When the White Sox signed up for two more years of Jake Peavy's pitching, they also received two more years of Peavy speaking from the gut.
The good news -- it's a lot easier to consider when he's producing for an entire season.
What happened down the stretch?
Jake Peavy knows. It was the pressure.
Did it get to them?
"There's no doubt," Peavy said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet. "I think you could sense over the last few months that we weren't playing the best in the world, and you expected at that point in time that when you're in first place going into September you can't play with this, ‘We've got nothing to lose attitude.’ We do. We've got everything to lose, and that pressure takes that freeness away from you when you're expected to perform. I think us as a whole, I think we all have to take responsibility. It just didn't work out."
I can see why Peavy believes this. A lot of his general approach to baseball is based on attitude, grit and gumptions, so it should be expected that he'd give the intangibles plenty of weight.
I also can't say that Peavy is wrong-wrong, because pressure is pretty much an impossible variable to extract from all the other evidence. It's the same problem as trying to find real proof of clutchness, except from the other side. The Sox went 2-10 over their last 12 days in contention, ergo the pressure was too much. For a lot of people, this is as much thought as they care to give it. Case closed!
Having watched the whole thing go down, there were a couple of developments that could be chiefly rooted in poor responses to pressure. The Sox hit .155/.221/.250 (or 14-for-83) with runners in scoring position over that fatal stretch, including 1-for-10 with the bases loaded, and 0-for-6 with runners on second and third. If you're a reporter, you might as well pre-write a "we're pressing" quote before heading down to the clubhouse after a game. Pressing/overtrying may or may not be the real cause, but it's often the stock response, which means it's probably believed to be true on some level.
I also think Robin Ventura got caught up in this a little bit, although more so at the beginning of the month. Between the lack of bunting on Miguel Cabrera, the unnatural amount of pitching changes after rosters expanded, and the fearof Jeff Francoeur, the end of the season was marred by uncharacteristic underobserving and overmanaging. It's possible he got caught up in the pressure and it threw him off his game.
Or did Ventura just stumble trying to learn how to push and pull tired players for the first time? See, even with evidence that could suggest that pressure forced poor behavior, it's pretty much impossible to separate "choking" from ordinary ol' "humans failing at a bad time." Unless it involves midgame changes in pants.
It's a lot easier to try to look at the tangible reasons the Sox flopped over the final fortnight, because those are much easier to ponder aloud without sounding like a 13th-century town scientist (who was also the priest).
I can see three big elements that threw the Sox out of whack:
Out of their original starting five pitchers, Jake Peavy and Chris Sale were the only ones around for all of September. John Danks was officially done in August, Gavin Floyd was hurt for half the month, and Philip Humber was a mess.
Peavy points to guys "not being there before," and this is the area where it's more literally true. Peavy threw as many innings in 2012 as he did in 2010 and 2011 combined. Chris Sale and Jose Quintana were waaaaay over their projected innings, and both lost a lot of their sharpness toward the end. Francisco Liriano was a mess. They were in uncharted territory, and without radio backup.
Worn-down position players
Robin Ventura has pointed to fatigue dragging the Sox down over the final month, and documented injuries exacerbated the effects of normal wear and tear. Adam Dunn (oblique) and Kevin Youkilis (knee) played through their problems, and poorly. Throw in A.J. Pierzynski's down month -- you have to account for regression when a 135-game catcher has been playing over his head the whole season -- and the Sox lineup often operated at a deficit for a lot of September before bringing the harder-to-explain slumpers into it.
The Sox didn't have better options on their bench, either, especially after Dewayne Wise's lack of plate discipline was overexposed. Maybe Dan Johnson could have received more playing time, but Dan Johnson isn't a sound Plan B.
From Aug. 31 to the end of the season, the White Sox played the Royals and Tigers 13 times. In both cases, they are two opponents that play the Sox tough. In Detroit's case, the reasons are a lot clearer:
- They're a good team.
- They rely on hard-throwing right-handers, including the game's best.
- Comerica isn't a good place for fly balls between the alleys.
The Royals are harder to figure out. If I had to guess at reasons besides "they're in the Sox's heads," it would have something to do with the way KC hitters dive at outside pitches instead of setting up to drive the ball, which ends up foiling a lot of pitch sequences. Luis Mendoza and Jeremy Guthrie pretty much did the fastballs-in-breaking-stuff away thing over and over again. I'm not sure what's up with Bruce Chen. That's just a guess, anyway.
The Sox went 4-9 against their chief thorns over the last month (plus Aug. 31). Throw in a road trip to Anaheim (with Jered Weaver, who is designed to kill them) and a four-game set against the Tampa Bay Rays, and that's a tough finish.
The September schedule isn't much easier this time around. It starts with the bulk of a 10-game AL East road trip through Boston, New York and Baltimore, with six games against Detroit, and a season-ending four-game set against the Royals.
The good news: The Royals fired hitting coach Kevin Seitzer after the season because:
"Kevin was a tremendous hitter when he was in the big leagues," Yost said. "His philosophy was, basically, to stay to the middle of the field and to the off side. I think we’ve got a group of young power hitters who are capable of hitting homers."
It's possible this could have no effect on the way the Royals color outside the lines with their ash and maple crayons, but having a more traditional approach rooted in power hitting could make it easier for Sox pitchers to account for them.
Now add pressure
Look at your favorite Chicago street right now. It's had cracks the whole time, but the relatively steady temperatures didn't alter the surface too much. When winter rolled in, the changing temperatures and melting/freezing water between the cracks added a ton of different stresses, weakening the constitution of the pavement. Now it doesn't hold up nearly as well to the everyday pressure of cars driving on it, and road crews can't work on it until the next season, so you're hoping you can work around the potholes without ruining your suspension until then.
Pressure played a part in the Sox's demise, but I don't think it was new/foreign pressure. The pressure was there the whole time -- what changed is how well the Sox could physically respond.
The Sox had their share of cracks, but they performed well enough under pressure in a normal environment. Adverse conditions weakened the roster, and the front office couldn't reinforce it before it was over, so a compromised team had to try to hold up under weight that was perfectly tolerable before. It crumbled.
Now, you can argue that the Sox didn't have the correct attitudey to meet September's challenges, but there's no way to know. Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered how well they girded their mental loins. Sometimes that just isn't enough. The mind is willing, the flesh is weak. The brain is writing checks the body can't cash. There's a reason why adequate sleep solves a lot of life's problems.
The physical/environmental issues really should get the bulk of the attention, because they can be addressed with other things besides a self-help book. Maybe the same components could respond to the same pressure under the same challenges, but potholes usually come back.