Fantasy: Half Mentalby Kent Williams
June 16, 2006
Yogi’s equation, “90% of this game is half mental,” understates the case for a few players; 100% of some careers are 100% dependent on state of mind. Countless "can’t-miss" talents excel in the minors, only to disappoint on the big stage. We’ll never know how many were derailed by problems between their cap and collar before reaching the majors. Would Rick Ankiel’s unfortunate meltdown have occurred in Triple-A? Would anyone have noticed?
The polarized debate between scouts and statheads neglects mental illness on both sides. Baseball men fear it, analysts can’t measure it. Consider the national statistics for depression and bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.—why would athletes (and coaches) be immune? Alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive gambling and other addictions are also prevalent in society, but our culture encourages secrecy. Especially in baseball, it’s shameful to admit that a problem is “all in your head.”
Lou Gehrig’s legacy reminds us how a tragic, visible disease inspires compassion. We fondly remember what might have been for talented players felled by injury. Yet empathy for players whose performances suffer due to brain chemistry is practically non-existent. Jocks are supposed to "cowboy up" if whatever bothers them can’t be numbed with pain-killers, treated by antibiotics, or surgically repaired.
These hidden medical conditions can be more serious health threats than the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Moral indignation about steroids and HGH abounds in many quarters, while problems that deserve at least as much attention are taboo: swept under the rug by the industry, overlooked by the media and ignored by fans.
One perfectly valid reason there’s so little information about mental disorders is a player’s right to privacy. When Dewon Brazelton goes AWOL after being demoted, pundits can easily dismiss it as selfish or immature behavior. More likely is that he was in emotional agony. Few reporters are insensitive enough to pry into personal lives, and nobody involved wants to volunteer details.
If you’re still reading, you may be asking, “How does this mumbo-jumbo apply to fantasy baseball?”
There’s no diagnostic formula; it requires observation and interpretation, which I believe you Internet-savvy youngsters call a WAG. Keep in mind, although I’m not a certified psychotherapist, it’s common knowledge that I’m certifiable.
Don’t Think, Meat
Sudden, dramatic improvement or a mysterious, gradual decline can be explained in different ways. Speculation about being on (or going off) the juice is quite popular lately. Often, you can “toss out” slumps for reasons of injury; every year a few misguided heroes neglect to tell anyone about nagging pain. Their stats may suffer for a month or more before they admit the deception and finally go on the DL. It’s quite similar for “personal” problems.
Zack Greinke had a horrible year in 2005. There’s no way to calculate exactly how much his performance on the mound was compromised by mental and emotional factors. At 21, experiencing failure for the first time with everybody watching, it’s a quick leap from believing you’re invincible to wondering if you’re over-hyped. We can assume there were times Zack felt like Steve Blass, who recalled, “I was out on the mound in a major league game, knowing that I shouldn't be there. That was, to me, embarrassing and humiliating.”
I always hope, for any such player’s sake, that he returns to previously-established form, or becomes better than ever. But fantasy baseball has no room for sentiment. Deciding to use a precious roster spot should always be based on positional need and a risk/reward estimate. If Greinke’s a free agent, why not take the chance that he’s about to write a new chapter in a KC success story?
It’s been done before. Roy Halladay threw a near-perfect game as a 21-year-old September callup in 1998. Plummeting from “sky’s the limit” phenom to complete disaster (10.64 ERA, 2.20 WHIP) in less than two years was part mechanical, part mental. Pitching coach Mel Queen deserves much credit for getting “Doc” to fulfill his Cy Young potential. Sent all the way back to Single-A, he incorporated several major technical adjustments before slowly working his way back to the Show, one level at a time.
Sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, author of several books on the mental aspects of baseball, played a simultaneous, equally crucial role in the pitcher’s renaissance. When he returned to Toronto, Halladay's fastball had noticeably more movement, and his curveball spun tighter. Those of us paying close attention to his body language and facial expressions became even more optimistic about the rebuilding job’s success. Keeper-league owners who ignored Halladay’s “inexplicable” 2000 season and picked him up cheap for the second half of 2001 did extremely well for the next couple of years.
Unfortunately, not every psychological saga has a happy ending. Take Oliver Perez. Please.
When I watched him on TV in March during the World Baseball Classic, the lefty’s mind seemed as messed up as his mechanics. A recently-published fantasy tip sheet had Perez rated about 100 positions higher than Chris Young, my #1 breakout pick. Fuelled by a few pints at a Toronto “Beer Club” meeting, I ridiculed the notion that Perez had even the slightest chance to duplicate his promising 2004 and “guaranteed” that he wouldn’t come close to Young’s fantasy value in 2006. One of those friendly wagers ensued. While perhaps not statistically sound, my instincts were correct.
During 2005, while trying to explain his decline, I developed a plausible scenario. Imagine you’re 23 years old with an incredible arm: 239 strikeouts, a 2.98 ERA. But your team finishes more than 30 games off the pace, so nobody notices. A Mexican who pitched like this in San Diego would be treated like royalty. With you, the Padres would be a contending team and you'd be the most popular guy in Tijuana year-round. Instead, you’re stuck indefinitely in Pittsburgh, not exactly a border town, playing in obscurity for a league laughingstock. At 24, after a winter of celebrating your success, you could lose some motivation and begin a downward spiral.
For whatever reason, Perez unravelled last season, and still looks lost. Inspired a few weeks ago to pitch better for three start after being skipped in the rotation, he has since relapsed into bad habits again. I’m not sure how to explain his latest solid outing against the Cardinals. Maybe, with Kip Wells expected to return from the DL soon, the kid realized how close he is getting to a change of scenery, namely Indianapolis.
If Perez is traded, and has been dropped in your league, be ready to pounce. That might be all it takes to relocate his missing fastball and consistency. Until then, my sympathies to his fantasy owners, the Pirates coaching staff, and general manager Dave Littlefield. Hard to say who’s more frustrated.
Corey Patterson, center fielder on the 20-20 All-Stars, has been running wild, dropping down gorgeous bunt singles, robbing people of homers and best of all, inciting Larry Bowa. Nobody watching him closely in 2005, least of all the Cubs front office, saw this coming. The Orioles, and Corey’s fantasy owners, hit the lottery.
While it could turn out to be nothing more than two flukey months before he soon regresses, fellow armchair shrinks have noticed how Patterson’s demeanor has changed. Alternately tentative and tense last year, he's grown increasingly confident this year since those horrible first two weeks. Dusty Baker’s legion of critics will enjoy assigning him 100% of the blame for a “tough love” approach that had Patterson looking over his shoulder trying too hard. Sam Perlozzo and his staff deserve kudos for recognizing Patterson’s sensitivity and providing a more nurturing environment. The lion’s share of the credit, as always, goes to the player.
Blind Squirrel Award: One of numerous middle infielders I’ve employed and released, Alex Cintron exploded with two homers, four steals and a .474 average over six starts. Owners who picked him up at the right time could get even luckier, if Jose Uribe’s season-long flirtation with the Mendoza Line continues much longer.
Sent down to Syracuse to forget his fielding problems at shortstop and get some innings at second base, Russ Adams hit .338/.400/.500 in 68 at-bats, including a 4-for-4 game with four RBIs. It was expected that he’d be gone for at least a month, but backup infielder John McDonald got hurt and the emergency replacements were woefully inadequate. The former #1 pick, back to stay, is worth picking up if he was dropped in your league.
Adams isn't completely out of the psychological woods. Every throwing error at his new position will remind some observer —especially the poison pen of the Toronto Star, Geoff Baker—of Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch. As long as Adams stays confident and relaxed in the field, expect his hitting to improve. Manager John Gibbons showed his faith by inserting Adams into the leadoff spot on Thursday. (Vernon Wells got the day off; he’ll usually bat ninth.)
Opportunity is more significant than state of mind. Willy Taveras was supposed to be the icing on the stolen base cake for me in BBFL; now he appears to have lost his job. When Phil Garner decided that Chris Burke was fine in center field and then plugged him into the 3-hole, his already rising fantasy value soared. Yesterday, when the skipper used Burke at second to give Craig Biggio a day off, Taveras got his first start in a week. Dealing with rust and Carlos Zambrano, his 0-4 was no surprise.
Now that the Twins have given up on Tony Batista, at-bats are up for grabs. Manager Ron Gardenhire is pumping sunshine in the direction of Terry Tiffee, but had Nick Punto at third, batting second, on Wednesday. If Gardy shows the same impatience with shortstop Jason Bartlett that he has in the past, Little Nicky could have some value for a while in deep leagues.
Character Doesn’t Count
Esteban Loaiza has never been forgiven by Blue Jays fans for costing millions of dollars and Michael Young, then pitching poorly and indifferently. Driving 120 MPH, drunk, at 3:30 a.m. is an unusual way to prepare for a start 36 hours later, even for an enigma.
Some will connect a drinking problem with his abysmal performance in April. My theory is that his tremendous effort in the WBC was too much, too soon for a 35-year-old, and he couldn’t pitch through the subsequent “dead arm” or pain. His June 8 return was promising, then yesterday, under the media microscope after his arrest, he settled down after a shaky beginning and kept his team in the game.
This incident could turn out to be a much-needed wakeup call for Loaiza, whose talent has always tantalized. Perhaps he’ll even get some help. Though hard to like, he’s a potential bargain pickup in many leagues.
That’s one of the biggest differences between building a fantasy team and a real ballclub. Chemistry isn’t a category.
References and Resources
Erratic Pitching—performance anxiety of baseball players
Baseball Digest, August, 2001 by Jack Etkin
Kent Williams is a Toronto baseball coach, former ESPN.com fantasy correspondent, and founder of Batter's Box. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions via e-mail.