Of all the interesting parts of baseball to pick apart, it’s the mental game that fascinates me the most. Maybe it’s because I like hearing what’s going on in player’s heads, as it helps me understand what went on in my own head back in my brief major league career. Or, maybe because it humanizes players—makes the more relatable when we know that they have fears, doubts, or worries despite being in a role that tends to make society think otherwise. Or, maybe it’s just fascinating to know what people in high pressure, hyper exposed situations think? How does their brain work, and why do some people handle it better than others?
The psychology of players is an amazing subject, one I feel is often over looked in a business that has a stat to explain just about everything. But, baseball is a game played by human beings, not machines, and that means there will always be a certain degree of chaos in the numbers.
Bard’s recent outing was proof . When you look at him on paper, you see a guy who throws 100mph with over powering stuff. There aren’t many people in the game that can do what he can, and you’d be inclined to think he could transition to the role of starter on the strength of his fastball alone. Now he’s sporting a record of 5-6 with a 5.30 ERA. The numbers say it’s not working out to well, but, then again, the numbers also said it would?
What gives? He obviously has all the tools he needs?
In his latest outing, Bard gave up 6 walks and hit two batters in less than two innings of work. That’s as rough as it gets. Maybe even rougher than 8 runs in that same stretch because when the other team is hitting you, you can at least say they were hot. In Brad’s case, HE was the Jay’s best player.
But dig a little deeper and you see that Bard’s last outing was very telling of the mental preparation and expectation required to be a starter. It’s not as simple as jumping up when the bullpen phone rings and running out of the gate into whatever situation awaits. As a starter, you have time to think about all the ways you can get into those relief situations. Your mind explores every possibility and chews on failure until it drives you crazy. For five days it lurks around every corner and drones on incessantly in the background of your life. You find yourself projecting expectations—that might not actually exist—from outsiders onto yourself. You answer questions about bad outings in your mind before they are asked—sometimes before the outing is even a bad one.
Bard had this to say about his last outing, “I allowed something to happen when I switched roles. I think it’s just maybe that we just tried to turn me into a starter rather than just take the same pitcher I was out of the pen and move that guy to the rotation, which is probably what should have been done.”
“It’s partially my fault – it’s all my fault. Maybe it’s a matter of getting back to what I had success doing in the past.’’
But can you actually go back to the past?
Sure, you can try to work back to a delivery that is comfortable and repeatable, but can you go back and recreate a mental and psychological structure that works?
Can you do it now that you have scars from one of the worst outings of your career?
Is this really a question of going back, or a questions of moving forward? After all, you can’t change whats happened, and you’ll never be the same pitcher again now that you have these experiences.
I had a pitching coach whom used to tell me there was no difference between pitching in relief and pitching as a starter because you were always, “Starting whatever situation you are placed into.” I thought that was wise when I was younger. Now I think it’s just bullcrap. Mainly because the circumstances around each are not the same. The way we perceive the meaning of each as pitchers is different. As a reliever, there is a certain understanding that things are out of your control from square one. Thus, you tend not to try to control them, and you let them go more easily. As a starter, however, there is a certain understanding—whether true or not—that more things are under your control and must be managed. This stems from the fact that your start day is YOUR day to pitch. You have five days to prep for it. You’re the quarterback. You’re expected to go at least five strong innings. What you do will impact the relievers. You’re in line for a decision from the fist pitch… etc…
A reliever, on the other hand doesn’t know if he’ll pitch until the bell rings; he doesn’t know how long he’ll go until he’s out there.
Physical maintenance certainly won’t hurt Bard. But, I would say what he really needs right now help understanding the expectations (both internal and external) that come a long with being in the starting role: confidence and mental debunking. Being a starer working through issues and knowing full well Red Sox Nation is wondering if you’re going to meltdown again is not an easy burden to bear.
PS. As an interesting side note, many power relievers turned starter are told they’ll have to throttle back on their fastball. Sometimes it comes from coaches, sometimes it comes from other players. But, the general understanding is, you’ll have to pitch at a more maintainable level of velo to make it longer into games. Maybe so, but telling a guy who throws as hard as he can to figure out who to throw slower, longer, and with more throttle sometimes up-ends everything that’s made them successful in the first place.