Hire oddball talent, observed Tom Peters in his heyday as Guru du Jour. He was telling business leaders to look beyond pedigree, beyond the right schools or consultancies and devel0p staff that had the skills and drive to succeed.
Credit the Seattle Mariners for doing just that with Felix Hernandez, their baby-faced Venezuelan pitcher who first started playing for them while a teenager. Baseball history is littered with the remnants of Cooperstown busts created too early for teen phenoms, but the Mariners stuck by their man. And Felix Hernandez was consistently on the brink of greatness. Each season, as he crossed into his early 20s, the young man they call “King Felix” pitched between 190 and 200 innings of major league baseball. Each year, he struck out between 165 and 176 batters. But he never had a winning season. All the signs pointed to one, but for four years, Hernandez consistently lost more games than he won.
Credit the Mariners then, not for seeing what everyone else saw in those flashes of brilliance, but for sticking by their guy. They didn’t overpay for what was delivered, but did boost his salary more than $100,000 in 2008, a sign that they liked what they saw. Then the breakthrough. Felix Hernandez led or was near the top rank in every major pitching category he qualified for during 2009. He was selected as an All-Star. He won 19 games, losing only 5, and stepped up his pitching from “lots of potential” to “brilliant”. Handled the ball every 5 days from May 8 to the end of the season, a span of 26 games, Hernandez consistently threw 100 pitches and deep into the game, allowing the bullpen to rest. The team’s pitching workhorse did all this for a team that won slightly more games than they lost.
ESPN has a fun tool called the Cy Young Predictor. The model uses a formula crafted by two highly respected statisticians and predicts the winner of each league’s Cy Young Award, given to that season’s best pitcher. The model awards Hernandez the most points in either league, and the closest competitor in his league trails by more than 7%. Assuming the model and pundits are correct, Felix Hernandez will receive a Cy Young Award this month at the age 0f 23.
That outcome wasn’t always expected, even during this year. Hernandez reeled off four straight victories and then lost three straight games. His career won and loss record stood at 43-39, respectable and average. Then Hernandez went the rest of year winning 15 games and losing only 2. In any occupation, from baseball pitching to marketing to practicing law or medicine to painting, we all have opportunities to show our potential. The smart leader that recognizes and nurtures potential among quirky talent, even a teen phenom who hadn’t yet developed, can be rewarded many times over for patience and guidance. One year doesn’t make a career in any of those occupations, but credit the Seattle Mariners for realizing the talent they had on board needed time to develop.