“Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” — Yogi Berra
One element of the game that is not reflected in any tangible statistics, and I see often neglected at every level is the mental game. Spring training is about preparation and growth, but an important element of spring training that is not often addressed is mental development.
Athletically, there is very little difference between high-level minor league prospects and major league ball players, but there is a significant mental adjustment between the minors and the majors and especially between college and professional ball.
This idea is also applicable to players returning from the disabled list. There are significant obstacles to success in baseball, but once you reach a certain level of physical aptitude, the major differentiator between average, good, and great players lies in their mental approach.
The Cardinals pitching staff is in a unique place with Wainwright and Leake trying to bounce back from disappointing seasons and Lynn hoping to make a successful return after Tommy John. Simultaneously, Carlos Martinez is hoping to solidify his role as a bona fide MLB ace. Although each man’s situation differs greatly, they each have to overcome difficult obstacles beyond physical play.
On the outset, Baby Pedro seems to be in an unassailable position, with nothing to worry about. He has had success in the past, and there is no reason to doubt that he will be successful in the future. That said, Martinez‘ junior season is a critical period for his development into a star and a household name. After pitching for two seasons in the league as a starter, batters now have a certain level of familiarity with him.
Teams have information on him now, and he loses the inherent advantage he had when he was still a relatively unknown quantity. His key will be maintaining a growth mindset and avoiding becoming stagnant or complacent as a competitor. Though that shouldn’t be a problem based on his energy and mound presence. This year is all about maturing into his role and accepting more responsibility even if he does not explicitly lead the young players on the Cardinals.
Recapturing the Status Quo
Wainwright and Leake are in surprisingly similar situations with the Cardinals right now. Both are proven veterans that are coming off of underachieving seasons, and they will have to be the anchors for the rotation. Wainwright especially will be feeling a lot of pressure to produce career numbers and wear the leadership mantle well, but the key to the season for both players is to stay within themselves and play to their strengths and abilities.
This means that Leake needs to keep producing ground balls and put all of his faith in his infield. Last year his fielding independent era INSERT indicates that he didn’t have the support he needed, but if he tries to change his identity as a pitcher to compensate he will struggle.
Wainwright needs to acknowledge that he is aging and recognize that he will be invaluable as a leader and as a mentor to the younger pitchers. He needs to provide consistency for Martinez and the other young guns; he doesn’t need to put up superstar numbers to earn his place (though he may anyway).
For Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha, the task is possibly simpler, but simplicity does not always reflect difficulty. Each needs to stay healthy, but while they have to be careful not to reaggravate or reinjure themselves without playing scared. It seems simple enough, but it can be difficult to allow yourself to cut lose and believe that your body has truly recovered.
Any amount of doubt or hesitation at the major league level can be enough to derail a start. Learning to let go is a crucial step toward recovery, especially in a high-pressure position as a starter.
The Secret to Success
Pitching at the major league level is an inherently extremely difficult task. Eliminating inhibitors to success is essential for long-term performance, and the mental game either enables or completely derails any and all of the physical considerations that come after.
We frequently see talented athletes fail because they do not know how to manage their mental approach. The Cardinals pitchers will have plenty of mental barriers to overcome in 2017, but once overcome, barriers become opportunities.
Photo Captured by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports