994 2.90 .882
Torii Hunter, Min 141 1214.1 4 .989 2.59 .870
Joey Gathright, KC/TB 128 996.2 4 .991 3.08 .864
Mark Kotsay, Oak 125 1036.0 2 .993 2.46 .855
Gary Matthews Jr., Tex 141 1219.0 2 .979 2.46 .847

Here's why Suzuki has rocked out in CF when most RFs would lag a little moving to the tougher position. Because in the context in which Suzuki's skills get applied changed again. Because in center, he has more room to exercise his skill of going back (more room to the wall) and to the sides (in which neither direction has a wall to contend with, ergo he can be laterally as aggressive as he wants to be, and is).

In the next entry, I'll describe a piece of Suzuki's game that' clearly not as good as his reputation, his throwing arm, and explain why his move to center benefits something that was being exposed as a "weakness".

In your own management, it's important to chronically observe not only "performance" as a single overarching way of measuring things, but to observe everyone's little skills that make up how and how well they do the job. This enables you to tweak job descriptions to take advantage of people's strengths and work around their weaknesses And if you observe staff this way, you have the opportunity to learn other things about what one needs to do to achieve high performance -- that is, once you are observing closely, you may discover that aptitudes and skills you ddn't think were relevant to high or low performance are making a difference. And one you know it you can act on that knowledge.

An example: One of my clients had a really nice senior technical guy who had control over internal MIS support along with a flotilla of other responsibilities. Tech Engineer Guy (TEG) really hated tech support, hated being interrupted from his zone (tech support requires that), and his attitude got imbued in his customer service. It wasn't that he was hostile, he just didn't empathize, and the users could easily sense he resented his time helping them. Yes, his level of technical skill made for potentially great technical support, but in this case, it was far outweighed by his attitude and his ability to deflect small needs gracefully. My client observed this enough that he was able to act on it and he redefined TEG's job to exclude that which he hated and wasn't good at and redeployed TEG's talents at the higher-value work he's good at. Win-win-win (Client's organization-TEG-users).

Do you have any contributors who do well when the metrics suggest they don't? Badly when the metrics suggest they do? Any who might benefit if you could deconstruct what it is they do in their jobs so you could re-define their job?

I bet you do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Joe Girardi & Jeffy Loria: When Being Super-Effective Isn't Enough  

The Florida Marlins, with the 30th highest payroll of the 30 MLB teams, came into the season with the consensus of experts not named Don Malcolm expecting them to lose about 100 games. As I've mentioned previously, that's not going to happen; they're not even going to lose 88 games. Their ambitions going into the season, that is, management's plan, were to build a young team for a run in X years, where X is undoubtedly higher than 0 and lower than or equal to 4. What did they achieve relative to their own objectives?

  1. They developed young players and exposed them to the bigs.
  2. They didn't reside in the cellar.
  3. As of today, with 5 games to play, they are tied with the Atlanta Braves for 3rd place (76-81).
  4. They scored roughly as many runs as they yielded.

In a normal year, you'd expect the manager of a lowest-budget team (really really low...like not just 30th, but where the spending of 30th is about half of the team that was 29th) getting that team out of the cellar and playing competitive baseball in a division that includes the National League's best team (they played over .500, 44-41, outside their division), to be talked about as a Manager of the Year (MOY) candidate. The team has been super-effective relative to what they have to work with -- whether Girardi is personally responsible or not, you have to put some of the credit on his shoulders.

Instead, Marlin rookie skipper Joe Girardi is almost certain to be fired, if you can believe this August story or that September story. This Miami Miracle is a Manager of Tears (MOT) candidate instead.

What has, apparently, toasted Girardi's fickle fish fillet is one good thing, his personal focus on team achievement rather than careerist politicking, and a bad thing, his lack of recognition that in the management team his organization has he doesn't have the final authority on all decisions that he might grab.

Each of these two is a common career-limiting move beyond baseball, though like acromegaly & achondroplasia it's very unusual that they appear together in the same individual. Because usually control-freaks who consistently exceed the span of control borders defined for them are incompetents. And while Girardi has critics of his tactical and pitcher-use pattern management, he is not incompetent at his craft. 

Here's a little background.

In spring training, the front office wanted Girardi to test a couple of pitchers (Ricky Nolasco and Josh Johnson)  in starting roles and Girardi wanted to use them as middle relievers. Translation: Girardi either had less faith in the pitchers or wanted to follow a classic baseball (and should be everywhere) staff application technique of starting in low-risk, confidence-building assignments and then working up the pressure scale. Girardi not only kept them in middle relief, but he (allegedly, according to leaks) "belittled" the suggestions, actually dissing his management-teammates.

During the August 6th game, team owner Jeffrey Loria (who had personally recruited Girardi) was sitting behind home plate heckling the plate ump over a close call that Girardi had chosen not to make a big issue of. After the taunting continued past what Girardi thought helpful, he went over to the owner and told him to zip it. Good idea because you don't want to unnecessarily anger an ump who could have a lot of chances to hurt you during a season. Fair response because it was in-game, and within the manager's tacit job responsibilities. Terrible idea because Loria is the big bos and because he's a very vindictive and manipulative type of executive. Girardi did not have the excuse that he didn't know -- Loria is well-known in and out of baseball for his personal and business behavior (he was sued by fellow-shareholders under the RICO statute...a set of laws meant to control business behaviors the Mafia used). Loria is also very successful at making money, getting his way and, and this is critical, getting winning results when it's his objective (which it isn't always). A borderline Theory XYY type boss who tends to appreciate subservience more than results.

The only thing worse than openly defying a boss like that is to do it publicly, and you pretty much can't do it more publicly than in front of 14,182 attendees and some television viewers.

Girardi is apparently striving to maximize his decision-making authority; he's not doing the usual co-behavior of sluffing responsibility. In fact he seems like an accountability-embracer. He's trying to carve out room to maneuver. 

It's important to remember he's a rookie manager. New managers only have a few weeks, a month at the most, to set the tone they will carry for their stint with an organization, and the tendency is that any authority you surrender early is authority you won't get back. In a truly healthy organization, it's possible, but while Loria's organizations have been good at earning profits and a World Series trophy, to an outsider, they look pretty unhealthy as working environments. Further, you need a balance in this, a balance between carving out elbow room and battering everyone within arms reach like a psycho basketball player. You have to establish yourself, but not shed so much blood doing it you can't hang around to exercise your autonomy.

I find it very surprising Girardi has erred in managing up for two reasons.

First, he played under (and was groomed as manager by) Joe Torre, the world's great expert on managing a totally XYY boss and (remarkably) winning consistently while doing it (worst record in 11 years in that slot is 87-74). How could he not at least adsorb a little of Torre's approach? Or perhaps he decided he didn't want to be treated he way Torre is and set himself up to disabuse his boss of any notion he was open to being abused.

Second, Girardi was a catcher for Lombardi's sake. In the personal choreography of leading without torching one's collaborators, how could Girardi not have mastered that skill. As a catcher, you can't go out to the mound very often and just read the pitcher the riot act -- you might do that once in a while, but overall, it's about cajoling, shaping and occasionally accepting the pitcher is gonna throw what he wants no matter what).

I have to admit that as a young manager, I made choices like Girardi's, and I'm not past it now in situations where I believe the alternatives are doomed to failure. Given that the expectations for the Marlins were very low this year, Girardi could have taken the lazy manager's path and just tried to please the boss and his peer-managers. I'm awed by Girardi's determination. In general, though, these CLMs (career-limiting moves) are things to avoid.

In the corporate world, where much of what goes on is hidden behind legal departments and communications departments, a Girardi would probably get another job easily. In baseball, where all of this is hanging out in the open and there's ink to print all the leaked rumors and organizational jockeying, and where the offended owner is really special buddies with the Commissioner, this may be Girardi's only chance.

If you have a Girardi working for you, I counsel you to balance what that manager provides vs. the extra work and suffering of managing the contributor is. Many high-performers are much more effort than mediocrities are so extra work comes with the collaboration, but, of course, better results come through that, too. If the contributor is smart and good, she can learn from her mistakes. If he's smart but not good, and doesn't learn from his work-content mistakes, he's probably more trouble than he's worth.

You can take tolerance too far...an staff overpopulated with difficult high-performing people is like the 1979 Texas Rangers...likely to be good but not good enough.

Do you have any Girardis in your organization? How would you have management handle them?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Even the Kansas City Royals Are Smarter...  

"A C-/D+ baseball field manager or GM is a significantly more capable manager
than 80% of the CEOs Fortune 500 companies." - Angus' Fifth Law.

One of the areas where baseball kicks the axe of every other North American institution is developing and offering opportunities to young talent.

Baseball is SO much better than other organizations that even baseball's very worst organization, the Kansas City Royals, have shown better acuity in this career development practice than almost any endeavor outside of baseball. The Royals acquired infielder Esteban German from the Texas Rangers over the off-season, and while he's not a household name, and while they didn't really have a spot for him, he's produced very well for the American League's Designated Doormat. In contrast, most contemporary organizations neither maintain a pipeline of second stringers or minor prospects to step in when needed, nor do they pay close enough attention to discover if any of those back-ups might be top talent.

As summarized in a piece by the Kansas City Star's Joe Posnanski, the Royals had him on the roster and while he wasn't a part of their Plan A, when he caught fire, they figured out a way to give him a lot of different small opportunities.

German came to Kansas City. He was listed at 5 feet 9. I’m listed at 5 feet 9, too. I’m pretty sure I’m taller than German. He came to town with the reputation of being fast — a base stealer — but he hardly had a sprinter’s body. Old time sportswriters would call him a “fireplug.” But in his first start, he got three hits at Yankee Stadium. His next 10 games, he hit an even .500.

Here was the weird thing: The Royals could not find a place to play him. He was hitting .400 in mid-May, but when they put him in center field, he got hit in the face with a fly ball. When they put him at third base, he seemed frightened by hard-hit balls. They had a team already loaded with big, slow designated hitter types. And they couldn’t put him at second base, because they had Mark Grudzielanek, who was steady as they come and was also getting paid quite a bit of money.

The worst team in baseball got a terrific-looking young hitter and couldn’t play him. That pretty much sums up the Royals, doesn’t it?

All year long, the Royals have used German as a utility player, a pinch hitter, a late-inning replacement. And all year long, he has hit. He’s hitting .336 now, he has a .427 on-base percentage — both of those stats place him in the top 10 in baseball for hitters with 250 or more plate appearances. In limited time, he has four triples and he has stolen seven of eight bases, and he leads the team in sacrifice hits, and so on.

About a week ago, the Royals announced that Mark Teahen would miss the rest of the season. And Little Papi would be in the lineup.

And he hit. And hit. And hit some more. He mashed a homer against the Yankees. He hit two doubles in a game at Fenway Park. He had a Little Papi Cycle in Cleveland — single, double and triple.

The Royals have found a way to get German about 260 plate appearances so far, over twice as many as he'd had in the first four seasons he'd been able to get to the bigs, by using him at four different field positions. And he has been terrific in the selected applications to which they've set him; his on-base percentage has been no lower than .405 since the end of April. As the Royals are trying to rebuild themselves for the future, Esteban German may end up being more important than a utility cog.

In baseball, this kind of process is intrinsic, unquestioned. Even the Royals, an organization owned by Wal-Mart scions and operated at the top with the same staff-as-commodity cognate, the front office and the below-average field manager gracefully eased the young prospect into as much playing time as they thought he could succeed at. 

I have said before that "A C-/D+ baseball field manager or GM is a significantly more capable manager than 80% of the CEOs Fortune 500 companies." 

In endeavors where The Talent IS The Product, it's vital both to have understudies and to be grooming them for future success: chronically monitoring them for patterns of strength and weakness, continuously training them to succeed at more aspects of their work, constantly thinking of how to apply their talents for mutual advantage.

One of my entrepreneurial clients, a data publisher, is good at this. They have had a young man I'll call Esteban working for them off and on for about five years. He's a high-school dropout, very bright, not a lot of experience in the high-tech world, but management has moved him around through various departments and tasks in the organization, and his raw smarts and determination have made him valuable in every nook and cranny they've deployed him to.

When their highly-qualified-on-paper production manager failed fatally earlier this year, they pushed him out. And they have given Esteban a chance to succeed in the position. They are taking a chance with him -- he still is short a few essential skills he needs to acquire to be able to succeed. But they are investing in both formal and informal skill-building sessions so he has the best chance to succeed. 

There are elements of altruism in the move, but in the end, the organization stands to win at least as much as Esteban, in loyalty and in capturing his intelligence and energy.

Bigger organizations, even with their generally greater overall margin to make mistakes, are less inclined to try. Too many of them, even ones with no option but to practice The Talent Is The Product, stick too long with losing incumbents or fail to groom internal talent for promotion. Grooming is not just giving a position to young talent, but to provide mentoring and training, too. 

In 2004, I did work both for a government agency and a national consulting firm that put ambitious, but very inexperienced, people in managerial positions and unintentionally set them up for failure. 

The agency gave the position to the ambitious woman, but her supervisor's belief that a manager's skill made little difference in departmental outcomes meant she didn't get any training, and the supe's office door was essentially closed to her. The supe was a hard case...refused to even allow data-gathering that might have proved or disproved her assumption. The new manager was torched by a mixture of her own rookie mistakes and by the subversion of staffers who saw her as vulnerable. 

The consulting firm had hung onto a failing leader of a high-profile, important group for such a long time they'd lost all the talent on the team who might have replaced him -- they left, choosing to work on other, healthier groups or for other companies. The people who stayed around were those who were unplugged enough from the work they didn't much care whether it was great or even adequate or those who couldn't tell the difference. The consulting firm had no candidates for internal promotion and brought in a recent graduate from a prestigious grad program and let him loose on the team. They expected him to be equipped with everything he needed, they never tested him first, or let him work on small projects before he got to the big one. He was a mess, he screwed up in major ways, the firm lost the chance to bid on a next, very lucrative stage on the client's project. He was a very expensive result of bad management practice, a failure to recognize that when the Talent Is The Product, every personnel decision is a critical one.

The dual trends for large organizations for the last 15 years, both aimed at reducing requirements for skilled staff, are inappropriate automation and offshoring of staff positions. They path to increasing financial success in these shops has been to think of The Talent as overhead, not a way to achieve success. Much of the automation has taken the place of apprenticeship work or entire positions. And when the organization needs someone to step in a contribute, the organization struggles to find someone with actual line experience. The same cognate, the idea that staff is, or should be, disposable, makes executives resist investing in training or mentoring. It's an almost certain way to fail.

Even the Royals know better.

Who are you grooming right now? How could you do better?

Monday, September 04, 2006

Don Cooper & The Crown Jewel:
9 MBB Lessons From the 2005 Chisox Championship  

Since late July, I've issued four parts of the conversation Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper was generous enough to share with me this Spring.

I've given you his background and his approach to preparation & analysis, and in this fifth section, what I consider the crown frelling jewel of the insights he shared with me: how the team managed a complex and contrarian (discredited by the mainstream) bullpen scheme and carried it off so well. TThe team rode it to a surprising 2005 World Series victory, cutting through top opponents like a chainsaw through butter. Yes, they had a balanced attack, and yes they had fine starting pitching, but on the field it was the extraordinary and evolving bullpen, a device of GM Ken Williams, Manager Ozzie Guillén & Cooper, that made them the unstoppable force they were.

That device was "Closer By Situation". I've written about it at Baseball Prospectus, an article called "Smartball & Moneyball: Sabermetric Innovation Helps Power White Sox' Championship" (registration required). Further, I wrote an exhaustive paper (I hope not merely exhausting) on the innovation for the SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) National Convention. If you write to me I'll send you a copy of that paper (the e-mail address is on this page in the left-hand menu under "Contact Me"...you need to put in the punctuation manually). The two paragraphs below are the ultra compressed (like a Portuguese Man of War on the surface of Jupiter) version of that paper.

There's a vast body of research, bloviating and argument that asserts standard bullpen configuration is more costly than it should be, and worse, less effective. What's "standard" isn't cast in concrete, of course, it evolves over time, though not in a smooth way. In baseball, there is a rough equilibrium, uniformity of accepted standard practice that changes suddenly around individual teams' or player's innovations. When an innovation is successful, other teams generally not universally adapt when they have affordances to adapt by adopting others' successful new practices. 

The invention of the now-standard closer role, assigned (incorrectly) to Tony LaRussa in the 1990s distorts best practice to the point of building the bullpen solely as a means to maximize one pitcher’s accumulation of Saves. The White Sox escaped that practice by following others' contemporary attempts to create innovative alternative models, such as “Closer by Committee” (2003 Red Sox) and “Bullpen by Situation” (2005 Cubs), and then riffing off it, not only by tweaking the basic design, but by adapting it to the talent they had at hand. Further they showed an unsurpassed courage in re-designing it on the fly during the season, and that, in itself was an exemplary innovation organizations beyond baseball should be trying to emulate. That practice, changing one's changes and tuning them to adapt to staff and competitive needs, is common in "lean manufacturing" but in few fields beyond baseball. The Chisox bullpen had four phases during the 2005 season. They started the season with their best 2004 reliever, Shingo Takatsu, as their closer.

Jeff (JA): Let’s talk a little bit about last year’s bullpen. It looked to me like last year you had what I call four “Phases”. You started the season and it looked like you were going to have (Shingo) Takatsu as your closer.

Don Cooper (DC): He was closing, he was. And we were trying to get him to be able to handle that job, and he did it not nearly as efficiently and confidently as the year before. And we had to make a change.

JA: Had he changed? Was there something physical?

DC: The stuff was fairly close, not a big increase or decrease, but he wasn’t a stuff guy. I think he got a little bit gun-shy and he just wasn’t efficient with the pitches. I think he got hit a little bit, and he wasn’t dictating the pace of play because he wasn’t ahead, wasn’t throwing as many strikes. And he wasn’t therefore in a position to use his major pitch which was the change-up, the real real slow off-speed stuff.

People started getting a real look at him, the novelty of the deception had worn off a bit. Lefties became a bigger problem for him. And I think it was more of a mental thing than a physical one and we had to make a change, as much as we wanted to try to get him through to handle the role…

Which leads us to the first MBB lesson here. 

Takatsu wasn't a talent who could overpower batters -- he did something nobody else did, throw much slower than anyone else did. Without disrespect, I call this a "gimmick". The competitive advantage was the novelty. Unlike Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball or Mariano Rivera's cutter or Billy Wagner's heat, all of which, when they work, fundamentally overpower a hitter's ability to track and connect, Takatsu's performance rested on the sheer novelty of a speed far from what anyone else was throwing (with an odd delivery and some movement). Figure out the timing -- he would go from very hard to hit to eminently rake-able. It took courage on the part of the White Sox to install Takatsu in a key role, because he was so unorthodox -- if he failed they would have ridiculed by fans and peers as though they had chosen Pee Wee Herman to be their closer.

Beyond baseball, in business especially, management frequently forgets to draw the distinction between successful gimmicks and fundamentals. It takes some courage to go with non-standard practice in business, as in baseball. But in business, the gimmicks, especially if they are financial, can 
become internalised as standard practice, and then they become unquestioned, "invisible". One good example was when Apple Computer in the 1990s figured out how to make some extra money playing currency markets, taking earnings made in one currency and parking them in another, squeezing out extra gains during lower-growth times. Apple had the talent on-board to do it, and kept the process in context. They acted as though it was a sideline, not the core business. In contrast, many companies that adopted this strategem, including Proctor & Gamble, lost sight of the idea it was a side-business and started counting on the revenues as though it was detergent or coffee.

So, smarter than those wacky Cincinnatians who bring us Oil of Olay, Pringles and Tide, the Chisox moved on to Phase II when it was time. Good Baseball management is smarter than most corporate management because they almost always have their back-up plans elaborated.

JA: So you went to Hermanson. And Hermanson is another one of these pitchers who had been good in the past, then had some ordinary years, and came to you and started producing at a higher level.

DC: Would you say “middle of the road, average success”? That’s what I would say his career had been prior to coming here.

JA: Good years and bad, yes.

DC: A different role. He’s now a relief pitcher, which suited his personality much better – because he was a little out-there, a little wild; he wants to be aggressive. And as a starter he couldn’t do that more than five innings. And the level of his efficiency went down from what I understand. And putting him in a smaller role where he’s in charge of, say, 25 pitches, let’s say (it worked for him). 

He started as the setup guy which meant it was possible a lot of times he’d be used for two innings. A lot of times the set-up man’s role is tougher than the closer’s. You’re facing more guys, more pitches, more on the line, more responsibility, better hitters some times.

Which brings us to MBB lesson two, one I've discussed a lot in the past.

When Hermanson didn't work out as a consistent starter, Cooper knew to give him a job he was better shaped to succeed at. In Baseball, you squeeze the maximum value out of staff members by tweaking job descriptions to match what they do well, even while trying to stretch their abilities. Baseball rarely makes the almost universal and expensive Procrustean error of dumping a staffer with talent because they don't match her job description well. Of course, to succeed at the Baseball approach, you have to observe every moment, monitor different contexts and then analyse the results as a pattern, just as managers in Baseball do.

DC: Hermanson started as the setup guy which meant it was possible a lot of times he’d be used for two innings. A lot of times the set-up man’s role is tougher than the closer’s. You’re facing more guys, more pitches, more on the line, more responsibility, better hitters some time.

JA: From a raw numbers perspective, technically, the best pitcher in the league last year is not a starter or a closer, but your set-up guy, 

DC: (Neal) Cotts?

JA: Cliff Pollitte. From a purely statistical point of view.

DC: You know what? I thought Neal got the set up man of the year award.

JA: He pitched beautifully. They both pitched beautifully.

DC: They were both beautiful. They both had career years. 

We challenged them both to throw more strikes, but we also challenged them to keep the (sum of the) walks and hits below the innings. Because what are you doing then? You’re eliminating baserunners, and if you eliminate baserunners you improve your Earned Run Average, and the numbers go down.

JA: Did you turn it into a game for them?

DC: Absolutely we did. 

JA: Tell me how.

DC: Pollitte was dynamite, dynamite against righties the prior year, but lefties got him too much, so we sat down and said “Let’s analyse this? What are you doing and what can we do?” So we came up with a little better plan and he executed the plan. 

The plan was, "Okay, you can use the change-up". He’s always had a good changeup. Didn’t use that quite as much. Didn’t throw up in the (strike) zone to lefties, went ahead, and didn’t use his breaking ball enough. And aside from that, let’s command the fastball (?every height and level?).

We gave him a better assortment of pitches and something they hadn’t seen before, and he went out and hit the glove with those pitches and was more successful against lefties. So now he combined lefties and righties and had a dynamite year.

The thing with Neal Cotts was: in the off-season prior to last year, I told him the challenge would be "Can you take one more big step forward as a second year reliever in the Major Leagues. And how are you going to do that?"

"Throw more strikes," he said. Okay. He did that. He made the step forward. And I remember talking to him in Colorado. And I said, "whether you realize it or not, you’ve met the first goal which is to make the next step forward. Now, can you meet the next challenge which is to put yourself into the elite?"

And he said “yes, I can”. And I said “How are you going to do that… not think about it or talk about it…how are you going to do this? Give me something tangible". He said, “throw more strikes?” I said okay, but be more specific. “First pitch strikes…get ahead. 
For relievers, get ahead and then make them chase a couple of pitches…don’t throw a couple of strikes". There was another mechanical thing we did, but it was nothing more than keeping his eyes on the (catcher’s) glove a lot longer. In order to hit the spot you’ve got to see it. The longer you see it the better.

There are exceptions to rules – some guys have to look away or look up and still throw the ball inherently there. He can’t.

Which gets us to multiple lessons.

As Cooper says, the setup man, at least in the traditional closer application model, is facing more batters than the closer and likely to face better batters. The latter is presuming that the closer is going to start a clean 9th, the beginning of an inning with no out and none on, when the team has a lead that's of the size that qualifies for a save. So that could happen anywhere in the lineup. The other relievers are more frequently brought in to face a hitter because the hitter is relatively "tough"; if the next hitter is a weenie, a manager will take incremental extra chances to allow the incumbent to face that player and preserve options for the future.

Beyond baseball, managers too frequently conflate title or pay with how critical the participant is. In many hospital settings the quality of nursing determines medical outcomes to a greater degree than doctor quality. Those with excessive Faith in the religion of "the market" can miss out on the many seams it leaves in reality. I won't deny it's important to "alias" decisions...that is not consider every single possibility regardless of how remote it might be, at every single juncture. There are some choices it pays to just keep constant as long as everything is progressing well. 

If you've never stood back naively for a few minutes and examined the presumption that a better title or a more robust paycheck is dictating the way you apply staff, trust me, it's an exercise almost assured to yield positive results.

Most (not all) business employers understand that you can turn achieving objectives into something like a game. For Cotts and Pollitte, Cooper and Guillén turned their advancement into a game, with clear objectives and with measures both staff and management can track daily and hold themselves up to.

Baseball executive Mike Veeck understands this totally and has created seminars and a readable, actionable book in how to bring this from baseball to the rest of human workplaces, both called "Fun Is Good". It uses lessons from his toolkit as well as from his Dad, Bill Veeck. You can make it as dull as a Scott Bakula performance, and you can serve it lukewarm like French Coca-Cola, or you can make it a blast and something to look forward to every day. Between the three approaches, your high performers are much more likely to respond to the latter.

Rather than just tell Cotts what to do, he asked questions. There might be multiple paths to the same outcome, and if a manager asks the talent how you should get there, the talent may choose one that works as well and is easier to for that particular contributor to internalize. There may be only one path the manager can live with, and this method reveals whether the staffer understands the path. For anyone getting mentoring, this getting questioned approach gives incentive to pay attention. The White Sox (not just in the 'pen) try to collect individuals who can achieve in more ways than just following orders. This creates more flexible behavior that's more likely to be effective in more different kinds of environment.

Once Cotts reached his target, Cooper tantalized the pitcher with another. That's fun for some students, and always for the teacher when it works. Note, Cooper didn't try to get Cotts all the way in one set of challenges. He broke up the objectives into smaller, more easily achieved sets and let Cotts achieve a set that seemed reasonable, before giving him another set. It set Cotts up for self-confidence, because for many people "success" is a practice more than an event.

For Cotts, the incremental approach works best. But Cooper and most of his peers know one size doesn't fit all. What works for Cotts might not for Takatsu or Freddy Garcia. If you respect each contributor's individuality, you're more likely to reach each successfully and reap more torque from their efforts. And get returns for a longer amount of time. The better the job of customizing your mentoring you do, the more likely you'll get the results you seek. The means guide the ends.

As Cooper concludes with, "There are exceptions to rules".

Back to the Phases. Phase I was Takatsu as close, Phase II was Hermanson as closer. Phase III was Closer by Committee. Change upon change. But how a management team institutes organizational change can be as important as the choice of solution -- how shapes just how effective it is likely to be.

JA: In looking over the game logs in the transition from Takatsu to Hermanson, it didn’t look like a panic move, it wasn’t…

DC: It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t like “Hey we’ve got to do something.” Hermanson was throwing the ball good, let’s give him a crack at it.

JA: Because Takatsu’s last outing wasn’t bad, on paper anyway…

DC: We didn’t lose total confidence in Takatsu. We had more confidence in Hermanson.

No panic. They didn't make a move when it might even look like panic. They waited until Takatsu had a decent-looking outing to move him back into the corps.

...and it's not only mandatory to be fearless in making changes, even knowing they may not work out, it's mandatory to show staff, competitors and upper management no signs of panic. 

DC: The roles got reversed -- now we needed Takatsu to setup and he was a one inning guy. So if you have a one inning guy it’ very difficult to be setup, and he couldn’t be our longer guy. And we didn’t need a long guy because we had a lot of pitchers. We had seven guys I want to say. And he just had difficulty handling that (new) role and the other guys were throwing the ball well. Neal started throwing the ball better, Pollitte was throwing the ball better, Hermanson, too. Those three guys had career years. And you had Marte there and Vizcaino. Vizcaino was a guy who kept everything in order. He picked up a very unheralded role. He picked up all the innings that would allow Cotts’ and Politte’s roles to remain the same for a long time and so their confidence took off and were pitching fantastic any time we asked them. 

Confidence is an amazing thing. Confidence is what it’s about in the bullpen. If you go out there for a handful of times and you come out unscathed, you’re going out there thinking, “they can’t get me”. With all this stuff we’re talking about, if you don’t have confidence and belief and trust, it ain’t worth it and I don’t care if you throw 95 (mph), it ain’t 95 any more.

JA: Back to the bullpen. You now go into Phase III. And Jenks is now in the mix.

DC: Jenks really came on for us. I want to say, a couple of times he pitched three inning outings. And we went to the well with him…50 pitches (JA note: August 16th v Minnesota) and this guy gobbled up everything we threw at him. He was extremely confident, physically gifted pitcher who throws above hitting speed with four above-average pitches.

And then Hermanson’s back started to go, so we started to give him a little bit more, and he ate it up, doing good.

JA: It looked like you were trying to get more closer work for Marte but he wasn’t getting lefties out…

DC: He wasn’t as efficient as he needed to be or as he’d been in the past. He was still good, he just wasn’t as efficient, we didn’t trust him as much because at that time he just wasn’t throwing enough strikes. Simply that. He was jumbled up mentally, to where he was so jumbled up mentally that physically he couldn’t perform. Again, it goes back to mental. 


JA: So this bullpen organization you used last year was unique in my lifetime.

DC: It was, it was. We went by our gut.

JA: And did it just develop over time?

DC: Yes.

JA: Or did you say you know what, there’s the model but we’re going to throw it away and do whatever we need to do to make the bullpen effective against whatever comes along.

DC: You know last year, in many ways everything just fell into place in so many different ways. And the bullpen was just another thing that just fell into place and rolled our way. It seemed like anything we did just worked. But the guys grew, they grew more mentally tough and they were more locked in, more focused, more committed. And then they executed more and when they executed more and had success, their confidence grew, and grew. And the pitching, the bullpen and the starters – I’m prejudiced here – was our backbone.

JA: Yes. All those 1-run games you won, way out of proportion with any other team (JA NOTE: The 2005 Chisox finished 35-19 in 1-run games; the Angels were next closest with 33-26).

DC: Yes, it was a ride, it really was. It was like automatic pilot. And I realized for last year the best caution was “Don’t trip ‘em, stay out of their way now” because it had a life of its own.

And eventually Closer by Situation came to a temporary end. The Chisox could have stuck with it -- it was working. And having changed away from it and moved to something else successful (Jenks as primary closer), they could have changed back.

When everything is going well, too much tinkering may undo the subtle balance. This doesn't mean one doesn't change any process. But it does mean emotional tinkering holds more potential danger.

Cooper, like most professional management in baseball, understand that when outcomes are poor, it may have been the end of decent choices, and that the reverse is true, that poor performances can still result good outcomes.

That means no matter how well you're doing, you shouldn't get to big for your britches. In baseball & beyond, life can toss you an 0-2 knuckler. Just because you're winning doesn't mean you can't lose, and just because you're not winning doesn't mean you can't turn it around.

There is more pithy stuff from the Don Cooper conversation, and I'll finish it off in a subsequent post.

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