Sunday, May 20, 2012

Greene's Game Winner Silences Critics

When asked to explain his somewhat unorthodox approach to hitting, Yogi Berra supposedly once said, "Ninety percent of hitting is half mental."  Behind all the zaniness of the irrepressible Berra was a ballplayer with terrific hand - eye coordination, who used that natural ability to become one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time.  He rarely allowed his mind to be burdened with outside distractions or an over-analysis of his hitting technique.  When asked what he was thinking whenever he was in the batters box, Yogi responded, "Think!  How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?"

Nowadays of course, many fine hitters watch hours upon hours of video, trying to figure out what they were either doing right or wrong in their approach to hitting at any given time, and armed with that information, take appropriate action.  For some - "the thinkers" - this is a very helpful tool; for others, Yogi Berra's "non-thinking" approach produces the best results.

That "non-thinking" approach certainly worked for baseball's all-time hit king, Pete Rose, who shared his perspective in a recent interview with sportswriter Michael Dolan:

"I never watched myself hit on video and I never hit a ball off a tee, and I got 4200 fucking hits.  I mean, a guy strikes out on a ball that bounces in front of home plate, and he runs into the dugout to watch it on video.  Why the fuck would you put yourself through that?

I used to get texts from A-Rod a few years back.  A-Rod would say things like 'I don't know what's going on, Pete.  I'm hitting inside the ball.'  I would say, 'Alex, I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about.'  You can't think about hitting all the time.  Calm down!  I would tell him that you've got to just get a pitch and hit the fucking ball hard somewhere."

Let's face it; not all hitters are convinced that simple approach works best for them, especially when they're not hitting well; especially for extended periods of time.  So they continue tinkering with their swing and continue trying new batting stances, until they find something that seems to work.  Quite often they would have made so many adjustments, they come full-circle and return to an approach that worked well for them earlier in their careers, but abandoned at the first sign of a slump.

"Slump?  I ain't in no slump.  I just ain't hitting."  That's how Yogi responded to a Yankees beat reporter who was pestering the three-time AL Most Valuable Player about his uncharacteristically slow start, early in the 1957 season.  The previous year was one of Berra's finest, tying a career high with 30 home runs while driving in 105.  Yogi also hit a solid .298, but most importantly, racked up a career high .534 slugging percentage.

It was bound to happen; after an impressive nine-year run (1948-1956) in which Berra averaged 106 RBI per season, the 32-year old Yankees catcher had his worst season in 1957, establishing career lows in three key offensive categories:  RBI (82), BA (.251), and SLG (.438).  That last number really stands out, since it's nearly 100 points less than the slugging percentage Yogi produced just one year earlier.  It's also the best yardstick for measuring a hitter's true offensive productivity.  Not only had Berra begun hitting for a lower average, his extra-base power was diminishing, as well; not uncommon for players on the wrong side of thirty.

When an aging player experiences a noticeable drop-off in production, the problem is often exasperated by drastic changes the player usually incorporates into his normal routine, designed to "fix" things.  Typically, with all the changes happening, the player becomes confused and frustrated; especially if the fans and the media are constantly harping on what is perceived to be a prolonged "slump".  Confused and frustrated players are usually unproductive hitters; that's why they're confused and frustrated to begin with!  Unfortunately, by the time they start figuring things out again, their season is usually deemed a failure; especially, if they're an over-hyped superstar in the first year of a long-term multi-million dollar contract that seemed to come with a postseason guarantee as part of the deal.

Quite possibly, the pressure to succeed for some players is so intense, they self-destruct; especially when playing in front 40,000 now-hostile home fans, who boo them on every strikeout, pop-out, or error.  That could explain why Cardinals second baseman Tyler Greene has had little success playing at Busch Stadium; while perhaps his finest hour came in a two-home run multiple-hit game in Houston earlier this year.  ***UPDATE:  Speak of the devil; Tyler's 2-out-2-run-8th-inning bomb was a game winner in St Louis! With the Cardinals already mired in a four-game losing streak, and only four outs away from losing their fifth straight game - at home - to the worst road team in the NL - the San Diego Padres - Greene's opposite field blast off a pitch clocked at 100 mph in front of 40,360 delirious fans, has now become the beleaguered second baseman's finest hour.

Or it could explain why a young and talented Kansas City Royals team endured that mysterious twelve-game losing streak earlier this year in front of their adoring fans at Kaufman Stadium; yet have played quite well on the road, away from the distractions they encounter at home.

Or it could explain why even a seasoned team like the Boston Red Sox have had so much difficulty playing in front of their rabid Fenway Park fans; but when they hit the road, they start winning with relative ease, away from all the noise of talk radio.

Quite possibly, the best solution for players going through any prolonged periods of poor performance is to stop thinking about it.  That's easier said than done; especially when they constantly hear the outcry of public sentiment proclaiming them to be a bum.  Of course, the larger the market, the louder the outcry.  That may explain why some players simply don't feel comfortable playing under the intense scrutiny of New York or Boston, but thrive in more laid-back environments like Pittsburgh or Houston.

"Paralysis from analysis" can be a debilitating barrier to success in any endeavor; especially in a sport like baseball that requires split-second execution and timing.  The slightest bit of indecision on any given play can be disastrous; that state of mind usually occurs when players spend so much time thinking about every little thing they need to do, they overload their brains with useless information, and don't seem to do anything right.  If they were somehow unaware of their inability to perform their job description in a satisfactory manner, the fans would certainly remind them.

If more players would only heed the words of wisdom from both Yogi Berra and Pete Rose; to keep things simple; the quality of play would certainly improve, and the fans would really appreciate it.  That's a real no-brainer.  ***Finally; let's hope Tyler Greene will keep fans in St Louis cheering, rather than jeering his play.  The Cardinals needed him to come through last night in order to escape another bitter defeat; he did it, in dramatic fashion.  Lets hope this is the start of something big for Greene and the Redbirds!

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