Check the standings today and you'll find any number of interesting tidbits. The Red Sox have the best record in the American League, the Braves are running away with the National League East, and Diamondbacks sit atop the National League West because of… pre-game human sacrifice? Extra-fuzzy mascots? It's unclear. All of that is interesting and all of that is why we love to follow the baseball season as it unfolds.
The sly reader will notice that none of the above included the Toronto Blue Jays. That's because the Blue Jays aren't within spitting distance of a .500 record, let alone first place. For a team coming off a 73-89 season, that normally wouldn't be so surprising, but the Blue Jays got a lot of post-season attention. Twenty of 43 analysts from ESPN picked the Jays to win the American League East, second to only the Rays. The crew from Baseball Prospectus felt similarly, as 16 out of 42 analysts there picked Toronto to win the division (full disclosure: I write for Baseball Prospectus and picked Boston to win the East), second only to the Rays who were picked 20 times. Of seven Sports Illustrated writers, three picked Toronto and four picked Tampa.
The Rays were and are a fine pick, but they won 90 games last season. They were a good team. Toronto wasn't. Most of the time you don't find teams coming off of seasons with .450 winning percentages -- okay, fine, .451 -- getting picked to win their divisions, especially when that division included three 90-win teams. But the Jays were the exception.
Toronto was a popular pick to win the AL East for two or three reasons, depending on how charitable you're willing to be. The first reason is the trade they made with the Marlins to acquire starting pitcher Josh Johnson, shortstop Jose Reyes, and starting pitcher Mark Buehrle. The second reason is the trade the completed with the Mets to acquire reigning National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey. The third reason is the ridiculous number of injuries the team suffered last season, meaning some likely thought their record wasn't a true indicator of their talent level.
But mostly it was that the Jays added four former All-Stars to their team without subtracting a single player from their major league roster. That tends to set the buzz engines a-buzzing. But now here we are, almost 40 percent through the season and the Jays record is actually worse than it was last season. It's easy to look at those moves, do some simple math, and come out of it with a 95-win team. That's what many of us did and that's what many of us expected, but that's not what any of us got. Why? Was the hype overblown? Were they never really that good? Did the pressure of the expectations get to them and somehow cause them to play worsw on the field?
It seems the Blue Jays themselves don't know. On April 21, Jays manager John Gibbons was asked whether the pressure was getting to his team. He said, "They know what's at stake. They're all giving it their best, we just haven't performed the way we hoped. That doesn't mean we're going to, and to be honest, we've run into some good pitching along the way, too." Later in the same interview he admitted, "There have been times when we've been over-aggressive." The first quote sounds like Gibbons is saying the pressure wasn't a problem, they've started slowly, they've faced better-than-average pitching, and it's early things will get better and on and on. The second sounds like, weeeeeell just maaaaaaaaybe the pressure is getting to us a little bit.
Two days later Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola told Canada.com that he thought the pressure was getting to the team. "Their desire to win has put added pressure on themselves. I don't think it's been anything mechanical. It's been the mental side of the game that's been getting to the guys." Toronto was 9-14 at the time. So we have the manager saying no, the pressure isn't getting to the team unless it's just a very little bit, and then the pitching coach admitting to some extent that pressure, presumably created by hype, by expectations, may have been a problem. Figuring out how much impact something like that has is already difficult, but the job gets that much harder if you aren't sure it's there in the first place.
I'm usually skeptical of the impact of pressure on professional athletes. Often times I see it as the media inserting themselves into the story. The pressure (…from the media) was so great that the players just couldn't play properly! Oh, that powerful media! That said, it strikes me that just this year alone, we have three separate cases of this kind of thing, as the Dodgers and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Angels both fall into a similar category.
Last season the Dodgers traded two minor leaguers to Boston for All-Stars Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett (and Nick Punto), then traded for All Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez, then supplemented that talent infusion by signing starting pitcher Zack Greinke to a huge free agent contract this past off-season. During roughly that same time span, the Angels signed C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton to contracts totaling 20 years, $442.5 million. Numbers and names that big come with similarly sized expectations attached, but despite the financial outlay and the names associated with it, the Dodgers are in last place, while the Angels, despite having a worse record than the Dodgers, are saved from last place by being in the same division as the awful Houston Astros.
While three teams isn't exactly a large sample size, it seems silly to claim that expectations and hype are not impacting their seasons in some way. The pressure to perform must be immense… but I wonder if it's really markedly greater than what a player feels normally. Most players aren't signed to long-term big-money deals, and while they are certainly making a good living, many are perpetually playing for their next contract, perpetually playing to remain on the team, perpetually playing for a spot on any team next season. They have to play well or at least competently to remain on a major league roster. In that sense, thanks to his five-year contract, Josh Hamilton should have less pressure on him than your average bench scrub.
Here's an example. The Red Sox just designated infielder Pedro Ciriaco for assignment. Ciriaco was picked up last season and garnered playing time after he hit a silly .625/.647/.750 through four games. But Ciriaco wasn't Mike Trout squared. He was more like Mike Trout halved and then halved again, the 25th guy on a 25-man roster. He managed to hold on for almost a year, but recently the rumors that he was about to get cut were swirling. The writing seemed on the wall, the floor, the door, and on Ciriaco himself. Do you think he was gripping the bat a bit more tightly over those last few weeks? Do you think he was overly anxious when a grounder came his way over those last few weeks? I bet he was. Do you think that could have an effect on his performance on the field? I bet it could. Now, do you think that kind of thing can befall an entire team that wasn't in danger of being cut or losing their jobs just a few weeks into the season? That's where things get iffy.
If we ignore their awful starting pitching, the Angels are losing at least in part because their stars aren't hitting. Josh Hamilton in particular has been terrible. Is he pressing like Ciriaco? Maybe he's trying to prove himself to his new team -- but wasn't Ciriaco when he came up last July? It's true players are different and thus react differently, but by that same token isn't a team, composed of different players, going to be all over the map in that way, thereby mitigating the risk of such a thing happening on a team-wide level?
Part of the poor performances of the Blue Jays, Dodgers, and Angels may be due to an inability to deal with the pressure and expectations to win, but just how much is up for serious debate. In the end, most major leaguers are accustomed to feeling that pressure, to living with it, and to excelling with it -- otherwise they wouldn't be major leaguers. Expectations play a far greater role in the minds of fans than they do in the productively of players.
As for the Blue Jays, they need their stars healthy and playing up to their abilities. It sounds simple, but sometimes good players have bad years. Sometimes they're on the same team as the other good players who got hurt or got old and became less good. When that happens things can go south in a hurry, and in effort to explain it, we chalk it up to too much pressure, too much hype, too many expectations, not enough fur on the mascot's outfit.
For the Jays, they know what's really at stake. For most of them, it's their jobs, just like every year.