Hall of Fame Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra famously once said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” These words have never rung more true than with baseball pitchers’ changing roles, where they now pitch innings that they historically would not. Especially visible in this recent postseason, it is more challenging for pitchers to succeed in the high pressure innings at the bookends of the game. This phenomenon has led teams to explore new strategies and approach must-win games differently. Although all of these changes are determined by immediate in-game scenarios, they have the potential to last for the rest of pitchers’ careers.
While the popularity and hierarchy between various metrics, physical attributes, and raw talent has been in debate for decades, the baseball community has generally neglected the mental or psychological aspect of the game. However, a small subset, the game’s greatest players, tend to agree on its importance.
“The more you play baseball, the less it depends on your athletic ability. It’s a mental war more than anything.” said another Yankees’ great, Alex Rodriguez.
“Hitting a baseball is fifty percent from the neck up,” legendary hitter Ted Williams once claimed.
Sure, baseball does lend itself to cliché quotations, feel-good anecdotes, and that nostalgic, old-timey wisdom, but these concepts remain relevant to this day. Perhaps it is that very tradition, history, and Americana aura of the game that creates a certain reverence demanding perfection. In the game’s most critical, scrutinized innings, you just never know when the next great moment will occur.
Baseball, especially for pitchers, has been compared to golf as “the thinking man’s game.” Between the tedious focus on the approach, the longer waits between physical activity, and the minutia of the anatomical mechanics which can change the outcome of a given play or action, both games certainly lend themselves to overthinking. Every second before the pitch or before the swing lends itself to analysis and internal anguish. It is soon easy to lose yourself out there. Thus, pitchers often report a feeling similar to blacking out on the mound without actually ever losing consciousness or physical adeptness.
The great H. A. Dorfman book, “The Mental Game of Baseball,” attempts to remedy this issue, highlighting numerous examples throughout the years of players at the highest highs and lowest lows of their careers in terms of performance and mental state. Countless baseball players at all levels of play rave about the book’s ability to completely alter the individual approach to the game. But most interestingly, Dorfman prefaces the solution with an admission that while not every ballplayer goes through such struggles, far more actually do than would ever admit it. In large part, stigma surrounds such mental shortcomings.
And many baseball players, especially at the highest level of play, certainly do struggle with the very real repercussions of a weakened mental state. Pitchers constantly face “the yips,” a now common term originally coined directly from pitcher’s inability to throw strikes in clutch situations. Some of the greatest pitchers in the game have simply not been able to perform in the playoffs. Drew Storen, Jake Peavy, and Clayton Kershaw all are modern examples of this very phenomenon.
The outcomes of these blown critical innings have defined entire playoff series, seasons, and even careers. It explains why former MLB pitchers like Rick Ankiel have openly admitted to drinking before outings to calm their nerves, or even why Doc Ellis famously threw a no-hitter while allegedly on LSD. Position players also have their own struggles as visibly evident in plays like Billy Buckner’s famous error to lose the World Series in 1986, or Ian Kinsler’s egregious error in Game 3 of the World Series this year. Even legendary baseball movies like “Major League II” and “The Rookie” acknowledge the challenges that the mental game brings to the table.
Teams have finally come around and implemented real changes to set their pitchers and team in the best position to succeed. For instance, the Milwaukee Brewers relied on closer Josh Hader and their staunch bullpen in the National League Championship Series, setting the record for least innings pitched by starting pitchers in a seven game series. Likewise, the Tampa Bay Rays revolutionarily started a closer for the first inning of most of their games, respecting the higher pressure of the first frame, the generally more talented hitters at the top of the batting order, and the need for a solid start to set the tone for the rest of the game. The Rays’ strategy paid dividends as they turned their season into one of their most successful in years, far surpassing expectations of critics and fans alike. The strategies vary by team and mentality, but there is an indisputable rise in unconventional pitching strategies recently.
This increase may be derivative from the relative novel creation of the role of a closer. Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers, and Dennis Eckersley are credited with first popularizing the role of the closer with the St. Louis Cardinals and the always unconventional Oakland Athletics, respectively, in the late 80’s. Later success from names like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman fully cemented the role of the closer on every team. Closers are now generally the most skilled pitchers on the field with incredible athletic talent, like Aroldis Chapman. However, these players are becoming more and more fallible (see Aroldis Chapman’s 2017 campaign while being paid $17 million), and now it seems that the tide is beginning to change again and closers may become archaic.
Looking beyond the failures of some closers, the successes of the new approaches do make for some good stories. For instance, Blake Snell’s likely Cy Young award year has transpired while the rest of his team needed a closer to start the first inning of most games throughout the season. Snell himself was underrated, and he has done so in the fewest innings of a Cy Young winning pitcher in quite a while. Similarly, David Price, once a notorious playoff wreck, suddenly dominated in both the pennant and subsequent World Series. His unprecedented performance came after years of scrutiny for a large contract with relatively low productivity and a definite decline in his pitching talent. Even the aforementioned Blake Treinen turned around an abysmal tenure with the Washington Nationals, capped off by a devastating playoff loss, into one of the best possible seasons for a reliever.
The hope for teams and fans alike is that these strategies continue to develop for more of these success stories of the individual player and the quality of the game as a whole. We may soon see a very different approach to the pitching game across the league or a broader emphasis on mental health awareness for all players.