Countdown to Opening Day

Turner, Castellanos better set up for success and Phillies need it to translate

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In the days leading up to Phillies Opening Day on March 28, we're taking a daily look at the biggest questions and storylines surrounding the team in 2024.

When Raul Ibañez signed as a free agent with the Phillies ahead of the 2009 season, the outfielder was 35 years old with a stellar track record for the Royals and Mariners. Stellar enough to get a 3-year, $30 million deal, good money at the time.

The discerning local fan base took to him almost immediately. Chants of Raauuuul soon routinely echoed through the packed stands. At the end of the season, though, as the Phillies were on their way to a second straight World Series appearance, he revealed that it took more than that to feel completely acclimated. And that his final sense of acceptance came in an unexpected form.

“I struck out on a curveball in the dirt,” he recalled during that postseason. “I just dropped my bat and ran as hard as I could to first. I was really upset that I had struck out. And when I got back to the dugout (the fans) were yelling at me. I thought they were going to be yelling other things.

“But they were yelling, ‘That’s the way to hustle.’”

Later in the game, he dove for a sinking line drive that skipped under his glove and rolled to the wall. Again, the comments from the blue seats were supportive, encouraging, appreciative of his effort. “And I thought, ‘I think I’m going to like it here if they notice that,” he concluded.

So, yeah. Even securely established, well-compensated Major League players pay attention to how the public perceives them.

*     *     *

Nick Castellanos and Trea Turner have a lot in common. Both are right-handed hitters. Both signed nine-figure free- agent contracts to join the Phillies. Castellanos was coming off a career year with the Reds in 2021, Turner off of his second straight All-Star appearance a year later.

And when the new season opens with a 3:05 game against the Braves Thursday at Citizens Bank Park, both will also be crucial cogs in a lineup that has been constructed with the World Series in mind.

There’s more. With a renewed emphasis on getting off to a fast start after two years of breaking slowly from the gate and being forced to play catch-up just to earn a wild-card ticket for admittance to the postseason, Castellanos and Turner might be viewed as bellwethers. Because another common trait they share is that each got off to a horrific start in candy red pinstripes before eventually returning to the level to which they’d become accustomed.

It took Castellanos a full year, but he rebounded with his second All-Star season.

Turner, famously, was a career .300 hitter who was batting .235 with a .657 OPS through August 3, 2023. Before the team came home to open a series against the Royals, sports talk station WIP began campaigning for fans not to boo Turner when he came to the plate, but to serenade him with a standing ovation instead.

The idea took root. Turner got an almost rapturous reception. He lined an RBI single in his third at-bat. Beginning that night, he batted .337 with a 1.057 OPS including 16 home runs and 42 RBI in 48 games for the remainder of the season.

And while there’s no way of knowing for sure if a straight line can be drawn from 35,000 strangers clapping to Turner immediately going on an epic hot streak, Dr. Joel Fish told NBC Sports Philadelphia that it certainly could have been a factor.

Dr. Fish, a Philadelphia-based sports psychologist who has spent more than 25 years counseling youth athletes, Olympians and professionals including a stint working directly for the Phillies, issues the usual disclaimers. He doesn’t know Turner or Castellanos. And you can’t paint every person with the same brush.

Having said that, he has some well-formed thoughts on why players sometimes don’t perform up to their abilities and how they can come out of their funks.

“When it comes to slumps, there are usually three reasons in my experience. One is physical. You’re injured. One is technical. Mechanics. Or one is psychological. Which is, your emotions – usually anxiety and stress – are controlling you rather than you controlling them,” he said.

“So if you look at guys in a new situation, it’s usually either related to the adjustment to change or there’s something about the anxiety and stress that, in the new situation, they feel the need to prove themselves more than they had before.

“Did that (ovation) make the difference? I think we always try to simplify a complex phenomena, which is being consistent in baseball. Could you make an argument that Turner really did care about what was going on and there was some support in that way that was unusual, did that take one or three or five percent pressure off him that night? Maybe.

“But momentum is such a funny thing. For a lot of these guys, it’s just whatever it takes to turn the corner. It can be a bunt single or an infield hit. It can turn on one at-bat. Was it related to the crowd? I don’t know. But it can be something simple that lifts the pressure. That’s the key. Lift the pressure one or three or five percent so their natural talent can come out. That happens a lot when guys are breaking slumps or they’re new in a situation and all of a sudden they take off like he did.”

Let’s pause a moment here to dispose of a persistent myth. We’ve all heard the trope about players who sign a big contract and then don’t live up to it. They must have gone soft. Gotten complacent. That once the next several generations of his family’s security was guaranteed, he lost his edge. There may be rare instances where that’s the case. The vast majority of the time, Dr. Fish believes, the opposite is true.

“That’s the narrative sometimes, but I don’t buy it,” he said. “I don’t think you make it to the big leagues unless you have motivation and pride. Because if you didn’t, you’d probably have been weeded out in the minor leagues somewhere. You need a special talent and a special personality.

“You want to come into a new market and show people that you deserve this big new contract, and you really care about whether you’re meeting expectations or not. Sometimes when new guys get off to a bumpy start, it’s hard for them to shake it. Because they really care. They care about what other people think. And they care that they’re not performing to the level that they’re expected to perform or their own standards.”

For Castellanos and Turner, the simple change of scenery could well have played a role. Turner was with his third team in three years after the rebuilding Nationals traded him to the Dodgers at the 2021 deadline. Castellanos talked openly about how much difficulty he had creating a new comfort zone.

Castellanos, who was roundly booed through much of his first season in Philadelphia, also tacitly admitted that he was well aware of the negative feedback, at one point getting into a small back-and-forth with a reporter who broached the subject.

It’s also true that he made several sliding catches during the playoffs for which he was lustily cheered. Did that help set the stage for his resurgence last season? There’s no way of knowing, but it’s not out of the question.

Unless president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has something hidden up the sleeve of his sports coat, the Phillies will open this season coming off a historical lack of offseason churn. That’s disappointed some fans. The silver lining could be that there are no new faces who might need time to orient themselves here for a club that has challenged itself to start fast.

“There are individual differences in how people adjust to change,” Dr. Fish said. “Some people, their personality is such that they can go with the flow a little easier. Some are more spontaneous. Others like more order, predictability, continuity.

“So what we’re talking about is comfort level, different personality styles learning curves, growing pains. It’s true, even at the most elite athletic level. Just because you have a special talent doesn’t translate into a special personality that allows you to switch gears overnight and hit the ground running. It doesn’t work that way.

“Even pro athletes are affected by this stuff. They’re not machines. They’re not robots.”

Raul Ibañez would surely agree.

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