Tuesday, July 05, 2011

An Embarrassment of Giving Somebody Else Riches

When a ballplayer is in a vicious slump, his team's management has two options. Plan A is to keep putting the slumper out there and hope he works his way out of it ASAP. Plan B is to set the slumper on the bench and hope a few days off regroove the guy somehow.

When said ballplayer is a starting pitcher, like, oh, John Lackey, management's options, not good to begin with, become more onerous. Plan A tends to result in lost games until the slump fever breaks. Plan B requires that the team find another starting pitcher somewhere in the organization. That is, some pitcher will receive a promotion from the bullpen or minors which they may or may not be able to justify.

Another nasty difference. By and large, batting slumps DO end. Hitters tend to hit what they usually hit until age or injury erodes their skills for keeps. The Sox kept David Ortiz plugging away during two frightful slumps in 2009 and 2010, and were right to do so.

Pitching slumps can be permanent. History is full of hurlers who all of a sudden couldn't get out of the fourth inning without a police escort. It usually has something to do with fastball velocity. In the most lethal cases, the pitcher's self-confidence/arrogance that is essential to his success is shot. It is very difficult not to conclude Lackey is in the midst of just such an existential crisis, one for which American League hitters are very grateful.

Long-distance psychoanalysis is specious. Analyzing the psyches of ballplayers is hard for real doctors. Athletes are doers, not ponderers. They aren't used to thinking in terms of thinking about themselves.

But circumstantial evidence shrieks that Lackey's issues on the mound are somehow related to the fact that this once-competent major league starter is getting paid by the Red Sox as if he was and is a perennial All-Star. This led to some problems last year. As Lackey, who, face it, is not a sympathetic personality, noted several times, he has pretty much the same pitcher in 2010 as he'd always been. He didn't understand why all of a sudden fans and media felt that wasn't good enough. Perhaps he has direct deposit, and doesn't see the numbers on his paycheck.

Should the 2010 Lackey return this season, he'd be a hero, at least compared to his 2011 self. And there, I think, we may find his problem. As has been known since the barnstorming days fo the Cincinnati Red Stockings, trying too hard is almost always what turns a bad patch into a classic slump. By trying to be a megasalaried hero instead of the acceptable number three starter that used to be his destiny, Lackey has transformed himself into a bum.

That's a sad story, no matter how unsympathetic a protagonist Lackey is. It's also worth contrasting Lackey's decline with another Red Sox who signed an overvalued contract, J. D. Drew.

Drew got five years at $14 million a year. That was way too much money for a player with Drew's resume, which was "very good when healthy, never healthy." As a member of the Red Sox, Drew, much to frustration of many fans, lived up to that billing exactly. Now that he's getting old, Drew's injuries are more frequent, and his bat less potent.

But Drew didn't fall off the table when he got overpaid. He was the same guy. The Sox didn't get what they paid for, but they got what they should have paid for. Anyone unhappy with what Drew has contributed to the Sox during his stay in Boston should address their complaints to the front office, not Drew's clubhouse locker.

I don't know either Drew or Lackey at all. This could be pure moonshine. They might hate each other. But I can't help thinking that if I were Terry Francona, I might encourage them to have a nice long chat.


Post a Comment

<< Home