Figuring Out Jason Bay’s Slump

>If you have been watching the New York Mets attempt baseball recently, you may have noticed that the middle of the lineup – David Wright, Jason Bay, and Jeff Francoeur – is currently buried in what we refer to as a slump. Until last night, Wright was languishing in the swamps of “0-3 with a walk” and Francoeur, who somehow managed to master and then immediately un-master the tenets of plate discipline in a three week period, was thrashing about in an oh-for streak that lasted 24 at-bats. And then you have Jason Bay, who is slugging .293 on the year – or, to put it another way, Jason Bay’s current slugging percentage is lower than Jeff Francoeur’s current on-base percentage. So . . . yeah. Whatever way you look at it, Jason Bay is in a slump. And so you get all sorts of answers about what Bay needs to do to break out of his slump – answers like the lineup needs to be rearranged around him, or if he needs a day off to clear his head, or he needs to hit behind Jose Reyes, or he needs to get on the road and away from New York, or whatever else anyone thinks will get him going.

I sometimes think baseball slumps are dealt with in a strikingly similar way to how warts were dealt with in the medieval ages. Which is to say, primitively – not to offend any of my medieval readers aware of this blog via hot tub time machine, of course. No one really seems to know what CAUSES slumps, though there are plenty of theories for each individual slump – he’s dropping his hands, his front shoulder is opening up, his back shoulder is dropping, he’s starting his swing too early, he’s starting his swing too late, he’s lost at the plate, he has a bad approach at the plate, he’s intimidated at the plate, he’s overeager at the plate, he’s not seeing the ball well at the plate, he’s pressing at the plate – but there’s not one generally accepted cause for the common slump. Ultimately, slumps seem to mysteriously appear and disappear of their own accord – much like how warts must have appeared to a medieval person. Unsightly nuisances that depart with time.

But that doesn’t keep people from trying to fix slumps, or warts. Let’s see how much we’ve advanced as a society. First, for example’s sake, here is a medieval cure for warts – albeit from a dubious Internet source, but, hey, it’s the Internet, so what isn’t dubious:

“Procure a live eel – fresh or salt water – and cut off its head. Then anoint those parts of the body afflicted with warts, using the fresh blood of the eel. Allow to stand until the blood dries. Do not wash off for at least three days. Bury the head of the eel deep in the earth. Remember where you buried it, so you can check its decomposition. As the head of the eel rots over time, the warts will disappear.“

I know, I know – AWESOME!

Anyway, before we go judging inhabitants of the 12th century as being silly, superstitious fools that do disgusting things, let’s compare their methods for curing warts with the modern day slump-busting method of world champion baseball players:

Yankee slugger Jason Giambi wears a gold lamé, tiger-stripe thong under his uniform when he wants to break out of a slump – and he shares it with hitless teammates who want to get back on track.

“I only put it on when I’m desperate to get out of a big slump,” he tells Portfolio.com.

Over the years, the 37-year-old All-Star has left the “golden thong” in the lockers of slumping teammates Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Johnny Damon, Robin Ventura and Robinson Cano.

“All of them wore it and got hits,” he reports. “The thong works every time.”

Works every time! Look how far we’ve come! Take that, Dark Ages!

Baseball is an intensely repetitive game, which in turn leads to it becoming an intensely superstitious one. Over the course of a six month, 162-game season, players hop over foul lines every time they run onto and off the field, and they try to feel out which bats have hits hidden in them. Two seasons ago, the Mets made PR man Jay Horwitz wear a hideous orange jacket until a winning streak ended. A young Turk Wendell would brush his teeth in the dugout between innings, among other numerous odd things he was famed for. Wade Boggs was sure to eat a chicken meal before every single game. Players do all these seemingly odd and unnecessary things in the name of pleasing Lady Luck, to whom they believe they are all enslaved. And they do it day after day after day, because over the course of 162 games there are HUNDREDS of opportunities for one’s luck to change. How do you ward off bad luck? You put on a tiger striped thong, of course. You adhere to superstition.

A funny thing about the downpour of statistics, which in a way aimed to drive some superstitions out of the game and destroy the culture of willful ignorance that still pervades baseball, is that it has ultimately proven the players right in their superstitions. This is not to say that hopping over the foul lines or wearing gold thongs is a guaranteed method for breaking out of a slump, at least not anymore than rubbing warts with eel blood is a guaranteed method for removing warts. Rather, it has proven that baseball players actually are immensely enslaved to luck. The old belief was that good luck and bad luck balanced itself out over a long season. As it turns out, that’s not true. A baseball season is long, but it’s not nearly long enough to render luck meaningless. The players are on to something with all their attempts to control the uncontrollable beast of luck. The difference between a great season and a poor one often comes down, really, to their lot in luck.

Pitchers are especially easily victimized by bad luck, or helped by good luck. We know now that pitchers really only have control over their walks and strikeouts, if they give up more fly balls or more ground balls, and home runs allowed – but some luck comes into the home runs as well. Outside of that, everything else is up to their defense and luck, two things they cannot control.

I suspect most people intuitively know that luck is important to pitching, even if they’ve never actually said those words to themselves. If you see a starting pitcher put two men on base in the first inning, in the second inning, and then again in the third inning, but escape each time unscored upon, you sense that the start is just a time bomb waiting to go off – even if you’re not sure why. You know he’s been shaky, because most people realize that someone allowing a ton of base runners is going to get burned eventually. On the B-side of luck, if you see a pitcher induce a dinky pop fly that lands just out of the reach of his second baseman’s glove, you know that the pitcher has done his job well, and was just the victim of poor luck. Luck plays an enormous part in a pitcher’s success and failures.

It’s not just the pitchers who are affected by luck – so much of hitting also falls under that domain too. The difference between a .275 hitter and a .300 hitter is just ONE hit slipping through the defense every two weeks. Hitters have a little bit more control over whether or not a ball put in play turns into a hit than the pitchers do, but not that much more.

I think this is another one of those things everyone instinctively knows, even if they’ve never said it before. Scott Podsednik, a career .279 hitter, was batting .449 going into yesterday’s games. Does anyone actually think Scott Podsednik woke up on opening day, shouted “EUREKA”, and suddenly became the greatest hitter ever? Or is he just getting a bit lucky right now, as more than half the balls he puts in play are falling in for hits? I suspect most people, even if they don’t know what BABIP is, know that Scott Podsednik has not suddenly become Ted Williams, and that
he’s going to come down to earth soon enough. Hitters, like the pitchers, find themselves owing much of their perceived successes and failures to luck.

Ultimately, it makes a plenty of sense that baseball players spend so much time on superstition and ritual. So much of their livlihood, day to day, week to week, season to season, depends on the uncontrollable generosity of chance. It’s human nature to try to exert control over things we can’t or couldn’t previously control, be it through superstition, technology, or violence. We used to have rain dances, and now we have cloud seeding – we like to try to figure out how things work, mostly to see if we can control them better. Hence, baseball statistics.

This loosely brings us back to the idea of a slump. But first – what is exactly defines a slump, anyway? Is going 0-6 over two games a slump? 0 for 13? 2 for 25? 5 for 45? Are all those examples slumps, only in varying degrees of slumpiness? Isn’t being mired in a two-week, 4-45 stretch worse than going 0-6 over two games? How can we describe those two things of vastly differing length with the same term, slump? It’s is such a loose term – saying someone is in a slump is like saying you’ve had a bad hamburger. Was it bad as in it did not taste good, or was it bad as in you just lost fifteen liquid pounds over the past 24 hours? It’s an important distinction. I might have different taste buds than you – I might like the hamburger even if it tastes funny to you. I’m probably not going to be happy if it’s the other option.

The point of that being, I suspect all slumps, like hamburgers, are not created equal. On one side, you have actual, mechanical slumps, when someone’s front shoulder really is opening up too soon, or their timing is off, or whatever – something is mechanically wrong with their swing, and that directly causes a slump because they fail to make solid contact. These are the ones that need to be worked out in the video room, in batting practice, in work with the hitting coach, and so on.

On the other side, you have what I’m going to call chance-induced slumps, which are slumps that aren’t really slumps, if you catch my drift. Think about it this way: If you take a .300 hitter, and give him 12 consecutive times at bat, the odds of him going hitless in all 12 are about 14 in 1000 – which sounds pretty low, mostly because it is. But that’s just 12 at-bats – over the course of a long, long baseball season, a .300 hitter should get something like 600 at-bats, in which there are 589 sets of 12 at-bats (i.e. at-bats 1-12 are one set, then at bats 2-13 are another set, then at-bats 3-14 . . . and so on, all the way to at-bats 589-600). That means a .300 hitter, hitting with the same well-tuned swing all season long, should still be expected to have something like 8 separate 0-for-12 slumps – for no reason other than that’s how the numbers work. A .300 hitter has something like a fifty/fifty chance of falling into an 0-20 streak, and a .275 hitter has a 97% chance of seeing an 0-20 streak – even if there is nothing mechanically wrong with their swing. Those are just the odds that come from the best hitters failing to get a hit 70% of the time.

I don’t think this is necessarily an either/or situation – I imagine slumps works more in a “slump spectrum” kind of way. On one end, you have actual mechanical slumps, and chance-induced slumps on the other.* The horrible mechanical slumps should be obvious – the batter is rolling over every pitch to the second baseman – and the true luck slumps should be obvious  – the batter is crushing line drives that just happen to find gloves. But because this is real life, I doubt things are ever really that simple.

*Ultra-mechanical slumps and infra-luck slumps laying outside either end of the spectrum, invisible to the human eye.

So here’s what I think I’m getting at: I’m not so sure anyone can actually tell the difference between a mechanical slump and a chance-induced one, especially a short slump, or even how much is from column A and how much is from column B.

Think of it this way. Jason Bay is in a slump right now. I suspect if you asked Keith Hernandez what was wrong with Bay, he might give you four or five small mechanical flaws in Jason’s swing – he’s opening up too early, he’s not hitting the ball out in front of the plate, he’s dropping his hands, and whatever else Hernandez would spot. And all of those things are true, and things Bay is really doing at the plate.

But then, after talking to Keith Hernandez – and getting suckered into helping him move – you wander over to your neighborhood baseball-loving statistician and ask him what’s wrong with Jason Bay. He might tell you that this “slump” is just an illusion caused by chance, and not really a slump at all. He would point out that if you rolled a six-sided die a couple hundred times, and in one stretch of 25 rolls the die only came up as a one or a two a couple of times, you probably wouldn’t assume there was anything mechanically wrong with the die. You would just assume you had gotten unlucky for a while. He would say it’s a long season, and these stretches just happen, just because they do, and you shouldn’t read too much into them. And, really, that’s also true.

I really have no idea who is right. Keith Hernandez or Howard Johnson probably can pick out a few genuine flaws in Bay’s swing, flaws that actually detract from his batting ability. On the other hand, I imagine that this could sort of be like getting a full body MRI when you have a cold – if you gave an otherwise healthy person an MRI, you would probably find one or two things wrong with them, only because you were looking for thing that are wrong. And maybe they have to do with the cold, or maybe they don’t and are just going to confuse you. Or at least that’s what they say on House M.D. The point being, you show someone in a slump to a hitting coach, and they’ll point out the mechanical flaws. You show someone in a slump to a stats geek, and they’ll tell you it’s just an illusion of chance. And maybe it’s a mechanical flaw, and maybe it’s just an illusion of chance, or maybe it’s a little of both. The point being, I’m not really sure anyone has any way of knowing what kind of slump someone is in.

I should note that the corollary to this idea is that batters in a hot streak also have no idea what to attribute their success to – maybe it’s being locked in at the plate, or maybe it’s luck, or maybe it’s a little of both.

We all suffer from this attribution problem. If things aren’t going your way, if you’re in a life slump, maybe you’re making all the right calls and you’ve simply hit a stretch of bad luck – or maybe you are doing something wrong. Maybe a little of both. Alternatively, if things are going inordinately well, maybe it’s you making all the right decisions – or maybe you just dumbly happen to continually find yourself in the right place at the right time. Or a little bit of everything. There is really no way of knowing what is causing what. If your life is awesome, you might not be able to take any credit for it, and vice-versa and vers-vica.

I believe we are all fascinated and terrified by this idea of not knowing if we’re good or bad or lucky or unlucky. The movie Forrest Gump basically is nothing more than a two-hour-and-twenty-one-minute meditation on this idea. And shrimp. Do good things happen to Forrest Gump because he makes smart choices in spite of his limited intelligence, or do they happen because of sheer dumb luck? Do bad things happen to Jenny (Jenn-nahy) because she makes poor choices, or because her luck is miserable? Alternatively, why does anything happen to anyone? Why is Chris Carter still in the minor leagues? Is he unlucky, or is he just not good enough to play in the major leagues? Why did Pamela Anderson become famous? How is the paradox that
is Joe Morgan possible?

Slumps, the 0-12, or 1-25 or whatever kind, are a meaningless little reflections of this overarching problem. And, again, this brings us back to the real reason why all of us were put onto the earth: to figure out why is Jason Bay not hitting right now. There a thousand-and-one answers, some of them valid, some of them not. He can’t handle playing in New York. Fly balls just aren’t leaving the park. He’s hitting the ball well, it’s just not dropping in – not this one. He’s chasing outside fastballs. He’s late on everything. He’s fine, and it’s just a stretch of bad luck. He’s hitting too many groundballs – he actually is doing this one, but I have no idea why. He’s striking out and pressing because of the pressures of a big contract. He’s unclutch. He actually would rather be smelting. His front shoulder is flying open.

It could be a little bit of all those things, or it could be none of those things. And I’m really not sure we have anyway of knowing what is what. Ultimately, it’s a just an early season struggle, and Bay will more likely than not wind up with 33 or so home runs and a high on-base percentage, because that’s what Jason Bay does. But for right now, he’s slumping, and maybe it’s something mechanical, or maybe it’s just bad luck, or maybe a little of both. Breaking out of slumps is mysterious and difficult – if it were easy, no one would ever find themselves in slumps to begin with. Perhaps Bay needs to work out the kinks in his swing and get in a nice little rhythm, or maybe he just needs time for his luck to change for the better. I have no idea why, and I don’t believe that anyone does.

I think I know enough to realize how hilariously little we understand about everything – I mean, no one really has any idea what’s wrong with Jason Bay, and that’s just in BASEBALL. Think of all the other things we don’t know: no one knows why placebos work, why we sleep, why gravity exists, how long the number pi extends for, or why Jerry Manuel makes so many seemingly illogical decisions. So you get movies like Forrest Gump. So, how do you fix a slump if you don’t even know why it happens? I suspect all any of us can do is give it our best – and then throw on a tiger-stripe thong for good luck.

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