Monday, March 28, 2011

To Create a Winner, You Have to Find the Winners

As both a fan of UNC coach Anson Dorrance and the New York Yankees, I was really intrigued when I read this article from Mike Tully of the New York Times, who referenced Dorrance's competitive caldron in relation to Major League Baseball.

Anson Dorrance has coached the North Carolina women’s soccer team to 21 national titles since 1979, and he has been more than happy to reveal his secret to success. In his 1996 book, “Training Soccer Champions,” Dorrance described what he calls the jewel of his program: the competitive caldron. U.N.C. soccer players compete in every aspect of the sport, including the weight room, sprints and drills. Coaches then look for the players with a knack for being on the winning side.

The consistent winner is not always the fastest runner or the hardest shot. It’s the person who can read the subtleties of the game and knows when certain actions can make a difference. It’s the person who involves and inspires teammates, creating emotion or a sense of mission. Coaches have a special name for such a player: starter.

Major league baseball is not college soccer. And baseball players cannot compete in practice the way the Tar Heels do. So as the season begins this week, the time might be right to ask, How much value do baseball managers place on the team’s record when a given player is in the lineup?

David Eckstein is one player whose contribution far exceeded his talent. A walk-on in college and a 19th-round draft pick, he still managed to make the postseason in 4 of his 10 major league seasons, played on two championship teams and was the most valuable player of the 2006 World Series.

On the other end of the spectrum one might find Carlos Beltran, a four-time All-Star with the Mets. While he recovered from knee surgery last year, they won 48 of their first 88 games, and were only four games out of the National League East lead at the All-Star break. Then Beltran rejoined the team. The Mets went 31-43 (.419) the rest of the way and finished 18 games out of first place.

Their decline cannot be attributed solely to Beltran, but the Mets did not improve with him in the lineup.

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