Partial Anatomy of a Collapse
By Joe Luchok
All Pirate fans know the gruesome fact that the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates went from 16 games above .500 on August 8th to four games under .500 at season’s end. We know what happened but we don’t know why it happened and I doubt we will ever know definitely. Before we go into the 2013 season, let’s look back at 2012.
One theory I have heard is that the team overachieved for four months then underachieved for two months. I reject that idea, no team or player does that for extended periods. A team can overachieve for a week or two but not for four months.
Others say the team just wasn’t that good, but any team 16 games over .500 in August is good enough to finish over .500. The Pirates played some excellent games against some good teams.
Another theory is that injury played a role, but the only significant injury was Nell Walker. When he went down on August 26 the team had gone 9 and 15 in August. After Walker returned on September 14 the team went 1 and 7.
After talking to some people my conclusion is the most likely cause of the collapse was mental.
Noted philosopher Yogi Berra supposedly said “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.” I think he has the 90% mental right.
There is also Watty Piper’s story of “The Little Engine That Could” whose success was rooted in saying “I think I can.” In other words, thinking you can increases chances of success and thinking you can’t increases chances of failure.
A couple of years ago I asked Gary Williams, coach of the Maryland University basketball team, why teams go into scoring droughts. He said that when a couple of shots miss, players start pressing and they aim shots instead of just letting them go naturally. That is close to what people say about pitchers who aim the ball instead just pitching naturally. Williams said that a team usually needs a layup, once they score players relax and stop thinking about scoring drought. This could affect players in a game but could it also carry over to the next game then build after that?
Tony LaRussa thinks games do carry over. Tim Wendel, author of Summer of ’68 told me that LaRussa said to him that all wins and losses are not equal. Some carry over and even though players say the past is behind is behind them, there can be a loss of confidence in the clubhouse. On July 26, 2011, the Pirates lost in 19 innings to the Braves on a blown call at the plate. Although there is no proof this derailed their season, they proceeded to lose 11 of their next 12 games and the season fell apart.
The bigger question if whether that game carried over into 2012. On August 19, 2012 the Pirates won a 19 inning game in dramatic fashion, but then lost four games in row.
Perhaps it was not just the 19 inning game but also the fact that they lost their next four games. They had not lost four in row since June, but perhaps four losses in row after the 19 inning game brought more thoughts about what happened in 2011. Instead of seeing the four losses as just a simple losing streak, they saw it as “here we go again”.
I asked baseball reporter Tim Kurkjian what might have led to the collapse and his story supported the confidence thought. He said the Pirates’ collapse reminded him of the 1986 Orioles, a team he covered. The Orioles woke on August 6, 1986, (Tim remembered the date) with a record of 59 and 47. That day they lost 13-11 to the Rangers. It was how they lost that is the story. After falling behind 6-0 early, the Orioles scored nine runs in the 4th and two more in the 6th to take an 11-6 lead into the 8th inning.
The Rangers scored six runs in the 8th and added another in the 9th to win the game 13-11.
Tim said that after the game Fred Lynn told him the loss was a bad omen and he hoped it would not lead to bad things.
It did lead to bad things, as the Orioles went 14 and 41 their last 55 games. The Orioles were bad in 1987 and 1988. They opened the 1989 season with an extra inning win over the Red Sox and players felt the “curse” was lifted.
The Orioles team that went 54 and 107 in 1988, went 88 and 75 in 1989.
Tim also talked about last year’s NLDS final game where the Nationals were up 6-0 early and still up 7-5 going into the 9th. Everyone thought the game was over except the Cardinals. Tim said he looked at their dugout and they were smiling and relaxed. He asked one of the players after the game if they really thought they were going to win. The player said yes, we have been in that game many times and the National never had. He said they could tell the Nationals were very tight.
Players knew the value of confidence many years ago. Quoted in F.C. Lane’s 1925 book Batting, Rogers Hornsby said, “The spirit that wins games is built on confidence. The lack of confidence and the fear of failure has just the opposite effect on a batter. I will go on record that if I did not have confidence in my own ability to hit any kind of pitching, I would never have led the National League nor hit even .300. If some manager had got it into my head that I couldn’t hit certain kinds of pitching, and I had brooded over that idea and come to accept it as true, like a lot of batters I could mention, such success as I have gained would have been impossible”.
In the same book, Miller Huggins said, “Confidence is the mental tonic which added to physical ability wins so many ball games. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of such confidence. Every winning club has it. No losing club has it. Lack of confidence can disorganize a ball club quicker than a series of accidents. Players get discouraged and they lose. They feel the breaks are going against them. It’s the old story, you can’t swim so well against the tide as you can with the tide.”
Babe Adams, quoted in Lane’s book said, “Mental attitude has much to do with playing form. Excitable players are apt to be in and outers. A man shouldn’t easily be upset by little things or he will be in hot water all the time in baseball.”
Both contemporary accounts and accounts from a century ago agree that confidence, I think I can, plays a major role in success.
What we do know is that the Pirates came into August in both 2011 and 2012 above .500 and collapsed both seasons.
What we don’t know is how to ensure a similar collapse will not occur in 2013.