Can You Teach Old Dogs New Tricks?

man holding two baseballs

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is one of those statements we’ve heard so much that it just rolls right off the tongue. I must admit it is something I have said about others, and even myself. I guess when you are bald, and in business, you have become an “old dog” at some point along the journey.

The problem with this statement, however, is that research proves that it’s simply not true.

In their riveting book The MVP Machine, authors Ben Lindberg and Travis Sawchik talk about how professional baseball is embracing technology to increase player development. The authors credit Carol Dweck throughout the book, so I feel like I should mention her here as well. Her 2006 book entitled Mindset falls in my recommended “must reads” for all leaders.

The MVP Machine talks about several Major League baseball players throughout the book, but the section on Justin Verlander caught my attention. I was reading the book during the 2019 season which has been has arguably been one of his best. He has always been great. What did he need to improve? I wondered. Verlander’s statistics seem to prove that you can, indeed, teach an old dog new tricks.

A quick disclaimer: I know the mention of baseball statistics may send some of you running, but hang with me. You don’t need to fully understand these statistics to see the point I am getting at. All you need to know about Verlander is that he has been one of baseball’s best pitchers since the early 2000s. That being so, he was still traded from one organization — the Detroit Tigers — to the Houston Astros, with the latter being on the forefront of embracing the use of technology (cameras, trackman, etc.) to improve and develop the performance of their players. That’s when things really got fun.

Prior to being traded to the Astros, Justin Verlander threw fastballs 57% of the time and sliders (think a pitch with horizontal movement) 18% of the time, according to the baseball website Fangraphs. The MVP Machine describes his experience coming on board the Houston Astros and being subject to their performance improvement technology. First off, their video analysis suggested that his “2-seam fastball” wasn’t nearly as effective as his “4-seam fastball” (the general difference being in how one grips the baseball). In essence, they informed Verlander that while his “4-seam” was one of the best in the league, his “2-seam” was average at best. Why not ditch that pitch and throw all “4-seam” fastballs, they asked? Furthermore, they believed the data indicated he could be a more effective pitcher by throwing more sliders because the movement was harder for hitters to hit. Why not throw more of them as well? You can judge for yourself if Verlander heeded their advice:

2017: Fastballs 57%, Sliders 18%
2019: Fastballs 51%, Sliders 27.5%

I didn’t mention Curveballs (vertical and horizontal movement of the ball) above, but even they rose from 15.9 to 17.3%! Thus, presently 44.8% of Verlander’s pitches are either sliders or curves. This might not seem like much, but it keeps hitters from knowing what is coming. This all leads to the most important question: Did it work? Let’s look at Verlander’s contact percentage–the total percentage of contact made when hitters swing at pitches thrown–to examine.

2017: Contact percentage 77.8%
2019: Contact percentage 69.8%

While this is only one metric (and you can surf Fangraphs for all of them if you would like), it is clear that Justin Verlander is having more success getting balls past opposing batters post trade.

Would you take an 8% improvement from your team today?

Hopefully, you get the point I am trying to make. By using the resources available, and believing he could still —closer to the end than the beginning of his career —get better, Justin Verlander has once again become an elite pitcher.

It turns out you can teach old dogs new tricks.

Embrace this reality because it means that everyone on your team, including you, can still get better.