Mind Games

Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening – whichever is applicable to you. Meet the Parents was a romantic comedy of sorts. Released in 2000, it followed the ups and downs of Ben Stiller’s first visit with his future In-Laws. While the movie was filled with memorable moments and plenty of laughs, the most comical moment for me was the pool volleyball scene. During this scene one Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) was getting his first taste of approval from his soon to be in-laws, as his swimming pool volleyball game was on point. No longer the butt of the jokes, Focker was relishing in his glory – perhaps a little too much, as the end result is a broken nose for his bride-to-be.

While this exact scenario has never happened to me, I do find myself in search of approval from someone on a daily basis. Over time, if this approval is not granted I continue my efforts. The more elusive the approval becomes, the harder I work for it. The harder I work for the approval, the more I end up screwing it all up. It’s a vicious cycle that everyone is likely to fall victim to at some point in their lives.

In the offseason we spend countless hours evaluating underlying numbers. We take those underlying numbers and match them to the end results from the previous seasons. We then take that data and form a forecast for what’s to come. Overall the industry does a remarkable job at projecting the outcomes of players. However, each and every year several outliers pop up. We look at these outliers and attempt to classify based on the skill sets we are familiar with. While we may spend several hours weeding out the pros and cons to the underlying skill sets, do we ever take the time to consider the human element of a player’s performance?  Depression, change in life style, spouts with the other half, the desire to obtain acceptance; those all are day-to-day items all adults deal with, regardless of if you’re a moonlighting fantasy writer or a professional baseball player.

The first time I thought about the human element of fantasy was in 2005. Randy Johnson, at the age of 40, had come off a 16 Win season with a 2.60 ERA with a league-leading 0.90 WHIP and league-leading 290 K’s, all with the Diamondbacks. Johnson was coming to the Yankees; naturally all that excellence would be supported with the best team money could buy. I used a second round pick on Johnson that season and was rewarded with a 3.79 ERA and 1.12 WHIP along with 211 K’s. While not a bad season by any stretch, Johnson failed to live up to the draft day hype.

Looking back, it’s easy to find reasons for the regression in numbers: that he was 41 certainly stands out, as does the NL to AL jump. At the time, however, my biggest takeaway came from the video of Johnson pushing the cameraman videotaping his every move. It was clear to me that Johnson wasn’t one who embraced being the superstar. In Seattle and Arizona it was a little easier to hide. Not so much in New York. Johnson’s New York tenure ended after two seasons. While he did post 34 W during that stretch, those Wins came with a 4.37 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. Prior to that Johnson had posted a 3.07 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP.

Last season Jon Lester hit the Free Agency market for the first time. At age 32 and seeking a long-term deal, this was likely to be his lone shot at cashing in. While Scherzer may have been the most skilled starting pitcher on the market, Lester was the most decorative with 2 World Series Rings to his credit already. In the end it was the Cubs who landed Lester, and with it came the expectations that the Cubs would be a real threat for the playoffs.  Over his first four starts last season, Lester was 0-2 and was sporting a 6.23 ERA to go with a 1.57 WHIP. After that stretch Lester settled in and became the Lester we’ve come to expect, posting a 2.99 ERA with a 1.07 WHIP. Could last season’s rocky start be the result of facing the Reds twice along with the Padres and Cardinals? Perhaps, But it could have also been caused by the pressure of a Sports Illustrated Cover and 1908.

While Lester struggled in the early goings last season, Matt Harvey managed to defy odds, returning from Tommy John surgery and posting perhaps his best year to date in year one after surgery. It’s during this time in which he managed to become the most recognizable face of the World Series, as well as getting a day named after him. With a 6.08 ERA thus far it’s hard to fathom that “Harvey Day” used to mean something. From an underlying standpoint it’s not hard to recognize the problem areas. His K/9 and strand rate are down, while his BB/9 and HR/9 are up.

To summarize, everything that could go wrong has for Harvey. Underlying skill guys will quickly point to the 2 MPH lost in velocity and summarize as he sees fit. Personally I don’t see a scenario where 96 to 94 is the equivalent of Cy Young to a recreational league softball pitcher. Is it too hard to imagine that Harvey is still staggered as a result of that World Series Game Four? Haunted by the chance that got away, you come into the season thinking about it; one instance becomes two, and suddenly the snowball roll’s in full effect.

Much like Harvey, Shelby Miller wasn’t a free agent signing. However, Miller undoubtedly had an immense amount of pressure coming into the season. It’s not often teams forfeit multiple prospects and a potential face of a franchise like Swanson, for a number 3 type starting pitcher. Miller’s power rose last season as he posted a career best 3.02 ERA to go with a 1.24 WHIP, albeit while winning only 6 games. While most pundits suggested a decline in overall numbers, to suggest a 7.09 ERA and a 1.86 WHIP would have been foolishly bearish. Again, like Harvey, the underlying skills tell the same story: K/9 down, BB/9 up, LOB% down at 69.14 and HR/9 up to 1.97. Is this once again a player who no longer has the stuff?

A recent DL stint would suggest an injury could be of concern. Given the timing of the placement it lends me to believe it’s more of a mental break than anything else. Otherwise, the Diamondbacks have put the ball in the hand of Miller multiple times this season with the injury present. While the organizational structure of the Diamondbacks can be questioned, it’s not often that teams aren’t overly cautious with injuries. Perhaps the pressure of the deal has gotten the better of him thus far. Miller was just another quality arm with St. Louis. While he was a front line guy with Atlanta; that label is the major league equivalent of a participation trophy. For the Diamondbacks, the duo of Greinke and Miller instantly made them perceived contender in the NL West, and brought excitement back to a team five years removed from the playoffs. The first week featured two poor home starts and a chorus of boos, setting the tone for what 2016 has been thus far.

Without exception players who have on-field struggles will have an easily identifiable underlying number that correlates with the struggles. This may be a declining skill set, or perhaps merely a bad run of luck, but without fail something tangible sticks out as the cause. When dealing with actual people, can the fix always be that simple? I come from a big family and have a large family of my own, and I interact with 100’s of the same people day in and day out. Not everyday is a photocopy of the day before. People have good days just as they have bad days. More often than not there is a specific reason for this, but upon occasion the fault cannot be pinpointed. We spend countless hours legitimizing the numbers we have and forecasting them moving forward. We may not all look at the same numbers to form our opinions, but the fact is we all reference the numbers. We fail to acknowledge what type of potential impacts both the mental and human aspects could have on players. Is this because there is not a defined reference point, or are we simply resigned to the fact that the human behavior is so unpredictable?

“Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical” — Yogi Berra.

Yogi had it figured out long ago. In Meet the Parents, Gaylord Focker wanted nothing more than the admiration of his future in-laws. The pursuit of his admiration created pressure, and the more he failed, the greater the pressure. The pressure began to change the person, and the result was an incident that otherwise would never have happened under normal circumstances. Matt Harvey and Shelby Miller may be this season’s poster children for unexplained dumpster fires, but they are not alone. Joey Votto and his flirtation with the Mendoza line also comes to mind. While the mental aspect cannot be indicated, a silver lining for these players exists.

Unlike with injury or declining skill sets, there is hope for the mental aspect of the game. Life provides you with ups and downs; so while today may be a low point, it seems reasonable to suggest one positive break could lead to an abrupt upswing in positive results. The mental side of this business makes quite an impact. Unfortunately for us fantasy owners; we’ve yet to develop an app for that.


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Josh Coleman

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Father of four SP1 children. Replacement level husband to a top tier wife. I love my family, value my friendships, and spend as much time as possible (too much according to the aforementioned Mrs. Coleman) dedicated to the pursuit, of another Fantasy Championship. I'm the oddball at the bar who prefers Fantasy Baseball to Fantasy Football.