"Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical." -- Yogi Berra
With the major league baseball season more than half over and the All Star break here in a few days, I'm sure many fantasy owners will be using the break as a time to reflect on what has gone right -- and wrong -- with their teams. I know I can point to a few key draft flubs or free agent pickups I missed that I probably spend more time than I should thinking about and regretting. And while I plan to catalog and write about most of these mistakes in hopes of helping me make fewer of them next year, for now I'm going to take a moment to remember that successful fantasy baseball is not an exact science. Bad luck alone can cause months of research and number-crunching to go for naught, of course. But the thing really I want to concentrate on for now is reminding myself that no matter how much relevant analytical data any fantasy baseball owner sorts through, there is simply no way to account for the emotional element of the game.
I have heard successful fantasy owners say that, while they study statistics, patterns, and the like ad nauseum, they watch little to no actual major league baseball being played. Not only have they never seen some of "their" players throw a pitch or take an at bat, they don't even know what many of them look like. This would never work for me personally, mostly because I love watching baseball, but also because every once in a while feel I pick up on something watching a player closely (a potential hot/cold streak coming based on how well I perceive the player is seeing the ball according to what pitches he is or is not swinging at, for instance). But whether an owner sticks just with numbers, or closely watches hours of baseball to try to get a better feel for a player's value than a stat sheet or chart will give him, it is still next to impossible to quantify how a player's emotions will affect his play. Even if Yogi's math wasn't quite right, I've always loved this quote because it almost seems like the numbers actually do add up within the world of baseball, and I think people continue to underestimate what a mental game it is. The games are played by living, breathing people on what can be a stressful and unpredictable stage -- and this is what I need to remind myself when I start to get frustrated over my inability to predict exactly what a given player is going to do on a given day (or during a given year, for that matter).
On June 27th, the Nationals made news by starting their presumed shortstop of the not-so-far-away-future, Trea Turner, in center field. This move suggested to anyone following the team, or its players from a fantasy perspective, two things: a recently-productive Danny Espinosa was probably not going to be getting tossed aside at shortstop any time soon, and a struggling Ben Revere was quickly losing his grip on his job as the Nats everyday center fielder and leadoff man. Obviously, both Revere and Espinosa knew exactly what was happening down on the farm, and had to be affected by it on at least some level. That evening, Revere had four hits, scored three runs, stole three bases, and raised his batting average 18 points. If I recall correctly, he also made a couple web-gem worthy plays defensively. Espinosa, meanwhile, went on one of the most ridiculous hitting tears ever, including becoming the first National to hit home runs from both sides of the plate in a game... and then doing it again three days later.
I just don't believe either player's production outburst was a coincidence. Revere seems to have responded immediately to having a fire lit under him, and Espinosa appeared to find a confidence at the plate inspired by the faith of his manager and the Nationals powers-that-be. Speaking of lighting fires, that seems to be what finally got Wilmer Flores in gear in New York. After pretty inexplicably being handed a starting job due to David Wright's career- threatening injury among other Mets issues, Flores had looked lost at the plate all season. But as soon as Jose Reyes appeared to be close to donning a major league Mets uniform, Flores was a new man. After scraping together three home runs all year, Flores had four in two games over the course of a few days, and is making it near-impossible for Terry Collins to take him out of the lineup. But competition doesn't always seem to lead to increased performance. In Miami, A.J. Ramos recently blew his first save of the season after being a perfect 24 for 24... the day Fernando Rodney was acquired to shore up the Marlins bullpen. Sure, Ramos might have blown the save that day anyway... but how could the Marlins acquiring Rodney not mess with Ramos' head a little bit one way or another?
It is hard enough to predict how baseball players are going to perform even when you leave the mental part of the game out of it. When you start to think about how much emotions may factor in to things, it becomes even harder to predict. Will the player collapse after receiving a giant contract and seemingly having nothing to motivate him, or will he play better than even once his team has shown faith in him (see: Gregory Polanco)? Will hearing footsteps from a triple A motivate a player, or terrify him into a career-worst slump? Is there something going on in a player's personal life that may be affecting him either positively or negatively, but that we as fantasy owners will never have the slightest idea is happening? It's easy to just look at baseball players as names and numbers, and since most of us probably don't spend much time hanging out with the guys on our fantasy teams, in a way that's all they really can be to us. So use the break to take some time to figure out what you did wrong, and how you might still be able to fix it before the end of September. Just remember that any human on the planet can be wildly unpredictable, and adding the reward of major fame and fortune to one's career success only compounds the matter. Keep crunching those numbers, but when you can't figure out why they haven't been adding up, don't beat yourself up too much -- know that there just might not be a chart or graph in existence that can fully explain the behavior of your all-too-human fantasy players.