For Pirates' Alvarez, the struggle with the 'yips' is real
In the fourth inning last Saturday, Arizona's Didi Gregorius hit a ground ball across the quick Bermuda grass at Chase Field toward Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates third baseman fielded the ball cleanly. He had plenty of time to throw.
Alvarez took one sidestep and pounded the ball into his glove, a timing mechanism to initiate his throw. His second sidestep brought him from the infield dirt onto the grass 75 feet from first base. He raised his right arm, readying to throw.
Alvarez had made a routine throw like this more than a thousand times. Entering Saturday, he had played 4,765 innings defensively as a major leaguer, all of them at third base. He had assisted on 1,194 plays, the majority of throws traveling across the infield without incident.
Alvarez's right arm accelerated forward. The ball sailed high, 3 feet above leaping first baseman Ike Davis. It was Alvarez's 23rd throwing error, the most in a season since Fangraphs began tracking throwing errors in 2002.
Said Diamondbacks television analyst Bob Brenly during the broadcast: “That's Steve Sax-like: the inability to make a routine throw across the diamond.”
Sax said he thinks Alvarez has the same psychological performance block that plagued him.
“I know exactly what he is going through,” Sax said this past week. “I've been there. It's the loneliest feeling in the world.”
The mysterious condition has a variety of slang terms. It's called the “yips” or, in high-stakes situations, “choking.” It is the inexplicable loss to execute a once-automated skill. While strides have been made in understanding the condition, curing it is more difficult.
“If I could (identify the problem), it wouldn't be an issue,” Alvarez said.
This mental hurdle cost Greg Norman a Masters title in 1996. It wrested a Wimbledon championship from Jana Novotna in 1993.
In baseball, the mental block manifests itself in a player's inability to make routine throws. It quickly and viciously has unraveled careers such as those of former Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel and former New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. It threatens a move to first base for Alvarez, who has started three games since July 23.
Said Sax: “My career was in the balance for a while.”
In the valley
In the ninth inning of the 1983 home opener, Montreal Expos star Andre Dawson drilled a ball to right field at Dodger Stadium. Sax, the National League Rookie of the Year in 1982, moved from his second base position into shallow right and made a one-hop relay throw home. The throw was needless: Dawson had stopped at third. The ball glanced off catcher Steve Yeager's shin guard, and Dawson scored. Forty-five thousand fans booed.
The block can be triggered by a number of things, according to psychologists, from stress situations on and off the field. The relay toss was the trigger for Sax.
Like Alvarez, Sax still could make the difficult play, the no-time-to-think throw. Alvarez ranks seventh among third basemen in converting his most difficult chances into outs, which are defined by Baseball Info Solutions as plays that are made fewer than 10 percent of the time. He ranks last among third basemen in converting his easiest 10 percent of chances.
Sax inexplicably lost the ability to make routine throws.
“I was hoping a lot of times they wouldn't hit the ball to me,” Sax said.
As the issue became chronic, fans seated behind first base wore helmets. Between innings, players in the opposing dugout ducked when Sax threw. They called it “Steve Sax Syndrome.”
His lowest point came in June 1983 before 36,545 in San Diego. After another errant throw, his 23rd error of the season, Sax came off the field between innings screaming and cursing himself.
“I felt like I wanted to quit,” Sax said. “It was the most horrible, humiliating, embarrassing experience. You go through so many emotions out there. ... It's absolute torture.”
Sometimes there are no obvious triggers.
In 1972, Blass finished second in NL Cy Young voting. In 1971, he won Game 7 of the World Series. In his first start of 1973, he walked five. In his next start, he walked five more. By June, he was banished to the bullpen.
Blass dismisses the idea that the death of Roberto Clemente that offseason affected his control.
“There was nothing dramatic. I didn't hit anybody,” Blass said. “All the sudden, it wasn't there.”
In 1972, Blass went 19-8 with a 2.49 ERA. In 1973, Blass walked 84 batters in 882⁄3 innings. He led the NL with 12 hit batsmen. He had a 9.85 ERA.
“I just froze when I got ready to release the ball,” Blass said. “I knew I shouldn't be out there. I couldn't get myself to quit.”
Blass knew something was drastically wrong June 13, 1973, in Atlanta. In 11⁄3 innings of relief, he allowed five hits, seven runs and walked six. The Pirates flew to Cincinnati after the game. They arrived late, but Blass couldn't sleep. He walked around downtown Cincinnati until dawn.
“It was one of those awful nights,” Blass said. “I was healthy. I was throwing hard. It was a ‘Why?' walk. ‘Why is this happening?' ”
Blass hopes Alvarez does not have what he had. “I wouldn't wish it on anybody,” Blass said.
‘Like a robot'
There is a curious tie linking Sax, Blass and Alvarez.
In the bullpen, Blass was able to execute pitches. During infield work, Sax threw without issue. In his return from the bereavement list Friday, Alvarez fired accurately across the diamond during batting practice.
They were fine in practice. The struggles began when stands filled, when the television cameras went live.
Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor and author of “Choke,” said the phenomenon is tied to a switch from unconscious to conscious thinking.
“When we get really good at anything, whether or not we are pro athletes, we stop paying attention to every detail,” Beilock said. “(Our mind) is a limited-capacity system. We can only pay attention to so much at one time. As we get better and better, some of what we do becomes automated so we can use our (consciousness) for other things.
“The issue is when we are in a stressful situation and working under pressure to perform well or had a poor performance in the past, those tasks that were automated before become unautomated. We start consciously attending to them. … When people are watching you, you start watching yourself.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell studies performance and wrote about choking in a New Yorker article titled “The Art of Failure.” He noted there are two types are learning systems, which are based in different parts of the brain. There is explicit learning, the system of a beginner. It's deliberate and mechanical. Then there is the implicit system. After thousands of reps, the task is automated outside of awareness. Under conditions of stress, certain athletes revert to the explicit system.
“I was like a robot out there. It can't be that way,” Sax said.
“I had always been an instinctive pitcher,” Blass said.
Blass searched everywhere for a fix. He practiced throwing from his knees, from three feet away from home plate.
Gladwell noted the usual prescription for overcoming failure is hard work. But in this case, more practice can make athletes less instinctual.
“That is a hard lesson to grasp,” Gladwell wrote, “but harder still is the fact that choking requires us to concern ourselves less with the performer and more with the situation in which the performance occurs.”
The silence was striking.
As Blass' situation became chronic, there were few boos at home or cheers on the road. There was silence. Crowds tacitly adopted compassionate etiquette. Fans can't relate to throwing a ball 90 mph, but they understand what it was to be embarrassed, what it was to lose something precious.
At some point late that summer, Blass felt he was lost for good. After scuffling again on the Three Rivers Stadium mound, he arrived home and went to the backyard of his Upper St. Clair home. He cried.
“You go and sit in the backyard and wonder, ‘Am I going to be a Pittsburgh Pirate anymore?' ” Blass said.
Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster, had a 10-year major league career. He said he had a great run. Still, he has one regret: He wishes he had spoken more openly then. He has found talking about it to be cathartic. Then, he tried to protect his wife and two young sons. His sons' classmates once asked for his autograph. In 1973, those classmates were telling them their father was a bum.
The Pirates didn't know how to handle the struggles, either. Teammates didn't know whether to pat him on the back or kick him in the butt. They tried both.
“There's still a stigma,” Blass said. “ ‘Has this guy gone crazy?' ”
The subject is still taboo in clubhouses. Jason Giambi told MLB.com, “We really don't talk about it as baseball players. It's just this unwritten rule. You feel terrible for (them).”
Pirates infield coach Nick Leyva refused to address the subject for this story.
The Pirates are one of a number of teams exploring sports psychology. The Pirates have a “mental conditioning” staff. General manager Neal Huntington declined to address whether that staff is working with Alvarez.
Alvarez was the Pirates' first draft pick under Huntington. If Alvarez is forced to move from third base permanently, his bat loses relative value at first base. Moreover, first baseman Ike Davis is a better career performer against right-handed pitching.
“I think we have a plan,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “I think he's still mindful of the fact that he's going to beat it.”
One team that has openly embraced sports psychology? The South Carolina Gamecocks. The college team has a psychologist in the dugout. The Gamecocks went to three straight College World Series finals from 2010-12.
As his troubles deepened, Sax changed the way he practiced. He knew the fastest runners reached first base in four seconds. So in infield practice, he tried to beat a four-second clock.
“Every ground ball in practice was like a game to me,” Sax said. “Under my breath, in my head, I kept telling myself it was a good play. It may sound corny, but it's true. That's how I got over this thing.”
By September 1983, Sax was making the routine play again. In 1991, he posted a .990 fielding mark. Sax proved it can be beaten.
Psychologists suggest that speeding up an athlete's routine can be helpful. The Pirates have tried a number of things with Alvarez, including positioning him deeper to force more movement.
Beilock said key words can change their focus. She has taped a golfer's practice to more often place them in situations where they are self aware.
The American Psychology Association released a study in 2012 that found athletes might perform better under pressure by clenching their left hand before competition to activate specific parts of the brain.
Sax said one thing should be made clear to Alvarez: There's nothing wrong with him.
“People say he has a mental block. No, he doesn't. He has no problem communicating. No problem with depth perception. He can drive a car,” Sax said. “He has a confidence issue. That's all this is.
“I wish I could talk to him.”
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