This is Part 2 of 3. Part 1 can be found here.
3. Pyschobabble as Opposed to Legitimate Psychological Injuries
Here’s the deal: I don’t put much into the value of “proven veterans,” clubhouse chemistry, knowing how to win, those sorts of things, when it comes to baseball and building a successful team. I think it’s silly to spend huge chunks of time thinking about these factors because professional baseball players possess a higher level of psychological toughness – mental fortitude, self-motivation, a competitive drive, whatever you want to call it — than the general population in the same way I believe professional baseball players possess stronger wrists than the general population. Worrying if a pro ballplayer is psychologically tough enough to succeed in situation X is like worrying if his wrists are strong enough to handle playing pro baseball in situation X. Generally speaking, it’s a waste of time, because both are prerequisites for making it to the major leagues; the chokers and the skinny-wristed are weeded out long before any can reach the highest level.
Now, that is not the same thing as saying there aren’t players who are relatively psychologically tougher than their teammates, the same way some players have stronger or weaker wrists than their teammates. It seems somewhat obvious that there should be a spectrum for everything, be it psychological fortitude or wrist strength, even in a highly selected population of pro athletes. But as members of a highly selected population, it also seems somewhat obvious that baseball players should possess a higher level of mental toughness (and wrist strength) than the general population.
Digression: For these same reason, I’m inclined to believe there exists a spectrum of clutch hitting ability among major league baseball players. That is, some hitters are in fact more clutch than others. But how wide any gap between the clutch and unclutch might be is anyone’s guess, and it very well could be small enough that it is impossible to objectively measure, which might be why sabermetricians cannot find it. Logically, though, it still seems that clutch hitting should exist.
That might have been dense. Let me put it another way: All MLB hitters are “clutch,” the same way all NFL wide receivers run fast. But not all MLB hitters are equally clutch, the same way NFL wide receivers do not all run at the same speed.
I do not, however, disregard that baseball players are human beings and that their struggles are often explained by real human issues. There’s a difference between psychobabble explanations and legitimate psychological explanations, and I think in an attempt (rightly) to dismiss the former we’ve also buried the latter. Basically, it seems that sabermetrically-oriented writers have developed an unstated, self-imposed rule not to consider psychological issues when discussing the struggles of baseball players, and instead regard them as actors acting out their parts in some kind of predestined baseball universe. I buy into this somewhat because it makes more sense than psychobabble — the vagaries of chance in baseball offers a better explanation for Mike Pelfrey than the evils of hand licking — and looking at baseball in this sort of way tends to sift out huge amounts of nonsense. Players are what the numbers say they are, talent wins out over the long run, that sort of thing.
But I do believe there’s sometimes more to it than just that — keeping in mind almost all players are immensely psychologically tough, there are sill sometimes legitimate psychological explanations for their struggles and successes. Theo Epstein said to Sports Illustrated back in September: “The biggest surprise for me as a G.M. is you spend more time as a psychologist than you think. A latent injury or a latent psychological injury is behind almost every underperforming player. If you can find it and address it, it’s a huge advantage.”
I feel okay assuming that he knows what he’s talking about better than I do. The statistics always tell you what happened, but they don’t always say why it happened. 95% of the stuff you hear on talk radio is pyschobabble nonsense, lazy explanations and ways to attack great-but-unlikeable players; I am inclined to believe, however, that there are real pressures that sometimes get the better of professional athletes.
4. How This Relates to David Wright
So, all that being said, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that the across the board collapse that happened to David Wright from 2009 to the present is just randomness in action and not something rooted in the Mets changing ballparks. Wright, a player who should have been in his prime, saw his skills decline and continue to spiral downward immediately after the Mets moved across the parking lot. I find it difficult to believe the two aren’t intertwined.
Wright’s decline as a hitter isn’t explained by the physical distance of the fences alone. If you plot all his fly ball outs at home over the past three seasons, it seems that only a handful would have escaped in a kinder park. Those extra home runs don’t come close to making up the difference between old David Wright and new David Wright. (Also, he strikes out a ton now.) Considering his age, the explanation seems to be either a latent physical or psychological injury, but because Wright played 144 games in 2009 and then 157 games in 2010 and his struggles have been spread over three years . . . that really narrows down the choices. So I’ll posit that what’s really going on here, is that Wright’s struggles are related to a change in his offensive approach. These changes in his approach were set off in reaction to the new ballpark.
Before we get too far here, I’ll suggest that it’s also possible that David Wright just needs glasses. This would also be a satisfying answer. I think they test player’s vision in spring training every year, but if I were put in charge of the New York Mets for a day, the first thing I would do . . . well the first thing I would do is put dividers between the urinals in the stadium bathrooms. But the second thing I would do is test David Wright’s vision.
Maybe, even for the mentally toughest of players, things sometimes start to spiral out of control. You take a player whose natural power is to center and right-center, and then make him play half his games in a park where right-center is four miles away. It seems reasonable that he’s going to change the way he hits. Maybe he tries to make an adjustment and starts pulling the ball to left field instead of flying out to center — but because he needs to begin his swing a tick earlier to pull the ball consistently, he begins striking out. A lot. Also, jacking the ball out in left isn’t all that easy because the wall is 16 feet high for some reason. Somewhere along the way, all his teammates get hurt and the offense relies on him, which just makes everything worse. He tries to compensate for the strikeouts by hitting the ball even harder, which only causes more strikeouts, and then he’s just trying to make solid contact again. He wakes up one day and he’s suddenly standing fifteen feet away from the plate while he’s hitting and he’s not really sure why. Slowly, things that shouldn’t be affected by the distance of the walls, like fielding and running the bases, start to get pulled into the maelstrom.
In other words, it seems possible that David Wright’s problems started with a few adjustments that slowly compounded and built up and then got out of control, rather than just the fences being far away and keeping a handful of flyballs in the park. I don’t want to say it’s mental breakdown and give everyone the image of an inconsolable David Wright, shaved bald and locked in his parents’ basement, gnawing at the drywall. It’s more a mental breakdown in the sense that Wright, at some point, made a wrong turn and just kept going. Part of any game is physical and part of it is mental. So maybe, as a reaction to the new park, Wright moved away from the approach that brought him success in 2005-08 and into his current approach, which is apparently not all that great.
Now I don’t know if this is what actually happened, or I’m just building a narrative out of randomness. Maybe both. But a lot of baseball players have come before David Wright and just about none of them were A.) otherwise healthy and B.) collapsed in every way at ages 26-28. So I’ll ask it this way: Which seems more likely, a healthy 26-year-old professional athlete on a Hall of Fame track declines for no reason other than randomness, or a new ballpark incidentally designed to kill a 26-year-old professional athlete’s natural power sets this athlete off into a downward spiral of adjustments and counter-adjustments that eventually starts to suck in and mess with things that have nothing to do with his hitting?
5. What David Wright is Actually Like as a Person
I have next to no idea. I’ve spoken to him twice, once in Port St. Lucie to ask him about streakiness as it relates to hitting – he gave the answers baseball players are supposed to give – and another time when he borrowed my pen to sign autographs before a game — he said thanks. His most prominent physical features are his forearms, which have enormous and overdeveloped muscles I don’t believe exist on most other humans, and his left cheek, which has a strange bulge that looks like he has a single overdeveloped jaw muscle from chewing all his food on one side of his mouth. The cheek-thing is somewhat noticeable on TV, but it’s basically distracting in person.
Wright is rarely in the media-allowed section of the Mets’ clubhouse before games during the season. Whenever he does make an appearance, he’s almost always wearing black athletic shorts, a sleeveless gray Mets shirt and sandals. He will stop at his locker briefly, look at his mail, and then disappear again. There’s a reason he does this – I’ve seen writers in scrums ask him awful, baiting questions in transparent attempts to badger him into saying something that can be taken out of context and twisted and used to sell newspapers. Wright is never anything but polite and respectful, but he has also been so well-trained that he never gives in and say something untrue just to get said reporter to shut up and go away. But he certainly doesn’t seem to enjoy talking to the media and more or less avoids it. He fulfills his responsibilities and then some, but he’s not exactly seeking reporters out.
Wright is not hard to find as a representative of the team, however. On the field before games, he meets an enormous number of guests on behalf of the Mets — children with cancer, wounded veterans, the children of late firefighters, that sort of thing — and seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with these people. My overall impression is that he seems like a wholly reasonable and responsible person who isn’t particularly interested in the spotlight, but doesn’t necessarily shy away when it finds him. All in all, it’s very hard to imagine anyone finding reason to dislike him.
At the same time, because he never gives anything resembling an insightful answer – he either answers in cliches or dismisses suggestions he thinks are silly (i.e., do you feel the trade/return/injury of Carlos Beltran has negatively impacted clubhouse chemistry, to which Wright will say, No, I don’t think that’s the case) – so it’s very difficult to imagine what’s actually going through his mind. I’m 95% sure I could talk to him for two straight days in a media setting, and have very interesting conversations about baseball, but learn absolutely nothing about him or what he’s really like.
The point being that anything I write here about David Wright’s mental state is pure speculation on my part. It’s educated speculation, and I believe it isn’t totally baseless, but it is first and foremost speculation. I don’t actually know what’s going through his head, and I’m not sure anyone really does.