Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How a Team Collapses: 2011 Mariners

My Mariners are not really in a death spiral, although it feels like it. My daughter tells me I tend to overdramatize things, but we Mariners’ fans are watching a complete team collapse. Today the team managed to stop their headlong pursuit to set a modern major league record for losses in a row; they had to settle for 17. This is not a choke where the stakes are high and the team has it all on the line and fails to play up to its capability. Now they are simply collapsing.

No one expected much of this team, and yet, for a glorious moment, they produced unexpectedly good baseball. Now they have collapsed into beyond pathetic and it got me wondering what happens when a team collapses?

A team collapses when it suddenly starts to play below its capabilities and enters a spiral of losing and declining competence fed by the losing. To collapse suggests the team has been performing well or at least OK, then it suddenly devolves to a lower, I mean awful, level of play. The Mariners were playing at or above their projected talent+skill+commitment capabilities. Then in a very short time, the team swoons to compete far below its talent+skill+commitment level. This results in a self-reinforcing corkscrew of losses reinforcing each other until the team has played itself out of contention.

A team collapse involves the well-documented psychological phenomenon of contagion. In a collapse, the low level of performance begins somewhere. In the Mariner’s case, the entire batting lineup, but especially the collapse of Sean Figgins and Ichiro who are both hitting about 70 points below their career averages.

Other players begin to feel obligated to up their game. Team members push themselves to try to do more than they are capable of. They try to hit homers when they are live drive hitters; they swing at marginal pitches; they lose patience. This singular response is compounded because team members lose trust in the other players. They believe that other players will not do their part. This lack of trust in the rest of the lineup motivates them to push harder, move beyond their comfort zone and strengths. If they were role players and had defined comfortable positions, they press beyond these and fail.

This pressing beyond talent+skill level leads to disaster. Leaving aside sudden blips, hot games or streaks, most good to average players will decline when they move beyond their comfort or strength zones. Pitchers will magnify the problems once the scouts let them know a batter is now vulnerable to new pitches. So player-by-player individuals fall into patterns of failure and fall below their norms and even below replacement value.  Suddenly you have a team that is last in the major leagues in 7 of 9 offensive categories and that is offensive (ugh!). Yesterday they set a record in Yankee stadium—18 strikeouts  against good but not great pitching. This only occurs when an entire team anxiously presses and swings at balls at bad or marginal pitches.As in the Yankee game, they flail, check swings, watch third strikes; they manifest a collective lack of decisive confidence in their ability to engage or hit.

The offense woes lead managers to play mix and match and call up anyone in the farm system that looks like a hitter. This approach generates chaotic and unreliable patterns in the in field. So precision infield play or outfield fielding efficiency plummets. The trusting communication and internalized sixth senses of trust and anticipation disappears. Fielders overplay and compensate and even ignore scouts. This results in more errors and egregious mistakes that erode trust further. The team brings up minor league “hitters” who are marginal outfielders, so mistakes multiply and bloopers become a sort of expected norm.

The slow collapse of hitting coupled with the gradual wearing down of fielding competence finally infects the pitchers, and this nailed the coffin shut.

The Mariners were held together by superb but young starting pitchers and journeymen relievers enjoying career years. But now the contagion spreads in the same way. Young pitchers like Michael Pineda start to over throw knowing they cannot rely on run support. Doug Fister and Jason Vargas both need control and fine fielding to work. But like Pineda, they are forced to try for more strikeouts because they cannot trust the fielding. The pressure on each pitch goes up because so little run support exists (Fister had 8 runs scored in 6 starts). So “pressure pitches” multiply which increases the stress load and impact on pitchers wearing down their mental focus more quickly.

Pitchers know they cannot afford mistakes because the fielding is no longer reliable and the offense cannot offset errors. The mental and physical strain of every pitch intensifies. Pitchers wear down faster and young pitchers even faster. Now every player's failure feeds their own lack of confidence and also infects every other players eroding competence. The psyche of the team guarantees failure because no one believes they can succeed with this group of team mates.

On top of this the pundits demand trades and heads to fall, everyone now finds himself mentioned in columns and potential trade bait. So every at bat and every pitch now becomes an audition to be traded; this of course fosters even more nervous tension as well as harvesting massive insecurity in a clubhouse.

At this point many teams give up. We see it all the time on the field when a coach loses control of the team. Players not just collapse in skill set but they quit trying or they quit caring which leads to the same result. The talent+skill equation depends upon the commitment level of give it life. The Mariners, unlike the last two years, are still playing as a cohesive unit and have neither given up nor taken to attacking each other. They do not manifest a complete death spiral where the team and the coach have lost control of their destinies. I witnessed this happen at Washington with Tyrone Willingham’s last college team.

17 losses in a row. They are not that bad; but they will never recover this year. Felix Hernandez staunched the record run; but more loss streaks on are the way and a slow agonizing season lies before us. 

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