Stu, I can think of so many stories about this particular situation—about what happens if one focuses only on the negative side. One that comes to mind is the tale of a pitcher named Jay Hook who pitched for the Cincinnati Reds in the early 60s. He was, at best, inconsistent; in fact, he reminded me of the old nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl. When he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad—There was one game he was pitching for Cincinnati, and to say the least he stank on hot ice. The opposing Pittsburgh Pirates were eating him alive, turning every pitch he threw into line-drive extra-base hits, and by the fifth inning manager Fred Hutchinson had no choice but to take him out of the game. Hook returned to the dugout and sat in a corner bemoaning the loss of his fast ball; it had up and deserted him.
In vain did Jim Brosnan, a very good relief pitcher for Cincy, try to talk to him, try to explain that nobody has his good stuff every time out. He told him, “That’s when you learn this game. You have other pitches to throw; use them when your fast ball isn’t there.” But he might as well have been talking to the wall. Hook appeared not to hear him; he just sat there and moaned and wailed, over and over and over, “Without my fast ball I can’t pitch.” It was as if those other pitches he had did not exist.
Hook didn’t last long in the majors after that.
Brosnan had it right. That’s when you learn this game. If you have a good arsenal, you can call on your other stuff if one pitch isn’t there or isn’t working for you. Your curve ball stinks on one particular day? So what? You have a good sinker, a good slider, a couple of changeups, even a knuckleball. Use them, because you know they’re there and they will work for you.
Many moons ago I had an incredible pitching coach—Ed Lopat, one of the Yankees’ Big Three rotation (and an extra pitching coach for the team). What I didn’t have was a fast ball, and Lopat knew this, so he introduced me to the art and science of strategic pitching. I had other stuff, and he told me how to use it in the service of Getting The Batters Out. He told me, and I will never forget this, “Figure out what the batter is looking for—and don"t give it to him.” Sounds simple? As a matter of fact, it is; if you know or even suspect that the batter is sitting dead-red on a fast ball, let him think that, and come in there with one of your breaking pitches—a knuckle-curve, for example. I had a good arsenal of breaking pitches which I built around a slider which I had nicknamed “Filthy McNasty” (after a character in a W.C. Fields movie because that was exactly what it was) and a very good knuckle-curve; those were my strikeout pitches. I was, in other words, a “snake-jazzer”, a finesse pitcher with good control and command, and I knew I had it, and I made it work for me. And I never thought about “what if” or “suppose”; I just focused on getting the batters out.
I also knew that if ever I had a pitching problem I couldn’t work out on my own, I could talk to Mr. Lopat. He would listen, and he would come up with a solution. Let me share another story with you, one that really bears on the psychological aspect of pitching.
I had had a good 1952 season, with a record of 4-and-0 and a goodly number of “rescued games” as we used to call them. I had heard all kinds of horror stories from pitchers, all centering on “My stuff isn’t working!” You know—the fast ball loses its hippity-hop, the curve hangs, the slider is flat, can’t find the strike zone, things like that. I had never even given this a thought, but in the winter of '52-'53 I started wondering about this, and I wondered, how would I handle this situation if it came up? Then suddenly the “how” morphed into “can I handle it?” And one night I had a horrendous nightmare. In this nightmare I was warming up before a game, and suddenly both my slider and my knuckle-curve went into hiding and refused to come out. And I couldn’t find the plate; it too had disappeared. When I went out to take the mound I sicovered to my horror that the batters had all grown to twelve heet high and the bats were six feet long! I awoke with a start, and I could not get back to sleep for a couple of hours; I sat and stared into the darkness.
One day in the spring of '53 I went to a ball game at Yankee Stadium, and I was waiting at Gate 4 for the box office to open when Lopat drove up and parked his car. He saw me, and he came over and we got to talking, and he sensed that I wasn’t “with it”, because his face took on an expression of intent concentration. I ended up telling him about that nightmare, and he listened for a minute and then quietly interrupted with “We’ll start there.” He proceeded to introduce me to a psychological strategy I’d had no idea he knew anything about. He guided me into a state of deep relaxation, and we explored some of the games I had pitched, and almost at once we hit on the problem. I’d had no idea that I had this on my mind, but what it was, was uncertainty, an anxiety about pitching in tight situations with less than my best stuff. He went right after it, and in little more than an hour he had knocked it out of commission; he restored my confidence, gave me more reassurance and support than I had ever thought possible, and demolished any anxieties I might have had about my ability to pitch in such situations—what he had done was give me a powerful psychological shot in the arm, at a time when I needed it.
I never thought about that problem again. It had been replaced by “give me the ball and let me pitch , I’ll get those guys out.” And I did. This was, to be sure, an extreme situation, and it required extreme measures. But John Smoltz has a very good point. What’s that old song that goes “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative”? That’s about where it’s at. 8) :baseballpitcher: