Now that I’ve had time to sleep on the trade and think about it, just some scattered commentary…
When a player suddenly starts playing far below his normal level, there are basically three classes of reasons: Luck, Physical, and Mental. I think that while luck has played some role in Yunel’s poor performance in 2010, it is probably not the sole cause, and likely not the primary cause. Luck does not, generally, lead to not only not hitting any home runs but not coming close to hitting any. Luck probably doesn’t cause you to suddenly start popping up in a sixth of your plate appearances.
That leaves physical and mental, which are to some degree overlapping. The physical can be an injury or illness, or could be a mechanical issue. The mental can range anywhere from a serious (and to some degree physical) illness such as clinical depression to just being unhappy. I would not count out an injury. Remember, he spent two weeks on the disabled list earlier this year and has had injuries in each of his full seasons in the majors. However, the general consensus seems to be that Yunel’s problems are mental in nature, and that they are also reflected in the attitude problems that frustrated the Braves.
I am not going to attempt to diagnose Yunel Escobar. Obviously, I am not trained for that, and I furthermore don’t have anything but distant and second-hand reports of his behavior to go on. I could go get the DSM-IV — there’s one about twenty feet away — and come up with something that meets the observed facts, but that’s really not necessary.
What is necessary is to remember that if Escobar is mentally ill, that mental illness is very real — and that Major League Baseball has a very poor track record in dealing with players suffering from mental illness. If you can, pick up a copy of Marvin Miller’s A Whole Different Ball Game and read the section on Alex Johnson. Johnson, who was legitimately mentally ill — as anyone who spent any time around him and paid any attention could tell — got a reputation as a malcontent. “He was known for being surly and difficult to get along with. After his breakout season in 1970, he was involved in a number of incidents in 1971, leading to successive suspensions.” That was forty years ago now, but I see little evidence that baseball has changed its attitude towards mentally ill players much, and the Braves are perhaps the most traditional organization in baseball.
One thing about Yunel Escobar that has not gotten much comment is that he is a refugee, that while other Latin ballplayers can go back to their homelands in the offseason that he and his fellow Cubans are effectively banned from their country until the situation changes. (This is not a place for discussion of Cuban-US relations. This means you.) They don’t fit in very well with the Cuban-American community centered in Miami. To a large degree, Yunel’s “people” are the other Cuban ballplayers in organized baseball, and the closest thing he has to family is his boyhood friend Brayan Pena.
It’s not a life I’d want to live, even if it is more desirable than continuing in Cuba, and before you condemn, remember what he’s gone through. This guy got on a leaky boat manned by human traffickers he couldn’t afford to pay and got dropped off in Miami hoping he could make it in baseball — and pay off the smugglers. In the space of a year, he went from Havana to Miami to Danville, Virginia, to Rome, Georgia, while not knowing anyone around him. I expect that you’d wind up a little messed up too.