“Ninety percent of this game is half mental”, Yogi Berra is reported to have said--a phrase that I would say is about 80 percent correct.
This came to mind this week in the wake of an epic Red Sox World Series victory (oh yeah, hard core lifetime fan). Reflecting on this joyous event, I couldn’t help but think that there were some lean principles at play, as it were, during this fantastic series. I am among those who believe that while pro athletes certainly need the physical skills to succeed, that the key factors for the elite performers have more to do with the mindful application of disciplined improvement than anything else. In that I support the comments of lean thinker Steve Spear, who in an evening talk at LEI earlier this year speculated on last year’s Super Bowl victory by the Philadelphia Eagles, saying that, “Those who learn faster and prepare better will win more often...more success comes from planning and preparing better so that you can learn faster than your opponent.”
John Shook has addressed the underlying principles between lean and baseball in two pieces, Managing to Pitch with PDCA and You Gotta Have Wa. That first piece shares the wisdom of the book The Mental ABC's of Pitching and includes a terrific section on the need for ball players to make ongoing adjustments, which it refers to as “a thoughtful, rational assessment of A) what the pitcher was trying to do, B) what went wrong, C) what he must do to fix it.”
Along those lines I would like to make a few simple lean observations regarding the success of this Sox team. For starters (and for that matter, for relievers), this was simply an outstanding and absurdly talented team from top to bottom. That certainly counts--and yet talent only gets you so far. Great teams make each individual get better, and I think this applied to this group of athletes. Over the course of the season many stories have been shared of how commited they have been to sharing their baseball studies with each other (the most famous being J.D. Martinez helping others prepare).
But one element of this series that has proved key to the Sox victory certainly suggests some lean principles: the success of their pinch hitters. In several victories in this short series, the Sox benefited from clutch hitting from the bench, including a crushing home run in game one by Eduardo Nunez, a dramatic 3-run shot from Mitch Moreland in game four, and a vital late inning single from Rafael Devers giving them the lead late in the game. While the ability of the Sox to score with two outs throughout the series was (endlessly) noted by the commentators, any such success with their pinch hitters, even in this small sample size, suggests a few key lean takeaways.
Several recent articles have delved into what it takes for bystanders to suddenly become stand-up guys at the plate.
Consistency: The following quote from an ESPN article on star pinch hitter Tommy La Stella suggests that a key to success comes down to stripping away the mental waste that comes with vesting too much in any one at-bat. That the best approach is...the simplest; standard work, essentially, for facing the curveball and treating the key work as unexceptional, doable, knowable. La Stella attributes his success to learning how to temper expectations and mind the work in high-pressure situations: “Starting in 2015, when I began to be better at it, I was simplifying everything. Simplifying mechanics, the thought process between pitches, simplifying what I do offensively.”
Preparation: While one might assume that there’s no simple way to prepare for the demands of an at bat that by design is scheduled for an unknown and unique situation, this Boston Globe article reveals the extent to which manager Alex Cora helped both Mitch Moreland and Rafael Devers prepare for their dramatic Game Four hits long in advance of the National Anthem. This involves taking at bats against throwing machines calibrated to match the pitching styles of relievers in advance. And it comes with an explicit “plan” to meet the specific needs of the moment. In this case, for Moreland it meant anticipating an early change-up.
How is that “lean” you ask? Not wanting to stretch here, but I would say that recognizing the fine details of the situation, understanding it in depth, and planning specific countermeasures in advance is a simple similarity.
Focus: Later in that same game, young star Rafael Devers delivered an RBI single putting the Sox in the lead for good. A slugger who hit 22 homers over the course of the year, Devers was coached in this at-bat not to try to “hit four homers with one swing,” i.e. reach for results that were beyond the scope of what was needed right then. In this instance he merely needed to make contact up the middle; and his single did just that, scoring the runner from second. By simply avoiding the need for heroism (again, a common lean trope), but instead focusing on getting the simple ‘job’ done in that moment, Devers in essence became yet another hero on a historic team.