Tsuyoshi Nishioka choked this week. That isn’t meant as an insult; it’s actually the scientifically appropriate term for the Twins’ infielder’s problems.
Minnesota called Nishioka up from AAA Rochester Sunday for a late-season audition – a chance for the infielder to prove whether he should factor into the team’s plans for 2013. Through three games, there is no conceivable way that audition could have gone any worse. Nishioka stumbled in the field and at the plate, committing three errors, allowing a run to score on another play, and failing to record a hit in 11 at bats.
About 12 years ago, best-selling author and columnist Malcolm Gladwell did an investigation of why athletes fail in high-pressure situations. It is a pretty thorough examination of a phenonenon that most sports fans tend to take for granted. Gladwell cites cases from tennis, golf, and scuba diving as well as math tests and flying airplanes. Former Twin Chuck Knoblauch, who suddenly forgot how to throw to first base after joining the Yankees, also gets a mention. Basically, there are two ways that talented athletes can fail: choking and panicking. Choking happens when an athlete over-thinks something and fails to perform a feat that should be routine. Panicking happens when someone does not think, often with the same result.
What Nishioka is doing looks like a textbook example of Gladwell’s definition of choking. Nishioka was a batting champion and a Gold-Glover in Japan, so we know that he knows how to hit and field a baseball. He’s been doing it since he was a child, and he should be able to do it by instinct. We know for a fact that he can field his position. We’ve seen him make plays in the field, and by all accounts he did an adequate job at Rochester. But somehow, when he plays in the Major Leagues, something happens to make him lose trust in his instincts. Maybe it was the difficulty of living in a foreign land, the pressure of a large contract, or a mental setback caused by the major leg injury he suffered last April. Whatever it was, Nishioka is failing at something we know he can do.
If choking was a problem for Nishioka last season, this season his air supply is all but cut off. On Wednesday the entire Twins’ lineup had difficulty with Justin Masterson, but an observer could pin the loss squarely on Nishioka. His second inning error allowed two runs to score, and if he had not thrown high to home plate in the seventh inning, two more Indians runs would almost certainly not have occurred. Those four runs were the difference in the game. Thus, Nishioka’s choking almost single-handedly ended a 12 game run of awful luck for the Indians. After only three games in the Majors, Nishioka already has a WAR of -0.4.
This does not mean it was a bad decision for the Twins to give Nishioka another shot. It is not as if the team is competing for a playoff slot and every victory is important. And there are no promising young middle infielders whose playing time Nishioka was jeopardizing. Other than annoying a few fans for a few games, there was no harm done to the team by letting Nishioka play.
Going forward, though, it’s almost cruel to keep putting Nishioka out on the baseball diamond. It has become very clear that Nishioka is still a flawed player who is not likely to improve significantly in time to help the Twins. And while no good can be done, plenty of harm can. The more errors he makes, the more his confidence will plummet. If not a team tragedy, it would be a cruel thing to do to an individual. With the Twins are returning home for a series against the Rays, the hometown fans will obviously not hesitate to boo each Nishioka miscue.
The humane thing for the Twins to do is cut their losses and release Nishioka so he can go back to play in his homeland, where he could hopefully stop choking and just breathe.