Four Things Wrong with Treading Water

manuel-ghandi-smFor the second time in as many weeks, Jerry Manuel publicly stated that the goal for his team is to “play .500 ball” until the key Mets — Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado — come off the disabled list. We addressed this concept less than a week ago, but since Manuel brought it up again, we’ll examine it again.

1. The bar is lowered

Most obviously, by establishing .500 as a goal, you have lowered the bar of success — while simultaneously telling the team that losing is OK.

Ideally, goals are reachable, but are not so easy attain. For example, a guy who is currently bench-pressing 150 pounds might make a goal of getting to 225 within 10 weeks. If that person gets only to 200 or 210, he’s still done a good job in driving toward his goal, and has made significant progress.

In contrast, what if the Mets set .500 as a goal and can only muster .475? That’s likely to send them into fourth place.

The Mets are 16-17 since Carlos Delgado went on the DL, and 12-11 since Jose Reyes’ last game. In between they also lost Oliver Perez and since then have lost J.J. Putz and John Maine, among others. So they’re right at .500 with the current club. So again, I go back to the weight training example — if that person is already benching 150, would he set his 10-week goal to be 150? Of course not! So since the Mets as currently assembled are playing .500 ball, why would a “goal” be to stay at that level?

2. Confidence is shaken and self-image is lowered

With this “treading water” concept we have focused on the players absent from the roster. But how about the current 25 Major Leaguers?

One of my former D1 / semipro teammates had this to say:

That’s truly an inspiring message. (sarcasm dripping) From a player’s perspective, I’m ticked off. I am here because I deserve to be playing in the Major Leagues. What he is saying is that with this bunch of mediocre players, they’re lucky to be treading water, that this crew stinks. What Manuel should be saying is “I’m proud of the job these guys have done, stepping in to roles that they did not expect to be filling at this time of the season. We are playing hard-nosed baseball and are excited about the play from our young players.”

Agreed. A player can go one of two ways after hearing Manuel’s .500 comment — he can be upset that his manager thinks he’s not good enough to play winning baseball at the MLB level, or he can accept his manager’s “dose of reality” and begin to believe that he’s not good enough to play on a pennant contender. Either way you have unnecessary negative thoughts entering the mind. Sure, some may say it’s good to have a chip on one’s shoulder, or be motivated to prove someone wrong, but that doesn’t work for everyone, and it rarely works over the long haul (see: Milton Bradley).

3. The excuse to fail is in place

So what happens if the team plays .500 ball for the next two months and their final record leaves them short of the postseason? Well, it’s OK, because Jerry Manuel stated back in June that .500 ball without Reyes and Delgado was the best his team could muster. They did their best, and, oh well, it simply wasn’t enough. Manuel escapes criticism and responsibility with the slipperyness of a teflon pan. Better yet, if the team does better than .500, Manuel is hailed as a master genius of lineup shuffling, pitching management, and team motivation. Either way his job is secure for 2010. Well done.

4. Pressure is placed on the cavalry

Now, what happens if the team does in fact “tread water” until Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado return? Those two players will be expected to turn the team on like a light switch and go on a tear, winning sixty, seventy, perhaps eighty percent of their ballgames the rest of the way. But when players miss a few months, it can be difficult to get back in the swing, so to speak. Some wonder if Delgado will be able to contribute anything. Will these players press? Will they try to do too much, and fail as a result?

Final Thoughts

Despite all the injuries, the Mets remain in second place, only three games out of first place. They still have the best closer in baseball, one of the top three starting pitchers in MLB, arguably the best all-around centerfielder in MLB, and arguably the best third baseman in MLB. Add Francisco Rodriguez, Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright to any last-place team and tell me whether that team would be thinking the postseason was a possibility.

The key point in this is that by setting the goal of “treading water”, Jerry Manuel has (as already mentioned) removed any blame from himself if the team misses the postseason again. Any manager worth his salt would not publicly set any tangible goals, but rather give the old “we’re taking it one game at a time” response — which sounds like a tired cliche but in fact is the best approach no matter what your team’s state. You don’t worry about a month or two months from now, or the players you don’t have — you focus on the here and now, and what you can do today to win a ballgame. That’s the internal and external message of a leader who knows how to win.

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Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. dyhrdmet June 18, 2009 at 9:01 pm
    Joe, you’re right – treading water is bad. but i think some of the damage has already been done. “Confidence is shaken and self-image is lowered” – that happened already after the failures of the last 2 years. i think the bar is so low BECAUSE the confidence is shaken.
  2. micalpalyn June 18, 2009 at 10:27 pm
    agree with all. How about a message like; troops with Del, rey-rey, wags, ollie et al down we need for each individual to focus and bring 110% .

    Frankly as u note this rag-tag group can play .500 ball. but that includes blowing 5-9 winnable games including now 2 blown saves for F-rod.

    I do think some guys need a kick, Sheff needs the DL and Elmer needs to come up and help out Feliciano.

  3. isuzudude June 19, 2009 at 10:25 am
    Jerry has said a lot of stupid things in his short tenure with the Mets, and has left me scratching my head many times with his in-game decisions, but this comment about playing .500 baseball is not one of them.

    Let’s be realistic for a second. The Mets 25-man roster right now is extremely haggard and resembles more of a sub-.500 team than a playoff contender. They have a one-legged man platooning LF with a 20-year old. They have a guy with a torn ligament in his finger playing everyday SS. They are getting hardly any production from 1B. They arguably have 3 minor leaguers in the starting rotation. They have no legitimate setup man and they only have one viable LHP in the pen. They also have 5 huge components to their success on the DL. Setting a goal of playing .500 baseball until the cavalry off the disabled list arrives seems like more of an undertaking than many of us are willing to admit. And if the Mets do manage to play 50/50 baseball during that span, they will still be over .500 as a whole and should still be in striking distance of the wildcard spot, if not 1st place in the division.

    And let’s not miscontstrue what Jerry is really saying here. He’s not accepting the team play .500 baseball for the season. He’s saying he’d like to see his team, with many AAAA’ers and injury fill-ins getting ample playing time, play .500 baseball until the plethora of injured bodies start trickling back into action. I really see nothing wrong with that statement or mentality. With the way this roster looks, it would be like asking the Nationals to finish the season 81-81. And I’d say Washington would say that would be a major accomplishment.

    And to be honest, I think Jerry would get slammed no matter what he were to say regarding his outlook on the season. If he were to say that he wants to see his team play .600 ball even with this ragtag roster, he’d be slammed for being naive, putting too much pressure on the team, and setting expectations unrealistically too high; destined for failure. And if he were to say he doesn’t expect much from the crappy team he’s been given, he’d like be on the next bus out of town with a pink slip in his hand. Perhaps he should just keep his mouth shut or say the same old cliches we grew tired of under Willie’s regime, but he’d probably get slammed for being too casual and uncaring if he went that route.

    There’s plenty of ammunition Jerry feeds us through the tabloids in which to crucify him on, but this is not one of them. Nobody on the Mets is accepting failure because of these words, and there’s no excuse in place if the Mets can’t keep their noses above .500. They are still good enough to at least do that, and if they come up short, there will be no less criticism of Jerry at that time regardless of whether he made these comments or not.

  4. joejanish June 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm
    isuzu, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree again.

    Looking at the Mets roster right now compared to Opening Day, yes it doesn’t look so hot. Looking at it compared to the other 10 or 11 teams still realistically in the hunt for the wild card, it’s not so bad.

    Again, the Mets have the best starting pitcher, closer, third baseman, and centerfielder in the NL. Luis Castillo is no star but not a slouch this year at 2B. The Santos/Schneider combo is about average among backstops. Ryan Church may be a fourth OF on some teams, but a starter on others. You point to Alex Cora yet Cora has been playing way over his head and filling in more than admirably. Murphy is supposed to be the second coming of Wade Boggs and it was Manuel himself who helped support that notion.

    Overall, the offense has been among the most productive in the NL, despite all the injuries — they are among the leaders in AVG, OBP, hitting with RISP, and SB. The bullpen has been likewise very good compared to others. The only place the Mets might not measure up is in the starting rotation, since things get questionable after Pelf and Livan.

    I’ll be the first one to point fingers about what’s missing on the roster as far as acquisitions the front office could’ve made over the winter, and there have been days when the lineup looked like a minor league team’s, but in comparison to the rest of the NL, the Mets on paper are not lacking in talent.

    The point I’m sticking to is that it helps no one (other than the manager himself) to spit out a number — be it .500, .600, or whatever. Manuel has successfully planted the “woe is me” foundation to buy himself another year when the Mets inevitably falter.

  5. isuzudude June 19, 2009 at 6:14 pm
    But to be fair, even if Jerry didn’t say anything about playing .500 ball, couldn’t he still use the “woe is me” card this offseason when looking back at all the injuries and seeing how it cost the Mets their season (assuming they miss the playoffs)? And even before he said anything about playing .500 baseball, I don’t think there was one person following this team who didn’t think Jerry really had his work cut out for him and that, with the short benches and DL-parade, the Mets were destined to lose more often until those that are injured started making their way back onto the roster. So it’s not like Jerry really said anything the rest of us weren’t already thinking, including people and players within the Mets. When you lose this many important players to injury for long periods of time, that thought is going to creep into everybody’s head.

    I don’t think Jerry will keep his job, either, based on the pity vote. He will be evaluated based on performance according to the roster he was given (and both you and I believe it should be an above-.500 team, even with the injuries) and the decisions he made that might have won or lost games. At least, that’s what I hope will happen. But I doubt the Wilpons will keep Jerry onboard for another year just because they feel sorry for him.

    I just get uncomfortable criticizing Jerry for being honest and realistic when we were clammoring for Willie to be that way during the 2007 collapse and all he would give us is the usual “one game at a time” and “i’m not worried” quotes that got him lambasted by the media and fanbase. So Jerry goes the other way, opening up and not sugarcoating his comments, and he gets crucified too. I can understand your points about how his comments MIGHT cause a negative reaction, but seeing how Willie did the total opposite and got bad results, I can’t fault Jerry for trying to be more direct.