You know that feeling when Scott Rice walked the first two batters in the 8th inning yesterday with the Mets clinging to a 2 run lead? Kind of a helpless sense of doom and despair where you can’t bear to watch? With a little help from Jayson Werth the result didn’t turn out like so many other late-inning debacles have, but as I exhaled and wiped the sweat from my forehead it got me thinking about the psychological effects of these recurring meltdowns.
Lets consider for a moment a couple of researchers who tortured some dogs for the sake of behavioral science. Like Pavlov only more twisted … they conditioned these animals to expect an electric shock after they heard a tone. Initially the dogs would leap and jerk and look for escape in an attempt to avoid the shock, but after a while the dogs became conditioned to the stimulus and quit trying to avoid it. Once the animals were thus acclimated, the researchers observed that even when the animals were presented with a lowered wall in their boxes they made no attempt to jump over it. Even with a clear avenue of escape, they did nothing to avoid the shock. The researchers were Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier, who went on to develop a theory they called “Learned Helplessness.”
Now lets look at an unpleasant set of random shocks that the Mets have experienced over the past six seasons:
September 27, 2007
After a 3-0 loss to the Saint Louis Cardinals the Mets are tied with the Phillies atop their division. Between the beginning of their September 14th series against the Phillies and the start of last night’s game against Saint Louis, Mets relievers have given up 30 earned runs for a 6.54 ERA. The Mets are 4 and 10 in their last 14 games.
September 21. 2008
With 7 games to go and the Mets clinging to a shot at the post season, Aaron Heilman gives up a two-run double to Martin Prado that gave the Braves a 7-4 lead rendering Carlos Delgado‘s two-run home run in the ninth inning irrelevant. It was the 16th blown save since the All-Star break.
August 21, 2011
After another masterful performance by R.A. Dickey, Manny Acosta walks Nyjer Morgan to start the inning. With runners on first and third and two runs in, Tim Byrdak is brought in to pitch to Prince Fielder who hits a routine double play ball to second base. Justin Turner makes a wide throw on the double play attempt as the winning run crosses the plate. The Mets fall to 6 games under .500.
July 18, 2012
With the Mets only 5 games out of the wild card, Miguel Batista in relief of Chris Young comes in and gets two quick outs. He then allows two singles to Jesus Flores and Roger Bernadina before allowing a 2-run double to Steve Lombardozzi putting the Nationals ahead 4-1. Riding a 6 game losing streak the Mets bullpen ranks last in the Majors with a 5.03 ERA.
April 18, 2013
The Mets are swept in a weather-shortened three game set in Denver as Met relievers give up 18 runs to the Rockies.
April 20, 2013
After coming back from three runs down in the 4th inning to take a 5 – 3 lead, the Mets bullpen gives up 4 runs as the Nationals win 7 – 6 on a Saturday game following an inspiring win by Matt Harvey. The Met bullpen has given up 28 earned runs so far this season. As of this writing the Mets have the worst bullpen ERA in baseball.
No escape … Learned Helplessness.
The “D” adjectives keep coming … disheartening, demoralizing, deflating … Met fans have been stuck in a perpetual electro-shock holding pattern for the greater part of a decade owing primarily to this organization’s persistent inability to construct even a league average bullpen. We know this, we’ve been over this ad nauseam … the above list is just a sampling, there were other grueling losses, too many to list.
In May of 1978, Diener and Dweck published a fascinating analysis of Learned Helplessness in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in which they concluded that helpless children showed marked decrements in performance when put in situations where they failed, whereas children who were oriented to mastery focused more on self-monitoring and self-instruction. The study looked specifically at the attribution of failure in these learners. It was posited that for helpless children (their “helplessness” was based on how they perceived the tasks), failure was internalized and attributed to a lack of ability (even when that wasn’t necessarily the case), while mastery oriented children tended to engage in more positive behaviors following a failed attempt.
Learners who are conditioned to fail, show performance decrements with each failure. They give up, they stop trying, even when subsequently presented with tasks that are well within their ability, they stumble. Like the dogs in the electrified pens, they neglect to look for a solution, they acquiesce to their condition.
Baseball players are only human and they reflect the same patterns of response to failure that any of us might, but bullpen meltdowns are unlike other kinds of failures in some very important ways. They tend to be games that were “in the bag” at some point – which is to say many other aspects of the team’s play (namely starting pitching and offense) were successful for the greater part of the contest. The team played well, the team should have won, but the game unraveled somehow at the very end. These losses are gut punches to morale, exasperating in that they reinforce a sense of helplessness … no matter how well you play, no matter how many runs you drive in or how well your starting pitcher performs, you become conditioned to believing that the bullpen will find a way to give it up.
Players can only suffer through so many games of this sort before they stop investing their heart and soul into a game’s outcome – if only to preserve their sanity. You might call it developing a thick skin, letting failure bounce off of you, turning the page — there are lots of clichés to describe moving past failure — but, in the end, acclimating to failure increases the likelihood that it will recur. As shown in the study above, failure itself can be toxic — individuals conditioned to fail show decrements in performance relative to individuals oriented towards success even when their ability levels are commensurate.
This should not be confused with the notion that a good reliever has to have the temerity to ignore the occasional bad performance … that trait is advanced by the innate confidence that the reliever will return to his successful norm. The above has more to do with players who experience repeated failure, and thus begin to expect it.
Take two kids of equal ability who are learning to play shortstop. With player one you hit 20 hard smashes always just out of his reach. Then you bounce 20 routine grounders to player two. Follow that up by giving both players an identical set of grounders at a variety of difficulty levels and you will find that the player conditioned to failure is likely to make more errors than the player who handled the easy grounders. This is why coaches like to end sessions with a few successful reps.
Over the past few seasons the Mets have been conditioned to the late inning (and the late season) collapse. Beyond the hard work and talent unquestionably necessary to reverse this malaise of the spirit, this team needs individuals who refuse to turn the page, individuals who do not accept the loss. Sometimes all it takes is one guy. In 1967 it was Tom Seaver, perhaps Matt Harvey can act as this sort of catalyst in 2013. We need more Matt Harveys, we need players who refuse to acquiesce to failure.
But you absolutely have to have a bullpen that will hold it’s own and prevent these recurring gut-wrenching morale-killing failure-conditioning losses, because one thing is certain, you can only take so many late inning meltdowns before the dog decides to just stay in the box.