Friday, May 18, 2012

Uncle Rickie

The conundrum that is the Milwaukee Brewers' starting second baseman Rickie Weeks continues. Weeks, a National League All-Star in 2011 after a red-hot start at the plate, is ice cold in 2012. Through May 17th, Weeks has a .156 batting average, 7 RBI's (4 of which are accounted for by his 4 home runs), and a league-leading 49 strikeouts. Watching him struggle at the plate is as painful as watching Casey McGehee face his season-long slump last year.

By all accounts, Weeks is tough as nails. His work ethic, his recovery from numerous injuries, including a severe ankle sprain after last year's All-Star break, and his ability to shake off a nasty hit-by-pitch are all legendary. He seems to have a league-leading pain threshhold. It's possible that his body is finally breaking down after all that abuse, though he's still capable of hitting a tape measure home run. That's the first, most obvious explanation for his troubles.

Baseball's relentless grind is a second possible theory. Minor league call-ups notwithstanding, there's rarely a better alternative for Brewers' Manager Ron Roenicke than to keep Rickie in the line-up daily and hope he works it out. For some players -- Roenicke cites himself during his playing days -- a day on the bench is a chance to refresh, regroup, observe. He says Weeks is different, which seems entirely plausible; keep him out, and you might miss the spark of a three-hit game that would break the slump. Through his dedicated effort, Rickie's also earned the chance to keep playing and find his swing again, but one wonders how much more patience his manager will have.

Roenicke has suggested, directly and indirectly, that some of Weeks' struggles by now might be partly mental as well as physical, a not uncommon observation about slumping players. That's a good third explanation, as far as it goes, but it's insufficiently precise. Here I think we have the key, and it might be more involved than a simple performance issue.

Consider last year's Milwaukee Brewers, a division championship team that bowled over all comers until the St. Louis Cardinals asserted themselves in September and October. Last year represented a confluence of good fortune for the Brew Crew. Ryan Braun, bolstered by Prince Fielder's booming clean-up presence in the batting order, compiled an MVP season. Nyjer Morgan came on board and took Milwaukee by storm, his Tony Plush act winning over the crowd and his hustling play eventually winning over Roenicke and most if not all of his teammates. Following Zack Greinke's return from a basketball injury incurred during spring training, the five-man starting rotation stayed effective, at least until Sean Marcum's arm ran out of gas, and away from the DL for the season. Both in 2008 and 2011, GM Doug Melvin pulled off amazing mid-season trades for star pitchers, C.C. Sabathia and Francisco Rodriguez respectively.

The clubhouse chemistry also seemed tight last year -- in the good sense of the word. Upbeat energy-guys Morgan and Carlos Gomez and pranksters like Marcum and McGehee -- who once did a hilarious, bogus translation job of Spanish-speaking teammate Yuni Betancourt's interview comments for the camera -- kept the team loose. Odd ducks like Morgan and Greinke and struggling players like McGehee were actively supported by their manager and teammates. Most pertinently, family man Prince Fielder and his best buddy Rickie Weeks anchored the locker room, with Prince's kids a constant, welcome presence. When Weeks incurred his injury and was sitting in the trainer's room, discouraged, Prince told his kids to "go see Uncle Rickie." They goofed with him, laughed with him, and cheered him up, as only kids can do.

Prince isn't here this year. His kids aren't here. Nyjer is having his own offensive struggles. Ace starter Yovani Gallardo can't seem to perform well against the archrival Cardinals. Yuni B.'s successor Alex Gonzales and Prince's successor Mat Gamel have gone down with season-ending injuries, as has starting pitcher Chris Narveson. Greinke and Marcum are in the last years of their contracts. Corey Hart seems lost defensively as the Brewers try to decide his best position on the field. Ryan Braun, while hitting his way out of an early slump, still faces travails in the aftermath of his tumultuous off-season. Former coach Dale Sveum is now picking apart the Brewers' swings as the Cubs' manager instead of bolstering their approaches in the batting cage. At least in comparison to last year, this team seems to be a collection of individuals dealing with their individual woes. There's no one around to cheer up Uncle Rickie.

The Brewers desperately need Weeks to step up as both an offensive threat and a leader in order to salvage the 2012 season. Whether he can do that is an open question. What this season has proven, though, is that ballplayers are human, as susceptible to pain, doubts, and the insecurities that come from organizational change as anyone else. They expose their struggles very publicly before fickle, impatient crowds; their every move is observed, catalogued, and amplified.

The cause of Rickie Weeks' batting slump may be physical or it may be mental, but it's surely also an accumulation of these surrounding factors. Call it the Gestalt Theory of Baseball. Last year's Brewers were a unique bunch; this year, they've become unique individuals. If I were Ron Roenicke, I'd do everything in my power to chop off their individual heads and restore the unruly classroom of 2011.

I'd start by giving Uncle Rickie a new phone -- one with Prince Fielder's kids on speed-dial.

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