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Free Your Mind And The Rest Will Follow

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Baseball is played by athletes (stop your John Kruk jokes right now!), by men's men who are tough enough to withstand the rigors of the daily grind of a 162-game season.  The game represents a unique physical challenge, yet it is becoming more and more En Vogue to embrace the mental aspect too.

Chad Billingsley has struggled off and on for the last two and a half months, not matching the form of his first two and a half months:

Dates GS IP W-L BB/9 K/9 ERA WHIP FIP
Through June 14     14 92.2 9-3 3.79 9.03 2.72 1.230 2.86
June 19 - present 13 74.0 3-5 3.89 6.93 5.23 1.365 4.45

As Dylan Hernandez noted in today's LA Times, Billingsley's problems are more mental than physical right now:

The problem has become psychological, Billingsley acknowledged, as he said he has often found himself trying to do too much on the mound.

Manager Joe Torre said that Billingsley's words matched his own observations.

"You really can't pay a lot of attention to it, because the more you think about something like that, the worse it gets," Torre said. "I'm speaking from personal experience. This is a game that's all about muscle memory and you have to just trust when you let the ball go."

This isn't quite Tony Soprano seeing Dr. Melfi, but it is an important recognition of the mental side of the game.  In Moneyball, Michael Lewis wrote how Billy Beane as a player marveled at the mental approach of Lenny Dykstra:

The point about Lenny, at least to Billy, was clear:  Lenny didn't let his mind screw him up.  the physical gifts required to play pro ball were, in some ways, less extraordinary than the mental ones.  Only a psychological freak could approach a 100-mph fastball aimed not all that far from his head with total confidence.  "Lenny was so perfectly designed, emotionally, to play the game of baseball," said Billy.  "He was able to instantly forget any failure and draw strength from every success.  He had no concept of failure.  And he had no idea of where he was.  And I was the opposite."

The less one thinks about the game, the better.  I remember hearing Tony Gwynn talking about stealing signs, saying that he never wanted to know what pitch was coming because it would screw him up; Gwynn was much better off letting his reaction to the pitch drive his action at the plate.

 

Billingsley is not the only Dodger struggling of late.  Hernandez also wrote about James Loney, who homered for the second time in three games last night.

The formula is simple: Think less.

"I just react," [Loney] said.

...

Loney has been working with hitting coach Don Mattingly on mechanical adjustments, but said he leaves the thinking in the batting cages and tries to rely on muscle memory once the game starts.

In The Fan, a truly awful baseball movie (how many games have you ever seen played in a monsoon?), Bobby Rayburn (the character played by Wesley Snipes) started hitting well for the Giants when he stopped caring.  Then again, that led to a crazed fan kidnapping his son so perhaps that tactic is a bit extreme.

In the case of Loney, whatever he feels most comfortable doing is fine by me.  He still has the weird home/road splits on the season, having hit all nine of his home runs on the road so far this season.  Over his last 30 road games, Loney has seven home runs and is hitting .294/.354/.504.

Since II broke down Andre Ethier's splits last week, I thought it might be instructive to do the same for Loney:

Situation PA HR BA/OBP/SLG OPS BABIP
vs RHP at home 196 0 .247/.321/.322 .643 .281
vs RHP on road 213 5 .285/.352/.409 .751 .287
vs LHP at home 57 0 .220/.298/.260 .558 .256
vs LHP on road 57 4 .400/.474/.700 1.174 .432
Season Totals 523 9 .276/.348/.392 .740 .295

Those numbers against lefties on the road really stand out, don't they?  That .432 batting average on balls in play suggest quite a bit of luck is involved, but its still quite a spike in performance.  Over his career, in 207 plate appearances against lefties on the road, Loney is hitting .353/.401/.558 with a .378 BABIP.

Today's starter for the Reds is Matt Maloney, who will be recalled from Triple A Louisville to make the start against the Dodgers.  He throws left-handed.  Don't think, James.  Keep that mind clear, and good things will follow.