Commentary

Mental mistakes a real drag on the game

Players forgetting how many outs, getting picked off bases … the list goes on and on

Originally Published: April 30, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The Milwaukee Brewers' Mat Gamel singled to center field, but in his glee about getting another hit, he didn't notice that Minnesota Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez had missed the cutoff man on the throw to third base. Gomez's mistake should have placed runners at second and third, but Gamel's mistake kept the double play in order. After the inning, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire met Gomez in the dugout to explain his mistake. In the other dugout, Brewers manager Ken Macha met Gamel to explain his mistake. Dueling lectures in opposite dugouts. And, the worst part is, neither player likely had any idea he had done something wrong.

[+] EnlargeLance Berkman & Nyjer Morgan
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarGetting picked off first base is one of the many mental mistakes that seem to occur on an almost daily basis in today's game.

That took place on May 22, 2009, but it could have been almost any game, on any almost night, involving any number of young players. Mistakes in today's game are as common as 4-3 ground outs, and they're not always accompanied by consequence. It is the frequent refrain of veteran managers and instructors every day: Young players today are bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than ever, but some of them, if not a majority, don't know how to play the game.

Never was that more clear than Saturday, a day that normally would have set the game back 20 years, but sadly, that day has happened many times in the past 20 years. Here's what the Cincinnati Reds did: In the bottom of the third inning, pitcher Johnny Cueto, who was on first base, thought the third out had been made at first base, so he jogged around second and was tagged out halfway to third. In the next inning, baserunner Brandon Phillips was caught leaning off first by San Diego Padres pitcher Wade LeBlanc. The next inning, the same thing happened to the Reds' Jonny Gomes. The next inning, Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs forgot how many outs there were, and, after catching a fly ball for the second out of the sixth inning, threw the ball into the stands. Four straight innings, four mental errors. After the game, Dusty Baker, the Reds' old-school manager, closed the clubhouse door and screamed at his team.

Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox should have done the same that day in New York. In the fifth inning of their game against the New York Mets, the Braves had runners at second and third with one out in the fifth inning. Keep in mind, the Braves were (and are) having trouble scoring runs, so every base mattered to them. Troy Glaus hit a fly ball to deep right field. The runner on third, Yunel Escobar, forgot how many outs there were and ran home. Then, three-quarters of his way to the plate, he realized his error, and ran back to third. By then, Martin Prado, the runner at second was almost at third. He was tagged out for a double play, no run scored. All this happened on Chipper Jones' 38th birthday when all he wanted for his birthday was for Escobar, a great talent, to play the game properly for nine innings.

"Kids today aren't afraid because they don't take responsibility for their mistakes anymore,'' said Rangers manager Ron Washington. "I see that in the game every single day.''

Why is this happening? Granted, baseball is the hardest game in the world to play, so we can forgive 0-for-20 slumps, pitchers that miss location and rocket ground balls that aren't caught. But with so many gifted players, mental mistakes are inexcusable. Why are there so many?

The potential reasons are many. First, we are overcoaching our players from T-ball to the major leagues. God bless all amateur coaches for the time they spend with our kids, but our young players lack creativity and don't develop essential instincts for the game if they're being told how to do everything as soon as they put a glove on their hand. Many teenage kids have their own hitting or pitching coach, which is great, but the coach can't be there on the pitcher's mound or in the batter's box when it really counts.

Consequently, some of our young players become practice players, robotic in the mechanics of their pitching deliveries or their swings. They spend hours in the batting cages developing a beautiful hack and hours on the mound refining their exquisite motion, but sometimes at the expense of learning base-running and defense and all the intangibles that make a great all-around player. One scout said he could fill a 50,000-seat stadium with young pitchers in America that throw 95 mph, but he has trouble finding young pitchers that have a plus breaking ball and a good feel for pitching. When left-hander Brien Taylor, the No. 1 pick in the draft in 1990, reported to the New York Yankees for his first spring training as a professional player, he did not know how to make the pickoff throw to second base using the inside move. That would be like LeBron James signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and not being able to shoot a reverse layup with his left hand.

The desire by teams to win and make money, and to justify huge investments in young players, is also at the root of the problem. When a player is a high draft pick, the organization might rush that kid to the major leagues ahead of his time because of what they paid him to sign. There was once a day when a player needed 2,000 at-bats or 500 innings in the minor leagues before being brought to the major leagues. Now they are arriving much quicker. Owners have been increasingly impatient. They want to bring that kid to the big leagues -- see the Reds' Aroldis Chapman -- in order to win sooner and sell tickets.

Ron Washington Kids today aren't afraid because they don't take responsibility for their mistakes anymore. I see that in the game every single day.

-- Rangers manager Ron Washington

The money has changed everything. When a player signs that first big contract, say for $5 million a year, he thinks he's a good player because he makes $5 million a year. When, in reality, sometimes he is a player with great ability and talent, but doesn't understand the subtleties of the game needed to be a great player. Once a player is guaranteed $60 million over five years, maybe he starts to think that, given the financial security, he doesn't have to try as hard to improve. With money comes a sense of entitlement, something too many young guys have today. It is partly the fault of the baseball system for giving a player the money, and then not demanding more of that player.

To be fair, this doesn't include all young players. Meet David Wright, Justin Verlander, Gordon Beckham, Evan Longoria, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg and many others, and you realize immediately these guys get it. And when you get it at an early age, you always have it. But too many of our young players don't get it, and will never get it.

How else can you explain that several years ago, the starting catcher on a major league team asked his manager 90 minutes before a game, "Who is pitching tonight?'' The manager said, incredulously, "Clemens.'' And the catcher said, "No, who is pitching for us?'' How can you explain another starting catcher in the major leagues who -- I am not making this up -- when told by his manager to make sure the pitcher worked from the stretch with the bases loaded, asked, "Is that when one shoulder is facing me, or two?''

When pitcher Daniel Cabrera took ground balls during a drill in his first major league camp, he attempted to catch a grounder with his glove down -- smothering the ball -- instead of his glove open and up? How can that happen?

How also can a manager put a squeeze play on, but before the play happened the other team changed pitchers. On the first pitch the new pitcher threw, the baserunner on third base ran home and was tagged out because the pitcher threw a ball way outside of the strike zone attempting to intentionally walk the batter. The baserunner's excuse was that the squeeze sign wasn't taken off. What?

Two years ago, in a playoff game, a catcher and pitcher changed the sign during a visit to the mound in the sixth inning. We knew the sign was changed because the catcher never put a sign down when he went back behind the plate. And yet, no infielder ran to the mound and asked what pitch might be coming … in a critical spot in a playoff game! In every game Cal Ripken ever played in the major leagues, in every game that Ryne Sandberg ever played, they knew what pitch was coming, and the location of the pitch. And every pitch, Sandberg would signal to the first baseman what pitch was coming, and what location. Middle infielders today across the major leagues aren't always sure what is coming, and what location. Why not? Because some of them are so quick and so skilled, they think they're going to get to that ball over the second-base bag anyway, they don't need to cheat a step. But sometimes, they don't get to that ball, and it costs their team a run, and a game.

This is what you hear every day in every stop you make in every clubhouse. Maybe they are a bunch of older players and coaches and managers who are jealous of the money and the fame given to today's young players. Maybe they are a bunch of old guys who are angry that today's young players don't have to put in the same time or the same effort to play -- and to thrive -- in the major leagues. Maybe that's true. But when you watch games like Saturday's in Cincinnati and New York, and you see talented players making mistakes that fifth graders shouldn't make, it makes you wonder. And, at times, it makes you worry.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.