Friday, September 21, 2012

The Process vs. The Product

Baseball is a performance based industry. Where you play, how long you play and how much you get paid to play are almost completely tied to your performance on the field. Notice that I didn't say "stats" are the most important thing. Stats can be a deciding factor in a player's career, but it's not the whole story. The game has been intimately tied to its stats for as long as it's been around. Hitting 400. 60+ home runs. 3000 hits. 300 wins. These benchmarks have been established to distinguish the good from the great. It's easy to look at the great players with their incredible statistical performances and be amazed. However, I have always been more interested in the process behind the numbers. Having talked to some players much smarter and wiser than myself, I've grown to realize that performance can be broken down into two categories...The Process & The Product.

We've all seen the product...both good and bad. In fact I've seen them both close up in my first few major league outings. 7 shutout innings with 9 K's and 2 hits. Good product. 4 innings, 5 runs, 3 HR, 2 BB, big fat "L". Poor product. It's easy to dig yourself when the product is one you want, but it's just as easy to beat yourself up when the product is underwhelming. The weird/frustrating thing is, both performances were given the same amount of effort while yielding drastically different results. Given the volatility of the product in this game, it seems more valuable to invest my brain power in the process over the product.

As a pitcher, once the ball leaves your hand, forces outside of your control begin to work on the ball. Wind, elevation, bat speed, length of the grass, catchers, fielders, throwers, umpires and official scorers. You become a fielder upon releasing the ball, but more often than not, the ball finds someone else. However, leading up to the time the ball leaves your hand you control almost everything. You control what you ate the day before. How much sleep you got that night and each of the 4 days leading up to it. How much time you devoted to the weight room, training room, and bullpen mounds. The focus on each throw you made playing catch all week.  Your routine the day of your start. Your balance on the rubber. Your release point...rinse and repeat.

After my outing in St. Louis, I was kicking myself over the 4 runs I gave up. I had put our team in a pretty deep hole against one of the toughest teams in the league. A product that I was not proud of nor in a hurry to repeat. Yet, one week later I did the same thing against the Nationals at home. I began to ask myself what the issue was. Why I had gone from such a good performance to two poor ones so quickly? The amount of effort I put into each one was the same (perhaps even more against the latter teams). My team was playing well around me defensively, but the product didn't meet my expectations. I began to question some of the veteran pitchers on how they deal with failure. What they told me will stick with me for a long time.

"Failure is something almost totally out of your hands. You have to look at each outing as a series of (around) 100 processes. If you go through your process each of the 100 times and feel good about everything leading up to your release, the product becomes secondary. And more often than not (which is all we can ask for in this game of averages) the product will go in your favor."

In my career thus far, that statement has been very true. The most successful times I've had over the last couple years have been when I simplify things. When I can focus on one pitch at a time and find one key in my mechanics that keeps me consistent. I remember an interview with Greg Maddux where he said the same thing. People always assumed he was a genius because of how he fooled hitters with below average velocity, but he was adamant that his secret was making one good pitch at a time. It seemed to work okay for him, right? From my brief experience in the Bigs, the ability to focus on the process is what separates a bunch of pitchers with very similar "stuff". The ones that can repeat the focus on each pitch tend to be the most consistent, and as a pitcher, that's the goal we're shooting for.

When things have gone well lately it's been a short and relatively simple process:
- Concentrate on chewing my gum (it calms the nerves and gives me some internal rhythm)
- Get your elbow up
- Throw it THROUGH the spot
- Repeat approx. 100 times

I know that I can't speak for all of the rookies on the team...or in the league for that matter, but I have a feeling that we are all on the same page. We're still learning. A lot. Everyday. It's a slippery slope and an easy one to get caught on when we begin to pay more attention to the product than the process. Getting caught on the emotional roller coaster with every performance is ultimately detrimental to our development. The more consistent we can be emotionally and physically, the better chances we have of performing well over the long haul. No matter what the product says, I know that I'm getting better each time out. I'm becoming more and more comfortable with my process before each outing. Before each pitch. And sooner rather than later, this game will begin to slow down. The product will start to match the process, creating a performance worthy of my expectations.