This afternoon, the Mariners lost to the Astros for the fourth time in six games. This afternoon, the Mariners slipped into a tie for last place in the AL West, with those same Astros. The Astros are expected by many to be one of the worst teams in recent baseball history, and while maybe that’s off the mark, it’s telling that you can even make the argument. It’s too early to back off the pre-season assumption that the Astros suck, and now the Mariners have lost consecutive series against them, and the Mariners aren’t supposed to be Astros-bad. This is the sort of development that often leads to a closed-door team meeting, and indeed, the Mariners had one in the aftermath. Have you ever thought about what it might be like to see a new color? According to Ryan Divish, Eric Wedge’s face after the game was new-color red.
This is a familiar tactic, and other teams will have closed-door meetings between now and the end of the year. The Mariners will probably have more, maybe if they lose to the Astros again. See, managers have high expectations, and they have a low tolerance for players and teams who under-perform, so every so often they feel like they need to scream a little. Like they need to scream loud enough for one to question the purpose of closing the doors. It’s supposed to be a release, and it’s supposed to motivate by intimidation.
It’s always easy to make fun of a team that holds a closed-door meeting. In part, this is because such a meeting is a response to the team being bad. More, it’s because closed-door meetings don’t do anything. At least, it doesn’t make sense that they would, if you break them down logically. Let’s try to follow along.
Meetings are held after a team has been bad. The manager wants the team to stop being so bad, so he addresses the players sternly and bluntly. There’s always communication between the players and the coaching staff, but it usually isn’t aggressive and borderline hostile. That’s what makes closed-door meetings stand out.
Focus is important in baseball, just as it’s important in everything. It’s important for baseball players to be focused and motivated, and you don’t want to see a big-leaguer who’s going through the motions. Now, it makes sense that a team meeting might have a temporary effect on focus. Players might try a little harder afterward, tapping into their deepest mental resources. But it seems to me focus is a lot like happiness — you have an individual baseline, and when you vary from it, you don’t vary for long. Pretty soon you regress back to your norm, and it’s hard as hell to shift that norm in a direction. Maybe Dustin Ackley is going to be a little more energized tomorrow night, but a week or two from now, he’ll be Dustin Ackley, approaching the game more or less how he always has. These players have been through a lot of coaching and development. A talk can only do so much. A talk can pretty much not do anything of import.
And if anything, don’t baseball people always say that players should play comfortable and relaxed? Not unlike they’re “having fun out there”? Wouldn’t an angry team meeting just put people on edge, maybe stress them out? Worried players are unlikely to be better players, and I imagine the Mariners were already aware of the fact that they weren’t doing well enough. Overall and individually. Getting vented at isn’t going to make Jesus Montero realize he’s sucked.
You could argue the players need to know the manager is capable of holding them accountable. That he’s capable of getting really pissed off. That’s one way in which a manager can exert authority. But I suspect the Mariners knew Wedge was capable of this, so it’s not like this is out of left field. When Eric Wedge got up to lock the doors or whatever it is you do to initiate this sort of thing, I can’t imagine players were surprised.
And ultimately you just can’t talk players into being better at baseball. That’s the real problem — the Mariners aren’t good. It doesn’t help that Michael Saunders has been hurt and that Michael Morse might have been playing hurt, but getting yelled at isn’t going to lead to better defense. Getting yelled at isn’t going to have Joe Saunders stop missing his locations. Getting yelled at isn’t going to cause Montero to start recognizing different pitches and their corresponding locations. It’s not a matter of focus or drive. The Mariners, presumably, are always trying to win. But they don’t win enough, because they aren’t good enough, and that’s the principal issue. The only talking that can fix that is talking between front offices. Not that I think I want this current Mariners front office to engage any others. The way out of this probably involves different leadership.
Now, the alternative to a closed-door meeting is no closed-door meeting. It’s the status quo, it’s inactivity, and no manager wants to be seen as inactive when the team around him is circling the drain. So managers feel like they have to do something, but they don’t have the power to do much, so they get the players together and shout at them. It’s like when a manager goes out to argue a questionable call. It won’t change anything, but then people can say “That manager? He really cares.” Eric Wedge doesn’t have a boat, so he can’t lead the Mariners across the river, but he does have a wallet and keys, so he’ll use them to try to paddle. It won’t work, but it won’t not work because Eric Wedge didn’t do anything. He did something.
I suspect that, if one were to analyze historical closed-door meetings, he’d find an improved team winning percentage afterward, compared to before. This wouldn’t be evidence of effectiveness; this would be evidence of regression, since meetings tend to follow stretches during which teams are unusually bad. Afterward, they’ll play more like themselves, so there will be a greater rate of wins. As such, I imagine the Mariners won’t keep playing .348 baseball, but then they’re not a .348 team. They’ll play better, and we have to assume they’d play better regardless. We can’t know that for sure, but we can have a good idea.
The Mariners are in a desperate situation. Even though this wasn’t supposed to be a competitive year, it was supposed to be exciting, and so far it’s been a nightmare. The Mariners are 2-4 against the Astros. Eric Wedge has decided to yell at the players, to hold them accountable and to remind them that none of their jobs are safe. But it seems to me one job in that clubhouse is the least safe of all. Eric Wedge can feel it getting hotter, and who doesn’t get more irritable in heat?