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Between Their Ears

In delivering our Detention Lecture [1] 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 [2], 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 [3] 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 [4]? 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 [5], 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 [6] 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.