baseball gods productions

Thoughts about baseball, from the perspective of sports psychology and the role of sports in society. It includes team and player analysis, predictions, and what I think needs to be changed in Major League Baseball. Brought to you from the heart of baseball, Brooklyn, by baseball gods productions.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Gritty and Pretty, Part One

Just when I counted the Mets out for the season, they shocked me by winning two of three in Fenway Park. I expected them to win one game at the most, and only because Johan Santana was pitching the first game Friday night.

Saturday's game was one of those delicious baseball games that I thought Boston had about a 99% chance of winning, and yet, in the most stunning of 9th innings you will ever see, the Mets scored two runs on a disputed homerun by my new favorite, rookie catcher Omir Santos, off one of the most dominant closers in the world, the Irish Jig master himself, Jonathan Papelbon.

The bottom of the ninth was almost as amazing as the Mets' infield defense channeled their 1999 version and made one great play after another to preserve the victory for substitute closer J. J. Putz, who weirdly throws the ball five miles per hour faster when the scoreboard says it's the 9th inning rather than the 8th. (Can't the CitiField scoreboard operators just pretend it's the 9th inning whenever this guy pitches?)

I've been saying for years that the Mets have a lot of talent, but they lack the killer instinct necessary to be a championship team. Several years ago I came up with a list of psychological skills a team or an individual needs to be a winner in professional baseball (or other sports):

1. handling adversity
2. maintaining success/killer instinct
3. handling pressure (of the situation or the setting, such as New York)
4. seizing opportunity/handling expectations and hype

This year, I realize there is one crucial mental skill that is needed in order to win:

5. baseball instinct

The Mets have been handling adversity quite well the past few days, as almost half the team is injured to some degree or another, including most of their big stars, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Francisco Rodriguez, J. J. Putz, and several of their important role players, Alex Cora, Oliver Perez, and Brian Schneider.

Their ability to maintain success is generally weak, often following up a hot streak with a streak of dreadful play that causes the fans to question the team's toughness. They have been one of the streakiest teams the past few years, although it seems that this year every team is going through a series of alternating extreme hot and extreme cold streaks that stand out for being so unexpected. The Red Sox, Marlins, Orioles, and Padres are a few teams that have been particularly volatile.

Handling pressure is something the Mets struggle with. The pressure of living up to Johan Santana's greatness usually causes the team to make too many mental and physical mistakes whenever he pitches. His last start on Friday, it seemed like Santana simply decided that he was going to win no matter what his teammates did. The Mets' broadcasters made the same point during the series, and it rang true. Maybe the team can rise above that specific pressure from now on. Unfortunately, the general New York fan/media pressure seems to defeat the team as often as their opponents.

As for seizing opportunity, well, Omir Santos has totally demonstrated that ability. If the Mets send him down when Schneider comes back from the disabled list, then the Mets really don't deserve to win this year. Omir Santos has shown me that he is the best all-around catcher of the three. If I were the GM, I would look to trade either Castro or Schneider, and keep Santos as the starter. I know that won't happen because contracts and reputation are overvalued and performance is somehow undervalued in today's baseball economics.

Santos is one of the few gritty, intense players, and they need his energy. The Mets have too many pretty players (Beltran and Reyes above all), and not enough gritty players (Santana, Santos, Cora). They have a few players who have the potential to be gritty players but aren't quite there yet, for various reasons.

David Wright seems to be evolving into a gritty leader, but it is a long process. Ryan Church seemed like the kind of guy who would run through a wall to make a catch, but between all the concussions and his weird relationship with Jerry Manuel, his grittiness seems to be evaporating this year. I don't expect him to last the year with the Mets, as it seems like he has some kind of mental obstacle that he needs to overcome, and New York might not be the place to do that kind of deep growth work. He has struggled with overcoming adversity, maintaining success, and seizing opportunity in the past two years, and missing third base the other night is a clear example of missing baseball instinct or even self-sabotage.

Daniel Murphy is a gritty player with (usually) good baseball instinct that is struggling mightily this year with the heightened expectations of the team and the fans. I think he will be fine; I'm glad he's at first base, where he belongs. He reminds me of John Maine in that they both put extra pressure on themselves to be perfect, and it hurts them more than it helps. Perfectionism doesn't work in baseball, or in anything else for that matter. Murphy and Maine need to learn to relax and just play within their talents. They are both very talented young players, and should have successful careers with the right coaching and support from teammates and, dare I say, fans.

Delgado and Castillo have been disappointing more for a lack of leadership than for anything they have done on the field this year. I think they have both struggled in making the New York adjustment. Delgado doesn't seem to like the fans very much, nor the media, or maybe his injuries have kept him from taking an active leadership role. In any event, he is very smart and very talented, and the younger Mets need him to step up when he comes back, or else it's time to consider trading him at the trade deadline and giving Murphy first base for the rest of the year and beyond.

Castillo has played well, but I still get the feeling that he will disappear one way or another when the Mets most need him. With Alex Cora hurt, a Castillo injury would be disastrous unless Tatis can play second base well enough to handle the position for an extended period.

Ramon Martinez had an impressive rebound from his horrible start, at least defensively, which is what they need from him right now. I didn't realize that he was actually still rehabbing from a sports hernia when they abruptly called him up. He has handled adversity remarkably well. They still need Cora back as soon as possible, and off course Reyes needs to be healthy and happy, at least until they trade him for Roy Halladay and Marco Scutaro (in my perfect gritty world).

Caroms Off the Wall

David Ortiz is having the same first half this year as Carlos Delgado had last year. Let's hope his second half is as good as Delgado's was last year. I doubt it, though. There is no way he is only 33 years old, by the way. More like 37.

© Judy Kamilhor 2009


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