In my limited experience trying to write about the Cubs, I have quickly come to appreciate baseball’s ability to annihilate even the best-defended take.
Last year I highlighted Ben Zobrist’s red-hot start as a potential return to All Star form, only to watch his batting average freefall for the next forty games. In March, I extolled the superhuman hitting prowess and elite mental skills of Kyle Schwarber, who is now clearing his head in Iowa after the worst stretch of his life.
Neither could compare, however, to the breakneck speed of my most recent unraveling. Yesterday’s fairly innocuous piece on how the Cubs’ current difficulties may relate to the peculiar psychology of champions was barely edited before the crumbling began.
Miguel Montero, who I ultimately speculated might be key in motivating the Cubs out of their collective funk, responded to postgame media questions on their Tuesday night loss by passing blame to a teammate. Mere hours after publication, Montero was designated for assignment and out of the clubhouse picture for good.
Clearly, I was wrong about him saving the Cubs’ season with his galvanizing leadership. But the unfortunate episode also opens up another angle on the story. So while there’s plenty of reason to expect I will regret it, I’m diving back in.
In my first attempt to explain 2017 through a sports psychology lens, I referenced Bruce Ogilvie’s article on the rarity of repeat championships.1 Walking through three subconscious changes he predicted for player mindset, I argued that the aggregate impact of these individual effects may be contributing to the inconsistent performance, negative feelings, and overall ‘different dynamic’ with the team this year.
There was one aspect of the theory I chose to omit, for length and also because the logic didn’t seem to fit as well for this team. Prior to the last 48 hours, the “That’s Cub” Cubs were seemingly still a tight-knit group. So when reading Ogilvie’s description of the team-damaging potential of backup players’ subconscious frustrations, I dismissed it. Until, of course, the recent clubhouse drama revealed new evidence. Ogilvie explained:
“It’s likely that one or more athletes on virtually every winning team will feel that they didn’t receive the recognition or the material rewards they deserved for the sacrifices they made during the season. An example might be the second-string players who come off the bench at crucial moments during the season and play over their heads…Players in this situation often believe that they paid as great a price as their more visible teammates, but they also believe that their contributions have been devalued…”
As a result, bench players who played a reduced yet significant role in winning the title are subconsciously left feeling underappreciated at best, disrespected at worst. Although Miguel Montero’s poorly-timed rant about playing time amid all the celebrations last November immediately sprang to mind, offseason reporting indicated that was water under the bridge.
Montero eschewing blame this week for seven stolen bases and placing it on starter Jake Arrieta’s slow delivery was the first obvious sign of a problem this season, but one earlier media encounter raised a few eyebrows:
“The reality is we can’t take anything for granted and right now, I feel like we do. Honestly, we’re just not playing at our highest level. We have to shake it up, wake up. This will be a good wake-up call for us. We either come to play the right way or we’re going to have a short season.”
At the time, coming off a four-game skid but still weeks away from panic mode, the quote registered mainly as tough love from a veteran. But current light suggests a sign of something more troubling. Montero’s pronouns were ‘we,’ but the tone was fairly accusatory.
Ogilvie said reduced-role players who feel undervalued may begin to struggle with issues of “isolation and abandonment.” In this situation, viewing everyday players as taking anything for granted would be particularly grating. We don’t know if clubhouse chemistry was already strained before the drama of the last two days, but Anthony Rizzo’s retaliatory public response combined with the speed of the decision to remove Montero certainly point that way.
If Montero was the vocal, extreme example of another layer of subconscious pressure this team might be dealing with, the path may be even rockier than imagined. It’s not a matter of being able to prove any effect definitively or pinpoint the source; it’s about recognizing how far the team as a whole may need to go to rediscover what’s missing.
And that’s the problem at its core. Individuals may be battling to achieve peak performance while the team dynamic seems less supportive around them. All of Ogilvie’s post-championship theories are based in fear, demotivation, self-doubt, and resentment. They distract from the most vital mental states for winning, so the goal must be to find a way back to team-wide “enthusiasm and commitment.”
The lessons outlined in Ogilvie’s work are pertinent for the Cubs right now, and in the future. They provide possible explanations for an uninspired first half and guidance for how to move forward. Perhaps more than anyone realized, individual motivation and team unity may need to be the new priorities. Much was made, for instance, of the ‘informal’ and ‘voluntary’ second visit to the White House while in Washington this week. Fans and the media focused on the politics of which Cubs chose to go and the explanations they provided.
But for a team struggling to find their identity and desperate to break free of .500, the entire scenario is fuel for the psychological fire. Ogilvie specifically cites drawn-out celebrations during the next season as contributing to complacency and amplified perceptions of pressure. July is almost here; wrapping up the trophy tour is likely long past due.
Furthermore, when clubhouse culture might be at a low point for many players, scheduling any type of event that half are not comfortable attending can’t possibly help. The context was political, and perhaps an additional source of stress, but from a mental standpoint, anything divisive, anything that detracts from rebuilding enthusiasm and commitment is simply unproductive.
Only one prediction for this season has gone according to plan, it seems: the division opponents are about as middling as advertised. If the Cubs can keep treading water until these obstacles clear, there’s still every reason to hope for October baseball. But if not, if injuries nag and losses pile up, the remainder of the season is still crucial – mentally, emotionally, culturally – for next year.
Former Giants GM Brian Sabean once said the 76-win season of 2013 was tougher – a greater achievement in some sense – than winning the previous World Series. The team culture easily could have fallen apart, but instead came out even stronger on the other side.
The Cubs’ 2017 fate is still anybody’s guess. A lot of work remains on issues seen and unseen. But from the current vantage point, a little even year magic doesn’t sound half bad. Of course, I’ll be happy to be wrong about that one.
- Ogilvie, Bruce C. “Repeat Championships: Why So Rare?” The Physician and Sportsmedicine 18, no. 12 (1990): 102-108.
Lead photo courtesy Kamil Krzaczynski—USA Today Sports