Shamefully, I didn't give the front office enough credit and assumed, going into Spring Training, that Paulino would be the starter despite his intensely frustrating 2007. Fortunately, I was wrong. Ryan Doumit (for whom we didn't do a projection) occupied the position and hit extremely well, and Raul Chavez took most of the at bats when Doumit was hurt or needed a breather. As a result, the Bucs upgraded offensively (their .779 OPS from the catcher position, despite Paulino's flopperoo in 109 terrible at bats, was seventh best in baseball), and defensively as well. Chavez hit only a bit better than Paulino did, but he was worlds better on defense. Doumit's defense, while far from great, was better than in years past and, again, clearly better than Paulino's, where every play at the plate was an adventure.
What's especially weird is that Paulino hit very well after he was sent to Class AAA Indianapolis this year. While it's obviously not surprising that he would hit better in the minors than in the majors, and while the sample sizes are small in both the minors and the majors, what is strange is that he was nearly dominant, posting a .923 OPS and roping 18 extra-base hits in 111 at bats.
Paulino was very highly regarded on defense coming through the minors, and he barely resembles the player he was during his 2006 rookie season. In the majors this year and last, he didn't even look like the sort of player who could dominate at Class AAA.
This is pure speculation and I don't want to start rumors, but it's almost like there's something psychologically wrong with him. Not necessarily anything too terrible, just something that prevents him from doing what he needs to do, particularly on defense.
I was a pretty decent basketball player in my early teens--I was tall and I had a good jump shot. I'd play in YMCA leagues and pile up points, once scoring 50 in a game. Then I'd play for my school team, a situation that was more meaningful to me, and I was a completely different player. I'd get scared of making mistakes and would fail to do basic things like catch passes. I also was picked on pretty regularly by several guys on my freshman team, so I felt like if I made a mistake, I'd get picked on later.
Usually I find explanations like these to be short-sighted when applied to pro baseball players. The evidence for the existence of the sort of "Class AAAA player" who crushes the ball in the high minors but magically can't do anything in the majors is slim, and the small-sample-size-plagued example of Ronny Paulino does little to change that.
To the extent that "Class AAAA players" exist, it's not because of some fundamental difference in the quality of baseball between the majors and Class AAA, or because players arrive in the major leagues and choke--chokers like me are weeded out of competitive sports earlier on. If a guy appears to be a Class AAAA player, it's usually because he peaked in the minors before he arrived in the majors, or because the park factors in some AAA cities are so bizarre, or because he had some good luck in the minors that he didn't get in the majors. There are also some somewhat meaningful differences between the leagues (a hitter who succeeds in AAA while striking out a lot, for example, may have more difficulty replicating that success in the majors than a hitter who makes consistent contact), but generally speaking, Bill James proved years ago that player performance in Class AAA (adjusted for ballpark context, and so on) can be meaningfully connected to major league performance.
I know that's true, but Ronny Paulino's bizarrely awful performances in the majors the last two years, along with his excellent hitting in his short stint in Class AAA this year, still make me think of myself, racking up points in the Y league but turning to stone in games I regarded as important. Like Paulino, I couldn't catch the ball when it mattered; like Paulino failing to block balls in the dirt, I had some sort of weird problem mustering the degree of physical concentration necessary to box out my opponent and get in position for a rebound. There were actually times when rebounding required such intensity of thought that I would successfully get in position, and then fail to jump. It wasn't because I didn't know to jump, or because I couldn't rebound competently in pickup games. It's just that when I played in important games, the only way I could rebound was to break the task into steps and then execute the steps one at a time.
Like Paulino occasionally launching a homer, not everything I did was unambiguously bad. I shot over 80% from the line, which is the place where most young basketball players struggle with nerves. For me, the sort of thinking necessary to make a foul shot was easy: just do this and do this and do this, and it will work. Three dribbles. Bend your knees. Shooting hand perpendicular to supporting hand. Use your wrist. I could do that. But I was undone by tasks that required decisive and almost intuitive action, even though I was perfectly capable of executing those tasks in unimportant settings.
Typing this now, I actually feel a bit bad for Paulino after hating him for two years. I'm not sure about his offense--his problem there is probably simply that he isn't a very good hitter, and the contrast between his hitting at Class AAA and in the majors is probably ultimately just a sample-size fluke that happens to fit the little narrative I've created--but his defensive struggles are just so strange. I wonder what's going on in his head right now.