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Inside, Outside And Truth

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Bloggers and sabrmetricians are sometimes portrayed as treating players as tumbling dice. It's rhetoric meant to discredit and vilify, but it's not totally without merit. I know this because I think I'm about to treat Kyle Gibson and Chris Colabello as tumbling dice.


Insiders (players, coaches, etc.) and outsiders (sabrmetrician, bloggers) have vastly different perspective on players and their development in two important ways. First, there is the matter of how much we value our projections. From the outside, we can talk of a player's development curve as an abstraction. We see him as a 22-year-old with an outstanding walk to strikeout ratio and we project him to become a different player four years from now. That projection is a range of possibilities, but it's a statistically backed range. We average them out and derive a destination.


However, to the player in that development curve, and to the organization responsible for that development curve, there is no range. There is one spot: where he ends up. The range includes success and it includes failure and he can end up in either. That spot is everything. To them, the range means nothing. The average of that range certainly means nothing.


So the first lesson is that player development curves, which are derived from watching groups of players, mean very little to the individual player or their organization.


But there is a second and scarier aspect and that surrounds responsibility. We talk about these curves as if the player's progress along it is mandated from some higher forces. But the player and the organization can't count on that. They have to live it. They have to find their way through the obstacles, face the setbacks, make the adjustments.


There are hundreds of games, thousands of repetitions, and uncounted adjustments for each player. These are what, when we add them all up, constitute improvement. They do not just happen. From the outside, we see a certain inevitability of improvement. But from the inside, improvement is far from inevitable. It is work and it is risk.


However, there is value in being an outsider, too. There is an objectivity that can be lost while working one's way through the maze from the inside of the curve. Maybe some of those improvements, while not inevitable, are very likely. Maybe there are some basic aspects of being human that we eventually overcome.


I'm hoping that is the case for Kyle Gibson and Chris Colabello. I talked to each earlier this week about their struggles after they were called up last year. From a distance, I wondered if Gibson thought his struggles were related to arm fatigue after coming back from Tommy John surgery. I wondered if the patience Colabello showed in a few games this week was due to some adjustments he's making in the batters box.


They both said I was wrong. Instead, they both listed the same problem and that problem was far more basic and human: they had been nervous.


Here's Gibson when I specifically asked him about wearing down at the end of the year.


"No, I was just tense. I was not relaxed. I wasn't loose. And I wasn't very aggressive. I fell behind a lot of hitters and when you fall behind guys, big league hitters are pretty good. It makes a big difference.


"Even in the starts when I struggled, the hitters who I got ahead of, they didn't really have too much success off of me. But I got behind a lot more hitters than I got ahead of. Getting myself in trouble was a lot of that. That's one thing I've worked on this offseason was being more aggressive and throwing more quality strikes.


"I think some of it is confidence and some of it is just getting comfortable and getting used to your surroundings and playing in front of 30 or 35,000 fans every day. About seven or eight starts in, I realized I was gripping the death out of the ball or the life out of the ball. I wasn't relaxed and I wasn't loose. I'm just now figuring out how to transition that from the bullpens to the game because I've never had to really deal with that kind of adrenaline and excitement. I'm starting to get better at it, but it's still a process."


This makes perfect sense. I KNOW I'd be nervous. So I wasn't too surprised when later that day Chris Colabello said something very similar.


"I think it's a little bit of everything. In terms of just creating a mindset where you're relaxed, allowing yourself to remember how to slow the game down. I talk about that a lot. Last year, coming into this year, that was important to me. Obviously, having been around some guys here for a while now, getting a little bit more comfortable, and trying to know who I am, and them knowing who I am as well. It's more about approaching your at-bats with a little calm."


Both players provide a perspective from inside the development curve. Anxiety is one of the challenges with which they have to wrestle. They feel like they're making progress with that. They feel like that progress is a big part of changing where they land on the development curve for the better.


But from the outside, I don't know if I believe what the dice are telling me. I believe they are being totally honest. I know they have put a lot more thought into their development than I. I know they have a lot more data from which to base their conclusions. I believe that discomfort was a factor in their struggles.


But ultimately, I still wonder if Colabello had trouble making adjustments to big league stuff because it's hard for 30-year-olds physiologically to make adjustments to big league stuff. And I wonder if Gibson wasn't as aggressive because he was getting hit when he was aggressive, and he was getting hit because his arm had been through a hell of a couple of years.


It is also not surprising to me that neither player would concentrate on these factors because both are out of their control. Colabello cannot become 24. He can only approach each at-bat more mindfully, which he is demonstrating. Gibson couldn't do anything about what his arm has been through, other than resting it this offseason, which he did.


The players don't care about those things for the same reason the bloggers and sabremetricians treat them as dice: you don't focus on on that which you cannot control. Both groups, inside and outside, look for truth based on their position in the curve. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in-between.
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