For the last few weeks, I’ve talked about various physical aspects of training, including mechanics, injury prevention, routines, etc.. This week, I wanted to switch gears a bit and talk about the mental game, and specifically about in-game mentalities. It is clear that different pitchers attack the game in different ways mentally: some pitchers, like Kyle Hendricks or Corey Kluber, show very little emotion on the mound, but other pitchers, like Max Scherzer or Ken Giles, pitch with a lot of emotion. The optimal mental state for you all depends on your personality type and what will lead itself to the most success in games, and this can be very different from person to person. With all this being said, I want to discuss the commonalities and differences between successful mindsets, and how to determine your own “best” mindset.
One characteristic of successful mindsets is a consistent pre-pitch routine. As Nick Siegel discusses towards the end of this blog post (reposted on the Tread Athletics blog), Corey Kluber has an extremely consistent pre-pitch routine, from where he holds the ball, to how he comes set, to how he picks up the target, earning him the nickname “klu-bot” for his almost robotic repeatability. Kluber even takes this one step further, and his entire warm up routine is so consistent it is almost scary. He has won multiple Cy Young awards and is regarded as one of the most consistent pitchers in baseball, and his “robotic” routines are a huge reason as to why he’s so reliable.
This near-perfect consistency in your pregame routine is probably a bit unrealistic for most guys (although it is a good model to keep in your head), but every pitcher can benefit from having some kind of deliberate pre-pitch routine that they are able to repeat every single time they step on the rubber. As Ben Brewster discusses in this video, pre-pitch routines are actually something you can practice and improve, and having a good one to go to can really help guys who struggle with consistency in games. Regardless of how amped up or calm you choose to pitch, having a well-established pre-pitch routine will enable you to better maintain this mindset over the course of a game.
Another commonality between these two mindsets is the external focus prior to delivering a pitch. As Siegel discusses in his article on the yips, elite performers in any sport are great at blocking out unnecessary external stimuli, directing their attention only to the task at hand and ignoring potential distractions. As Trevor Bauer, an elite performer, describes in this podcast (which I discussed a few weeks ago in one of my blog posts), the best focus to have during a game is a “narrow external” focus, in which you are thinking only about executing a certain pitch. For reference, a “broad external” focus would involve thinking about your entire environment, i.e., the stadium, fans, umpire, hitter, etc., and a broad or narrow internal focus would involve thinking about how your own body is moving. According to Bauer, what separates the elite from the average mentally is being able to filter out the “noise” of the broad external world and maintain a narrow external focus.
In order to discuss the differences in mental approaches to pitching, I’ll consider the two extremes of a pitcher who is completely calm on the mound and a pitcher who is completely amped up, and assume for the sake of discussion that all pitchers lie somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes. Essentially, all of the mindsets on the continuum are the same with regards to the commonalities I discussed above, but differ in the small details within those constraints. For example, the pre-pitch routine of a calm pitcher might look a little bit different than the pre-pitch routine of an amped-up pitcher, but as long as they both repeat their pre-pitch routines consistently, they are set up for success. Again, I’m not saying that one approach is better than the other, and I think that it’s worth playing around with this continuum of approaches to find what works best for you.
Let’s think about what the pre-pitch mindset (i.e., the narrow external focus I discussed above) of a calm pitcher vs. an amped-up pitcher might look like. A calm pitcher’s pre-pitch routine might involve clearing his head and thinking only about the spot, i.e., creating a “see spot, hit spot” mentality that Siegel discusses in his article. Clearly, this pre-pitch mental approach involves a narrow external focus: the pitcher isn’t thinking about how his body is moving, about the hitter, the score, or anything else other than hitting the spot.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the amped-up mindset, in which a pitcher channels his adrenaline and uses it to his advantage. Former professional pitcher Alex “Flama” Casillas talks about how he used his adrenaline to touch 97 and dominate the American Association in this podcast (he talks about this in the first minute or two, although the whole podcast is good). Essentially, you can use this adrenaline to your advantage on the mound, and allow yourself to become immersed in the emotions of the game to pitch more effectively. This mindset, when implemented well, still maintains a narrow external focus, but rather than thinking only about the spot, the focus in this mindset might be more on beating the hitter, or on winning each at bat. This makes it a bit different from the calm or relaxed end of the spectrum, but still shares the same commonalities I discussed above.
One important caveat to these extremes of “calm” and “amped up” is the fact that they lie on a continuum, meaning that many pitchers are somewhere in the middle. Not every pitcher who pitches calm or emotionless is going to be as robotic as Kluber, and not every pitcher who gets amped up is going be like Giles (who famously punched himself in the face after giving up a big homerun…talk about pitching with emotion). Therefore, it’s important to play around with your own mental approach to the game and find what works best for you. Another caveat is that not all command issues are “mental,” and finding your optimal mindset won’t always fix your command (see this Driveline blog post). While working on the mental game will likely help a lot of guys, especially those who have never really worked on it before, it’s not a solution to any and all command problems.
My week of training
I’ve been working on my mental approach a bit this past week, and I ended up pitching the best when I was closer to the calm end of the spectrum. Basically, I’ve tried to make sure that I cleared my head as much as possible before every pitch, and I think this approach has helped a bit. I’ve thrown in a few games since my last blog post, and here’s what my results were:
3/25/19 vs. New Rochelle: 1 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 0 HBP
3/29/19 vs. Cal Lutheran: .1 IP, 0 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 0 K, 1 HBP
3/30/19 vs. Cal Lutheran: 1 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 0 HBP
I basically had two okay outings and one bad one. The last outing against Cal Lutheran I really tried to focus on staying calm and clearing my head before each pitch, and I thought that this lead to better pitch to pitch consistency overall. It still wasn’t a great outing by any means, but at least I feel like I’ve got something to work with moving forward in regards to my mental approach, and I felt like Saturday’s outing was a “first draft” version of this approach. Hopefully, with a week of deliberate practice of this approach, I’ll be more consistent moving forward this season.
One very positive aspect of Saturday’s outing, and really of the last week of training in general, is the fact that my arm has felt great and my arm stresses have been really low compared to previous weeks. I think playing around with how I come set has helped a lot. I sort of copied Ben Brewster’s set position (skip to 5:20 in the video), and really have been focusing on trying to maintain the tension I feel in this set position throughout my entire delivery. Although mine is less exaggerated than Ben’s, it’s still a little bit unconventional, but honestly it feels great to me. Here’s a video of what my version looks like:
Velocity-wise, this set up has helped a bit too. On Saturday against Cal Lutheran, I was able to groove 87 relatively easily, and got up to 91 on a pitch that I literally tripped and fell down the mound on, all after throwing in the game the day before as well. I think that there’s a decent chance I’ll hit a new PR at some point this season (knock on wood) given how these mechanical changes have been feeling, but we will see.