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Tuesday, August 16, 2011
McHugh: Game of Feel

By Collin McHugh

Double-A Binghamton pitcher Collin McHugh, an 18th-round pick in 2008 who hails from Atlanta, chronicles his life as a Mets minor leaguer on his personal blog, "A Day Older, A Day Wiser." He will periodically have those entries carried on ESPNNewYork.com as well.


Courtesy of Binghamton Mets
Collin McHugh


It's a battle that every baseball player fights, and one that most of us have lost from time to time. Baseball, unlike football or basketball -- but surprisingly similar to golf -- is a game of feel. The way a ball leaves your fingers, or the way a bat feels clutched both firmly and loosely in your hands at the plate. The tenuous transfer of a ball from glove to bare hand. No matter how fast you can run a 60-yard dash, how high your vertical is, or how many times you can bench 225 pounds, the “feel” of the game can be lost in the blink of an eye.

As professional baseball players, we are keenly aware of this struggle. All of us have seen someone get the “yips” -- you know, when a guy can't seem to throw the ball 50 feet without airmailing it or skipping it 37 times. Or when a guy will literally swing at anything thrown within a mile radius of home plate. Every day we set foot on the field there is a thought, crammed into the depths of our subconscious, that replays the phrase, “I hope I haven’t forgotten how to do this.” It's a fragile thing, this baseball game. So in order to preserve our abilities we have adopted strict routines and absurd rituals (superstitions if you must) to shelter us from the harrowing reality that “feel” comes and goes.

Guys will go through the same stretching routine every day. They will eat/drink the same concoction if it will get them closer to .300. Hitters will tighten their batting gloves exactly five times before heading up to the plate, where they will execute the same practice swings before every pitch. Pitchers will pick up the rosin bag on their way counterclockwise around the mound, pat it twice and toss it to their right, clean the rubber and lick their fingers, all before delivering the first warm-up pitch.

These are just examples, but you get my drift. Personally, I have a few idiosyncrasies of my own. I will only turn glove-side when receiving a ball from the third baseman. I will wipe away the trail of dirt that my foot makes in front of the rubber after each pitch. I won't ever pick up the rosin bag ... only touch it while it's resting on the ground. These started out as fidgets. After some success, though, they turned into superstitions. After enough time passed they turned into habits, which eventually bloom into routines.

Are baseball players superstitious? Yes.

But, more than anything, we are men of routine. It is our coping mechanism. Nothing is more important in the game of baseball than confidence. In a game so constructed around failure and the volatility of success, the ability to remain confident in the face of adversity is what sets players apart. I am sure the most critical catalyst to confidence is a personalized and repeatable routine. For every routine that is visible on TV or on the field -- Nomar's toe taps and glove tightening, Fidrych's antics on the rubber, Heath Bell sprinting in from the bullpen, Big Papi's spit and clap, Ichiro's Samuri-esque bat salute -- there are countless more routines that go on behind closed doors. All of which serve to keep the “feel” of this fragile game firm within our grasp.

It's a funny thing how someone can lose it so quickly. How a hitter, after 500 at-bats, can fall into an 0-for-40 slump. Or how a pitcher can throw so well for four innings and implode the following inning. Most of us have been playing this game since we were about 5 years old. Thousands upon thousands of throws, swings, grounders, pop flies. At some point you would think that muscle memory would take over, but there's a barrier to that ... us.

I can go out and throw well four or five starts in a row, then in a midweek bullpen throw a few pitches that “just don't feel right.” After making a few small adjustments, something else begins to feel a little askew. No worries, I can just make another adjustment and be fine. After 50 pitches I can make so many minor adjustments that I begin to feel lost in my mechanics. Focusing on when my hands are breaking, how high my leg is going, where my foot is landing. My muscles want to take over and do what they know how to do, but my mind won't let them. It's a slippery slope, and a self-induced one at that.

To eliminate the possibility of falling into that abyss, I have a bullpen routine. Thirty-two pitches -- good, bad or indifferent. No more, no less. It's enough to feel comfortable on the mound again, but not enough to let me confuse myself. Hitters are the same way. Batting practice is four rounds with a certain amount of swings per round. If it's a bad round, it isn't enough to frustrate you too much. If all the rounds are bad, then you just get to come back and do it all over again tomorrow.

Setting limits on our routines protects us from ourselves, which in turn produces positive results more often. It's inevitable that “feel” will come and go. As ballplayers, we can only hope that our routines will see it stay longer than it’s gone.

Click here to visit Collin McHugh's blog