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"We work harder when we have something to prove."
So writes L. Jon Wertheim in a neat little book, This Is Your Brain on Sports, his second anthology where the Sports Illustrated editor teams up with a psychologist - in this case Sam Sommers of Tufts - to investigate certain aspects of the games we watch such as home field advantage and the appeal of the underdog. It's entertaining stuff.
Sox pitcher Mike Pelfrey is a good example of the above declaration which Wertheim included in a chapter about the tendency of athletes - regardless of their fame, talent, or ability - to feel disrespected. Many times it's the thin-skinned superstars who moan and groan, especially when they lose.
That's not the situation with Pelfrey, who turned in another strong performance Saturday in Toronto. He limited the Blue Jays to a single run over six innings while giving up just four hits, walking no one, and striking out five as the Sox played one of their best games of the year in a 5-2 win.
Let us go back less than three months to the end of spring training when the Tigers released the 33-year-old righthander, a former (2005) first-round (ninth overall) draft choice of the Mets. Pelfrey was so ineffectual in 17 innings of the practice games in Florida - a 7.94 ERA; opponents hit .343 against him - that Detroit was willing to eat his $8 million salary.
About a week later the Sox took a flier on Pelfrey, no doubt attracted to the fact that they could pay him the minimum while the Tigers were still on the hook for $7.5 million. As the season opened, Pelfrey was in Charlotte where he performed about as poorly in two starts as he did in spring training.
Nevertheless, when James Shields, who returned to the rotation on Sunday after missing two months, went down with a strained right lat - do you even know where yours is? - Pelfrey got the call. Why bring up one of the young prospects who might be in danger of being lit up at the major league level, thus losing all confidence? Pelfrey, an 11-year-veteran with 250 big league games under his belt, was expendable.
CBS Sports's RotoWire declared "[H]e should be seen purely as an innings eater at best." How disrespectful!
Yet here we are 11 starts and 55 innings later with Pelfrey arguably the most dependable member of the team's rotation. The guy even threw an inning in relief last Wednesday in a 10-6 loss to Baltimore, the lone setback for the Sox in the four-game series on the South Side.
In his last 32 innings stretching over seven games, Pelfrey has a sparkling 1.97 ERA. When he throws strikes like he did on Saturday, he's tough to beat because he keeps the ball in the park. In his entire career, Pelfrey has given up less than one home run per nine innings. Opponents have slammed just five round-trippers off him this season, so that statistic is holding true as Pelfrey tries to resurrect his career.
Pelfrey is not the only member of the White Sox who apparently has something to prove. Third baseman/designated hitter Matt Davidson is another example.
Like Pelfrey, Davidson was a first-round draft choice (2009) of the Diamondbacks. After hitting 80 homers over five minor league seasons, the D-backs gave Davidson a look at the end of the 2013 season. Apparently they were underwhelmed since they shipped Davidson to the Sox in exchange for pitcher Addison Reed, who, by the way, continues to flourish as the closer for the Mets this season.
Davidson continued to hit for power in the Sox organization. That is, when he hit. In two seasons at Charlotte, he clubbed 43 home runs - but also struck out 355 times while posting a .201 batting average. Not exactly what you're looking for in a prospect.
Nevertheless, when Davidson began making better contact last season - .268 at Charlotte - he was called up on June 30 only to break his foot in his very first game, sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
If there is a guy with something to prove, it's Matt Davidson. With a home run to back up Pelfrey on Saturday - his fifth in six games - he leads the team in that category with 15, and he's been hitting around .260 all season. He still strikes out about 40 percent of his plate appearances, but no one seems too concerned about striking out these days. Davidson's OPS of .847 is second only to Avi Garcia's .912.
Just when you think the Sox are headed into a deep chasm, they tend to rebound, as they did last week with five wins in seven games to inch toward .500 at 31-37. Sure, that's not jaw-dropping, although a year ago, the ball club was 33-35.
So, despite the rebuilding tag on this season's group, they're only two games worse than last season when Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were part of the cast, and the postseason was the goal.
Can it be that the motivation to prove that individual players are major league quality has played a role? Going back to Pelfrey, according to Baseball Reference, despite a 68-96 lifetime record, he's earned almost $38 million since 2006. Maybe a fat paycheck motivates Davidson who's making the MLB minimum of $535,000, but Pelfrey should be financially secure the remainder of his days. For him, the chance to prove himself has got to be a strong motivator.
Other players such as Yolmer Sanchez, Tommy Kahnle, Leury Garcia, Kevan Smith and Omar Narvaez are not exactly household names, even on the South Side. Observing how these heretofore peripheral ballplayers respond to the challenge of becoming major league players creates some intrigue for a team that has virtually no chance of playing in October.
And it's not just on the South Side. Teams like Colorado, Arizona, Houston and even the Yankees are motivated by the desire to be taken seriously while clubs like the Cubs and Cleveland seemingly have little to prove. But even with superior talent, repeating doesn't come automatically.
The Sox tangle this week with another team working to prove itself, the Minnesota Twins, losers of 103 games last year but a game above .500 so far this season. After the three games in Minnesota, the Sox will have played 44 road games where they are 16-25. At home the fellas are 15-12, all of which means that with 91 games remaining, the Sox will play at home 54 times.
Playing at home with something to prove just might be interesting.
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