David's Blog

On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest.  Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!


“For accomplished businessmen, that's a tough reality to accept”

 

It's time for Valley fans to escape Jerry Colangelo nostalgia

 

 Paola Boivin, azcentral sports columnist September 28, 2014

In the aftermath of the Jerry Colangelo ownership era, Ken Kendrick and Robert Sarver didn't stand a chance.

Not for immediate acceptance, anyway. Colangelo changed the Valley's sports landscape and did it with ease and an everyman trait. Kendrick, the Diamondbacks' managing general partner, and Sarver, the Suns' majority owner, were doomed from the beginning.

Both have made mistakes but both have grown, too. Ten years have passed. It's time for fans to move on.

Sports ownership threw both a curve.

It is a different animal from other types of management. Public and media scrutiny is off the charts. A torn ACL can derail success. Agents complicate the process. Fan behavior is a tough read.

More than anything, much is out of your control. For accomplished businessmen, that's a tough reality to accept.

Something, too, to remember about the juxtaposition of these personalities: Colangelo had two decades of experience in the NBA, as a marketing director, scout, coach and general manager before he became an owner. He had an inside look at the business.

The resumes of Kendrick and Sarver look different from Colangelo's. They were accomplished businessmen first, die-hard sports fans a close second.

Sarver founded the then-National Bank of Tucson at age 23. And while skeptics like to challenge his drive because he was born into privilege — his late father, Jack, founded a bank and built several Tucson-area hotels — the National Bank of Tucson's assets grew substantially by the time he sold it in 1994.

And Sarver's "real" job continues to show his business savvy. His Western Alliance Bankcorporation has $7 billion in assets and is the largest financial institution headquartered in Arizona. It has earned $126 million in profits over just the past four quarters.

He knows what he's doing.

He also is a lifelong sports fan who was born and raised in Tucson. When he expressed interest in becoming part of NBA ownership, former Arizona coach Lute Olson connected him with former Wildcats and NBA guard Steve Kerr, who took him to meet then-league Commissioner David Stern. Stern pointed him to Phoenix and in 2004, Sarver became majority owner of the Suns.

His start alternated between smooth and bumpy.

His first course of business included locking down free agents Steve Nash and Jason Richardson, but not Joe Johnson, a decision he said he made at the time because he was trying to be a responsible new business owner who was uncertain about the future. Still, in five of the Suns' first six seasons under Sarver, the team advanced to the postseason, three times to the Western Conference finals.

They next went into rebuilding mode, thanks to some poor personnel decisions relating to both players and management. The team has not made the playoffs in the past four seasons although 2013-14 produced 48 victories thanks to an impressive assemblage of coach (Jeff Hornacek), general manager (Ryan McDonough) and president (Lon Babby).

Wednesday's signing of guard Eric Bledsoe suggests the organization is indeed on the upswing.

What has changed about Sarver during his tenure? He realized the value of being an owner first and fan second.

He left his midcourt seat and put away the foam finger. He worked more closely with public relations people who could better help him maneuver the spotlight.

During it all, he remained committed to the community. He supported his team wearing "Los Suns" jerseys during debate about controversial Senate Bill 1070 in 2010. He understood the importance of backing women's basketball and maintained his ownership of the WNBA's Mercury when other league owners didn't feel the same.

What hasn't changed? Employees say he can have a heavy-handed management style and be demanding at times. Those are not unusual adjectives, by the way, to describe accomplished business people.

While the Suns are on the upswing, the Diamondbacks have hit rock bottom. This can't be easy for Kendrick.

Like Sarver, he came into his gig as a huge sports fan.

He grew up in West Virginia where he used to listen to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio. He also collected baseball cards, a passion that continues (he paid $2.8 million for a rare Honus Wagner card). He played sports in high school and after graduating from West Virginia, worked at IBM for three years before he founded his own software company.

The timing was ideal. It was the era before personal computers and Kendrick proved to be a software pioneer.

When Kendrick decided to give up the day-to-day grind of running his company, he and his wife relocated to Arizona, where his next-door neighbor happened to be involved with the Suns. Kendrick became a limited partner.

He soon did the same with the Diamondbacks when the franchise came to Phoenix in 1998. His title changed to managing general partner when financial challenges caused duress behind the scenes and Kendrick took on a bigger role. When Colangelo and the organization parted ways, the sloppy separation involving a popular Valley icon resulted in Kendrick being cast as a villain.

For a while, he couldn't win. A significant amount of debt had been inherited and payroll needed to be cut significantly. It was a reality, not a cheapskate move.

And his fan-first mentality prompted him to say things that a more seasoned owner wouldn't. That had to be a tough thing to reconcile because he has succeeded in business by being honest and direct.

Sports ownership has its challenges.

Over time, he has deferred to team President Derrick Hall in matters of public expression.

In the realm of owners, he always has been more approachable than most. And those who work for him say his heart is in the right place. He has put millions into the organization but never takes a penny out. He donates large amounts to charity but asks that his name isn't connected.

Like the fan that he is, he hates to lose.

Nothing wrong with that.

And with a respectful nod to Colangelo, who did so much for this community, it is time to judge Sarver and Kendrick on their own merits.

It's time to move on.

http://www.azcentral.com/story/sports/2014/09/27/time-valley-fans-escape-jerry-colangelo-nostalgia/16347359/

 

“I’m a 100% believer that it is one of the worst statistics to judge a hitter”

 

Brandon Moss on the Anatomy of a Slump 

by Eno Sarris - September 24, 2014

What follows is a conversation that took place in the Oakland clubhouse withBrandon Moss. There are a couple salty words — that can happen in the clubhouse — but they’ve been left in to better represent the lively tone of the interaction. Also, despite the legendary straight face, this author is mostly sure that most of what Adam Dunn interjects is in jest. There was no malice intended here.

Eno Sarris: Have you ever heard of FanGraphs?

Brandon Moss: Yeah!

Sarris: Because we have you down as a top-ten hitter since 2012 by Isolated Slugging. So I wanted to say to you here, fuck batting average.

Moss: I agree. I 100% agree with that.

Sarris: So I can quote you on that.

Moss: You can quote me that way if you want to. I’m not kidding, you can. I’m a 100% believer that it is one of the worst statistics to judge a hitter, it’s based entirely on luck.

Adam Dunn: That’s bullshit, dude.

Moss: Batting average? It’s the stupidest stat! It’s based entirely on luck.

Dunn: It tells it all.

Moss: It tells how unlucky I am. How many shifts they have on.

Dunn: Hit home runs, line drives will come.

Moss: This guy. You need to talk to him. That’s like talking to an older version of me.

Dunn: Older and better maybe.

Moss: Older and better!

Player

BA Rank (of 222)

OBP Rank

ISO Rank

BABIP Rank

Brandon Moss

145th

80th

8th

111th

Adam Dunn

220th

111th

12th

203rd

Sarris: Well I wanted to talk to you because I loved that piece that Jane Lee did on you last year, where Ruben Amaro, Jr said you couldn’t hit a major league fastball.

Moss: That was… that was a long time ago.

Dunn: Wait, let me hear about this.

Moss: I don’t want to bring this up. It’s old history.

Dunn: Tell me. Who’s this?

Moss: Ruben Amaro.

Dunn: Who’s that?

Moss: The GM for the Phillies. I was with the Phillies.

Dunn: The GM. They have no say.

Moss: Well, yes it does matter, if you want to be called up. I was having a good year and they went out and traded for a guy because they needed left-handed bench bat and someone asked, you know Moss is having a pretty good year in Triple-A for you guys, why do you need to go outside. He was like ‘We just don’t believe Brandon Moss is consistently able to hit a major league fastball.’ And I was like, that’s really all I kinda hit. It’s my best pitch. Everything else, I just hope I hit it. If you’re here, you’re like that. You better be able to hit that pitch. It was a funny comment and I laughed about it. Okay, if that’s how they feel, I can’t do anything about that.

Sarris: We track numbers per type of pitch, so we have you down…

Moss: I know. I know. I’m actually a big sabermetrics guy. I love Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, I love the both of them. Lots of cool things.

Sarris: Yeah and we have you down as a good fastball hitter, so he got that one wrong.

Since 2012

wFB

wSL

wCT

wCB

wCH

wSF

Brandon Moss

33.5

2.9

7.4

11.3

-3.1

1.8

Moss: [Laughs]

Sarris: One thing I noticed was that you had two incarnations. That’s why I brought up the Lee article, because they were trying to make you something that you weren’t in Pittsburgh and Boston. Slap hitting and going the other way.

Moss: I am an extreme pull hitter. But I try not to bring that stuff up that much, because I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus.

 

Pull

Center

Opposite

Brandon Moss

44.1%

34.4%

21.5%

League Average

38.8%

36.1%

25.1%

Sarris: Once you became you again…

Moss: Fly balls?

Sarris: Well, the number of pitches in the zone just went straight down.

Moss: That’s what happens when you hit for power. When you hit for power, it becomes more of a ‘nibble around the zone’ try to get him to chase thing. They know that once you control the heart of the zone… That’s my whole thing. Control the heart of the plate. You don’t have to control in.

I get close to the plate, because people think I want the ball in, but it’s really so that the pitch away becomes middle, and it’s like a heart of the zone pitch. I hit in way better than I hit away, so I trust myself on the inside pitch and I make the outside pitch middle.

 
Moss does well on the middle-out pitch.

Sarris: That’s partially because you opened up your stance with your hitting coach here, Chili Davis?

Moss: When I first came up, I was open. And then when I went to Pittsburgh, they squared me up. Well, Boston kinda squared me up at first, because I was pinch-hitting a lot, a fourth outfielder. I went to Pittsburgh and I squared up and that completely took away from the load that I had. Jeff Branson, the Triple-A hitting coach in Indianapolis for Pittsburgh — who’s now their big league hitting coach — opened me back up.

Sarris: And that helped you on the inside pitch.

Moss: 100%. It’s a gather and it’s a load but I’m not closed off to where I’m fighting to turn into that inside pitch. I’m just naturally over the plate. It’s a natural path.

Sarris: This year, it looks they’re throwing you higher in the zone.


Righties threw Moss mostly low and away in 2013, on the right. 2014′s pitches have been slightly higher.

Moss: Yeah. That’s a big weakness. I know that though. And that’s what I feel like early in the year, I talked to Chili about this a lot. That’s one area that me and him do a lot of work. I know that up in the zone is a big hole in my swing because I have an uppercut swing. So up in the zone is going to be a problem. I felt like, early in the year and in spring training, that was an area of weakness I was going to work on. Not necessarily hitting that pitch, but not chasing that pitch. But in this little bit of a slump…

Sarris: You might have been chasing…

Moss: Yeah, I’ve been chasing it a lot. Up and away is a big hole, and you just have to leave it alone. It’s really hard when you’re struggling, because you’re wanting to fight, you’re wanting to get hits, you’re wanting to battle.. You see a strike, regardless of up, down, wherever, and you want to hit it, and it’s just not a pitch I can handle.


Moss has been swinging at the high pitch a little more, too. Even late in the season. That’s before August 25th on the left, after that date on the right.

Sarris: That’s interesting because Chris Young said that you can fight off the pitch up and in like nobody else he faces.

Moss: I hit that well. Close in, my barrel doesn’t drop. Up and away, I can’t flatten my bat out up there. My bat comes through the zone like this [mimics uppercut swing] so up and away…

Sarris: Young said if he tries to get you up and in, you foul it off.

Moss: Yeah I foul that one off a lot.

Sarris: That’s a little dangerous at home though, with all that foul ground.

Moss: Yeah, but usually you foul that one straight back.

Sarris: Basically, as they’ve been throwing you less in the zone, though, you’ve been swinging less.

Moss: Well. I feel like. It’s not that I have been swinging less, I mean I have been swinging less, it’s just that you know when you go throw a slump, it’s because you’ve been chasing. My natural thing when I get into a slump is to swing more. And that’s when I start making more outs. And so I try to tone down my swing and say hey, zone in. The only problem with that is, you start zoning in and they start flipping that first pitch breaking balls in. They start throwing the changeup first pitch to steal a strike, and then you’re behind in the count. It’s a constant game of adjustments.

 

April

May

June

July

August

September

Swing%

51.3%

50.4%

46.2%

51.8%

42.4%

45.1%

Reach %

38.3%

33.0%

33.5%

40.6%

26.9%

30.1%

When I’m locked in and I’m feeling right, I will swing at that first pitch changeup. I will try to hit that first pitch breaking ball because I see it well and I trust myself. But when I’m not swinging well, you know what, hey take it, now you’ve seen a pitch, you’ve seen that breaking ball and maybe later he’ll hang it or he’ll come and miss a spot. It hasn’t happened a lot, it’s just one of those things. When you feel good, you can hit more pitches. But when you don’t feel well, it’s better off to leave those alone and hope for a mistake later.

Sarris: You’ve said recently that you made an adjustment in late August that you felt good about?

Moss: More about covering the up and away pitch. As far as laying off of it when I’m ahead in the count and fouling it off when I’m behind in the count.

Sarris: I did see that since then you’ve been swinging at it less.

Moss: Sometimes, I just make something up that sounds good. In all honestly the adjustment I’ve made is that I’m really exposing myself by chasing this, and if they get that, get that, get that up there, then they just throw something down in the zone and I chase. Everything changes. Leave it alone if you’re ahead, and if you’re behind, foul it off. Or try to.


Fly balls are in blue here.

Sarris: Two quick questions. Fewer fly balls this year?

Moss: I don’t feel like that. I don’t even feel like I got fewer fly balls. I just feel like more… my fly balls don’t have the same trajectory on them. I’m getting a lot more high fly balls.

 

2012

2013

2014

HR+FB Distance

294.1

295.7

280.6

Sarris: That’s why they throw high in the zone, to get the pop-ups.

Moss: Pop it up! And it’s going to work. But they’re pitchers, they miss. I would love to have more hits, I would love to have more doubles than this, but I have to be who I am. Once you start changing things about who you are, you lose it all.

Sarris: Last thing. Outfield vs first base. There is such a thing in baseball called the DH penalty. You hit 10% worse than you normally would when you come off the bench. Have you ever felt anything like that with first base and the outfield. Is one of them more engaging to you?

Moss: First base is much more engaging. You’re involved in everything, your body is constantly moving. Outfield is more relaxing, outfield is like okay, I’m out here, I can run down the ball.

Sarris: Is one of those states better for you at the plate?

Moss: I feel like first base is better for me at the plate, because it keeps you sharper. But I think that body-wise, and how you feel, the outfield is better. There are pros and cons. But it really does go into that.

Position

PA

Average

On-base %

Slugging

wRC+

First Base

806

0.260

0.330

0.502

131

Left Field

465

0.261

0.361

0.464

126

Right Field

678

0.234

0.304

0.416

92

DH

51

0.239

0.294

0.674

166

People don’t understand that, they think we just play baseball and swing at pitches. But we watch a ton of video. I watch a ton of video. And that guy [points at Jon Lester] is probably the only guy in this clubhouse that looks at more video than I do. It’s because, as a power hitter that doesn’t have a high average, I know I have to make my swings count.

Sarris: When you swing…

Moss: When you swing, drive it. So I have to know, what is this guy most likely to throw. What does he like to get ahead with. When it’s two and oh, and he needs a strike in a big situation, does he flip the breaking ball in backdoor, does he throw a changeup, does he go up in the zone. You have to know those things, because if you don’t, you’re swinging wildly.

 

April

May

June

July

August

September

Groundball %

33.8%

28.0%

32.3%

28.6%

30.8%

27.6%

Fly ball%

48.5%

52.0%

46.2%

42.9%

43.6%

62.1%

And that’s what I was doing a lot in August, I was swinging wildly, trying to do too much. And therefore, that’s when the weak outs, and that’s when the ground balls started coming, was in August. My ground-ball rate kinda skyrocketed. Strikeout rate went up, chase rate went up, walk rate went up because I was taking more pitches, but when I was swinging, I wasn’t swinging to drive the ball, I was swinging to get a hit. That’s why I said in late August, screw this, I’m going to cover this pitch, I’m going to gear for this pitch, and if I walk I walk, and if I strikeout I strikeout.

I like talking to you, you’re my kind of guy, with my kind of questions.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/brandon-moss-on-the-anatomy-of-a-slump/

 

“ if the choice is between the power of youth and the power of money, the power of youth wins” 

Will the Braves or Yankees be better over the next 5 years?

By Grant Brisbee  @mccoveychron on Sep 24 2014

 

You're an aspiring GM with two job offers. Pick one.

At the beginning of August, we looked at the Braves and Yankees being zombie teams. It made sense at the time. Both were fighting for a playoff spot, despite a string of injuries and misfortunes that would have felled a mortal team. They were undead. They had been for years.

If they're zombie teams, though, they got their belt stuck on a wire fence about a month ago, and they can't chase anyone. They're just sadly moaning, watching all those brains get away. Have you ever seen a zombie sigh and slump its shoulders? It's extra sad for some reason. This is just the second year both teams have missed the playoffs since Yasiel Puig was born.

The question today, then, is this: You're a bright, up-and-coming GM candidate. You've been offered both the Braves' and Yankees' GM position. Which one do you take?

Another way to pose the question: Which team's future do you trust more for the next few years?

It's not as easy as you think. You're not buying the team. We're talking for the immediate future.

The argument for the Braves

Youth, mostly. Almost everything that's good about the 2014 Braves has to do with a young player. Freddie Freeman is young and locked up. Jason Heyward is young, and his healthy season portends well for his future. Evan Gattis isn't exactly a puppy anymore, but he has years left. Andrelton Simmons is great even when he isn't hitting, and he's young enough to hope for improvement there, too. Even with several of their young pitchers getting sacrificed to the volcano gods this season, they still have enviable youth in Alex Wood and Julio Teheran.

But it's more than a simple cataloging of young talent. It's the idea that the Braves got them to the majors in the first place. It's the idea that Alex Wood made exactly zero top-100 lists in his minor league career, placing #7 in the Braves' top-10 once, and he's a fully formed ace after just 26 starts in the minors. It's the idea that Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy existed at all, assuming you don't blame the Braves for their injuries (which you probably shouldn't.) The Braves have an ability to spot talent and develop it, especially on the pitching side, and it's an advantage that 25 or 26 teams would trade their best three prospects for.

The argument is youth and the promise of more youth. Fixing the Braves isn't going to be easy, but they don't have to tear it down to the studs, either. Focusing on getting B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson, and Tommy La Stella some help -- if not outright replacing them -- would go a long way toward helping the offensive misery. This isn't a team that needs a rebuild. Just a reload. And the promise of better health.

Maybe a general manager who doesn't actively screw things up. But now we're nitpicking.

The argument for the Yankees

I was going to do a separate section for "arguments against," except here's the argument for the Yankees: money. The Braves are likely to trend closer to the Rays than their NL East rivals because of an unfriendly TV deal. When they spend and miss, like on the B.J. Upton deal, they're devastated. The Yankees are the kind of team that walk into the offseason and come away with Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran. They're unlikely to do it again, but they were unlikely to do that in the first place.

I'll guess that they're going to go bananas in the open market until it's absolutely clear that they're the 2011 Astros, a team that wouldn't be fixed with an armada of the top 10 free agents. This winter will be interesting. Will they go international, with Kenta Maeda and Yasmany Tomas? Will they go offense, with Hanley Ramirez or Pablo Sandoval? Or will they open a trolling wormhole by signing Jon Lester? That we're even asking the question is support of the Yankees' argument. They can pay retail for stars, and stars are what they need.

It's a little trickier to pick out the Yankees you expect to be good next year. I'd expect good things from Brett Gardner and Ellsbury, but that's it. The Yankees have over $100 million committed to the lineup, and they should expect good things from exactly two players, both of whom will be 31. The rotation is in a better spot if you trust the health of Tanaka and Michael Pineda and the return of Ivan Nova. I'm not sure why you would do that -- they're pitchers, dammit -- but assuming the Yankees buttress those maybes with expensive probablies, they have some hope with their pitching.

Again, though, this isn't about 2015, necessarily. This is about the next few years. Alex Rodriguez will come off the books. So will Mark Teixeira. When that happens, they'll have more open-market freedom than they've had in years, and we've seen what happens when they don't have that freedom, like last year. They still do it.

The last thing to consider is their indefatigable Yankeeness. They expect to win, even when that's unreasonable. Brian Cashman is shiftless and active, constantly tinkering and maneuvering because he never sees the Yankees team as a problem that can't be fixed with whatever's available to him. He's MacGyver with a SkyMall catalog and a SkyMall budget.

"No, see, you take the outdoor dog chaise lounge, tie it to the limited edition Clint Dempsey watch, place it on top of the gift box of Kansas City steaks, and voilà: a functioning bicycle."

"I'll be damned."

The Yankees aren't giving up on 2015, which means you should be scared of the 2015 Yankees.

Give me the Braves, though. Give me the one player in the hand over the two expensive players in the bush. And if the choice is between the power of youth and the power of money, the power of youth wins. It's why the A's can contend but the Phillies can't. Even though the Yankees will start shedding the worst of their contracts soon, they're still mostly bereft of prospects, and the huge Dominican spending spree from this summer won't yield returns for a few years, if ever. Never doubt the Yankees. But doubt the Braves a little bit less.

Of course, the Yankees still aren't eliminated. If they win the rest of their games and the Royals and Mariners lose the rest of their games, and ... oh, god, no, no, get away, Yankees, what are you doing, no no no, stop, those are my brains, no noooo.

POLL

Well?

  • ·        31%Yankees(244 votes)
  • ·        69%Braves(539 votes)

783 votes total

 

http://www.sbnation.com/mlb/2014/9/24/6839233/braves-yankees-missing-playoffs

 

“Not a big deal”

Who led the Orioles in transactions? Preston Guilmet

September 28, 2014, By Rich Dubroff

 

When the Orioles purchased Alexi Casilla’s contract on Saturday, they designated Preston Guilmet for assignment. Not a big deal—unless you’re Preston Guilmet.

Guilmet’s name appears in the Orioles’ transactions list more often than anyone else this season with six stints. 

He was acquired from Cleveland on Apr. 7, recalled from Norfolk on May 12, sent back down a day later, recalled again on May 22, and returned again a day after that.

Two days later, Guilmet was back because Chris Davis was on the paternity list. This time, Guilmet stuck around a full 12 days—until June 6.

He was added as the 26th man for the second game of a July 5 doubleheader and immediately returned.

Five days later, on July 10, Guilmet was recalled again, stayed with the team through the All-Star break and sent down again on July 22.

After T.J. McFarland was put on the bereavement list, Guilmet was recalled for three days on July 28.

Guilmet left on July 31, fully intending to return when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1.

He didn’t and instead was assigned to Sarasota, Fla. to stay in shape in case he was needed. He wasn’t.

Guilmet ended the season, and presumably his Orioles career with an 0-1 record and a 5.23 ERA in 10 games. He struck out 12 in 10 1/3 innings.

http://www.csnbaltimore.com/blog/orioles-talk/who-led-orioles-transactions-preston-guilmet

 

“the high-level consistency that once defined them” 

The Yips Plague and the Battle of Mind Over Matter

SEPTEMBER 26, 2014

by KATIE BAKER

Each point in a tennis match begins with a serve, and each serve begins with a ball thrown into the air. It’s probably the most overlooked move that a player will make over the course of a game: it looks so simple, seems so rote, and is usually followed by a far more captivating big serve or long rally. But while it may be basic, it’s also foundational. You can’t play a big match without that little lob.

David Foster Wallace detailed the motion in the opening paragraph of a 1996 Esquire piece. “The tossed ball rises,” he wrote, “and seems for a second to hang, waiting, cooperating, as balls always seem to do for great players.” Or do they? Another tennis story, this one by Tom Perrotta forThe Atlantic 14 years later, opened with a far less orderly scene:

Her left arm jerks upward and the ball veers off to her right. Rather than swing, she extends her racket and catches the ball on the strings. Restart. Bounce it. Take a quick breath. Go.

This time, the ball flies forward and out of reach. She lets it drop, then gathers it up.

Wallace was writing about Michael Joyce, a player who at the time was ranked 79th in the world; in comparison, you’d think that Perrotta was describing, well, me. But his feature was actually about Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 and was, for a time, the no. 1 player in women’s tennis — until her confidence deteriorated, her mechanics unraveled, and she found herself unable to so much as toss the damn ball.

Ivanovic’s story was jarring, but it also wasn’t all that unique. The phenomenon of athletes suddenly and swiftly losing the high-level consistency that once defined them is one that can happen in places ranging from the putting green to the infield to the service line.

Golfers have called the uncontrollable forearm tremors that can torpedo their short game “the yips” for as long as even the old-timers can remember. Dart enthusiasts, crippled by a strange inability to let go, talk about their “dartitis” with despair. Professional baseball players who have been hurling pinpoint lasers since they were athletically precocious toddlers suddenly can’t execute a routine flip to first base. (Athletes aren’t the only ones who suffer these maladies, either; musicians have been known to have similar issues with curling fingers or shaky lips, and the term “writer’s cramp” is a cousin of all of this.)

These situations are not just a lost step or a bad look or the inevitable aging out of one’s prime. They are public, Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdowns; they are frustrating indignities; they are spasms and hitches and triple-pumps that are viscerally painful to watch. The worst part isn’t even always the jerky throws or twitchy strokes, it’s the subsequent look of helplessness — and, after awhile, hopelessness — in the bewildered players’ eyes.

“If you, let’s say, as a talent or as an an athlete, cannot hole a putt from half a meter away, which every grandpa or grandma could do, then this is hard to describe in words,” wrote one yips sufferer in a 2012 study compiled in The Sport Psychologist. “Thus, a competence that accompanied you all your athletic life is gone all of a sudden … It ranges between frustration, resignation, disappointment, anger. Well, it is the whole range of emotions from A to Z.”

♦♦♦

The yips are often wrongly conflated with the inability to “perform in the clutch,” but what is most insidious about the condition is that it doesn’t just strike during high-pressure, big-game moments; it’s not what we think of as “choking.” More often, and more disastrously, it seeps down into the drab everyday bedrocks of a sport.

For a hotshot baseball catcher like the New York Mets’ Mackey Sasser, chucking the ball back to the pitcher after backstopping a ball or a strike was not exactly a high-stakes, put-it-all-on-the-line endeavor. Still, shortly after a collision at home plate left him with tender ankles, Sasser became increasingly incapable of performing the rote motion that he’d done without a second thought since he was a boy.

At first, the problem was that his ankles hurt and he had to adjust his throwing motion. But adjusting meant thinking, and thinking meant overthinking, and soon he was double-, triple-, sometimes quadruple-clutching the ball. When he finally would release it, his form looked more like that of a college kid trying to get that perfect high-off-the-fingertips Ping-Pong ball arc in a game of basement Beirut than it did a career MLB catcher returning the ball to the mound. (As Sasser’s problems worsened, pitchers started walking toward him to meet halfway.)

In the same game, Sasser might cut off a base-stealer at second with the speed and precision that Mike Piazza never did have … before going on to botch a simple, rudimentary toss. The juxtaposition made me think of a passage from Chad Harbach’s college baseball novel The Art of Fielding, in which one of the main characters, a quiet star shortstop named Henry, stops being able to deliver the ball to first base. “Instead of rifle shots fired at a target,” writes Harbach of Henry’s newly mangled throws, “they felt like doves released from a box.”

In the book, several major league scouts come to watch Henry perform and, observing the condition his game is in, begin naming his troubled predecessors. “Blass,” one says, referring to Steve Blass, whose pitching problems in the 1970s wound up being forever referred to as Steve Blass Disease. “Sasser,” he continues, as in Mets catcher Mackey. “Wohlers. Knoblauch. Sax.” It’s a litany of major leaguers who contracted a case of the yips. (And, in Chuck Knoblauch’s case, of major leaguers whose yips caused him to accidentally hit Keith Olbermann’s mom in the face with a throw, shattering her glasses.)

The school’s president, sitting next to the scouts, asks what became of those guys.

“Do they ever recover?” Affenlight asked. “The players with this disease?”

“Steve Sax did. Of the big names, he might be the only one. Knoblauch moved from second to the outfield where the longer throw gave him less trouble. Ankiel moved to the outfield too.”

“But a longer throw is harder,” Affenlight pointed out.

Dwight shrugged. “Sometimes harder is easier.”

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin football program announced that it would “shut down” quarterback Joel Stave indefinitely. According to a report by Fox Sports, “coaches noticed something wrong … he could no longer throw a simple pass. He could uncork a 40-yard bomb, no problem, but time and again, he would short-hop a basic 10-yard pass in drills.”

Stave himself tried to put the feeling into words. “I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long,” he said. “One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to hang on to it longer.'”

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In The Art of Fielding, a character named Pella grows fed up with all the attention paid to Henry’s predicament. “Being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic,” she silently fumes. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run, silly when compared with global warming … silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.”

There’s nothing silly, though, about the horror of someone’s body and mind turning on him or her all at once. In an essay about Tracy Austin and athletic supremacy, David Foster Wallace argued that “the predicament of a dedicated athletic prodigy washed up at twenty-one differs in nothing more than degree from that of a dedicated CPA and family man dying at sixty-two.”

What makes the yips so wholly dispiriting is the negative-feedback death spiral they create: It’s not all in the brain, but the physical manifestations sure do have a way of exacerbating anxiety. It’s not all in the muscles, but once you get the thought on your mind, here come the uncontrollable seizes and jerks.

Charles Barkley’s beyond-awful golf swing makes for a rollicking YouTube viewing, sure, but it’s also kind of distressing to see just how powerless such a big and bold man can be against the murky vagaries of the spirit and flesh. Mackey Sasser’s problems didn’t stop when he left professional baseball; even as a college coach, he could barely throw batting practice.

But there are ways to move on. Some righty golfers are told to start putting left-handed; the more novice you get, the safer you are from the yips. (Recall the grandma and grandpa above who could sink the hypothetical putt.) Mackey Sasser, thanks to the psychological and physical treatment he recently underwent (as detailed in the ESPN 30 for 30 short), was able to learn how to quiet his mind and control his fears.

And Ana Ivanovic, who once explained that “if you start thinking about how you come down the stairs and think about how each muscle is working, you can’t go down the stairs,” beat Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of a tournament just this week. One postgame report noted that in a second-set tiebreak, Ivanovic “played almost flawlessly.”

http://grantland.com/the-triangle/the-yips-plague-and-the-battle-of-mind-over-matter/