Friday, June 02, 2006

Movie Review: Fear Strikes Out

by Matt Sandler

We are now accustomed to behaving as armchair psychologists for noted baseball players. We sense the insecurities that Alex Rodriguez harbors—even his visits to a sports psychologist have been well documented. Barry Bonds certainly has his share of paranoia and a persecution complex for sportswriters to fill up many columns. The game, as are all sports, is now covered with such a fine-toothed comb that no aspect of a player’s personal life is left uninvestigated. One of the first movies to address the psychological dimensions of an athlete was Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on the true story of Red Sox outfielder Jim Piersall’s nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery.

Piersall (Peter J. Votrian as a child) grows up in a lower middle-class household in Waterbury, Connecticut as a diehard Red Sox fan. His father, John (Karl Malden) is extremely overbearing in pushing his son towards a major league career even at a very young age. His mother (Perry Wilson) is a very high-strung woman, and it is mentioned that she has had certain time “away” from the family, implying stays in mental institutions. With the genes of his mother and the pressure of his father, it is no wonder that Jim’s head becomes a pressure cooker.

Nevertheless, he is a talented ballplayer, and we see him grown up as a high schooler (Anthony Perkins) drafted by his beloved Red Sox. Instead of showing pride and joy, his father puts relentless pressure on him to make the majors in one year and not to “rot in the minors.” When John visits Jim for the first time in Scranton, where the Red Sox have a minor league team, Jim tells him that he is third in the league in average. “Well, it’s not first,” John replies. John also has the strange habit of constantly using the word “we” in regards to Jim’s playing career, as in “We’re going to make it to the majors.” Of course, when Jim is perceived to have failed at something, it is no longer “we,” but “you.” Malden does a terrific job with what could be the stock role of the pushy father. He is certainly crazed some of the time, but he often engages in his overbearing behavior calmly, with a smile in his face. This is just the way he thinks a son should be raised, and it will take a breakdown to see how wrong he is.

We start to see some mental instability in Jim early in the movie. He never seems entirely comfortable around his teammates, and the director, Robert Mulligan (in his debut film) carefully builds evidence that there is something seriously wrong with him. We see slight grimaces or headaches in what should be happy moments. Then we see how certain noises burrow themselves in Jim’s head. He meets a nurse named Mary (Norma Moore) at the ballpark one day. Despite a very stilted courtship, he manages to win her over and they marry and have a baby daughter. The sound of his baby crying is used as an added element of stress in his life. Other ominous noises include his neighbor’s radio loudly playing reports of the high expectations that the Red Sox have for their local boy, and the crowd noises during his major league debut at Fenway Park. Also adding to the pressure on him is that Red Sox manager/general manager Joe Cronin (Bart Burns) wants to move him from his natural position in the outfield to shortstop. It is around this time that Jimmy starts to show serious signs of mental illness, combining some of the obsessive repeating of words we saw from Howard Hughes in The Aviator and the paranoia of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. He gets into a fight with one of his teammates after berating him for not being a productive player, exhibiting some of the same behavior as his father.

Cronin benches and then suspends Jim for the fight, and to lessen the pressure on his obviously high-strung player, reinstates him as an outfielder. The breakdown occurs, in a frightening scene, after an inside-the-park home run, when he manically circles the bases, and then starts wailing, “Was it good enough for you?” over and over as he scales the netting behind home plate. (In real life, according to Wikipedia, his breakdown was not this dramatic; this was one of the distortions of fact that caused the real Piersall to disassociate himself from the movie.) Teammates and then policemen restrain him, as his wife and parents look on in fear. He is placed in a mental hospital, under the care of the firm but competent Doctor Brown (Adam Williams). At first, he is a twitching mess, but after some electroshock treatments (in the pre-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest days) and therapy sessions with the doctor, he starts to improve.

John realizes what a horrible father he has been, and Jim, with the help of his loyal wife, finds the strength to soldier on. He recovers and returns to the majors. Jim Piersall played 15 more seasons in the majors, including making two All-Star teams and finishing in the Top 10 in MVP voting five times (according to baseball-reference.com).

The best part of this very good film is the amazing performance by Anthony Perkins as the adult Jim. He does such a good job of conveying the constant stress that he feels both from others and within himself. We can see why Perkins was chosen three years later to play the most unhinged character in movie history, Norman Bates in Psycho. Now, mental illness is less of a taboo, but in the staid 1950s, even addressing this subject was a way to make waves. For this reason, the movie’s relatively unvarnished look at what would now be diagnosed as bipolar disorder makes it an important achievement even to this day.

Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan," appears alternate Fridays.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Patience Should Not Be a Four-Letter Word

by Scott Silversten

We live in a sports age in which patience is a four-letter word and even those athletes who have experienced nothing but success during their careers can find themselves loudly booed in their home ballparks (see Jeter, Derek and Rivera, Mariano).

Last season, it took most Yankees fans and several members of the media a grand total of six games – SIX GAMES! – to determine that Melky Cabrera was not a major league caliber player. Over the course of those six games, the outfielder hit a paltry .211 (4-for-19) and was a butcher in center field, most famously misplaying a shot by Boston’s Trot Nixon into an inside-the-park home run.

Of course, little was made of the fact that Cabrera had not even played above Single-A prior to the 2005 season, and was only at Double-A Trenton when he was recalled by the Yankees as a short-term injury replacement. Let the New York Mets’ Lastings Milledge be forewarned: If you do not perform immediately, it will quickly be time to search for your replacement.

Well, if one dog year is equivalent to seven human years, then one year in sports should be equal to one year in a dog’s life. It’s amazing how fast things change in baseball, because last July is essentially the dark ages in the life and times of Melky Cabrera.

Not only has Cabrera proved over the last three weeks that he can perform at the major league level, but at the current time, he might just be the most important outfielder on the Yankees roster.

Yes, it can be repeated...Melky Cabrera is the most important outfielder on the Yankees’ $200 million roster.

For those not paying attention, New York has already lost left fielder Hideki Matsui indefinitely with a broken wrist. Right fielder Gary Sheffield only recently returned from a wrist injury, but was scratched prior to Tuesday’s game in Detroit and may need to return to the disabled list in the coming days.

And to make matters even worse, center fielder Johnny Damon is battling a chipped bone in his right foot and is starting to sound pessimistic that he can play effectively while dealing with the problem.

“Right now, it’s not good when I am on it a lot,” Damon said earlier this week. “The pain is in a greater area and it gets more painful after I run a lot. If I go out every day, I could possibly be down for a couple of weeks or a month.”

Damon was supposed to be the durable replacement in center for an aging Bernie Williams, who is on the verge of being thrust back into an everyday role that his body likely will not be able to handle. Bubba Crosby, projected to be the Yankees’ fifth outfielder this season, is sidelined with a strained right hamstring.

That brings us to Cabrera, who recorded a career best four hits in Tuesday’s victory over Detroit and is currently batting .318 with a .392 on-base percentage. The Dominican native has also begun to play a steady outfield after giving Yankees fans palpitations when he misplayed another ball in his season debut on May 9 against Boston.

Sometimes you can even see a player like Cabrera grow up almost instantaneously. The instance in this case occurred on May 20 when he fell behind 0-2 against Mets closer Billy Wagner before working an 11-pitch walk during the Yankees’ dramatic four-run ninth inning rally.

Cabrera has yet to hit a homer in the major leagues, which seems to worry some in the New York media despite the fact that the Yankees can make up for that lack of power by getting production from positions where other teams lack offensive punch, such as shortstop and third base.

In addition, most fans and media members who lack patience – there is that word again – won’t recall that Williams hit just three homers in 85 games during his rookie year of 1991. Players improve, especially switch-hitters who had only 326 games of total professional experience entering this season and will not turn 22 years old until later this summer.

Of course, the Yankees have a "win now" mentality because they have “wasted” so much money in recent years in only reaching the postseason while failing to capture the ultimate prize, a World Series championship.

Thus, rumors are swirling about possible trades for a veteran to help the outfielder. Of course, that is what has gotten the Yankees in this predicament in the first place.

In Scott Boras’ pitch to the Yankees during the off season, the agent highlighted Damon’s durability and the fact that the former Red Sox, Athletic and Royal had played at least 145 straight games in 10 straight seasons. Of course, nobody has a history of injuries until they do, and the older players get, the more likely they are to have nagging problems that will keep them out of the lineup.

The Yankees immediate solution to their outfield dilemmas still might be a trade for an established veteran. However, their future should rest in the hands of players like Cabrera, who deserved more than six games before being declared a failure.

Scott Silversten's column, "Age of Reason", appears every Thursday

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Speaking of "The Franchise": Beltran, Wright and Reyes (Part II- Defense)

by Alan Eliot

I would imagine that part of the reason behind the excitement with respect to this "nucleus" of young Mets players is a historic one. The Mets, who have a penchant for signing ex-superstars, have only on very few occasions had a genuine offensive force on their team, a man in the heart of the lineup that opposing pitchers truly fear (at least for more than a few years). Shea Stadium's large dimensions are partly to blame, biasing management at some level to developing pitching over hitting, and perhaps making the Mets less attractive to said free-agent offensive force. The park is certainly a place where many homeruns go to die- in fact, the Mets, currently in their 45th season, have never had a player hit more than 41 HR in one season.

The last (and arguably only) true offensive superstar the Mets developed was Darryl Strawberry. The last true superstar in his prime who bolstered the lineup for years was Mike Piazza. Other than that, the history of the Mets is riddled with free agents who either underperformed or were already past their prime, or were not in that upper eschelon for long enough. Gary Carter was great. So was Keith Hernandez. Olerud put up some good years. But for the Metropolitans it's been Strawberry and Piazza. That's pretty much it.

Take into account the fact that Strawberry never lived up to his potential, and that Piazza's moonshots came with their own price- two hop throws to second base. On the other hand, Beltran, Reyes and Wright have all been described as having plus-defense (or PD potential) at their respective positions- and if you could choose three positions to have plus-defense in, CF, SS and 3B would be it. It is clear that the idea of having a truly well-rounded superstar on the team, much less three of them, much less three of them in their prime, with two from the Mets' own farm, is an idea Mets fans are so unaccustomed to that excitement is bound to grow beyond what is reasonable or what is probable. But that's forgivable. 41HR. I mean, come on.

Last year, David Wright wowed both teammates and opponents alike with not one, not two, but three amazing plays at third base- including two jumping into the stands and a third that was made on the right-field grass with his bare hand. As stated previously, that last one was a shoe-in for defensive play of the year. People are very excited about his defensive potential. However, the facts and statistics haven't been kind to Mr. Wright.

Caveat: the idea of objective analysis of defense beyond errors and fielding percentage is a relatively new one. That is because defense is much more subjective, and harder to quantify, than offense. Even an "error" is something ruled on by the official scorer- an opinion at its very nature. This column won't delve into the intricacies, pros and cons of the new methods of evaluating defense- you can see a review here.

Today, we'll be evaluating these three players based on three defensive stats- errors, range factor (RF) and Zone Rating (ZR). Once again, ESPN and Complete Baseball Encyclopedia have been instrumental in compiling this information. All statistics are current as of today. We'll also be throwing in a little about injury risk for good measure.

First, two quick definitions:
Range Factor (RF): (Put-outs + Assists)/innings.
This is a good model insofar as good defenders will successfully complete more plays. However, it doesn't take into account plays that should have been made, or even mistakes/errors.
Zone Rating (ZR): % of balls fielded by the player in his typical "defensive zone". It is based on the formula (Put-outs)/(Balls in Zone caught + Balls out of Zone caught). This is a new stat put out by STATS, inc. Very subjective, of course, but one of the firsts to truly tackle the idea of rewarding a player for getting to balls others wouldn't.

Defense:
Note: number in parentheses is number of qualifying players for that position, having played in 2/3 of his teams games, according to ESPN.com
Carlos Beltran, CF
Injury: Beltran's entry into the NY spotlight was marred by a quad injury which didn't limit his time so much as his production in 2005. He aggravated a hamstring injury in 2006 in which he missed a few weeks of play, but has come back strong.

2006 (11): 1 error, 2.85 RF (2nd), .929 ZR (3rd)
2005 (10): 4 errors, 2.67 RF (2nd), .887 ZR (4th)
2003 (7): 5 error, 3.05 RF (3rd), .927 ZR (1st)
Bottom line: though there is often discrepancy between leaders of RF and ZR, Beltran has consistently placed tops in the league in both. He is as good as they say. With an injury-free rest of the season, expect things to stay this way. As stated earlier, Beltran's best chance at superstardom will never lie in his at-the-plate production alone- his SB-threat and his stellar outfield play will all factor if he is to reach that upper-tier of player. Having this history of injury, the specific sort of injury that could affect stop and start running- the kind involved with stolen bases or chasing after balls- doesn't bode well for Beltran. Even if he never aggravates either his quad or hamstrings again, the fear alone of doing so will negatively impact his production both in the field and on the bases- he will most likely always go slightly lighter than his max.

David Wright, 3B
Injury: Wright has been extremely durable throught his minor and major league careers. His bask-spasms which started last week have not seemed to slow him down any at the plate or on the field, but are a concern. The HOF projections every Mets fan gives this kid haven't taken into account possibility of his career being marred by injury. Hope that these spasms don't become a recurring problem.

2006 (14): 7 errors, 2.38 RF (12th), .729 ZR (12th)
2005 (9): 24 errors (last), 2.80 (3rd), .775 ZR (7th)
Bottom line: Wright has flashed some very impressive leather at times, but subjectively seems to misplay a lot of balls- how many balls this year have hit off his glove and gone for a "hit"? Sure, it's called the "hot corner" for a reason, but still. This year included a three-error game which cost the Mets the win. He is on pace to even his 24 error mark from last season. On a positive note, he is only 23, and keep in mind that a 24-year-old Mike Schmidt made 26 errors in his first season of 150+ games. For now, though, he is a below-average 3B.

Jose Reyes, SS
Injury: Reyes went through a 2-year period between 2002-2004 which included four leg injuries. He has since (supposedly) changed his running mechanics, and so far, in 2005 and 2006, has not missed time. One has to question the future durability, however, of such a young kid who has proven so injury prone.

2006 (15): 4 errors, 3.64 RF (last), .860 ZR (6th)
2005 (14): 18 errors (last), 4.28 RF (10th), .821 ZR (12th)
Bottom line: Reyes has a very strong arm, has extraordinarily quick hands, and has shown a penchant for making flashy plays. He is also a 22-years-old, and has made his share of mistakes. He is still learning, but the numbers to this point don't support him even being considered an average SS. There is a large difference between potential and production, and in his case (both offensively and defensively) he has large gaps in both. Reyes easily is the biggest question mark of the three to become a major-league superstar, especially given his penchant for injury.

Edit: You can view Part I (Offense) here.

"Wild-Card Wednesdays" appears every Wednesday

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Speaking of "The Franchise": Beltran, Wright and Reyes (Part I- Offense)

by Alan Eliot

When Mets GM Omar Minaya signed Astros CF Carlos Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million contract after the 2004 season, the message was clear: we will build our team's future around him. And then followed a very forgettable season: 16HR, 78 RBI, and a .744 OPS, the lowest of his career.

Regardless, Beltran, along with teammates David Wright and Jose Reyes, have been repeatedly called "the young core of this Mets ballclub for years to come" (or some similar derivative) by both management and sportswriters alike. Interestingly, all three have been tagged with the label "superstar" in some form- either "current superstar" or "inevitable future superstar". Beltran, with a career .836 OPS, is not and was never a superstar, 2004 season/postseason and hype aside.

Interestingly, all three players "on the verge of superstardom" have incongruencies on their respective CV's. Beltran's all-star berth in 2005 was a joke, much like his current contract. His other all-star appearance was in 2004- which means he never made it in the 5 seasons between 1999-2003, as a Royal and with a rule mandating one Royal per year on the all-star team. Wright, who won the "defensive play of the year" hands-down in 2005, led the league in errors at 3B and has had trouble at the hot corner since his call-up. Reyes is a leadoff hitter who can neither get on base or hit for average.

This isn't to say that the praise is completely undeserved. All are young and very talented, and much of the hype is driven from projections of ceilings at least as much as current performance, if not more so. Hard as it is to believe, Wright is only in his second full-season, a starting 3B at the age of 23, an excellent two-strike hitter with developing power to all fields. Beltran, 29, may not be the offensive force that everyone believed, but his combination of switch-hitting power, fielding and speed is indeed intriguing, considering that he's in his prime and finally on a productive team for more than 3 months. Reyes will turn 23 in June, a starting shortstop with a strong arm and with unbelievable speed.

It is always difficult to predict how well someone will produce years down the road. Injuries occur. Pitchers adjust. More often than not, young talent doesn't pan out. Today, we profile these three young Mets, analyzing their strengths as well as their weaknesses from what we've seen this season. As always, the final call of whether they will live up to their "superstar" status is up to you. All statistics courtesy of the Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, B-Ref and ESPN, and are current through the end of Sunday, May 28.

Offense:
Carlos Beltran- after a dismal 2005 campaign, Beltran, in just 39 games
1. has nearly equaled (14) his 2005 HR total (16).
2. is second in the league in SLG to Albert Pujols (.622), and is 5th in OPS (1.013)
3. has half as many walks as he did in 2005 (28 to 56)
4. has nearly half as many RBI as he did in 2005 (37 to 78)
Bottom line: what the Mets expected (pre-2005) and more. He was out almost two weeks with an aggravation of a leg injury which kept his production down last season, but has come back in top form.
David Wright - D. Wright had a solid first-year in 2005, finishing in the top-ten in AVG (.306), games (160), hits (176), XBH (70), total bases (301), doubles (42) and RBI (102). He was 22. This season, in 48 games
1. 2nd in hits (62) and 4th in average (.333)
2. 7th in doubles (15) and XBH (25)
3. 9th in runs created/game (8.80) and total bases (105)
4. 13 in OPS (.970)
5. 15th in SLG (.565)
Bottom line: incredibly gifted hitter whose production matches the talent
Jose Reyes- First, the good news: Reyes led the league in triples (17) and SB (60), and was 5th in hits (190) last season. Now, the bad: so many hits due to being first in AB (696) with few walks (27). Plus an OBP of .300, inexcusable for a leadoff hitter. This season, in 49 games
1. has walked 21 times, nearly matching 2005- with OBP inching upwards to .322
2. 5 HR (7 in 2005), 6 3B and 19 SB
3. 6th in the league with 38 runs
Bottom line: in spite of improving numbers, Reyes still will not shake the opinion that he is a power hitter. He seems to want the triple too much, and pops up way too often, when he should be keeping a level swing and taking more pitches, to take advantage of his speed. As long as the OBP remains low, he will be a liability to this team- with this lineup, he doesn't need to produce runs. He just needs to get on base. Which he is not good at doing.

Tomorrow, as part of Wild-Card Wednesdays, we profile the trio's defense and other factors, such as injuries. Stay tuned!

Edit: You can view Part II (Defense) here.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

Monday, May 29, 2006

Closers Are Overrated. All of Them.

by Doug Silversten

Bring back Braden Looper!

A deranged Met fan? An overreaction to Billy Wagner's early struggles?

Neither. More like common sense, and I stand by my words...with one major condition. We get back our $43 million too. And we use that $43 million wisely. Perhaps using some to sign another solid starter before the season. Or putting some towards a 2B who can field and hit, a combination the Mets can't seem to find with Matsui or Hernandez.

Is Wagner going to get better? Definitely. Is Wagner an improvement over Looper? Obviously. Is he worth the money? No way. No closer is worth that much. So it's nothing personal, Billy. I like you. I forgave you already for your meltdown against the Yankees. I'm confident you will go on a dominating stretch, something that Looper could never do. However, unless you can start throwing 150+ innings a year, I want my money back. In my opinion, most closers, even one of your supposed caliber (we quite haven't seen that caliber yet) are inherently replaceable. And the Mets can easily replace you.

Say a typical closer on an average team who holds his job gets about 50 opportunities a year. The best of the best (Rivera, Ryan, Nathan, etc.) maybe blow 2-3. The worst? About 7-8. Pick any above average reliever on any team, appoint him "the closer," and throw him in there for those 50 opportunities...he only blows 4-6. Fortunately, the Mets have several above average relievers. Oliver. Sanchez. Heilman. If tomorrow the Mets decided to primarily pitch one of those guys mostly to start the 9th inning when the Mets had a lead of no more than three runs, do you think the Mets fortunes from here on out would change? While not as dominant as Wagner could and should be, would you really even notice a change? Bob Wickman, BOB WICKMAN for crying out loud, is the Indians "closer". Duaner Sanchez can certainly be ours.

Sanchez's 2006 salary? $399,500.

Wagner's 2006 salary? $10,500,000.

Ok, Sanchez it is. Of course, losing Wagner certainly weakens the bullpen. But remember, we just freed up $10.5 million. Player salaries certainly have gotten out of hand, but $10.5 million can still go a long way. It can get you a few quality arms in the pen. Or go a long way to obtaining a top-notch starter. To put it in perspective, Tom Glavine will earn exactly that amount this year. And he will pitch nearly 130 more innings than Wagner and have a much greater impact on whether the Mets earn their first playoff birth since 2000. I realize it is not that easy to get another Tom Glavine, but $10.5 million is a nice way to start.

I want my money back.

Doug Silversten's column, "The Big Picture," appears alternate Mondays
"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine

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