MLB commentary: How much of a mind game is playing for next contract?

Charlie Manuel, when asked on June 8 whether Jayson Werth's impending free agency could be contributing to his slump: "In some ways, it has to. I definitely think that. In know in his mind he thinks about it." Werth, responding to the Phillies ma...

Charlie Manuel, when asked on June 8 whether Jayson Werth's impending free agency could be contributing to his slump:

"In some ways, it has to. I definitely think that. In know in his mind he thinks about it."

Werth, responding to the Phillies manager's comments: "I don't think anyone can sit there and say they know what I'm thinking. The contract is the last thing on my mind."

Billy Wagner pitched the entire 2005 season for the Phillies not knowing what uniform he'd be wearing the following year. There were some talks about an extension that lurched forward, then retreated.

Outwardly, it didn't seem to bother Wagner. He had a terrific year then cashed in when he hit the free-agent market, eventually signing a four-year, $43 million contract with the New York Mets.


When they are in a contract year, players ritually deny the fact that millions of dollars could be at stake ever enters their minds.

Wagner, now with the Atlanta Braves, has already announced he'll retire at the end of this season. Asked recently if it was really possible to block out the knowledge that there could be a large pot of gold waiting at the end of the regular-season rainbow, he was typically direct.

"You can't not think about it," he said. "You've got an agent. You've got a wife. They know what's coming up. They're hoping for a big payday, since everybody gets paid when you get paid. Moms, dads, aunts, uncles. Everybody else gets a payday when you get paid. So there's a lot you have to think about."

Yankees lefthander CC Sabathia disagrees. After being traded by the Indians to Milwaukee in 2008, he pitched on short rest three straight turns down the stretch to help the Brewers make the playoffs.

"It's baseball. It's a long season. You've just got to go out and play every day. I don't think it was on my mind that much," he said. "Looking back on it now, I was just going out and trying to help the team win."

So it never entered his mind that he was risking an injury that could have made what turned out to be a $161 million jackpot disappear?

"I think if it had entered my mind, I wouldn't have been starting those games," he reasoned.

There are only a relative handful of people on the planet, really, who know from personal experience what goes on between the ears of a potential free agent who puts a potentially vast fortune on the line each time he suits up to play another game.


Meanwhile, a public perception has developed that players try extra hard in their walk-year then often become self-satisfied and tail off as soon as their big new deal is signed. Like the opposite of those old before-and-after weight loss ads.

Werth is an interesting case because he's been at both ends of the spectrum already this season. Through May 21, he was batting .329 with nine homers and 33 RBI. Fans were openly fretting about the possibility he might leave. "Werth Every Cent" read one sign that was held up in the stands at the time.

In 54 games since (through Monday, though, he's 47-for-186 (.253) with just four homers and 19 RBI. The tide of public opinion has changed dramatically. There have been rumors he could be traded before Saturday's non-waiver deadline . . . and little outcry at the prospect, even though he's hitting .417 (10-for-24) in the last seven games.

Wagner thinks that both extremes can be magnified when a player is facing uncertainty beyond the end of the season.

"The guys who can get off to a good start and relax, everything just seems to go on its merry way," he said. "It's when you're struggling that that looms larger. Because you're like, 'Oh, no. I've got to do this and that.' And then you really start to struggle."

Dr. Joel Fish is the director of the Center of Sports Psychology in Philadelphia and has worked with all the major professional sports team in town over the last 20 years. And, in his experience, while there are some basic principles that apply to all players in their contract year, there are also significant differences with each individual.

"I know there's a perception out there that players perform better. But I've found that there are three ways it can go. A lot of players play better in that situation, but a lot of players don't," he said. "We can't paint every player with the same brush. The personalities, obviously, are very different and unique.

"You're going to find some players for whom the contract year is a positive motivator, you're going to find some where it's a distraction but it's just another distraction that they have to deal with and it doesn't affect their performance one way or the other, and then there's a third set of players where it becomes a real negative pressure and I think it really does hurt their performance."


Fish first breaks it down into two groups: players who are internally motivated as opposed to those who are externally motivated.

"Those who are internally motivated play for the love of the game, they play to compete," he explained. "They could play for nothing or play for a huge contract and it's really not going to make a difference. Then there are some players who are more externally motivated. Those players are playing primarily for a contract or a reward or some kind of recognition. And I think the players who are more externally motivated are more likely to be affected by the contract year."

But there are further subsets, he pointed out. Is it an established player playing for a big contract or a fringe player just hoping to have a job next year? Is he playing for his first multiyear deal or what is likely to be his last contract?

"For some players, it's not the dollar amount that's creating the pressure or that concerns them the most," Fish said. "It's the status and the prestige that comes along with the dollar figure. I remember a player in another sport, not in baseball, who said, 'Look, I don't care what I make. I just want to be making a dollar more than anybody else in the locker room.'

"So you've got the whole status and prestige piece of the contract that can affect players at times, too."

The challenge is to avoid panic should things go bad. Wagner's remedy after a blown save was simple.

"The best thing I was ever told is, if you're good, you get paid. If you stink, you're not going to get paid as much. But you don't have to be good to get paid in this game. It's pretty obvious. You can go 5-15 and you're still going to make $5 million," he said.

Fish's analysis: "If you're an established player, one bad year isn't going to necessarily create a negative pressure for the contract. Because if you look at the track record, established players who have one bad year in the contract year are still often going to get good contracts.


"I need to be clear I'm not talking about Jayson Werth, because I don't know him personally. But as I look at the psychology of slumps, based on my experience, I think this is the first time Jayson has gone through this type of slump when he's been an everyday player. And I've found this first time a player goes through a slump as an everyday player it's like uncharted territory for them."

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