Sunday, August 15, 2010

Facing Your Demons

Photo: AP

Needless to say, last night was by far Rick Porcello’s best effort against the White Sox in his career. He seemed to be in mini-jams all evening, but the sinker was working and he managed to get out of it with plenty of ground ball outs. Leyland felt he left him in there a little too long, and I’m inclined to agree, but two runs in seven innings is not bad at all. Plus, Carlos Guillen turned an absolutely sweet double play that will make all the highlight reels. By the way, I wonder how long Jose Valverde has been dealing with that abdominal strain. Still, Phil Coke did a good job in his absence.

Of course, we’d be talking about a tough-luck loss if it weren’t for the heroics of Alex Avila. Contact was an issue for just about everyone against Edwin Jackson. Like Porcello, Jackson found himself in trouble occasionally, but where Porcello got ground balls and double plays, Jackson just kept striking guys out (although I think the gun at the ballpark was hot; there is no way he threw a pitch at 100 MPH). All the Tigers’ runs came via the home run ball, and once again, they did it without Cabrera (who has to pick up the pace; A-Rod has now passed him in the RBI race, so he’s not leading any Triple Crown category at the moment). With has hot as Ryan Raburn has been, I was kind of expecting him to be the one to homer off J.J. Putz (if anyone), but it happened one batter later. It probably would not have been a home run at Comerica Park, but it’s nice to have the bandbox that is U.S. Cellular Field work in the Tigers’ favor, for once.

This series concludes today with dueling Venezuelans (and former teammates again, if you want to be precise, albeit for less than a month). Freddy Garcia was beat up by the Twins in his last start, but he hasn’t given the Tigers a whole lot (Leyland seems to believe the Tigers take a bad approach when Garcia pitches). It would help matters if Miguel Cabrera could return to his previous ways of bombing the ball against his friend. He hasn’t done a whole lot recently against him. Meanwhile, Armando Galarraga is getting frustrated to the point where his emotions are starting to show on the mound, which is rather uncharacteristic. I tried checking his Pitch f/x charts from his last two starts and compared them with his perfect game (which I’ll take as his best pitching performance of the year). I did come up with a couple things. First of all, he hasn’t really thrown the four-seam fastball (which was abundant in the perfect game) in his recent starts. It’s been almost exclusively sinker, slider, and changeup. The other thing is that the depth on his slider is closer to his fastball than it was back in June (I’m not going to explore this further unless I have to, because it is not an area I’m well-versed in). But at this point I don’t think mechanics are the main problem. There’s a book I’m currently reading called The Psychology of Baseball, by Mike Stadler. It’s not as engrossing as I thought it would be, because it mostly focuses on the subconscious processes involved in hitting, pitching, and catching fly balls (“muscle memory,” if you will). However, it did discuss the two main psychological reasons for control problems, and I think Galarraga may be falling victim to both (I know I shouldn’t speculate like this, since there could be so much going on off the field that I don’t know about, but it beats having other people write him off). The first pitfall is the pitcher telling himself to “not” do something, which actually makes him more prone to doing it because it “primes” the part of the brain that controls it. It’s like that old cliché of telling someone not to think of an elephant. The example the book uses is of a pitcher telling himself to not throw a wild pitch, but I think it’s entirely plausible that when a big power hitter like Paul Konerko or Carlos Quentin steps into the batter’s box, Galarraga may be telling himself to not give up a home run (since that’s what he’s been frustrated about), which, according to this theory, makes him more likely to give one up. The other main psychological cause of control problems (and the more common one, according to the author) is thinking too much about your mechanics, and I believe there’s a lot this going on as well. When a pitcher starts thinking about his mechanics as he is pitching, he’s mentally overriding what is essentially an automated process, and there is no way the conscious mind can be as fluid and consistent with the delivery as the subconscious mind. I know this from my own personal experience. I was in the high school band, and I found that if I thought about the notes or the fingerings too much, I couldn’t play as well. I had to figure out a way to not think about it and just play. I have had the same issues with fencing. Thinking too much about the parry or the lunge slows me down too much. And this phenomenon fits in perfectly with Armando Galarraga’s tendency to overthink the situation when he gets in trouble. In this situation, he can’t think about not giving up home runs. Not in that ballpark. It’s extremely unlikely that he won’t give one up. Trying to prevent that will only make things worse. He has to focus on making his pitches and limiting the damage. And once he decides what pitch to throw, he needs to trust his subconscious and let his mechanics take care of themselves. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. I know that from experience as well. Also unfortunate is that I’ll be at work during this game, so I can’t even offer moral support.  

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