Baseball Is Ninety Percent Mental

“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.” – Yogi Berra

Everyone loves a good “Yogism.” The funny thing about that one in particular, is that it makes absolutely no sense, and yet it makes perfect sense at the same time. Yogi’s math didn’t add up, but he was definitely on to something.

Psychologists are more convinced than ever that our lives gravitate toward the directions of our most dominant thoughts. In other words, people with very positive outlooks, tend to live very positive lives – while those with more negative outlooks, tend to lead more negative lives. You’ve heard the saying “we reap what we sow” – well psychologists are finding that this saying may be more than just a saying. It may hold a deeper meaning.

The same ideas hold true in the sports world, but especially baseball, where Yogi cleverly proclaimed that baseball is really ninety percent mental, and only half physical. The athletes’ minds are often where the games are won or lost. Not necessarily on the field. A study was once conducted on Olympic athletes where they were connected to bio-feedback equipment, and then asked to close their eyes, and run the race in their minds. They weren’t moving their limbs, but the equipment was picking up the muscle fibers firing in the same way as if they were actually running the race. And thus, the art of visualization was born. Many athletes practice this today, where they play out the events of a game in their mind before it happens.

I am reminded of a story I heard about Jose Lima which reflects the power the mind has over the athlete’s performance. I’m sure everyone remembers his very dominating 1998 and 1999 seasons, but Lima will be remembered more for his legendary collapse starting in the year 2000, and how he was never able to get his career back on track after that year. People will say that they don’t understand why an athlete’s careers can do a complete 360 like Lima’s did. They attribute it to the athlete simply not having it anymore. I’m not saying that can’t happen, but athletes’ skills tend to erode slowly as they age, and not just shut off like a switch. When we see a collapse of that magnitude, where it seems as if someone flipped a switch on a player’s career, the switch is most likely in the player’s mind, and not so much in the physical.

In Lima’s case, the Houston Astros happened to be moving into Minute Maid Park for the start of the 2000 season. This was the season which followed his most dominant 21 win season in 1999. Lima was on top of the pitching world. As the story goes – after Minute Maid was built, Lima was touring the stadium and walked out on to the field and to the pitcher’s mound. He looked around. He saw the short distance to the left field seats. This was clearly a hitter’s ballpark. After a 21 win season, and a career that seemed to be headed for super stardom, Lima looked around and proclaimed he would never be able to pitch in that stadium. What followed his thoughts was probably one of the biggest collapses an athlete can ever have. Sadly, he never got his career back on track.

As you can see, the mind is very powerful. Baseball is one of the more cerebral sports. Hitting slumps in baseball are generally mental, and sometimes a simple changing of thinking can break hitters out of slumps. The hitters that can’t change the thinking which has gotten them into the slumps, tend to wallow in slumps, sometimes never to return back to form (like Jason Bay– we will get to this later). A lot of times, the thinking is acting as a placebo effect. A player that thinks that they can’t hit in particular places, or pitch in particular places, actually causes it to occur.

This placebo effect could also be why players careers tend to take off when they move on to other teams. Simply thinking that they could not play in one city, and that playing in a new city will be better for them, is sometimes all that is needed. It makes you wonder if performance enhancing drugs in baseball actually make the players better baseball players, or is it the thought of using performance enhancing drugs making these players better ball players?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that PEDs do enhance physical performance – but it doesn’t give a hitter a magical power to actually make consistent contact with the baseball. A player that couldn’t hit a curveball before using PEDs, won’t be able to all of a sudden start hitting curveballs after using PEDs. The ball may go further after making contact, but it is the mental perception that using the PED will make them better players actually making them better hitters. It’s not the PED itself making the players better hitters.

Now on to how this all applies to the New York Mets, and more specifically Jason Bay. Jason Bay seems to be experiencing a very similar collapse to that of Jose Lima. I’m not really sure what happened when Bay arrived in New York, but it was clearly the point that his career took a turn for the worst. You will never get me to believe that he just lost all his ability overnight. This collapse was more than likely due to something mental.

Bay may never be the same. Much like Lima, he may never regain is super star status. The thoughts of failure may be so entrenched now, that even a change of scenery may not be the placebo needed for Bay to regain his all-star caliber play. Jason Bay expects to make outs at the plate. He has lost the battle in his mind. I firmly believe the physical tools are still there, because if they weren’t, the Mets probably would just cut him, and let him play independent baseball somewhere. They are keeping him around to see if he can flip that mental switch, and get his career back on track. They hope he can at least give them some sort of production, because physically, he still can.

I’m no psychologist, but I have been through slumps. The majority of the time, it’s not anything physical or anything mechanical causing it. I understand how easy it is to get caught up in a slump because you are trying to avoid making outs, instead of getting hits. I have to say, it is a shame to see how Jason Bay has let this take control of him. If he can get back in control, I really have no doubts that he can be a productive player again. The question is, can he get back in control?