C.J. Wilson's routine, in his words
Rangers lefty pulls back the curtain to reveal exactly how he prepares himself to pitch
Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson prepares for a game unlike anyone else, from listening all night to audiotapes to making his own charts on batters to having a pair of lucky shorts. He studies what others do and is constantly working on improving himself mentally. If you have ever wondered what he is doing and why, here, in his own words, he reveals all his routines and what happens when he gets taken out of the routine.
When I was 12 years old I started having a routine for when I pitched. I've always had a mental process, but it was when I was 12 that I read "Heads-Up Baseball" by Ken Ravizza. For me, the mental game has always been a component of my stuff. When I had Tommy John surgery, it gave me another year and a half to dig deeper and find more elements to my nutrition, stretching and psychology. We had a guy the last couple of years that worked with us, Dr. Fran Pirozzolo. He and I came up with an audio track that I listen to the night before I pitch. Just talking about what the keys are to each pitch, like on my backdoor slider I want to think about this and on my curveball I want to think about that.
I like to call all this preparation funneling. You have a scattered thought process throughout the day just normally. You may think about things like, "Oh, is my dad going to come see me play? Do we have enough toilet paper in the bathroom?" All these things. But when you have the routine, it helps funnel all that energy and all those thoughts. The biggest thing for me is I try to stay calm. When I was a reliever, a closer, it was always about having max effort and max energy for each pitch. When you're used to being a relief pitcher like a closer and you make one mistake, the game is over. I still have that mentality but now it's for seven, eight, nine innings at a time. The level of activity and intensity is the same. I don't sit there and go, "Oh, I'm just going to pace myself." Doing that wouldn't really work very well because the hitters on the other team are trying to beat you with every swing. You can't really take a pitch off.
Where do you want me to start with my routine? My pregame routine is pretty intense. I eat the same thing every day. I try and not eat anything spicy the night before and eat a similar breakfast every day. I get dressed the same way. I write some goals down for the game. They happen to be pretty much the same goals every game. They are just like a thought process for me, like throw the ball down, sink the ball, make sure I change speeds -- stuff like that. In the locker room, I listen to the same playlist that I've been listening to for two years before I pitch. I have the same music. Everything to make it routine.
You want to save up your mental energy for the game. Like for me, I don't want to be too agitated during the day. I try not to do a bunch of stuff and take naps. I'll get up and eat breakfast and take a nap afterwards. Then I'll eat lunch and take another nap. Then I'll take a shower and then I'll go to the stadium. I just try to relax as much as possible on game day. I conserve everything that I have. Another thing we do is we have IV's. I'll do one of those. Because it's so hot in Texas obviously, you have to take extra care for that. I watch a lot of video in between starts. All that stuff kind of runs together. But you have an overall picture of the video of what the guy's swing looks like, what I'm trying to do with my delivery and all that stuff. I try and to do the same thing every time, which is throw a shutout.
In between innings, I make sure I take time to slow my breath down, close my eyes, visualize the hitters I'm going to face. Remind myself what each key is to every guy. I have a scouting report that I came up with. We have these sheets that have the batting average against every pitch on every location. So I go through those and make a little chart for myself. Then I tell myself where I'm going to throw to each guy. It's really detailed. I chart by drawing the spot where I want to throw each guy, where I want to throw the fastball to each guy, where I want to throw the breaking balls, and some notes. Some of them I make are really detailed, like where I want to go with two strikes. I get into what their batting averages are. I'm conscious of all that stuff when I'm pitching. Even in between pitches, my routine when I'm walking around the mound is the same. I wipe off the rubber the same way. I pick up the ball the same way. I look at right field and I have this whole thing. I got a lot of it from "Heads-Up Baseball" when I was a kid. I've been developing it since then.
I never ask my teammates what they think about all these things I do. I just go about my routine. I like to tuck myself off. I don't like to sit in the dugout. So I'll kind of sit in the dugout tunnel on a chair. That way I can have my own space. I'll talk in between innings sometimes if I want to talk to the catcher or the pitching coach. Like the other night, when I was pitching in the third inning, I made a joke to [catcher] Matt Treanor because we have a game called "I Got Him." Matt had been in Kansas City catching for most of the year. So I was like, "Hey, how was it catching [Zack] Greinke?" He was like, "Greinke's in Milwaukee." I was like, "Got him!" It's just like kind of a joke. So I busted that out in the third inning. I stay loose during the games.
It's funny because every pitcher is different. Cliff [Lee] was like a chatterbox. He used to sit there and talk the whole time between innings. He'd come sit down and I'd be charting the game. He'd be like, "Man, the grass is so tall out there. I'm so sweaty. This shirt, I don't like the way it fits. What's that guy doing swinging at that changeup? What an idiot." Just talking the whole time. I'm like thinking, "Is he talking the whole time?" I'm more focused on internalizing things. Personality-wise, I'm more of a drawn-in kind of person anyway. At least on the scale of baseball players compared to someone like Elvis [Andrus] or somebody like that. He's always talking and dancing and singing all the time. I guess that I take it so seriously.
Everybody's routine and style comes down to their personality, their upbringing and their experience level and who've they been around. I don't think everybody thinks the same way. I ask people what other guys do. I saw what Cliff did. I'll ask what does Jon Lester do or CC Sabathia, or what does Roy Halladay do? I ask questions like that, but then you'll have a guy like Mariano Rivera who does something different than the way somebody else does it. So everybody's different.
Unless you are similar to that guy personality-wise, you can't just adopt their routine and have it work. You just refine it over the years. Since this is your job, this is the No. 1 important thing in your life, you have to focus on it. You have guys on your team who will come up to you and make suggestions like, "Hey, maybe you shouldn't throw the water cooler if you give up a home run because you still have to finish the game and you don't want to be wasting energy." So people say stuff like that and it's like, "Oh yeah, maybe I shouldn't throw the water cooler! Now that's a good idea." Because it's a team sport you're always trying to work with other people. I'll see what Michael Young does and he's a machine. He goes out there and you expect him to hit two line drives and get two hits every night. That's just the way he is. As a pitcher, I'm trying to establish the same sort of consistency so the guys can count on me in the same way. To go out there and throw a bunch of innings, keep the score down, all that stuff.
I'm prepared if something goes wrong with the routine. I have a backup everything. I have a computer and an iPad. I have an iPhone and an iPod. So if I need my music, my playlist, I have it on everything. Nothing can go wrong with that. I can't have four devices crap out on the same day. The only thing that could really happen is if I have a particular game glove or cleats, then those can go bunk, but I still keep a spare glove. I have spare pair of shorts. I have two lucky shirts. I already have that contingency. Everything I do is to plan for the just-in-case, for the worst-case scenario. The same thing with conditioning. I condition to make it through a 40- or 50-pitch inning if I have to. You don't want to pitch like that. You want a 12-pitch inning. I just train like that, just in case.
I believe doing all this helps. Everything helps. Look at it this way: There is no such thing as throwing too hard, having too much movement, having too much control. Those are all physical tools. In the same sense, there's no such thing as being too focused. You can't be too focused. If you're focused to the nth degree then you are going to be in the moment and see that pitch and throw that pitch and hit your spots, which is really what it's all about as a pitcher. The problem that a lot of guys get into, especially young guys, is that they have great stuff and they try to do too much. They get too amped up. They start spinning too fast. It's OK to work quick, but if you start thinking too quick then you're thinking and you're not being decisive. Being decisive is the way you have to pitch. You have to say, "I'm going to throw the fastball there and then go throw it there." You can't be like, "Maybe I should do this. Oh, I think I should do that." You can't be waffling out there. You have to be surgical. At least that's the way I pitch, and that's the way I was as a reliever too. It's kind of the same thing.
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I don't ever doubt the routine, not even when I've had a bad outing. Because the routine is the routine and it's on autopilot on some level. If I have a bad game it's because I missed my spots, and if I missed my spots it's because my mechanics are off. If the mechanics are off it's either I am trying to do too much, like throw too hard or trying to make the ball break too much. I'm trying to force something out of it. Most good pitchers stay in the same delivery every time. I'll use Cliff as an example because I saw him. It was like a golf swing. He looked the same every pitch from first inning to ninth inning. Changeup was the same, fastball was the same, everything looked exactly the same. That's what you're trying to get to, I guess, even though he and I are different in the way we approach the game, the way we approach the starts, but the results that I'm going after are the same ones that he is getting. You're always trying to get 1 or 2 percent more efficient with things here and there. Eventually, after a couple of years, you hope to climb up to that level. It's not so much a competition with anybody else but yourself. You are trying to get the best out of yourself. You know that your teammates are counting on you to win. So you have to go out there and give them the best chance, because they deserve it. Everybody's working hard. OK, that last sentence was a bit blasé. Let me put it this way: I feel like you're always trying to get better -- that's really the key.
Louise Cornetta is an ESPN Radio program director and contributor to ESPNBoston.com and ESPN The Magazine.