First off, I am absolutely stunned by every spineless apologist out there defending Fernando Martinez for his disgraceful lack of effort on his infamous popup off of Wil Nieves’ chest two nights ago.
Second, I would like to point out that it wasn’t a “one time thing”, nor “a mistake that won’t happen again”. Because it DID HAPPEN AGAIN, and in fact it happened on his very next at-bat, only moments after the Citi Field crowd treated the youngster to a chorus of boos.
If you weren’t at the park, then you didn’t see the young millionaire once again watch his popup — this time to centerfield — and JOG halfway up the first base line, while, ironically, rookie Justin Maxwell was busting his tail trying to catch the blooper. It wasn’t until Martinez noticed that Maxwell might not catch the fly ball that he started to run hard. Again, you did not see that, because the TV camera was focused on Maxwell making a sliding catch.
Which brings up another thing: if you don’t have the opportunity to watch this team in person, then you only see about 10% of the game — the 10% that Emmy Award Winning producer Bill Webb thinks you should be seeing. You therefore miss:
– every time an outfielder misses a cutoff man;
– every time a pitcher fails to back up a base;
– every time a position player fails to back up a base;
– every time a batter watches the ball in flight off his bat, instead of busting it out of the box;
– outfielders not re-positioning themselves from batter to batter
– infielders not re-positioning themselves from pitch to pitch
– cutoff men who are out of position, or not in position at all
– runners who get poor leads
– runners who get poor secondary leads
– runners who do not pay attention to their base coaches
– runners who do not properly read an outfielder’s route to the ball, and don’t take an extra base
– on-deck hitters who do not clear bats and do not tell the incoming runner whether and where to slide
There are other “little” things that you may or may not see on your TV, but if you never played baseball then you may have no idea why I’m making a “big” deal out of these “little” things. And you’re excused for your ignorance, because from the focus of the centerfield camera, you’re led to believe that the most important things are homeruns and strikeouts.
But the truth is, there’s more to baseball than that. Just because the
dungeons and dragons nerds sabermetricians haven’t yet created a stat for “missed cutoffs on balls in play”, doesn’t mean such acts can’t affect the outcome of a game. They do. They’re called “fundamentals”, and they often go hand in hand with “winning”. That is, until Bud Selig watered down the competition, allowed steroids and other PEDs to permeate the game, and changed the rules so that more balls would go flying over outfield fences. Even then, a few teams that specialized in executing fundamentals (Braves, Twins, Yankees of the late 1990s) were able to win consistently against the Moneyballers worshipping OBP and the three-run homer.
Times have changed, folks. Steroid testing has begun to wash out some of the derelicts, which in turn has slowed down bats and arms. Second basemen are no longer hitting 25 homers a year, and middle relievers are no longer able to throw 94 MPH on back-to-back-to-back days. Everyone is exposed, and the teams with weak fundamentals and/or less than 100% effort are losing games for those “little” deficiencies.
My friend Matt at MetsBlog noted last week, in regard to the Mets inattention to detail:
… it’s not rampant, but this sloppiness always seems to rear its ugly head at the worst times…
…the good news is that the Mets seem to be making less and less of these mistakes …
I don’t mean to call out Matt, but his comments are indicative of what many Mets fans see and think. The truth is, the Mets’ sloppiness, and lack of hustle, IS rampant, and they are making MORE and MORE of these fundamental “mistakes”. However, 95% of fans only notice these issues when they either a) lead to a run; or b) a TV announcer sees it and points it out on a replay from a camera angle that wasn’t used to capture the original/live action. The Mets are making mistakes, and not hustling, frequently — but you’ve only been made aware of it when it was blatant (F-Mart’s popup) or a potential game-changing play (i.e., Carlos Beltran not sliding). While your eye (or camera angle) is focused on following the ball, a number of other actions are occurring all over the field — it’s a fact, and not something to apologize for. But also, don’t take for granted that all those actions are happening as they are supposed to.
And here is my point: the Mets, for several years now, have developed a culture that excuses inattention to detail and, yes, a lack of hustle. The detail thing is part laziness, part lack of focus (some argue that they are one and the same). As a ballplayer myself, I don’t have a problem with physical errors — they happen. Mental errors are more difficult to excuse, but if a player is young and inexperienced, they’re tolerated — to a point. Players — and teams — can minimize mental errors through education, preparation, and simply paying attention. What can never, ever be tolerated, though, is lack of effort — because it is the one thing that every ballplayer has complete control over. Most Mets players often hustle, but few ALWAYS hustle.
In fact, the Mets have assembled a group of players that routinely take their foot off the gas pedal as they see fit. There’s a particular first baseman whose effort was so abominable that his manager once made a joke of his getting his pants dirty during a game. That “clubhouse leader” set the example for the younger players, some of whom are now also looked to as examples themselves. When you see the “leader” jog to first on a grounder to second base, you may believe that it’s OK, and acceptable, to do the same. And so on. Unless the “other” leader — the manager — does something to make clear that less than 100% will not be tolerated, all 25 players are free to approach the game as they see fit. Some guys may hustle, others may not. Some may put their full focus on the task at hand, some may not.
If you’ve watched the Mets over the past 2-3 seasons, and heard what’s been said by some of the players themselves, then you can’t argue that the Mets have given “their all”. For example, there are direct quotes from David Wright admitting that the team coasted through parts of 2007 and 2008, be it due to overconfidence, lack of intensity, or disinterest. In other words, the team has been so talented, it operated / operates as if controlled by an on/off switch: they coast along through the schedule, and “turn it on” when they think they need to. Several times this year we’ve seen them play down to the level of their competition — they just did it against the Nationals, but were lucky to have enough talent to still sweep them.
In a way, you can’t necessarily blame Fernando Martinez for dogging it. After all, he’s approaching a big league game in the same way he’s seen the veterans approach one. What Met could have taken F-Mart aside and said, “hey kid, you have to run everything out, all the time — that’s what we do here.” ? Martinez would have laughed out loud and responded with, “oh yeah? Tell that to guy on the crutches, or the backup catcher, or any of a dozen other guys who I’ve seen dog it, plenty of times”. Jerry Manuel should have disciplined Martinez immediately, but didn’t, perhaps partially because he’d never discipline any of his stars. And before you say “all Major Leaguers dog it here and there” or “no MLB manager benches star players for lack of hustle”, ask Jimmy Rollins what Charlie Manuel did to him the last time Rollins didn’t run out an infield popup.
Here’s the thing — the Mets have enough talent to stay in the hunt through September, despite their lack of focus, their mental errors, their poor fundamentals, and their frequent lack of hustle. They might even have enough pure talent to get into the postseason. But is that the team you want to root for? One that succeeds despite giving less than their best?