One of the staples of Supervisory Training is an exercise where the room is broken into small groups which are tasked to independently finish the sentence, “A Leader is…” It’s such stock-in-trade that some of us have suffered through it on multiple occasions during various seminars. The small teams are supposed to go through all manner of brainstorming maneuvers to arrive at some new insight into the dimensions of leadership. What usually happens is that one or two people diligently work on it while the senior people in the team check their e-mail. If you ever find yourself stuck in this dreary dance you can cut right to the chase.
Joel Barker, the Futurist nailed it: “A Leader is a person you will follow to a place you would not go by yourself.”
The Washington Nationals have such a person. His name is Max Scherzer.
The volumes written about leadership would fill an arena. Ninety-eight percent of it is about supervisory leadership and ninety-eight percent of that is tripe. Much of it was formulated in a brief window in the 1990’s where American companies tried to emulate the success of Japanese industry in empowering career workers. This all went awash when employment became transactional. Company loyalty went from being a valued asset to a disdained liability. The gurus writing the books and giving the six-figure-seminars went away. What they rarely talked about was peer-to-peer leadership. It wasn’t as mysterious. There are only a few elements involved. One is mentoring less experienced peers. The larger priority is to lead by example.
Max’s pitching speaks for itself. One of the statistics favored by many to measure pitcher effectiveness is the WHIP; Walks and Hits per Inning Pitched. Here are Max’s WHIP numbers since coming to Washington: 0.92, 0.97, 0.90, and this year so-far 0.85. Those are spectacular numbers especially for a pitcher averaging over 200 innings per year. Obviously this is someone who works very hard at his craft. As one of the most highly compensated pitchers in the game, he should do so. But, that’s not what makes him a leader.
What got displayed in a few moments on Saturday June 2 at Atlanta provided much more insight into his peer leadership. Operating on a short bench in the 14th inning, manager Dave Martinez sent Max up to the plate to pinch-hit. It isn’t unheard of for a starting pitcher to pinch-hit in extra innings. Max’s batting average in his time here with the Nats is .219. He works at it. So it wasn’t a total shock that he produced a ground ball base hit. Once he became a baserunner with Wilmer Difo batting, the sprint to Home from First Base by Scherzer was a stunner, however.
By now we’ve seen the Statcast numbers: Max covered the distance at a speed of 26.9 feet per second. For some perspective, that puts him in the same speed category as Franmil Reyes and Derek Dietrich, a tick faster than Ryan Braun while a tick slower than Freddy Galvis; roughly 240th out of 440 players tracked. What really catches the eye is how well he hit the bases in stride. That does not happen without work. People often conflate the terms talent and skills. Talent is what you are born with. Hand/eye coordination is talent. Skills are the abilities you develop with the talents given. Running the bases without stutter-stepping or taking long lunges for the bags while hitting each base with the correct foot is a skill. There’s only one way to get it: Practice. What the whole episode tells you is that Max works diligently on running the bases. How many pitchers do that on a serious basis?
Practice for such things as running the bases happens far away from the lights and the crowds. But, it is not unnoticed by teammates and young players. Leading by example is tough work. It requires a lot of discipline.
Lost in all of the celebration and discussion about Max’s pinch-hit and dash home was a bit of irony. When he first arrived in Washington from the Designated Hitter League, Max hurt his thumb in an at-bat in April. His off-the-cuff conversation with Jon Heyman went viral when he described his batting acumen as being equivalent to, “… hitting with a wet newspaper.” He jokingly said that fans deserved better and perhaps a Designated Hitter was in order. He was promptly and very publicly upbraided by the reigning World Series MVP Madison Bumgarner, he being an excellent hitter. The background there is worthy of note. Scherzer had just signed a contract for $30 million a year for 7 years. Bumgarner, a year earlier with 2 World Series rings in possession at the time, had signed a 5 year deal for $35 million total. Two years almost to the day after chastising Scherzer, it was Bumgarner who injured his pitching shoulder with a Grade-2 sprain of the AC joint while riding a motorized dirt bike on an off day in Denver. He apologized to his teammates saying it was, “…not the most responsible decision I’ve made.” Contritions aside, his 2017 season was basically a wipe-out.
Real leadership means doing what you’re supposed to do when no one is watching. Few do that better than Max Scherzer.