Generally speaking, you don’t become a professional athlete without having a fair amount of mental toughness.
Sure, there’s the 0.000001% of athletes who are so marvelously gifted that they ascend to the highest levels of play without too much effort, but for the vast majority of pros in any sport, hard work and psychological fortitude are the keys to making it.
For everyone on the Phillies, it’s no different. Reaching the Major Leagues is only part of the journey. Being good enough to stay there (and hopefully, excel) requires a tremendous amount of mental toughness. The kind that pushes you to stay in the batting cages for that extra half hour, to run that extra mile — and to learn a brand new defensive position at age 30, like Bryce Harper has done.
And yet, over the last few years, newcomers to the Phils have experienced struggles in their first red-and-white pinstripe seasons.
It even happened to Harper. People forget that in his first season, 2018, he got off to a very slow start. For the first 70 games, his batting average was just .210. Granted, he was getting on base a lot and hitting home runs, so it wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the kind of season fans were expecting. Harper eventually figured it out over the second half of the season, but it was a tricky transition.
Nick Castellanos’ 2022 struggles have been well documented, as the slugging right-hander never got going. He hit just 13 home runs, versus 34 the season prior, and his slugging percentage fell from .576 to .389. Castellanos attributed the season-long slump to issues balancing family life and being in a new environment. He’s bounced back this season and is the team’s lone player position All-Star, although he has slumped in the last 10 days.
This year, it’s newcomer Trea Turner having his worst season in the big leagues. On Monday night, he committed two more errors in the field, giving him 12 already on the season. (He had 16 all of last year.) After posting an on-base percentage of .343, .375 and .394 the last three seasons, all great numbers, it’s just .297 this year.
After 101 games, some fans had seen enough.
And with the frustration boiling over, Turner got ejected from Monday night’s game.
On the latest episode of Hittin’ Season, we discussed the underperformance of all of the players in the Phils’ “Big 5”
Hitting coach Nick Long talked to Matt Gelb of The Athletic about some of the issues that persist with Turner, as well as the other Philly “Big 5” of Harper, Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto.
There was one quote from Long in Matt’s story that irked me.
“We’re all working really hard to get him more comfortable. But it’s Philly, and it takes time to adjust to the way it is here.”
Yes, Philadelphia is a demanding sports city. Fans are generally tuned into what’s happening. They know Trea Turner’s history, the things he’s done, the stats on the baseball card, and they can see he has massively underperformed. But for the first 100 games of the season, outside of some conversation on Philly sports talk radio, the fanbase has been pretty patient with the star shortstop.
Is playing in Philadelphia really that difficult? Is the spotlight really that blinding that free agents can’t get their feet under them?
It’s admirable Turner cares deeply about each at-bat and doesn’t want to let down his teammates or the fans. He doesn’t want to be booed. No one does. And certainly, whenever you play in a new city after signing a massive contract, it’s understandable that a player would put more pressure on himself to perform at a high level.
But none of that is specific to Philadelphia. That could be anywhere.
It’s clear whatever is going on with Turner is in his head, and as Long noted in Gelb’s story, he’s thinking too much, trying to do too much. But what is it about Philly that requires such an “adjustment?”
No one wanted Turner to be anything more than what he has been throughout his 9-year career. No one was expecting him to hit 40 homers, steal 70 bases, throw a complete game shutout and manage the team for a while. All Philly fans were wanting, and expecting, was the same Trea Turner he’s always been. And when he wasn’t that, most fans were patient, willing to wait out whatever slump the former Dodgers and Nationals star was going through.
So, forgive me if I sneer at this quote from Long about the adjustments of needing to learn to play in Philadelphia. This is not the Amazon rainforest. It doesn’t require anything other than Turner, or any other player, being what they’ve always been.
Yes, fans may speak up when those prolonged slumps lead to losses, a reaction that is pretty standard throughout the sports world.
Playing in Philadelphia doesn’t require any additional mental toughness than playing anywhere else.