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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Between Their Ears

In delivering our Detention Lecture for Yahoo! Sports, Greg and I noted some silver linings about the 2011 Mets, most notably that they had a number of players who made leaps in how you think of them, whether the jump was between “useful player” and “potential star” or “bench guy” and “bona fide regular.” Your roster may vary; mine would include Lucas Duda, Ruben Tejada, Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner, Jon Niese, Dillon Gee and Manny Acosta.

At the same time, the Mets have what seems like an inordinate number of players whose potential seems to defy statistical analysis and depend in part on psychology. At which point, stop a moment. As I’ve written before, I admire sabermetrics because it guards against our innate desire to tell stories, which we do by cherry-picking data points and incidents to construct narratives that may not be justified. But at the same time, there are factors that seem like they’d affect on-field performance while eluding statistical capture. I’m not talking about lazy sports tropes like being a gritty player who elevates his game in the clutch and knows how to win. At least I don’t think that’s what I’m talking about. Rather, I’m interested in things that may have gotten into players’ heads, changing their approach or otherwise distorting their performance. The outcome is measurable; the precipitating factor may not be.

But that may just be storytelling with fancier words. As always, it’s important to look for other potential answers. For instance, has Angel Pagan regressed because he is lazy and/or crazy, or have we just constructed a story around the fact that his 2010 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .331, while this year it recently stood at an unlucky .285? Pagan’s decline in fielding metrics is harder to explain away, but fielding metrics are known to be pretty wonky year-to-year, and isn’t it possible that stewing over things going wrong at the plate hurt Pagan’s play in the field? Similarly, does Bobby Parnell really lack the makeup to be a closer, or do we think he stinks because his opponents’ BABIP has been an eye-popping .362? That raises the distinct possibility that Parnell’s been unlucky, done in by his defense, or both.

That said, though, it does seem — at least to me — like this year’s Mets have a number of players whose scuffling began with something going on between their ears. (Maybe every team has the same amount of guys for whom this seems true. I don’t know.)

This isn’t always a killer. When he came up, the most startling thing about Lucas Duda besides his intimidating stature was how openly he wondered about whether he belonged in the big leagues. Public self-doubt is generally considered a baseball sin (I remember it getting Jason Jacome shipped out rather speedily), but Duda’s power potential and physique let him escape being called “soft” long enough for him to show results on the field, apparently giving him the self-confidence he was missing at first.

Josh Thole admitted earlier this year that he’d let himself get away from his grind-it-out style at the plate, hurting his offensive performance, and it seems plausible that fueled a regression in his work behind the plate.

I’ll leave arguments about just how “big” Citi Field really plays to Jeff Francoeur and analysts, but its psychological effects on Mets hitters are a different matter. Something has happened to Jason Bay in the last two years, causing him to become so befuddled at the plate that he finally decided to rebuild his swing from the ground up, trying to reconstruct what had worked in Pittsburgh and Boston. Something has happened to David Wright in the last three years, suppressing his power numbers and also driving down his on-base percentage. Wright was once a keen-eyed, calm hitter who’d methodically turn an 0-2 hole into a 3-2 count; now, you brace yourself for an anxious expansion of the strike zone. Are Citi Field’s dimensions the culprit? You could argue about that forever, but the correct answer may be “Who cares?” If Wright and Bay think the dimensions are the problem, and have changed swings and plate approaches because of that thought, isn’t that ultimately more important than the reality of what hit-trackers show?

Then there’s Mike Pelfrey. Sigh.

I long ago made Big Pelf into my latest Mets scapegoat, so this is obviously full of confirmation bias. That said, Jesus does he ever wear a fan out, whether it’s losing his cool on the mound, seeming hopelessly confused about how to use his pitches, being helpless at home, needing Wright and a procession of personal catchers to keep him focused, or too many other things that have made him far less than the sum of his parts. If you could stick the brain of R.A. Dickey or Johan Santana in Pelf’s skull, I really think he’d win 18 games every year. But Pelf has to rely on his own gray matter, and so there he was tonight in the bottom of the fifth, approaching Cardinal batters like a spooked horse, paying no attention to runners and forgetting to back up plays in the infield. It’s beyond frustrating by now.

The rest of the game was actually pretty fun, at least until the Cardinals administered a sound beating to 2012 tenured relievers Tim Byrdak and D.J. Carrasco. Before their misfortunes, this was an entertaining game that had you half-expecting to see Davey Johnson and Whitey Herzog glowering at each other across the infield, possibly culminating in Tony Pena trying to confiscate Howard Johnson’s bat. After the Mets cuffed Edwin Jackson around, Kyle McClellan approached his assignment more like George McClellan facing the Army of Northern Virginia, dithering and procrastinating and proving unable to either field a bunt or throw a strike. (Though could the Mets please stop bunting, seeing how a] it’s stupid; and b] they suck at it?) Then there was the shocking sight of Octavio Dotel, who about five minutes ago was a lithe Mets rookie trying to no-hit the Padres and is now somehow a pudgy-looking 37-year-old journeyman. Other things I’ll remember: Ruben Tejada coolly gunning down Rafael Furcal on a bang-bang play at first, and the horrific, metronomic-like regularity of having to face Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman.

Watching Josh Stinson stare in at Thole’s mitt in unfortunate conjunction with Pujols’ bat, I wondered if they speak of the El Hombre in hushed tones in the clubhouses of Savannah and Binghamton, speaking of his alleged weaknesses in fearful whispers. You know what? If they don’t, they should.

16 comments to Between Their Ears

  • Ken K. in NJ

    Watching last night’s game, I started to notice resemblances to the Sunday 10/4/64 game against the Cards (which had a lot more “spoiler” potential than this one).

    In my young teen memory that was the most exciting Met weekend ever up until that point, and for several years beyond that. (Do I smell a Happy Recap Game 160 or 161 coming up??)

    Mets came from behind early, held tight for a while in the middle innings until the relievers let the game get away. Final score then: 11-5, now 11-6.

    • Joe D.

      Yup, remember that weekend well. If the Mets won that Sunday Casey’s Amazins’ would have caused a headache of a three-way tie between the Cardinals, Phillies and Reds.

      I too hought it was going to be a great day since we again held a 4-3 lead and Joe Christopher already got a hit his first at bat to secure a .300 batting average (he needed to go just 1 for 6 be guaranteed an even .300 average). Then it went all downhill. Joe got none his last five turns at bat and finished with that even .300 which I thought would be a bit higher. Then the Cardinals got a wiff of how Philadelphia was creaming Cincinnati by the fans (most had transitor radios and heard the game locally so they knew before players or anyone else what had happened) and that’s all they needed.

      But going into Friday night, both the Reds and Phillies would have been happy knowing the Mets had taken two out of three in St. Louis.

  • One other thing that Bay and Wright have in common – concussions. Baseball is a game that’s mostly played between the ears and honestly, a head injury can change the way you approach things, even subconsciously. I honestly don’t think these guys are right yet, and may not ever be able to get to the levels that they were. (I mean, let’s face it, those were very high levels – all-star borderline superstar levels). I wouldn’t be surprised if they never get back there, sad to say.

    For whatever reason, Pagan put it all together last year and was able to focus in ways he never had before or since. Maybe the fact that he never knew where he was going to play or where he would be in the batting order helped. Fact is, he is an inconsistent player, and always will be.

    Pelfrey is an innings eater, not much else. He’s going to become a pretty good #5 or middle innings guy, unless he visits Roger Craig and learns an out pitch. At his best, he might morph into a Ramiro Mendoza type, but probably not here.

    • That’s a very good point re Wright and Bay, though I might apply it more to Wright as his concussion came from being skulled with a pitch. It’s shocking how little we still understand concussions and their effects.

      With Pelf, I’m working on reluctantly accepting that his 200 IP a year are worth the relatively modest salary he’ll make in 2012, since otherwise you wind up mixing and matching equally lousy guys to get there. But I don’t like it. He’s become Livan Hernandez — his durability means he’s out there being crappy every fifth day. FANTASTIC!

      • Joe D.

        “his durability means he’s out there being crappy every fifth day.”

        But Jason, that’s what basically what I had said about Chris Cappuano with his similair performance.

        • Expectations are and should be totally different — Pelfrey has front-of-the-rotation stuff and no injury history, while Capuano has been extensively surgically repaired and is basically out there mixing pitches and trying to outthink guys. Capuano is another guy who’d add several wins to Pelf’s line if you performed a brain transplant.

          • Joe D.

            Hi Jason,

            Maybe it is because many only had modest expectations for Capuano and too much for Pelfrey but Mike had a lot to prove, at least to me, this season because players have always hit him (.282 against batting average lifetime) and was too often in and out of trouble throughout his young career than I could be comfortable with.

            While he had his best season in 2010 he also started off hot and finished it quite cold. Even then he was hit for a .275 clip (.255 was the league average). His other decent year, 2008, batters still hit him for a .276 mark (.260 league average)

            Yes, one feels bad for the injuries that cut short Capuano’s career which is unfair but still, neither Chris or Mike gave me confidence coming into this season and thus I had low expectations for each. If Capuano’s performance is considered decent enough for the back end of the rotation, then so should Pefrey’s for it was the Mets who touted him as their ace this season and set him up for so much criticism.

            Both eat up innings yet Capuano’s performance otherwise is glossed over while, like Pelfrey, he too is out there being crappy every fifth day and after the first week or so of the season, it doesn’t matter what position in the rotation one is for each gets about the same number of starts as the other.

  • Florida Met Fan Rich

    I just wish this season would end NOW!…Before we end up in the basement!

  • open the gates

    From now on, that’s my new name for him. Mike Pelfrey Sigh.

    Related to Aaron Heilman Sigh, Paul Wilson Sigh, Bill Pulsipher Sigh, Anthony (“No Cy”) Young Sigh, and, yes, Octavio Dotel Sigh.

    Why is it that whenever the Mets talk about their latest up-and-coming pitching phenom superstar, I want to run for the hills?

  • Guy Kipp

    Octavio Dotel is precisely the kind of “low-cost” option I could envision the Mets entrusting with the closer role in 2012.

  • Flip

    Jason, you know I love ya, baby, but you’re killin’ me with Manny I’llCostYou. How many times do we have to watch this guy walk the ballpark, not to mention the tying and winning runs.

    Vis a vis David Wright, he admitted in a Daily News article Sunday that he’s put it all on his shoulders (i.e. the precipitous fall of the last several years,) and has become frustrated and “jumpy” and gotten into some bad habits. It’s always looked that way to me. These guys are human, and this game is famous for being between the ears, as you say. It’s the most reasonable explanation for a guy completely changing his make-up going into what should be his prime years. Heck, his first several years were, indeed, all-star level. But the last 2 ½ years he’s turned into a strike-out machine, lunging at balls he used to spit at. Patient hitter to impatient hitter, hmmmm let me see, what would cause that?!

    Vis a vis the rest of the team, Alderson’s biggest challenge, besides the utterly ineffective bull-pen, is that he’s got a ton of guys right now who’ll ultimately be average, though game and occasionally excellent, major league players. You can leave Lucas off that list, but otherwise these guys are small pieces, at best. Worst of all, your remaining star players are all head and/or health cases with the exception of Dickey. Not just anyone can play in New York, big ballpark or not. You need guys that can thrive in this pressure cooker. Ever notice that the Mets often tend to have a better record on the road, especially in the last few years? There’s a reason for that. Some guys can perform when they put extra pressure on themselves and some guys can’t. Some guys change what they do (see Bay and Wright) and some guys just won’t.

    And lastly, what really scares me is the signing of Byrdak and Carrasco for next year. These are guys that on a very good team are the very last two in the bull-pen pecking order. I’m guessing/praying that Alderson did that because they were super low cost options.

    So, thanks for bringing up the mental part of the game. The little optimism I have left stems from the fact that Alderson’s the kind of guy that WILL take that into consideration. Talent is not enough. Yeah, let Pelf eat up some innings at the back of the rotation, as long as you don’t give him Oliver Perez type money (that stupid @%^#& Minaya,) but please let’s look at the grit and swagger that Cashen brought here in the 80’s and go for that from now on. Do you think Alderson reads blogs? Does he know what they are?

    • Hey Flip, I think Sandy’s too busy to read blogs, but he certainly knows what they are and keeps a finger on the fan pulse. He spoke to a bunch of us bloggers back in spring training and treated it with the same seriousness and professionalism as any other media session, which was awesome.

      Re my roster of improved players, I actually think Duda, Tejada, Murphy and Niese can all be front-line players and potential stars, though both Duda and Murph will always be guys you try and hide on the field. I’d classify Gee, Acosta and Turner more as useful pieces, which isn’t meant as damning with faint praise. Acosta’s actually been quite good this year, as has Byrdak. Everybody has a horrible outing once in a while.

  • Eugene R.

    As a SABR member and fan of sabermetrics, I appreciate your caution against confirmation bias when we tell stories about our favorite players (my own pet peeve being sportswriters who use terms like “chemistry” and “leadership” to mean “I really like this guy for no demonstrable reason”). I also second your notion that the psychological factors of performance can certainly be important, if not readily capturable by our current statistical methods (if ever).

    Which leads me to add my comment on Mr. Pelfrey. Aside from the negative impact of having one of the worst nicknames in MLB (“Big Pelf”? Really? Sounds like an outsized legendary trapper of hairy beasts), I suspect that the pressure of being the No. 1 starter and the expectations thereof are a serious detriment to his performance. Is it a coincidence that his best seasons are 2008 and 2010, when Johan Santana first arrived and when he was relatively healthy. Even in 2009, Pelfrey has a decent early season (3.88 ERA at the end of May) and then goes wonky around the time that Santana’s elbow does likewise. Perhaps it is a mere happenstance. But I would keep Pelfrey in the rotation provided he could be “protected” by having a bigger name around to take on the pressure of being the “ace” of the staff.

    • Thanks Eugene — glad to hear you say that. I tried to avoid toppling over into storytelling in that one. Not sure I entirely succeeded, but I’m fighting against my own wiring….