Culture is a Verb Part IV
By Dave Turgeon
WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE ON THE FIELD?
The first three installments on Culture did not talk much about baseball. We hit on leadership and how it drives the train of your team. We spoke of relationship building and the importance of communication and our rules of engagement. Adding on to our foundation of culture we dove into the importance of our day-to-day mentality. Folks who have a Blue-collar work ethic demonstrate the ability to “show up” every single day. The more people “show up,” the more the culture grows. As important as the work ethic piece is, the “white belt” mentality of being a forever learner goes hand in hand with that. People who understand that once you achieve black belt (expert) status, the learning does not end. It never ends. Adopting the idea of getting one-tenth of one percent better every day is an achievable goal. Can you imagine a group of blue-collar people who love to learn, all getting one-tenth of one percent better every day for a year? It is hard to quantify how strong your culture can become, but just one person who does that is about 36 percent better! You do the math from there.
Our third installment hit on our need for revivals not just in our lives but also in our jobs of keepers and growers of culture. Revivals to recommit to some things as well as expand our lenses. We also hit the importance of our EQ and never forgetting how hard the jobs of those we lead are. Finally, those led to the environment we are creating for learning and growth of our players and staff. Is it a small pot that does not allow the plant to grow deep roots, or a big one that allows the plant/player to become an awesome – and perhaps unrecognizable – version of itself?
All of the above have lead us to the promised land of the field and our last piece of culture. What brand of baseball is it that people are looking at when your team is on the field? What do teams feel like after they have played your team? Let us examine what I am talking about here.
HOW DO YOU ESTABLISH YOUR IDENTITY?
The best (this is a great argument) way to establish your team identity – and perhaps the most overlooked – is through base running. Let me add to that “aggressive/smart base running”. It is at least 25 percent of the game that goes with pitching, defense and offense. Aggressive / smart base running and the pressure applied amplifies any offense. Pressure base running will separate the pitcher’s mind and conviction from his pitch, leading to mistakes thrown, which lead to baseballs getting barreled by our hitters. Pressure base running plants the “I have less time” seed into the defender’s mind and creates errors, which leads to baserunners and runs scored. It leads to extended innings because when infielders have baserunners bearing down on them, even on a routine double play, things somehow change in their exchange and throw. Good pressure leads and secondary leads may lead to catchers back picking and taking risks when they should not, leading to extra 90s or errors.
The ripple effect of smart / aggressive base running goes on. Why, then, don’t people establish this piece of their identity? There is no simple answer to this but I will start with the fact that it is not sexy to train baserunning (it requires preparation and time that would otherwise go into more sexy things, like hitting and pitching). Many do not understand the huge positive impact of relentless pressure baserunning on an offense, and in our industry, it does not necessarily lead to guys getting bigger contracts (unless he is an elite base stealer). The other piece of this is coaches who do not understand the art of pressure may confuse base stealing with baserunning. While base stealing can be another form of pressure in our baserunning package, it does not mean we cannot be great baserunners if we do not steal bases. Another reason players may not embrace this mentality of pressure is they think, “if I have below average speed, I cannot become an above average baserunner” which could not be further from the truth! I often show our players and staff video of smart / aggressive baserunning by below average speed guys to hammer home the message.
Establish the team identity on the bases by creating attitude (anticipation is aggression), with preparation and knowledge, and you will become a team that others do not enjoy playing. Applying constant pressure on the bases slowly exhausts the opposition. This then becomes a part of the daily training and not just the routine base running work most teams do during batting practice. Daily training in base running daily hammers home the message of its importance, as well as rewarding it when it is executed.
PITCHING IN WHILE POUNDING THE ZONE
Another form of pressure that establishes the identity of a team culture is a staff that works ahead and uses pitching to its advantage. Hitters know they must be ready the moment they step in the box when the guy on the bump is a strike-one machine. When a staff works ahead constantly and looks for opportunities to pitch in for strikes – and, more importantly, “in for effect” – the opposition can be taken completely out of their game plan and approach. It is uncomfortable for hitters when pitchers force them to alter their normal stance in the box by opening up the other side of the plate and keeping the hitter guessing. Staffs that do these two things consistently also send messages to hitters that if you are thinking that you are going to cover the whole plate in your at bat, you need to think again.
Don Drysdale was famous for pitching in for effect, and his motto was, “I would come in off the plate two times in a row to let them know it was not an accident.” That kind of pressure from the pitcher to the hitter over a period of a series can remove the aggression on the part of hitters and again establish your club’s identity as one that others do not want to face. It also keeps the other side of the plate open for late-inning relievers who come in during a tight game. Generally, in tight games we never want to get beat pull-side late in the game, so pitchers will stay away. If the starters have done their job of establishing pitching in for effect earlier then it would make sense the ability for hitters to cover the whole plate is surely more challenging later. The myth here with pitching in is that you have to be a hard thrower to pitch in. This simply is not true. One of the best examples of this was Tom Glavine, who was a hard thrower when he came up, and it was not until later in his career when his stuff had diminished that he truly embraced pitching in for effect and for strikes.
MASTER THE 15 SECONDS
Develop “baseball players” who dominate the 15 seconds between pitches. As of 2014, the average Major League game lasted approximately 2 hours and 55 minutes. Of this time, 16 of those minutes were action. That left a whopping two hours and 39 minutes between pitches, at bats and innings. Seventy-five of these minutes was in between pitch time. Although that 15 seconds could be a bit longer or a bit shorter it is there where the game is played out. A guy who always seems to know where he needs to be on the field, throws the ball where he is supposed to, calls the right pitches behind the plate, gives quality at bats when hitting, is a good baserunner, is a quiet assassin on the mound, is a “baseball player.”
While many players simply react pitch to pitch on offense or defense, the player with good game awareness only reacts after preparing and then anticipating. He does his preparing during those 15 seconds. Let me give you some examples. An outfielder should go through many scenarios in his head before a ball is put in play. He may think if a ball is hit to my left, ball to my right, ball in front of me, ball over my head where am I going to be throwing the ball? He must also process the scoreboard information such as inning and score and the hitter, which will also affect the aggressiveness of his decision to attack a lead runner, or simply keep the double play in order and get the ball in quickly to the middle of the field.
An example of an infielder’s 15 seconds could be a shortstop who is presented with a runner on second base and one out situation. Between pitches, he must process what if the ball is hit to my left, to my right, right at me or slowly in front of me? The aggressiveness of his decision (to attack the batter and take the out at first or attack the base runner attempting to advance to third) comes off the scenarios he played out in his head and again the score, the inning, the hitter. All the info processed in the 15 seconds told him that he should take the out at first and have two outs and a runner on third, rather than risk attacking the lead runner and him being safe and then creating a first and third and one out situation.
The catcher’s 15 seconds can be challenging. They have to control the pulse and pace of the guy on the mound, know where his stuff is at that day, know the hitter and the situation, and of course, know the scoreboard before determining what pitch to call and – if runners are on base – controlling them as well.
The hitter’s 15 seconds can be interesting also. When they step in the box they have to determine their role (get on base, move a runner, drive a runner in from third, etc.) and then get a pitch to execute it with. The challenge with hitters, though, is that their role and approach may change from pitch to pitch. One of the biggest homeruns in World Series history was hit by Kirk Gibson on a 3-2 slider. When Gibson came to the plate, Mike Davis was on first base. When Gibson came up to bat he understood he would have to drive a ball in a gap to score the runner from first or drive one out of the park to win it. So simply slapping a ball the other way and getting on was not his role when he was up there with the runner on first. However, on the sixth pitch of the at bat, Mike Davis stole second base and this changed things with the count now 3-2. Gibson now did not have to drive a ball in the gap or over the wall, but rather, he could now think of slapping something the other way, as a single would now tie the game up. When you watch what happens next, you see Gibson hit a 3-2 slider (it was not hung) out for the game winner. He had changed his approach and role based on the runner advancing to second base. This is huge because if he had the pull approach and tried to do too much, there is no way he stays on and tracks the 3-2 slider from Eckersley.
This is an amazing detail of the 15 seconds that we may miss because we are caught up in the result of the big homer. Gibson did not get beat by the slider because he continued to think during the 15 seconds, ‘what is my role?’, and he got a pitch to do it with. The changing of his role and approach allowed a guy who could barely walk to hit one of the biggest homers in the history of the game.
Pitchers need to be playing the game during their 15 seconds as well. People often speak of situational pitching, referring to different points of the game when you face a hitter in a critical situation. The fact is that every single pitch of the game it situational pitching, according to who is up and the scoreboard information. Therefore, the pitcher, after considering his information between pitches, can either sign off on the pitch that the catcher called, or call another pitch. If you have a collective group of players who are good at the 15 seconds (game awareness), you become someone who is hard to beat because you are never beating yourselves with poor decisions. Your decisions have already been made between pitches, so the equation becomes preparation + anticipation = good decisions. Dominate the 15 seconds, and you dominate your opponents during the 16 minutes of action!
CHAMPIONSHIP ON-FIELD CULTURE
The building blocks of your team’s identity starts with a relentless baserunning pressure package. Our ability to disrupt the thinking of a pitcher and force the defense to rush plays works in unison with our offensive approach in the box. If we are also ready to do damage when stepping into the box, we are creating a “2 vs. 1, 3 vs. 1, or 4 vs. 1” pressure, which can be formidable. On the mound, we also apply pressure to the opposition by relentlessly working ahead in counts and pitching in for effect with conviction. There is no comfort for hitters when a pitching staff pitches in for effect with conviction. It will also allow the late-inning relievers to stay away from hitters in close games because we have not allowed them to cover the plate early in the game and series.
Having a team of “baseball players” who dominate the 15 seconds between pitches is a form of psychological pressure as well. Other teams know that club will not beat itself by giving up extra outs or extra bases, so it then causing them to try harder or put pressure on themselves, thus leading to mistakes.
Building your on-field culture is both challenging and fun. Continue to look at your group in the collective mirror, but most importantly, with your staff. Eventually, whatever is going on on your field becomes a direct reflection of you. One of my Pirates leaders once said, “You are either coaching it up or allowing it to happen.” Keep that in mind as you are building your on-field culture.
Turgeon is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is the Coordinator of Instruction for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turgeon played in the New York Yankees farm system from 1987-1990 under Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter after being drafted out of Davidson College. Before playing for the Baltimore Orioles’ AAA affiliate in 1998 he spent eight years playing abroad. From 2000-2001 Turgeon began coaching in the Cleveland Indians organization before entering the college ranks where he coached with Boston College, the University of Connecticut, Duke University and Virginia Tech.