Recently I made fun of James McDonald and basically questioned his emotional ability to be a successful major league pitcher based on his breaking down last year in the last game he may ever start, and his head in hand turn this past week when he blew himself off the major league roster. Only Canuck really stood up to my silly comments and that should not have happened. Next time I make some comments based on my flimsy psycho analysis I'd hope you'd all come down on me like a house afire.
Several days ago respected ESPN sports writer Molly Knight was set to appear on ESPN Radio and I questioned why we'd care what she had to say about the Dodgers. I expect I came off as arrogant but I'm just not a fan of sports talk radio when it comes to baseball. Molly is a Dodger fan but she is not a beat writer, what could she know that we don't already know? Is that arrogant? Probably but it is what I believe. Even beat writers like Tony Jackson don't seem to have any inside information as to what the Dodgers are up to these days so I didn't expect any information of note to come from this interview so I didn't bother to listen.
Anyway after her appearance on the ESPN show, Molly showed up on Dodger Thoughts and engaged in a conversation with Jon and others. I was late to the party and did not read the comments until today. I feel strange writing this column because the conversation took place on another blog but Molly is part of the National Media and as such her opinion is being heard by the nation. I'm not a fan of those who think they can ascertain the mental ability of players to succeed or not based on first hand observations.
Before I start breaking down my disagreements with what where I think Molly is off let me start off by saying that I totally agree that the mental side is every bit as important as the physical side. Baseball is littered with guys with better talent who have been outplayed by those with lesser talent. I don't question mental toughness, I question those who think they can define who has it and who doesn't based on circumstantial evidence. I question that smart men cannot succeed in baseball. I question that their are only two types of baseball players. I question those who think they can tell what a man is going do based on body language and the look in their eyes.
Let us start off with this:
Kershaw is an extremely laid-back dude with a great ability to shake things off and not to overthink. He's fit in as one of the guys from day 1. He'll be fine. It's Billingsley I worry about. Physically he certainly has it. Emotionally, it's a struggle.
Chad and Broxton will always to have to fight this devil and it just isn't fair. Chad has already had to much success for comments like this to made without comment. Until not putting away the best hitting team in the NL during the NLCS in 2008 Chad was the best young pitcher the Dodgers have had in many a year and the numbers back it up. If his emotions were getting in his way to succeed, he has certainly done an excellent job of hiding it for most of his professional career.
I was just re-reading Moneyball and in some ways Bills reminds me of Billy Beane--all the talent in the world but couldn't pull it together completely because he put too much pressure on himself to be perfect and never had any fun. Obviously, Billingsley has had more big league success than Beane, but the parallels are there. He reminds me of Carlos Quentin in a way, too. Much too serious, too smart, to shake things off. Every baseball player go through slumps--it's how they react that counts.
Comparing a man with Billingsley's accomplishment to a piece of crap baseball player like Billy Beane, and then to go off and basically imply that smart baseball players are not able to shake their slumps because they think to much. Seriously, if TJ Simers or Bill Plaschke had made these comments we'd be all over them.
Billingsley is a pitcher with fantastic stuff, obviously. I don't know if I agree with the "he can't hack it when it matters" sentiment because it's not big games that seem to rattle him as much as getting out of trouble in every-day outings. As you guys know, he'll be sailing along and then the fifth inning rolls around and someone will make an error and/or he walks a guy on a close pitch and all of a sudden the wheels fall off the apple cart. And then after the game when he talks to reporters he looks like a man who just ran over his dog (eyes to the ground, slumped shoulders, cracking voice, etc.)
Comments like these seem to forget that Chad had no problem for 2 1/2 years of not having these problems. Now I'm sure Molly has interviewed many baseball players after games and is using that "small" sample size to cross check her opinion on whether a baseball players has what it takes to hang tough when the tough days come. What I'd like is a more objective approach to this analysis. Do players who look like they ran over their dogs after a tough performance perform lower then those like Odalis Perez who seemed to care less? I'm very much of the opinion that whatever a person shows on the outside is not indicative of what is going on the inside.
I also think she is off on the Billingsley wheels falling off analysis. I remember making something close to the same statement, and Jon or Eric doing some legwork to show while that was the popular opinion it wasn't really the case.
I guess what I mean is the majority of superstar ballplayers--excludi ng Chase Utley, and, um, Sandy Koufax--are either pretty laid back or pretty, err, simple-minded. I know there are examples that prove this generalization wrong, but it's a common thread I see firsthand.
As far as elite pitchers go, Tim Lincecum is one of the biggest free spirits in baseball, and a total goof. Zack Greinke had his nerves treated with extensive therapy and medication, and it's obviously paid off. Cliff Lee admitted in an interview that he'd never read a book in his life. Danny Haren is a mellow fellow who smiles a lot. Um. CC Sabathia smiles a lot, too. And hugs people.
Kershaw's personality fits much easier into this lot than Billingsley's. He's just got an...ease about him that reminds me of Lincecum. Neither one of them walk around like they've got the weight of the franchise on their shoulders--which I think works to their advantage.
Does it mean anything? Maybe not. Just an observation.
Once upon a time I heard this same bullshit, it was 1984 and Greg Brock had replace Steve Garvey. Brock was easy going, didn't seem to take the game seriously. Mike Marshal was a man with prodigious physical talent but was tightly wound. There was a lot of debate which one had the better personality to succeed in major league baseball. I've read this stuff for 40 years and I think it is all crap. Some guys who read are great some who don't are great. This is just a huge stereotype. Do you think Ted Williams was easy going, Frank Robinson, Randy Johnson? Baseball has had room for every personality type and will continue to do so. I don't think Molly's first hand observations would pass the smell test.
Even before his mid-season meltdown last year he always seemed to have an inning (usually the 5th) where if he got into the slightest bit of hot water it turned into a tsunami.
Every young pitcher clearly has to learn to pitch himself out of jams, so his plight is not uncommon. But his body language is not good. I've seen Kershaw after losses and while he doesn't look like he wants to throw a kegger, he also doesn't look like he's going to cry.
Billingsley is completely gutted after he gets shelled--not defiantly so, like, "I sucked. I'll go out there and get 'em next time." But, like, crushed. He hangs his head. His voice squeaks. He looks like someone shot his dog. He doesn't seem to have the ability to let things go.I still think he's a great pitcher, and I'm not as down on him as a lot of people here. But it seems like he just stopped having fun at some point. Of course, he can be a baseball mercenary like Jeff Kent--not really enjoying the game and hating being away from his family but playing it as a way to make money because he's freakishly good at it. I just wish he'd loosen up a bit.
I'm going to have to call out Molly on this. She is not a Dodger beat writer, she writes for ESPN. Just exactly how many times has she seen Chad Billingsley after he has lost a game? I'm betting it is less then three times and I'll bet that most of that observation came after the NLCS loss when she was covering the series. I expect Chad probably did want to cry after letting his team down in the most important game he'd ever pitched upto that point in his life. Maybe I'm wrong here and Molly has been in the Dodger clubhouse numerous times after a Billingsley loss but I doubt it.
Is Chad Billingsley a head case? We here at TBLA don't think so, maybe we are blind to his emotional state but we like to look at his results. For most of his career he's been great, for one game in 2008 he was bad. For the 2nd half of 2009 he was bad. I've got two big problems with the biggest critics of Billingsley's emotional state.
1. He can't pitch in pressure games and always point to the 2008 NLCS while totally ignoring the fact he shut down the potent Cub offense in game two in Chicago to help the Dodgers even get to the NLCS. I mean come on, how frickin big a game was that 2nd game in Chicago.
2. That he has not been able to shake what happened in Philly and that is why he had a bad 2009 while ignoring the fact he was one of the best NL starting pitchers in the first half. If he was scarred by the NLCS he sure did a fine job of ignoring the emotional beast that was eating his heart out for the first 19 games he started.
Chad broke his leg, his off season conditioning was put on hold, he was not able to go long into games in the 2nd half. Seems like a conditioning problem more then an emotional one to me but you can 't win this battle. If Chad does well this year the same people who questioned his emotional ability will simply say he's matured.