Angels' psychologist focuses on attitude
TEMPE, Ariz. -- As soon as someone asked Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia about the hiring of sports psychologist Ken Ravizza as a team consultant, he made it clear that it would be on a player-by-player basis.
Ravizza will be available to all, but using him is strictly voluntary.
Nobody's going to be forced onto the couch for lengthy discussions of their childhoods. And not everybody's going to be lining up for his insights into the mental game.
Veteran outfielder Torii Hunter said he doubts he'll avail himself of Ravizza's services this season, even when he's struggling.
"I never really went to a guy like that. I had aggressiveness in me already," Hunter said. "But everybody's not the same. I always say that's why we have different fingerprints all over the world. We're all different. Some, mentally, are not as strong as others.
"Some have to go to that and get confidence and build up. Over time, they'll figure out ways to build up and do it, but maybe because we've been doing it so long, we figured it out."
Imagine the looks Ravizza got when he first started working with baseball players nearly 30 years ago. Angels pitching coach Marcel Lachemann brought in Ravizza back in 1985, and he stayed with the organization for 15 years before Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon convinced him to work come work with Rays.
Ravizza, a psychology professor who works in the kinesiology department at Cal State Fullerton, is back with the Angels after a two-year stint in Tampa, in part because he got tired of flying across the country. He has found the reception in major league clubhouses has grown more hospitable over the years.
"The times have really changed," Ravizza said. "So has the culture and everything else."
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Several of the biggest agents offer their clients access to sports psychologists. Some of baseball's best players, including Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria, have worked with Ravizza. He's not trying to break down neuroses or delve into their relationships with their fathers. He keeps the focus on the players' performance and being as good as their talents will allow.
In 2004, Ravizza installed a miniature toilet in the Cal State Fullerton dugout so players could mentally flush their mistakes. The team was 15-16 before the toilet and 32-6 after. The Titans won the College World Series that year.
Baseball, it's often said, is a game of failure. The best hitters fail at least 60 percent of the time. The best pitchers still give up towering home runs. Keeping past failures from creeping into the present is what Ravizza's approach is all about.
"It's about being where you need to be when you need to be there," he said. "It's about getting to the next pitch. Confidence isn't swagger. Confidence is being prepared to win the next pitch. Swagger is overrated. You're not that crappy where you have to have swagger. Be ready for the next pitch."
Two Aprils ago, Angels reliever Jason Bulger was a 30-year-old longtime minor leaguer trying desperately to cling to what looked like a last shot at the big leagues. In limited opportunities with the Angels before 2009, Bulger had compiled a 6.35 ERA. He was struggling early in 2009 before Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher suggested he meet with Ravizza.
"There's a bit of an ego check there to go talk to somebody about the mental aspect of baseball, but I had nowhere else to go. I was at rock bottom," Bulger said. "I started talking to him and there was an immediate change. Things took a turn for the better."
Bulger had his best season in 2009, pitching in 64 games and posting a respectable 3.56 ERA. He hasn't touched the minor leagues, other than for a rehab stint, since. He said Ravizza helped give him the tools to "reset" himself after a bad pitch, a bad hop or what he viewed as a bad call by the umpire.
Ravizza, who bears a passing resemblance to Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, was in the Angels' clubhouse earlier this spring, moving comfortably among the players, often grasping their shoulders as he spoke with them eye to eye. He also had voluntary meetings in a conference room with pitchers and position players separately.
Younger players seem more likely to seek Ravizza's help. Ravizza spent hours talking with infielder Brandon Wood, who endured a grinding first full season last year, when he batted .146 and endlessly tinkered with his swing.
"In baseball, it can help because you have to go pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat," Wood said. "You've got to squash the negative and move on to the next pitch. It can be good for almost anybody who wants to accept it."Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.