Hey, you just got drafted…good luck.
This year, in the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft, 1,215 players were drafted. Though some will not sign a professional contract, most will. The influx of young talent creates a surplus of players and forces organizations to make difficult decisions. Room must be made for the youngest professional generation; it seems that for every new contract signed an older one is terminated.
I found myself jobless for the first time since 2002, with ample time to reflect on baseball. I have thought a lot about what I would have liked to hear as I was entering professional baseball, what lessons I should have known about how to identify my mindset and better prepare for competition. To this rookie class, I wish you all the best. Be committed in your pursuit of the Major Leagues and savor this time in your life, it doesn’t last very long. For everyone else, this post isn’t really about baseball. It’s about life.
PRACTICE, TRAIN, COMPETE
What I learned from playing catch with Huston Street
My experience in professional baseball taught me the importance of an athlete’s mindset. Your mindset (an established set of attitudes), has a direct effect in three very specific areas; Training, Practicing and Competing. Knowing the differences in these three areas means we can learn to apply the proper mindset to each one and give ourselves the best chance to perform. As a catcher, I worked with a lot of pitchers, but, unbeknownst to him, the one I learned the most from is Huston Street.
On a summer day in San Diego in 2012, Jason Marquis and I were discussing baseball. More specifically, we were discussing how a pitcher cultivates command. Command is the ability of the pitcher to throw the ball where he wants to, not just in the strike zone, but outside of it as well. He had asked me who I had caught that had the best command. My answer was our closer, Huston Street. Huston was in the midst of one of his best statistical seasons, and something interesting was happening to him as a pitcher. He wasn’t throwing particularly hard. He’d top out at 89 MPH, sitting closer to 86 MPH with his fastball but was putting up some of the best numbers of his career. The secret to his success was very simple; Huston had developed the ability to throw the ball exactly where he wanted, nearly every single time. Marquis suggested that I pay close attention to Huston’s practice habits and, whenever possible, play catch with him before the game so I could determine the method. It didn’t take long to see a pattern.
As long as we were outside of sixty feet, six inches in our games of catch, Huston was training his arm for strength. He didn’t care where the ball went; he joked with the other pitchers while he threw. The length of this session was based on how he physically felt. He put less mental effort and focus into this part of his preparation, because, by design, this part is more physical. Accuracy is not the point of the long toss program; the purpose is to physically condition the throwing arm.
Training is foundational work. You train so that you can show your skills under duress or when you’re tired. In baseball, this is about exercising in order to improve strength, flexibility, or stamina. Think about strength training, plyometrics, and all out sprints – we use these tools to improve our athletic ability by training our body to move faster. Results aren’t important; building up a strong base is.
Where Huston was loosely relaxed in training, he was finely focused in practice. Once within the mound distance, from the first throw, Huston was going through his full delivery. His arm speed matched his body speed, allowing his hand to release the ball from exactly the same point. EVERY TIME. As his arm sped up, so did the speed of his delivery. The synergy in body and arm speed allowed for a repeatable motion that produced a predictable result. The ball went exactly where he intended it to go, because his hand let it go from the same place every time.
Huston walked into even a simple game of catch with a purpose. As long as we were within sixty feet, six inches, he practiced his delivery, he practiced his release point…he practiced being a pitcher. This wasn’t doing work for the sake of doing work. He understood the very definition of practice – “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”
If something in his delivery was off and contributing to a different release point or hand position, he used these daily catch sessions to refocus and realign. His mindset was simple. Identify any problems and adjust.
When Huston threw his bullpens, they were very, very intense. He wanted my glove target just off the plate, about ten inches above the ground. He focused on competing with himself. How many times in a row could he execute a fastball down and away to a right handed hitter before he made a mistake? How many sliders could he throw just off the plate and just below the strike zone? He would berate himself after mistakes, and I saw him throw his glove in frustration on more than one occasion – IN SPRING TRAINING – IN THE BULLPEN.
Huston said that his dad, James, taught him this mindset. On a mound in a backyard in Texas, James Street taught young Huston that every pitch you throw off of a mound should be viewed through the game seven, bases loaded, 3-2 count lens. It didn’t matter if it was the backyard bullpens, in high school or game seven of the World Series. Everything is on the line, believe in your preparation, and execute your pitch. The brilliance in this teaching is that the young pitcher learned to think only one way whenever he toed a rubber. Every time Huston pitches off of a mound, it is the same.
In order to react and execute under pressure, you have to simplify your thoughts. Almost by definition, baseball players are competitive. They don’t require further motivation to try and win. No one ever needed to coach me to “want it.” But something happens when the lights come on in pro ball, new environments are introduced, new nervousnesses are dealt with, new butterflies must be calmed. Everywhere a player goes, the base paths and mound are the same distance, home plate is the same size, but everything else around them changes. I had a routine for getting into the batter’s box that brought me comfort no matter where I was playing, from High School to Yankee Stadium. Drawing three lines with my feet and digging in reminded me that I was just playing baseball, and I was prepared to compete.
Sameness, simplicity, and repetition are the building blocks of consistency. Consistency is the foundation of a long professional career.
Not everyone will have their chance on the mound under the lights. Nevertheless, we’ll all face situations where we’re called upon to perform at the highest level. Developing a routine of training, practicing and competing lets you shine. Build your foundation, practice the technical skill and have success in competition. Plenty of people will offer suggestions, but how and what you choose to practice is your responsibility. Approach practice mindfully so you can compete mindlessly. Strengthen your body so that you can repeat the skills you have spent time developing! Don’t forget to learn from your teammates; they are going through the same struggles and successes as you.
Whenever I was catching someone’s debut after they got called up, or talking to a hitter newly welcomed to the big leagues, I always told them the same thing.
When you feel nervous, when your heart is beating, and you notice the crowd, when you see three or five decks at a stadium for the first time, when you’re about to compete against your idol, when your stomach is in your throat…step off the mound or out of the box, take it all in and embrace it. Celebrate the stress, your body is telling you that you are exactly where you are supposed to be.
And if that at bat is against Huston Street, good luck.
John Baker played in the majors for seven seasons, from 2008-'14. He is a contributor to JABO. Follow him on Twitter.