Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Detroit Tigers' Burnt Weeny Sandwich:
In Which Necessity Was the Mother of Enervation  

Whatever doesn't make you stronger
kills you 

Sometimes even good management can ignore the elephant on the table. 

Sometimes it's understandable...foolish but not critical -- when those problematic pachyderms are not the difference between success and failure under about any circumstance. For example, I had a client about a decade ago in the Oakland, California area. They spent a noticeable, though not vast amount of money, renting parking spaces to give them to employees for free. The landlord raised the rates over 100%, well over the price of public transit (fairly convenient) alternatives. The firm had never subsidized transit or van pools, only parking, and I thought this was a great opportunity to both save money and redress a fairness issue (subsidizing employees who use a car to get to work; no subsidy for those who use other methods). I couldn't get them to change their view, as obvious as the stink on the Burnt Weeny Sandwich was, as much as I waved my arms, they could only see clear to debate two options -- absorb the increase or kill the benefit, vitiate a small piece of the bottom line or undercut morale. The client's management had, like we all do, an inability to see something they can't conceive of, even something drop-dead obvious.

Sometimes, though, it's dad-gummed suicidal -- and that's when you just have to scratch your head. Sometimes it costs you a pennant you could easily have won.

Case in point: the 1950 Detroit Tigers.

NOTE: This is very detailed...but it's a total Howler...such an egregious example of ignoring methods of self-preservation to keep a dysfunctional status quo that I want you to know most of the key self-imposed limits the Tigers bound themselves with. There were more I left out; these alone are an indictment of crappy front-office preference for comfort over the chance to win. But it's pretty long, even for my norm.

I've been reading this extremely engaging book, "The View From the Dugout -- The Journals of Red Rolfe" I got at the 2006 SABR National Convention, and that I recommend whole-heartedly. One of the small handful of "scientific" managers in the 1940s and 1950s, Red Rolfe was a Dartmouth College graduate (English major). According to editor William M. Anderson's intro:

Following a squandered victory at St. Louis on April 28, 1949, rookie Tiger manager Red Rolfe recorded: "Poor pitching cost us a game in which we were leading 5 to 1. Once again we failed to do things as they should be done in he big leagues". {SNIP}

A Dartmouth College graduate and a naturally studious person, Rolfe kept a private journal recording a description of nearly every inning of every game he managed, analyzing "our weaknesses and the opposition's strength." While his wife kept score at home, he typed summaries of games in his office and hauled a portable typewriter to games on the road. {SNIP}

Rolfe explained in detail his method of recording observations in his personal journal and how he used the information. "The homework on my book takes about two hours a morning," wrote Rolfe. "I purposely wait until the day after the game, so I can review it objectively, read the newspapers -- sportswriters often mention subtle points I've overlooked -- and have my wife's score card in front of me. When the team is away from home, Isabel air-mails me her score card or, after a night game, sends it special delivery to get it to me in time for my skull practice. {SNIP} I summarize every inning each side got men on the bases, and wind up with a series of general observations, or memos to myself. Then I digest the whole thing, with special attention to the memos to correct or confirm certain impressions. I've frequently gone through the entire book to check up on some obscure but important angle."

Jeez, you couldn't ask much more diligence from a manager. Rolfe is paying attention, recording, waiting to try to make sure emotions haven't colored his impressions, analysing every single day, even delegating scut work (the score cards, which requires craft skill but would spread him too thin if he was doing those, too). 

On the surface, you'd have to think Rolfe would have been an unrivalled analyst.

But Red Rolfe was able to overlook the elephant on the table throughout 1950, his second year as Tiger manager, and that elephant likely cost his team an underdog pennant that all his other management skills had put Detroit into a position to snare. It was his one and only managerial shot at a flag, ever, and he missed out on it because even though the problem was obvious to him, and solutions available, the team did nothing about it.

For his 1949 rookie campaign, Rolfe inherited a 78-76 team. He had learned from the managers he'd played for and as a Yankee player, he'd come to appreciate that franchise's great strengths that had lead to their success: Pitching & Power. The 1948 Bengals had had league average pitching and were out-homered in a homer-amping home park, 78-92. The team went 37-51 against teams with over .500 records and all three of them had significantly better home run capabilities than the roster he'd inherited. So this rigorous analyst knew where the team needed attention: the two attributes he was looking for, pitching and power, and his own passion, crisp fundamental execution -- the little things.

Ownership didn't provide him with a ton of new material to attack the obvious power ceiling imposed by zero offense out of the 1st base position (there was 23-year-old George Vico-- OPS+ of 88, and 30-year old Paul Campbell -- OPS+ of 60 to share the duties). In 1949, they decided to start the season with those two, not exactly attacking the limiting factor. That factor was exacerbated because the team's second-best slugger, outfielder Dick Wakefield, was fundamentally-weak and seen as a lazy dilettante, exactly the kind of player a manager like Rolfe disliked. So any attempt to see if benching would inspire Wakefield would further enervate already underwhelming team power.

Rolfe reports in his journals disappointment that ownership couldn't find anyone, but stoically accepted their explanation that there wasn't a lot of 1st base power available out there to acquire, and Rolfe knew from Spring Training there wasn't a ton in their minor league system, either. In 20-20 hindsight, by the way, one could have suggested that Vic Wertz, a 23 year old outfielder who would grow to have remarkable power and be moved at age 29 to first base, could have been shifted, but that would have been really prescient...Wertz' 1948 power numbers were more sluggish than slugging with a slugging percentage below the league average. One can forgive them the inability to see into the future and make that move.

But one can't overlook what would have been an easy, almost unavoidable experiment (not a guarantee, but a guarantee to be no worse than George Vico and Paul Campbell).

Grab a slugging first-baseman from the Negro Leagues or Cuba. There's not a hint of a mention of a thought in Rolfe's journals that such a move was considered...even with the clear and critical need.

The American League had been integrated for two seasons already when the Tigers faced the off-season preceding the 1949 season. The two most noteworthy slugging 1st basemen in the Negro Leagues were Luke Easter & Hall of Fame legend Buck Leonard. Easter might have been available, but the Cleveland Indians signed him over that off-season, so perhaps Easter's 1949 was already spoken for before the Tigers could have gotten into the mix.. While Easter was probably a slam-dunk choice (prime of his career and would go on to average 301 homers/154 games in the majors), Leonard, at 42 years old, was not remotely a slam dunk, though he would play two more seasons for the Homestead Grays, in Cuba and after that in Mexico; his skills were promising enough even three years later that Bill Veeck tried to enlist Leonard, known as the "Black Lou Gehrig", for the Indians' 1952 campaign.

So there are arguments to be made against both those candidates, though the mere presence of an argument-against in baseball shouldn't bring the thought to an end (and it shouldn't in non-baseball endeavors either -- you can't just reject every chance to improve that might not work out -- a classic management blunder in any field).

While either of those choices might have arguments against them, there were other first basement in the Negro Leagues who could hit. Bob "The Rope" Boyd was good enough to make that League's West all-star team, though while he hit up a storm, he wasn't a wallbanger. He was good enough though to go on to a major league career. The best fit for the Tigers was Lennie Pearson, the East's all-star first baseman, a heavy hitter, and at 31 years old, in the prime for power. Pearson wasn't a slam-dunk, either -- when he made to the minors two years later, her was good enough to play, but not exceptional, though that doesn't speak to his skills for '49. That year he led the Cuban league in doubles and slugged 11 homers in a little under half a season's worth of at bats (280), batted .332 for the Negro Leagues' champion Baltimore Elite Giants. That doesn't guarantee he'd have been a star for the Tigers, but it makes it inexcusable that they didn't give him a tryout -- by no measure  could anyone have considered they could get less production out of 1st base with Pearson than the Tigers ultimately got with Campbell, Vico and the utility infielder they acquired in May and used largely at first .

The reason the Tigers didn't give Easter an offer, or Leonard or Pearson a tryout was not about potential talent - it was a complete blindness to the possibility that these players could have have made a positive difference. And that regardless of how big that elephant on the table was. It didn't matter that the A.L. was already integrated -- the Tigers' front office couldn't even discuss the possibility of recruiting talent from the Negro Leagues or Cuba...and acquiring talent to become better is the core need and the core function of the front office. 

In baseball, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you. The lack of power combined with a thinness in pitching after the starters "condemned" the 1949 Tigers to 4th place with a perfectly-fine 8 game improvement over the previous year's effort.

The good news, a little more so in baseball than beyond it, is that a lesson so clearly learned gets internalized. Weaknesses unaddressed that come back to haunt a team are just about never ignored the following year

Never ignored, that is, unless you're the 1950 Tigers.

You read Rolfe's journals, and his sharp observations, his passion for winning, his revulsion for limited talent all come through. He's honest in his words -- at the time, his journals were private, so he wasn't sanitizing his thoughts for the public. 

Rolfe fretted consistently about three things: the need to reinforce his pitching staff, lack of power and poor execution. He was close to desperate for a first baseman who could slug, and some pitcher who could close out games for the younger Tiger hurlers. The Tigers tried one long-shot experiment for improving 1st base production by sending their star batter Dick Wakefield to the Yankees for a second-tier Yankee 1st base prospect, Dick Kryhoski. Kryhoski had had a bit of a shot in 1949 for the Yanks, and was okay; while he hadn't been a success, it wasn't unreasonable for the Tigers to play Management By Wishful Thinking and it certainly beat the heck out of the previous off-season's stand-pat pose. Not a battle-tested vet like Pearson, but at least something new to try out. The sole off-season acquisition Rolfe mentions is the waiver acquisition of totally-proven dreadful Paul Leo Emile Calvert, who at age 32 had spent the previous year going 6-17 with an ERA of 5.43 for the Washington Senators (that is, he had been given up on by a team that finished next to last in the league in pitching...hardly a glimmer of hope there). Rolfe was realistic in his comments; he didn't expect jack cheese out of Calvert. So one of two problems sort-of addressed, neither given a kick-axe chance of successful remediation.

But here's the odd thing. Never, in Rolfe's journals, did he ever bring up the idea of recruiting a one of the many successful players who labored in all-back baseball or in Cuba. This relentlessly analytical individual who was striving for excellence and a pennant never once mentioned the possibility of reaching outside the standard channels to grab for the talent he believed he so desperately needed, even though others had already reached for and succeeded with the new pool. 

It doesn't get completely surreal until the Tigers break out of the gate fast, and stay in first through 19 games. At this point, they are a serious contender. Experimentation is easiest when you either are getting waxed and you have nothing to lose, or you are holding onto a surmountable lead and need a boost; it's hard when you're so far ahead you are afraid to tinker, but the Tigers, at least Rolfe, always knew that if they were going to hold on, it would be by the thinnest of margins, that they needed reinforcements. His journal is filled with disappointments it appears he knows are human limits of his existing roster, especially on the pitching side. Calvert stunk, and Rolfe wasn't getting a great deal of help from the non-starter arms on the roster -- no one was reasonably consistent in finishing off games. Here was that part of the team...an injured veteran starter who got a little 'pen work, four established mediocrities Rolfe squeezed some above-their-norm work out of, and three kids (one of whom went on to have a respectable career):

 Player          Ag  G    ERA   W   L  SV  GS  GF   IP     H    R   ER   HR  BB   SO   BFP B ERA+
 Virgil Trucks   33   7   3.54   3   1  0   7   0   48.3   45   20   19   6   21   25  209   132
 Hal White       31  42   4.54   9   6  1   8  18  111.0   96   59   56   7   65   53  482   103
 Paul Calvert    32  32   6.31   2   2  4   0  19   51.3   71   42   36   7   25   14  250    74
 Marlin Stuart   31  19   5.56   3   1  2   1   7   43.7   59   32   27   6   22   19  205    84
 Hank Borowy     34  13   3.31   1   1  0   2   3   32.7   23   15   12   3   16   12  134   141
 Saul Rogovin    26  11   4.50   2   1  0   5   4   40.0   39   21   20   5   26   11  182   104
 Ray Herbert     20   8   3.63   1   2  1   3   3   22.3   20   11    9   1   12    5   96   129

I asked editor William Anderson who had read all the materials if there'd been any discussion he'd omitted and he explained, no, there hadn't been a single mention. What does it mean when a driven manager doesn't even grasp at the chance to improve by adding a serious player?

The Detroit Tigers were the next to last team in all the majors to "integrate", ten seasons after Jackie Robinson started playing for the Dodgers. Perhaps the institution's barrier was so strong, Rolfe knew it was unmentionable. Perhaps as a rookie (not already established) manager, he got lazy and didn't want to get into a fight with his employers. Perhaps he shared their views on race, though my instinct is Rolfe was more concerned about winning than holding on to any particular opinion, so it seems unlikely to me. 

Whatever the reason, the elephant on the table goes unmentioned.

After a July doubleheader sweep of the Philadelphia A's, Detroit took a 4.5 game lead in the league, but a 2-6 run following left them a half game up.

AL      W   L    GB      WP      RS      RA
DET    56  33     -     .629    505     437
NYY    56  34   0.5     .622    545     434
CLE    56  36   1.5     .609    514     406
BOS    53  39   4.5     .576    656     512
WSH    41  46  14.0     .471    398     451
CHW    37  55  20.5     .402    391     455
PHA    32  60  25.5     .348    421     555
SLB    31  59  25.5     .344    407     587

This is the critical management moment...when it's clear the team can win, the project can succeed, the product can be a viable contributor, and at the same time, there are three other serious contenders and the team has just gone 2-6 against two of them (New York & Boston). This is the moment to act.

Close to nothing.

On August 3rd, the team bought Hank Borowy from the Pirates, a fellow who'd been a successful starter during the War when talent was somewhat thinned out, but had had four years of mediocrity or less since. He ended up being almost adequate to the task, but it was clearly a shot in the dark; there was little solid reasoning to support the idea that he could be an answer or a significant part of one.

In the Negro Leagues, there were no can't miss choices -- no Satchel Paige in his prime or young Josh Beckett. But there were probably a dozen options for whom there would be solid reasoning to support the idea that he could be an answer.

Joe Black was one. Black, 26, was having a great season, started in the Leagues' annual all-star game (not his first appearance, either). The Dodgers signed him in late 1950 and eventually used him as a very successful reliever. 

Another, perhaps more logical choice would have been Pat Scantlebury, a 33 year old who'd also pitched in the all-star game, and had in previous years. He got to the majors at age 39 and at age 43, was good enough to be a league-killer at AAA. And there was 27-year old Connie Johnson, also having a great year, and other pitchers who would go on the have minor league careers.

The Tigers didn't try to grab any of them. On August 29th, they fell into a tie for first, still did nothing, had a half-game lead as late as game 141, but finished the season with a 7-9 run, four of those losses being blowouts the pitching couldn't hold on to, and lost the flag by 3 games with a beautiful 95-59 mark. Rolfe was named Manager of the Year, a bitter substitute for winning.

A Cinderella season euthanized by self-inflicted limitations. A tragedy of Sophoclean proportions, because it was completely avoidable if the front office behaves like a normal front office -- going the distance to acquire available talent to fill a glaring, obvious hole. A tragedy because Rolfe would never get a chance to show his stuff again, never get to manage a contender or for a different franchise that didn't have such brain-dead ownership.

Again, I'm not asserting any one of these pitchers would have made the difference. No one knows that. But several of these options were successful major league players for other franchises; several of them would have worked out, although the Tigers couldn't have known exactly which ones. But by not trying, they guaranteed a ceiling on their performance, a self-inflicted wound no competitive organization can afford.

Beyond Baseball, this happens way too often; organizations insist on sticking to tried-and-true mediocrity instead of taking a reasonable chance on improvement. Sometimes it doesn't make the difference, as it did for the 1950 Detroit Tigers, between eternal fame and 17 years of suffering until their next flag.

But it always makes some difference. In a competitive endeavor, whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you, and when the knowledge is right in front of your eyes, and the solution is readily available, not acting leads, too often, to tragedy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The O'Dowd Report II: Rockies' Unique Barriers
and Knowing What You Can Manage
Reprise from March, 2006  

In response to a couple of reader questions about how the Colorado Rockies got into a position to be a World Series contender, I ran the first part of a two-part essay based on an interview I got with the team's GM Dan O'Dowd before the 2006 season.

O'Dowd is an exceptionally interesting practitioner of intentional innovation. This is the second of the two essays that describe what the Rox front office basic approach is, and some of the specifics about how they put their theories into action. It's pretty clear that a few of these are critical constituents of their current position.

This is the second installment of a conversation Colorado Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd was kind enough to have with me. The first part is here.

In the last section, we finished with O'Dowd describing the experiments that underpin the front office team's ongoing efforts to understand the differences in Colorado's playing environment that make it more difficult for the team to succeed. In established management practice, you can usually answer with a decent degree of accuracy the questions, "within my span of control, what can I manage?" and "what's outside my management control?". O'Dowd's front office team have internalized the idea that the answers that are givens outside Colorado are different from the truth in their situation.

It's not an easy lesson to internalize. Beyond baseball, and especially in business arenas, managers facing very alien environments are most likely to practice a form of denial -- choosing to use old methods that come from a different context (in and of itself, not a bad first approach) and then not relentlessly monitoring the results of those old practices in the new environment. The absence of observation, monitoring and analysis in the face of radically changed circumstances is where the weakness starts undermining management performance.

So learning what you can manage and what you can't, where your decisions can change opportunities for the better, is a key prerequisite for success.

A: We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

Q: Yes, though the one thing you can’t manage is the fact that there’s this significant difference in home-road environments. Short of selective home-road platooning…

A: I think the big thing you can do is manage the mindset. And I think that the most important responsibility in this organization…I’m only one of a group of people trying to focus on the right things. Instead of focusing on things that are more of a negative we have chosen to focus on a positive approach.

One thing I learned early on and painfully is character is a very important part of management, period. Character in our environment is crucial…I’ll explain that to you in more detail.

Offensive ballparks throughout the history of the game have leant themselves more to an “I, I, Me, Me” approach to playing the game of baseball. Runner on 3rd base less than two out, you’re playing in Seattle infield’s back you put the ball in play and you try to put that run across. You play in Colorado, you might expand your strike zone swing at more pitches, if you can get the ball in the air you have a chance to knock it out (of the park). It creates within you a (personal) numbers driven approach.

I think by focusing on character as much as we have…you know character players really understand the team concept and they understand that the biggest joy in this game…the only joy in this game is working together with your teammates and focusing on winning. I think from a management standpoint, I think we have totally changed what we look for. We have developed a 15-step criteria for how we measure character & we try to really focus on those attributes underneath character that are completely defined for us as the type of player that we want wearing a Rockie uniform. We take that into our amateur draft.

Q: Are you open to sharing that list of character traits on or off the record?

A: I’d prefer not to share it. Not that it’s proprietary; I just don’t want it to be the focus of what our plans are. It’s is based around things like ability to handle adversity, perseverance, mental toughness as defined by several things, is it a durable individual, the ability to relate to teammates, what kind of attitude they have towards life, upbringing. It has a lot of measures and each of our scouts have to answer about, whether we’re looking to acquire a player or when we draft a player or when we promote player.

It’s not the end-all be-all, it’s just that it’s given us a definite direction for our decision-making process.

Q; So you use it as a tie-breaker.

A: It’s part of the evaluation; it’s not the equation. It’s what I call one of our "separators”.

Q: Let’s get back to you. You’re in a unique position among the 30 teams’ GMs. Your whole work life is an experiment based on little or no precedent. It’s parallel to being a GM where there has never been one before, or actually more like it’s 1895. You don’t have “The Book” and what there is of it doesn’t work cleanly.

A: A lot of people just don’t understand that, even my peers in the game. When I try to explain it to them they just don’t get it. I think they would have to work in this environment and go through it to begin to really understand what it means.

I had to, too. I had my perceptions and presumptions, and I had my theories when I was on the outside looking in and when I started this job.

Q: You came straight from Cleveland, right?

A: Yes. And I think once I got into this it took me a good three years to get my hands around it. The mistakes I made were mistakes based on aggressiveness & on not taking my time. My perceptions didn’t turn out the match the reality of the particular environment.

There were certain constants that I knew of. The home-road difference…I knew it was there because they’re clear from the stats, but I didn’t know the core of the reasons. And the whole offensive-minded ballpark…how it creates mindset in the players…I really had no idea how that would play out. Finding out was really a valuable learning experience.

So every year I’ve learned more things that relate to this particular (GM) job. I feel like we’re on the right path now; whether that turns out to be the case or not, we’ll find out.

So O'Dowd and his group came in with preconceived notions but started experimenting right away and, as importantly, observed and measured and analyzed their results. They haven't stopped.

Note that you can have the best data in the world but that full data alone, while it certainly helps an analyst define problems, doesn't help in defining questions to ask or the answers to address known challenges.

Note, too, a Third Base skill O'Dowd has -- self-awareness. He knows his management actions tend towards aggressive approaches. He knows his tendencies meant he made mistakes. He doesn't pretend it's anyone else's fault (if anything, I believe, he may be grabbing blame for shortfalls that are outside a manager's control), and this accountability makes it possible to more easily dump past approaches and embrace new ones. Energy spent elaborating CYA strategies is energy that's not going into analysis or forward-looking decisions.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The O'Dowd Report: Rockies' Relentless GM Leads Expedition to Heart of the Unknown -- Part I.
Reprise From March, 2006  

A couple of readers who have been recent arrivals to MBB asked if I am surprised by the Colorado Rockies' recent Berserker Buzzsaw. Answer: I am, but I'm not.

I'm not particularly surprised because of what I learned when the Rockies' G.M., Dan O'Dowd, was kind enough to share some time with me to talk Management topics suring Spring Training 2006. He revealed himself to be among the forefront of American managers in the area of committed innovation -- not just within baseball, but in ANY field.

I'm re-running the two essays about our conversation this week to remind us that a commitment to intentional innovation is more frequently a path to success than that taken by those who fear it and who prefer the safety of proven, accepted methods (that is, guaranteed mediocrity). And of what a cool gent O'Dowd is.

Here then is Part I of the O'Dowd interview, which ran originally March 25, 2006.

It's relatively easy for a decent manager to get adequate results just by re-applying proven successes from previous jobs. It's a common cognate for managers to first look for similarities in the new situation and apply the old lessons.

Because a good manager analyzes the new situation for similarities to the past, most good managers will know not to count too much on old proofs if the new situation is clearly different. But what happens when the new situation looks mostly like the one the manager has learned to ace? 

That's the toughest spot to be in. It's really different -- but it doesn't appear that way, so one starts by using proven tools, and then the tools too frequently underperform. Once-successful tools are hard to throw away, and if the environment is fooling one into thinking it's essentially the same, it's really tough to toss those techniques aside for untested ones.

Colorado is lucky to have a team-oriented general manager who, while he may not have found the successful formula for the elixir of winning, is an exemplar for any manager entering a situation where every evolved protocols has to be brought under the looking glass for reexamination. That executive, Dan O'Dowd, generously gave me a big slug of his time earlier this month to share a conversation about innovation when the protocols don't hold and how the front-office team's latest approach is designed. What I find extraordinarily virtuous in O'Dowd's point of view is less in the exact solution the group is currently trying, but his relentless composure, attention to system feedback and willingness to fearlessly innovate. 

There will be several essays that spring from this conversation. This is the first.

Baseball is close to a perfect arena for viewing the management tendency to hold onto the protocols. On its surface, baseball has rules and umpires and prescribed schedules and about 130 years of professional refinement that has made protocols viable. Talk about "known". But when the expansion Colorado Rockies started playing games in 1993, the obvious protocols needed reexamination. It's not that the front office couldn't construct a somewhat competitive team.

Colorado Rockies courtesy CBS Sportsline
Year W-L Pct. Finish
2005 67-95 .414 5th
2004 68-94 .420 4th
2003 74-88 .457 4th
2002 73-89 .451 4th
2001 73-89 .451 5th
2000 82-80 .506 4th
1999 72-90 .444 5th
1998 77-85 .475 4th
1997 83-79 .512 3rd
1996 83-79 .512 3rd
1995 77-67 .535 2nd
1994 53-64 .453 3rd
1993 67-95 .414 6th

In 1993, the Rox  had a decent campaign for a first year. They improved a little and by their third year squeaked into the playoffs with a better-than-.500 season. Success with that model looked attainable -- but wins flattened out and then started sagging. Players were breaking down. Team-building design tactics that worked for home games didn't work for road games. The design didn't change over those years, it was a steady Syncopation of Sybaritic Slug-A-Thons. The frustration went straight up. The previous GM, Bob Gebhard moved aside after the 1999 season to make way for Cleveland Indians assistant G.M. O'Dowd, and the new leader started twiddling with the formula.

We talked about what the Rockies front office team have been doing to cope with their very different environment and why they've chosen those paths. NOTE: there are a few unintelligible passages in here- sorry 'bout that.

Q:  You have one of the most interesting jobs of any general manager in baseball. You’re the only one who deals with a physical environment which is way out of specification compared to what all other teams face. The insanity that cascades as a result makes everything you do much more complicated

A: I think what it does more than anything else is make the basis of statistical analysis that exists in our industry – I’m not sure that most of those statistical theories, resources and methods, all of which I certainly used earlier in my career…in my Cleveland days…in fact we were kind of in the forefront there…a lot of that doesn’t carry over well in Colorado because of the unique environment we play in.

{snip – some generic conversation about pitching}

We’ve got a couple of things in place we think that have helped level the playing field for pitchers. I think Baseball has done a couple of things that will continue to level the playing field. The Humidor has made a dramatic difference; we think it could make more of a difference if we were allowed to use it the way we’d like to use it. We have specifications we have to follow – where we store the baseballs and what (temperature) we can store them in. I believe if we were allowed to crank (humidity) up a little higher, it would have even more effect on the games. One of the problems is really just this …this is not earth-shaking scientific method…it’s like when you leave an old pair of leather boots outside in the wintertime in Colorado and they dry up & they crack, they change their shape…the same exact kinds of things happen to a baseball. <something> contact changes dramatically, the leather itself becomes smooth like a cue ball. So it’s very difficult to hold the ball and do the things you normally would do in regular…sea level…conditions.

Q: The moisture on your fingers changes…

A: Yes, and the seams change. Your seams <something> and get a little coarser. We’ve had a lot of problems with blisters over the years in Colorado which we don’t talk about much but we’ve had to deal with.

The other thing that will change the game quite a bit I think is steroid policy and the new amphetamine policy. Those will also help level the playing field. The days of Monster Baseball…though it’ll still be there for some gifted players…as a whole, I think there’ll be a lessening of it.

If you look at runs scored in Coors Field during the middle 90s, and at home runs hit – I think those were the prime years of steroids in our game. Now, with some of the changes the time of games is down dramatically, runs scored have gone down dramatically. A lot of people have said, “well, Colorado didn’t have an outstanding offensive club,” but it wasn’t just our club, it was the clubs that were coming into Colorado, too. Whether that was an anomaly or whether there was some human adaptation, we’re not going to know until some patterns hold for a while.

We studied weather patterns last year. And the weather patterns weren’t significantly different than they had been in other years. I had thought maybe there was more moisture in the air, perhaps more rain, but it turned out the rainfall was similar to what it had been in other years. We’ll just have to see if somehow the game is changing.

Anything we can do to normalize the game can only help us competitively, because I do believe it’s very difficult to play two completely different styles of game, one at home and one on the road. So I think the more the game is normalized, the more it’ll help us competitively.

Q: You have been relentless experimenters. I read that before the 2005 season you all were considering the 4-man rotation (Instead of the standard 5-man), an idea Bill James and Rany Jazayerli had argued for a few years previously. It seems to me it takes courage to try something like that that’s so out of step with standard practice.

A: We thought that taking the pitching rotation to go to not really a true 5-man rotation, but a 4-man rotation and an 8-man bullpen where they all pitched two or three innings every time out.

Q: How far did that experiment get?

A: You have to train your pitchers completely differently. I think the physical wear and tear on your pitching staff would not allow (implementing) that. One of the things about playing at altitude...number one, I’m not trying to make excuses here and number two, I’m just stating facts, but because you play at such a high altitude, your relative lack of oxygen content, it takes a lot longer to recover and creates a lot more soreness.

One thing we’re working on and that we’re excited about is developing a home-grown pitching staff and training our guys mentally from day one through the organization on what to expect has helped dramatically. You also get more of what you focus on from your management standpoint — so we no longer focus on what can’t be done in that environment, we focus on what can be done in that environment..

And we have normalized the game somewhat through the use of the humidor, not getting the results we would get just playing in San Diego or L.A. or San Francisco, but you get dramatically different results than we’ve had in past years.

I think, overall, creating a better mindset. We train differently — we train harder on the road than we do at home — physically we changed our patterns. We don’t follow the habit of what is done every day in baseball; some days we won’t take any early work, some days we won’t take a formal batting practice. We’re beginning to understand the cycle of rest and recovery a lot better than we ever understood it.

Q: Do you actively measure aspects of recovery? Is it more based on expert observation?

A: We’ve done some testing with some blood analysis, for altitude testing…mostly on our coaches and training staff…with the players it’s a more difficult thing to approach. Our medical staff (Brad Andress the Strength Coach and Tom Probst the Director for Medical Operations), they really have dedicated a ton of their personal time understanding the cycle of rest & recovery at altitude.

We feel really good about where we’re at. It’s never going to be perfect, it’s always going to have to be managed but we feel we have a much better approach than we’ve ever had before.

The Rox may be the only team among its competitors that's trying to innovate through medicine. They are applying somewhat-known protocols, not from their own field, but from medicine and psychology, to try to cope with the differences. The Humidor...well, that's from other realms of research.

More to come...

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Three Final Competitive Management Edges from Gary Pettis  

"By Jove man, you act as though you can never  
have too much Gary Pettis" -- Martin Marshall

In the previous two entries (this and that), I covered how Gary Pettis' methods for achieving excellence as a centerfielder would serve you as methods in your own management endeavour. In this final entry, I'll cover a three more, and save the most important for last. Just remember, though, it would be very hard to have too much Gary Pettis.

More transcript from our conversation...

MBB: Let’s talk about plate patience for a second. You had this healthy career and then you get traded to Detroit…Actually since we’re in Detroit, let’s talk about centerfield again briefly. In Detroit you play in what I call the three centerfielder outfield, Ken Williams out there (not exactly a legendary centerfielder, but played that position) and Chet Lemon (exactly a centerfielder). What was that like? Challenging? Extra fun?

(GP): It was fun when we played together because the one thing that ALL great centerfielders have is the ability to communicate. That’s the thing. I can remember distinctly balls that were hit into right-centerfield and I would break on the ball and I could hear Chet Lemon yelling right away, “Go for it go for it, I’ll back you up.”

Lemon was more recognized as a star than Pettis (3 All-Star selections + a World Series appearance vs. 0 and 0 for Pettis), and yet when the Tigers acquired Pettis and moved Lemon to Right Field, the better known player, and perhaps mmore to the point, well-known himself for his fielding prowess, didn't waste cycles struggling for supremacy or jockeying for a hierarchical advantage against the newcomer. Lemon collaborated, Pettis collaborated, Williams collaborated (yes, that's the Ken Williams who is the remarkably effective GM of the Chicago White Sox), and they had an immense amount of fun (a benefit to them and to the organization.

Beyond Baseball, most ad-hoc teams usually only have one or at the most two "communicators", people who make sure the things that need to get discussed because the output benefits from collaboration. Enlisting multiple such players to your own teams boosts productivity. It's not just raw player quality that counts on your teams, it's their ability to work together to exceed the sum of their parts that makes teams in and beyond Baseball remarkably effective. And aggressively practicing communication like a centerfielder makes that much more likely to happen.

One of the things that had amazed me the most about Chet Lemon's career was that he dropped off a cliff defensively. He was never a blindingly-fast runner like Pettis was, and most players lose a step or two in their early- or mid-thirties, but Lemon went from went from world-class fly-hawk to sub-mediocrity overnight. Or so it appeared if you believe the then-available metrics.

Here are Lemon's career fielding numbers as an outfielder...the most telling being RFg (Range Factor) and lgRFg (League composite Range Factor).

 Year Ag Tm  Lg Pos   G    FP   lgFP  RFg  lgRFg   LF   CF   RF
 1976 21 CHW AL  OF  131  .992  .981  2.79  2.21    1  130    0
 1977 22 CHW AL  OF  149  .978  .978  3.52  2.03    0  149    0
 1978 23 CHW AL  OF   95  .983  .979  3.07  2.13    0   84   12
 1979 24 CHW AL  OF  147  .977  .981  2.86  2.13    0  147    0
 1980 25 CHW AL  OF  139  .981  .979  2.58  2.15    0  139    0
 1981 26 CHW AL  OF   93  .984  .983  2.60  2.16    0   93    0
 1982 27 DET AL  OF  121  .984  .982  2.09  2.15    0   29   93
 1983 28 DET AL  OF  145  .988  .981  2.84  2.16    0  145    0
 1984 29 DET AL  OF  140  .995  .983  3.09  2.17    0  140    0
 1985 30 DET AL  OF  144  .990  .982  2.90  2.10    0  144    0
 1986 31 DET AL  OF  124  .985  .980  2.60  2.06    0  124    0
 1987 32 DET AL  OF  145  .992  .980  2.44  2.00    0  145    0
 1988 33 DET AL  OF  144  .974  .979  2.11  2.14    0    0  144
 1989 34 DET AL  OF  111  .985  .980  1.76  2.12    0    0  111
 1990 35 DET AL  OF   96  .973  .981  2.25  2.04    0    3   94
Stats: Baseball-Reference.Com

I italicized the two years Lemon moved to right field to make room for Pettis in center. In both years he played alongside Pettis, his range factor slipped below league averages after only once (1982) posting a mark that was less than 20% better than league average. So to replay a little of the transcript and advance through more...

(GP): I can remember distinctly balls that were hit into right-centerfield and I would break on the ball and I could hear Chet Lemon yelling right away, “Go for it go for it, I’ll back you up.”

MBB: Interesting story and you just solved a statistical thing that was a bit of a mystery to me, and one I had wanted to ask you about.
Take a look at this…these are your year-by-year range factors for your career. Your range factor compared for the league’s composite for Center is way over the top. For your whole career, even including what should be your “decline phase” (I’m guessing you weren’t quite as fast at 34 years old as you’d been at 29), your average was so far over the top that it was the kind of achievement that you would only see for a single year maybe three to five times in a decade. Remarkable performance.

And here are Chet Lemon’s numbers. He’s got really really good range; your level, high…and then when you go to Detroit and he moves to Right, all of a sudden he’s very mortal. I was wondering if he had been injured, but you just explained it. 

(GP): Yes, a lot of time the balls he could have gotten to, I’m calling.

Numbers take on a life of their own, especially for observers who use them. One of the key lessons Baseball offers because it's such a transparent system is that meaningful measures can fool you if you don't take context into consideration. Yes, it's true that Lemon's range numbers (apparent range) were squeezed way down, but his ability to be rangy wasn't down. He was yielding to the centerfielder in conformity with standard operating procedure.

Lemon wasn't down. His numbers were down.

Beyond Baseball, too many managers take the numbers as fact, when in most cases, numbers are artifacts that represent facts. And the move from reality to artifact always poses the potential of distortion through lack of taking context into consideration. ¿Do you have of these mostly-true number artifacts that sometimes distort reality in your own organization? And are personnel sometimes under- or over-appreciated because of it?

If your organization isn't investing as much as Baseball in training, its short-changing itself. No exceptions.

Yes, it's the staffer's responsibility to keep up with knowledge and methods in the field, but the organization that doesn't cultivate employees misses out on harvesting tasty, low-hanging gains. No exceptions -- undercutting training and coaching and mentoring always results in self-inflicted inefficiency. I'll get back to that, but first, Pettis' career offensive numbers (a key whoa! in bold).

Year Ag Tm   G   AB    H   2B 3B  HR  RBI  SB CS  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG *OPS+ 
1982 24 CAL  10    5    1   0  0   1    1   0  0   0   2  .200  .200  .800  160 
1983 25 CAL  22   85   25   2  3   3    6   8  3   7  15  .294  .348  .494  131 
1984 26 CAL 140  397   90  11  6   2   29  48 17  60 115  .227  .332  .300   78 
1985 27 CAL 125  443  114  10  8   1   32  56  9  62 125  .257  .347  .323   86 
1986 28 CAL 154  539  139  23  4   5   58  50 13  69 132  .258  .339  .343   88 
1987 29 CAL 133  394   82  13  2   1   17  24  5  52 124  .208  .302  .259   53 
1988 30 DET 129  458   96  14  4   3   36  44 10  47  85  .210  .285  .277   61 
1989 31 DET 119  444  114   8  6   1   18  43 15  84 106  .257  .375  .309   97 
1990 32 TEX 136  423  101  16  8   3   31  38 15  57 118  .239  .333  .336   88 
1991 33 TEX 137  282   61   7  5   0   19  29 13  54  91  .216  .341  .277   75 
1992 34 TOT  78  159   32   5  3   1   12  14  4  29  45  .201  .323  .289   73 
Stats: Baseball-Reference.Com

MBB: Let's talk about your evolution as a batter.
You didn't walk much except…

(GP): …Except the year in Detroit.

MBB: Yes, in Detroit. Tell me a little about this. You were so consistent for a career and then you have this new ability that was such an upward spike - it appears to just come out of nowhere.

(GP): That year in Detroit…Vada Pinson was the hitting coach. What I had found over the years was that I had put balls in play - swung at pitches - when I didn't necessarily have to. 2-0, 3-1.

MBB: Looking fastball.

(GP): Yes, and then you ground out to the second baseman and you're walking back to the dugout saying, "You idiot. Why did you swing at that pitch?".

You leave that pitch alone, maybe it's 3-0 maybe it's 2-1. Maybe that 3-1 is a ball and you walked. Now you wait until it' 3-2. Now I'm either going to walk or I'm going to put the ball in play. You might strike out. You got two good things that can happen and only one bad one. It's in my favor.

That's what happened. I started getting more serious about when I should and when I shouldn't swing.

MBB: Twenty-twenty hindsight…why couldn't Vada have come over and told you that years earlier?

(GP): Vada was probably the closest (thing for me) having a hitting instructor who aimed me at figuring out how to do things left-handed. Until then, it was just athletic ability, but not trained. I had no idea what I was really doing. I wish I had found out earlier; if someone had just told me to go back before you go forward, so you can recognize the pitch and do more with it…
Back then the common theory was "stay back". I'm staying back. But then what do you do? You launch yourself forward. As I said, you have to go back before you go forward.

Right-handed, I did that, but I had learned to do it trial and error from Little League onward. It was a natural thing.

Take a quick look at the BB walks and on-base percentage column in Pettis' line above. Learning plate discipline is normally soemthing that comes later in a player's career, and it's usually self-taught, a technique the smarter ones latch on to so they can extend their career, powered by years of observation and advertent or inadvertent study. Pettis, though, ran into a fellow Centerfielder who had been a very good offensive player and they worked out a new approach to the switch-hitter's approach when he was batting left-handed.

I omitted a long ramble Pettis and I had around him becoming a switch-hitter; in short, when he showed up at camp after being drafted by the California Angels, the coaching staff unilaterally decided he would not be an outfielder, but a shortstop (the Angels had some higher-profile outfield prospects then, but tended to use acquired veteran stars out there), and that as of the day he arrived, he would become a switch-hitter. In the latter, he would not get much coaching -- they just figured he'd figure it out. He did just well enough to make it to the majors that way, though his offensive production was really justified by his Gold Gloves and his base-running and base-stealing prowess.

The Angels shot themselves in both feet by not investing more in training. They counted on him to train himself, as he had been doing batting right-handed, when they could have adjusted him years earlier. Understand, the worst Major League Baseball team invests more in ongoing training and coaching than the average corporation or government agency. But even with all their efforts, they shorted themselves. Because if Gary Pettis could have started producing a .375 on-base percentage in 1985 at age 27, he would have been on base for them about an extra 50 times in the next three years, affording them more opportunities to use his base-running ability to score runs for his team. Perhaps they would have had to trade him or if they had, they might have gotten someone more valuable than Dan Petry (who stunk up the majors for a few more years and then was gone).

NOTE: You may notice Pettis regressed the following year. I wanted to ask him about it but our conversation was cut short because he needed to get to work. If I get to talk with him again, I'll ask him why.

The two lessons here, though are: (1) There's always at least one more valuable thing to learn and get better at, even when you've been working at a position for a long time, and (2) The organization always leaves signficant gains on the table when it pimps on quality training that's customized to each contributor.

actually said that. A clever physicist, journalist, Australian-Rules Karaoke champ, poet and Expert chess player, Martin said that epigrammatic quote above in response to my Earl Weaver Baseball quirk of trying to draft multiple light-hitting switch-hitting gold glove center fielders (and always Gary Pettis amongst them) for the sim. Most seasons, I got enough offense out of slugging middle infielders (Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg) to balance it out, but it was, I admit, a quirk.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Gold-Glove Management, In Which Malcolm Gladwell
Learns at the School of Gary Pettis  

How can you expect to play at game speed unless 
you practice at game speed? -- Gary Pettis

In the previous entry, I introduced Managing Like A Centerfielder, based on insights from one of the 20th Century's top Centerfielders, Gary Pettis. These insights are useful to all managers in competitive endeavors, because (as I found out in talking with Pettis) the skill set most useful to being a Gold Glove Centerfielder is surprisingly parallel to that demanded of managers. It's particularly useful to managers who not only face a competitive environment, but one that requires very quick decision-making, too fast to allow for executing rigorous analysis starting from the moment at which you know the context fully. In Malcolm Gladwell terms, Blink decision-making.

In this entry, we'll explore how important it is to practice making decisions, even if you don't execute them, and using those phantom decisions and projecting how they would have played out against what really happened keeps you sharp and ready to make functional quick decisions when the time comes to execute on them. Some of the interview gets repeated here -- because it's supporting an additional insight.

I know lots of enthusiasts for the kind of intuitive decisions made instantly Malcolm Gladwell describes as Blink. Some people just have a knack for doing it in a particular domain (but not in others). Most have no knack for doing it in any domain. But you can increase your chances of success if you have a foundation of knowledge, made a habit of accumulating data in the past, shadowing decisions, and then examining what happened to see if the choice you made could have been right. 

Too many Blink enthusiasts saw Gladwell's work as an excuse to just make it up as they went along, to ignore the hard work of pattern observation that's the foundation for successful pattern recognition. A naturally good Blink manager, and there aren't a ton of them (I suspect about one in seven) successfully interprets observed patterns with few cases. A naturally adequate Blink manager attains adequacy not because the pattern recognition part of her brain is excellent, but because it's good and she has acquired experience over time -- probably by filter-feeding and not by attacking the data rigorously or forcing herself to shadow this decision-consequence practice Pettis describes in the following interview snippets. Those adequate Blink managers are maybe two out of seven managers. 

Which leaves four of seven who just plain stink at it. Many of those used the book's (accurate, worthwhile) observations as an excuse not to study, but just "feel" their way through decisions. An empty gut makes gut decisions that are empty of insight. 

On to Pettis...

Gary Pettis (GP): If there is anything a good or great centerfielder needs to learn is that they can play shallow.

MBB: Interesting. I once asked Amos Otis, who was super-great, the same questions I asked you, obviously a long time ago. He said, “I’m the only really good centerfielder in the league right now”. He had a cockiness about him…he was joshing me to some degree, but I think he also meant it. I said “Okay, okay, well, what about Rick Manning”…another guy who had good range then…and he said, “He doesn’t have an arm”. I said “Tell me what you mean”, and he said to me “If you’re ever on base against him, this is worth knowing…he plays shallow to cover for his arm, which isn’t very good.”

It didn’t ring true to me as a rule we could make general. It was Amos Otis telling me this, so I can’t dismiss it. But he argued that centerfielders who play shallow do it to cover for a weaker throwing arm.

(GP): Some guys might do that. Overall, the great ones play shallow because the hits that most frequently break the pitcher’s back are the ones that come off the end of the bat. It’s not the ones that go over your head, because most often, if you’d been 10 or 15 feet farther back, they’d have gone over your head anyway. That’s not the one that usually breaks the pitcher’s back.

But decisionmaking comes into play, too. You don’t play the guy the same way if it’s a 2-0 or 3-1 count as if it was 0-2 or 1-2.

MBB: That’s another reason I asked you if you saw the catcher’s signs.

(GP): No, not the signs, the count, and you know the batter is more defensive when they’re down in the count, so they are more apt to put balls that are not strikes in play. That results in more balls being hit off the end of the bat or they got jammed on because they don’t want to strike out and they will try to put any ball in play somewhere. 

So you play a little differently. When it’s 2-0 or 3-1, well, they’re not as likely to do that.

MBB: If video had been as broadly available in the beginning of your career…it was pretty common by the end…but would you have scouted hitters’ individual patterns and how they approached hitting in various counts?

(GP): No. But what I still do is take his swing…what is it like, where is he most likely to hit the ball…the majority of time he puts it into play. I can look at the spray charts (to more quickly get the information I could get from video).

The one thing you can’t change much is your swing. Your swing is your swing. If you’re an opposite field hitter, you’re going to hit the ball to the opposite field more often than not. That’s not to say you’re not going to pull a ball down the line occasionally. You play to the hitter’s tendency. When the count goes in his favor you might move back a little bit, or if he’s in a hole you would creep up a little. You might move to one side or the other…you need to know about the individual hitter at the plate, and take into consideration who’s on the mound.

If your pitcher throws in the upper 80s, and there’s a guy to hits the ball the other way lot, he’s not going to hit it as much the other way. Those are the kinds of things you have to consider. Just because his chart shows his pattern is some way, there are still a lot of little things you need to consider.

(MBB): (When you're playing Center) Are you looking at the catcher’s signs?

(GP): No. I can see where the catcher is setting up & you have an idea. Whereas, if you’re playing a left-handed hitter and he (normally) hits the ball to left-center field but the catcher moves inside, you keep the idea, “he might pull this ball. You have to be ready to go either way. You don’t necessarily lean, because what of the pitcher misses his spot?
So there are all kinds of variables when playing centerfield. 

I always say “Do what you see, not what you think”.

MBB: You’re coaching outfielders now, right?

(GP): Yes.

MBB: And so you try to get your outfielders to disengage their minds and just react.

(GP): That’s right.


(GP): You were asking me before if stealing home runs was something I practiced.

Well, Jimmy Reese [the most legendary fungo artist of the last 70 years] and I used to play a game; he was very good with the fungo. I would go to the ballpark early, I’d go out to centerfield and we’d play games.

We’d play for ice cream. He would try to hit balls over the fence and I would try to catch them.

MBB: So you were really practicing stealing homers specifically. Let me ask you a related question. Do you believe it’s possible to skip shagging flies before a game, even at your level, and not have that affect your day’s game?

(GP): I don’t. You can’t be sharp that way.
People have done it, but it doesn’t mean they were as sharp as they could have been. I wouldn’t do that.
I believe that when you practice you have to get at least to the point where you break a sweat. However long it takes to get t that point, five or ten minutes. I wanted to make sure I broke a sweat and played some balls hard. That was the key, whether they were ground balls or hard balls, play them hard.
How can you expect to play at game speed unless you practice at game speed?

Mental exercises like case studies are good for building up knowledge and thickening up cause and effect judgment. It's critical to know that count and swing type are likely to affect the outcome, and to build deep knowledge of it so you can internalize it. But when the time comes to make a quick decision, there won't be time to go to the video or spray charts -- you have to act in the moment based on internalized knowledge and with the tendencies the current situation tends to make happen. Note, as Pettis said in the previous entry, you don't react to the swing, you pre-act, based on this knowledge base you've built, and on watching the ball (the core issues) not the swing (the competitor's intent).

Further, as Pettis stated, you have to do it every day. Yesterday's practice is diminished today. You have to keep it as fresh as you can or you won't be be as sharp as you could have been.

And Beyond Baseball, managers too often respond to the competitor's intent (swing), not to what the likely outcome of putting that intent into action will create. I worked for a company that had a main competitor that cut prices to win market share -- the un-Pettis Sales people insisted on arguing to cut prices without examining the history of price cuts and what it meant to market shares and profitability. They let intent, not historical patterns dictate their direction; they always ran to the last place they saw the ball.

To be successful as a manager, you have to face the future, not the past. The past informs, but you can't make decisions assuming the situation right now is the one that will be in effect at the moment your decision takes effect. From a management school point of view, it's described almost perfectly by The Beer Game, and author Peter Senge does a fine job of illustrating the risk of reacting to the present and not interpolating based on the likely evolution of the current context in his classic book The Fifth Discipline. I won't elaborate on the lesson the Beer Game has to offer beyond what I said in this paragraph -- if you don't know it already, check out that Beer Game link.

The fact is, though, that the lesson the Beer Game has to offer is more elegantly presented by Gary Pettis, describing going back to catch a ball hit over your head.

MBB: You were exceptionally good at breaking back on a ball, taking your eyes off it completely, and then finding it on the other end 

(GP): Well, I’m not sure I was so special…

MBB: …I can get to the vicinity – I know pretty much where it’s going to land and I’m there, but I can’t see it again. Is there some technique you used? Or is it something you’re born with?

(GP): You see the trajectory the ball was hit on. And over the years you get to know the angle it’s going to come out, greater height means less distance. You get to know where they are.

And also, you practice during batting practice and spring training. That’s one of the drills you do. Someone hits a ball and you try to run to the spot. By knowing the angle it came off the bat, you have an idea.

Take playing in the Metrodome in Minnesota. If you happen to lose the ball in the ceiling there (which a lot of people do), the mistake is to look where you last saw it. 

 It’s never going to be there. If you lose it you have to stay on the line of where the ball was going when you last saw it…you have a chance of finding it.

MBB: It’s a physics problem. 

(GP): and if you look for it where it was before, you’re never going to find it.

MBB: So let’s talk about stealing home runs. If there was a record for Stealing Home Runs, turning balls that were going to over the fence into outs, you’d have the record, in my lifetime anyway. I saw six or seven either at a game on t.v. 

Do you remember a bunch of them?

(GP): I do remember some of them.

MBB: Is it any different from the problem we just talked about…going back on a ball, turning away to make the most of your speed and then finding it again? 
Do you train for it?
Do you say to yourself, “I know I can do this”? 
How does it come about?

(GP): A lot of it comes from practice.

Before you catch the ball over the fence, you have to be aware of where you are. That’s the biggest thing.

The warning track. I don’t know if guys do it now. But when I played, I used to go out and measure the depth of the warning track. Not so much to measure how many feet between the grass and the wall, but how many steps it took me, at speed, to get to the wall. Because you know when you hit the warning track…you feel the difference of grass to gravel. Once you do that, you know about how many steps you have.

For me it was maybe 2-1/2, sometimes I could get three strides in. And I knew that. That was just running back on a ball. Now once you knew the ball was hit high enough and you knew it was going to be a home run that you were trying to catch, the first thing you had to do was run back as fast as you can. Taking your eye off the ball comes into play there. You get a good look at the fence…you actually have to get a good look, you can’t just look back at it. You look at it to see where it is. Then when you get two or three feet away from it, you start preparing yourself to get ready to jump.

MBB: Do you remember some of those…an elbow getting banged or holding onto the top of the fence.

(GP): There are a few. Jesse Barfield (hit) one. On that one I thought I might jumped a little too soon, but I didn’t have time to get as close to the wall as I would have liked because he didn’t hit it as high as some other guys…

MBB: He hit a lot of hard liners…

(GP): Yes. It wasn’t as high so I didn’t have enough time to get all the way back there. I jumped on the way…I was just barely able to get my glove over the wall and pull it back. 

MBB: Are those especially satisfying (when you pull it back over the wall)?

(GP): ALL good plays are. I would rather make a play that saved the game…but anytime you make a nice play it’s a good feeling.
There was another one. Harold Baines

My favorite…I wish it had been someone else…was Brian Downing who was a good teammate [they played together for the Angels for five years: 1982-87]. I was playing for Detroit and he was still with the Angels. He hit a ball that even to this day, I don’t know how I was able to catch the ball. Because I got back to the fence, and as I jumped, my chest was facing the fence. The top of the wall is under my armpit, and I reached down behind the wall, I can’t even see the ball and I reached with my glove and caught it.
When I saw play later on that evening…they had an angle from left field…I just said “WOW”. It was like watching someone else do that. That was a special play. But there were other plays I made that I really liked, but they weren’t ones that robbed someone of a homer. Diving catches…all kinds of different things.

As Pettis said so clearly, if you look to find a moving ball at the location you last saw it, you'll never find it. And if you presume the context of a problem you noticed is the same as it was when you noticed it, you'll never know it, either. You have to judge not the problem's exact state back then, but you have to both know what it was and project the likely change over time so you can meet it by leading its trajectory and intersecting with it when your decision takes effect.

The next entry will have the last insight from Gold Glove Management Guru Gary Pettis. Last, perhaps the most important, a reminder of something all managers should know and did at one time, but tend to forget in the heat of the moment.

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