I'm not knocking on doors on behalf of the Church of Stats. I'm not handing out leaflets on a street corner, and I'm not wearing a sandwich board with something about the end of intangibles scrawled on it. But I attend regular service. I do regular bible study with Bill James, Baseball Prospectus, and the like. I don't understand a lot of it, but my alignment is clear.
There are some mysteries of the universe that the Church of Stats doesn't pretend to explain. The vagaries of a short playoff series, for one. Robinson Cano is roughly 493349 times the hitter that Daniel Descalso is. But Cano is hitting like Ryan Braun (the pitcher) in the playoffs, while Descalso is hitting like Ryan Braun (the hitter). There's no way to predict that. All you can do is shrug your shoulders and note that over a seven-game sample, yep, that can happen.
The biggest mystery to baseball-minded folk, though, will always be the inner workings of the human noggin and how it relates to on-field performance. You can look at UZR and DRS for a third baseman for hours, but you'll never be prepared for a young Gary Sheffield, winging balls into the stands on purpose because he wants to be traded. You'll never be prepared for a pitcher with Steve Blass Disease, or a catcher with the yips.
Those are hyper-extreme examples, of course. If there's a spectrum of baseball-personality disorders, those are on the far-right side. Just below them, though, are all manner of mental blocks and obstacles that aren't so obvious. We'll never know how to predict them. We'll suspect that they exist, be unable to prove they exist, and assume that if they exist, they're only temporary. A tenet of the Church of Stats, possibly one of the ten commandments, goes something like this:
You're not a master psychologist. You can't possibly know what a player is thinking or how he'll react in a game, month, or season. So just evaluate players on the hard evidence you have available.
It's a good tenet. Without it, you're wading through the swamp of "unclutch" and "heart of the team" that everyone from your barber to your dad likes to navigate. Anyone can evaluate a player positively or negatively if they just make stuff up. Let's say I believe that the Tigers are winning because they're buoyed by Avisail Garcia's youthful exuberance. You can't prove that statement wrong. It's probably best to move on and ignore it when it comes to your own evaluations. It's all you can do.
Which is all a big lead-in to a larger point. That is, gather around, everybody, we've got one. We have a guy we can study. We have a player who is positively screwed into the ground, who is forgetting everything good he's done over the last part of the decade because his head is swimming. It's not Alex Rodriguez, who's probably just old, achey, and a little unlucky.
No, the player to study is Nick Swisher. He makes it easier on us because he's one of the few players who'll admit there are things rattling around where they shouldn't be rattling.
"It hurts,'' Swisher said. "Sometimes, I'm a sensitive guy.''
That's in response to the loud, unambiguous booing he's receiving at Yankee Stadium, where he's generally been a beloved figure over the last four years. And it's been the perfect storm for mental gibberish. The recipe:
A freaky-long slump
These happen. Since joining the Yankees, Swisher has hit .159/.252/.302 in the playoffs, and he's been even worse over the last four series. He's 1-for-34 with runners in scoring position in his playoff career.
The cause? Probably just one of those things, at least at first. A few balls that don't fall in, guessing fastball at the wrong time .. the normal stuff. He's facing good starters and good bullpens, but the odds are that his playoff performances mean about as much as Albert Pujols's April or Carlos Beltran's August did. They count toward the overall evaluation, but they shouldn't be definitive proof of anything.
But when it keeps happening, over and over, maybe it starts to wear on a player, which combines with …
A miserable team-wide performance
No one's hitting on the Yankees except for Raul Ibanez. Cano has been awful, as have Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Russell Martin. Mark Teixeira has been okay, and Ichiro has been better in the ALCS, but it's been a frustrating performance for the Yankees' lineup this postseason. Everyone's pressing right now.
Which leads to …
A disgruntled and vocal fan base:
Yankees fans have high expectations. When the expectations aren't met, they boo. And while A-Rod is the easiest target, Swisher is right behind him because of his playoff struggles as a hitter and fielder.
Again, it's the perfect storm. Sometimes the cliché fits. Everything is coming together exactly like it has to for Swisher's struggles to be an obvious thing. So while it's rarely a good idea to think things like, "Oh, his head's not in the game," or "He's clutch/unclutch", I have a strong hunch that right now, we can point at Nick Swisher and say, "Him. He's in a bad spot right now. Goodness." You don't need to be a master psychologist to appeal to his mental struggles when evaluating him right now. It feels pretty natural.
My guess to how this story would normally end: Swisher, being a professional baseball player who crawled his way from the amateurs through the minors up to the majors into a role as a consistently productive semi-star, would snap out of it. He'd have his big playoff moments with the Yankees, just as you'd expect from any talented player. Yogi Berra hit .178/.241/.274 in his first four playoff appearances, all in the World Series. But because the damn Yankees kept getting there, he got a chance to hit .312/.403/.522 the rest of his postseason career. He was never known as a player who just couldn't handle the spotlight.
The sad catch: Swisher might not get that chance. He's a free agent after the season, and he might not even play another game as a Yankee in New York. We might never know if he can shake the cobwebs off and return to being Nick Swisher, good baseball player, in the playoffs.
Swisher will be a rich, rich man by January, so you shouldn't feel sorry for him, necessarily. You can if you want, though. Because it's rare that we can see a player so obviously go through these mental contortions right in front of us. And unless the Yankees can beat Justin Verlander once and run the table against the other Tigers starters, this is probably a story that isn't going to have a happy ending. You probably haven't spent a lot of time in your life feeling bad for a Yankees player. But if you're going to start, now wouldn't be the worst time in the world.