Last summer I watched Jake Arrieta no-hit the Dodgers, and it was awesome. But it wasn’t as exciting as Carlos Zambrano’s no-no seven years prior. That one had all the drama going for it: an emotionally erratic hurler with control issues, coming off extended rest, aiming to snap a 36-year dry spell by Cubs pitching. It was seriously thrilling because no one saw it coming. Even pre-anger management, pre-fake retirement Zambrano made it hard for fans to believe, best stuff and all, he could keep it that together for an entire outing. The Cy Young-destined Jake Arrieta of August 2015, however? Totally believable. It was extraordinary, certainly, but simply not as punch-you-in-the-gut exciting.
That night, like so many others, Arrieta inspired confidence rather than anxiety. In addition to his velocity and control, he has presence on the mound. Call it focus, demeanor, mindset, mentality… Arrieta is just lousy with intangibles. As a product of the Epstein era, this should not be surprising. One of Epstein’s first calls was to eat $15 million to unload the clubhouse cancer Zambrano had become. He was starting fresh to create something different on the North Side: a tight-knit team with a common goal and the mental fortitude to achieve it. Over the past five years, building from the farm system up, Epstein has sought out winners among performers. Now, on the path to achieving that ultimate World Series goal, he appears to be taking a “no stone unturned” approach with his players.
Epstein believes finding an edge lies beyond statistics: ‘‘I think the real competitive advantage now is in player development—understanding that your young players are human beings… Understanding them physically, fundamentally, and mentally—investing in them as people—and helping them progress. And there’s no stat for that.’’ The Cubs president has a history of emphasizing the softer side of a winning formula. Recalling his former Boston team’s remarkable ALCS win and subsequent World Series title, he mused: “The biggest thing, I thought, in ’04 was we came back because the guys in our clubhouse cared more about the other 24 guys than their own interest.”
Manager Joe Maddon shares the belief that mental wellbeing is a crucial piece of the winning puzzle. An outdated brand of machismo may scoff at team psychologists and mental skills trainers, but Maddon disagrees: “People see it as being a weakness…That’s the furthest thing from the truth. To me, it’s just another coach, another skill… I’m a big believer. That’s another one of those little edges you’re looking for in an attempt to win.”
The nebulous constructs of team chemistry and mental intangibles are impossible to measure, but may be the advantage, the spark, that sets this 2016 Cubs team apart. Epstein and Maddon, with their team-first attitude and emphasis on mental conditioning, are leading a new era of professional baseball that is destigmatizing psychology and bringing the whole person into focus. This spring training will be about more than delivery mechanics and swing scrutinization. Management will be looking for centered, focused individuals who are developing a routine, buying in to the Cub mindset, and ready to do battle.
Putting together a mentally strong roster is no easy task. The analytics just are not there, at least publicly, to aid decision-making in this area. Sabermetrics currently has no way to quantify the emotional, mental, or personal characteristics that contribute to winning, but that won’t stop them from trying. Recent SABR conferences have included panels on how to begin standardizing the discussion of intangibles. One day it may be possible to incorporate psychological variables into analytic measures of performance. I’m personally looking forward to a psychosabermetric of COOL (Calmness Over Opportunities to Lose it), for example. Big Z would have struggled with that one.
For now, though, front offices are relying on the personality testing techniques that began in the 1970s, screening prospects for the attitudinal and emotional traits they believe contribute to winning. These classroom self-evaluations cannot possibly account for the pressure the most talented athletes will one day face on the field. The father of applied sports psychology, Bruce Ogilvie, explained that in professional sports, “When the athlete’s ego is deeply invested in sports achievement, very few of the [psychological] protective mechanisms provide adequate or sustaining cover… Under such intense pressure, with threats from so many different directions, personality flaws manifest themselves quickly.”1 It stands to reason that even the most resilient personality profile on paper may need significant mental support along the way.
Attempting to understand and predict player minds and team behaviors is clearly in its infancy. With only 73 wins and finishing 17 games back, the Cubs definitely had more problems than chemistry in, for example, 2014. It appears Epstein decided not to let an inability to quantify or even define every issue stop him from addressing them. Heading into 2015, Epstein responded in part by rolling out a new feature: the system-wide Mental Skills Program, headed by mental conditioning expert, Josh Lifrak. Last October, Lifrak spoke about his role within the organization and philosophy for winning, and he was pretty outstanding.
Overseeing the mindset training of roughly 300 players, Lifrak and his team are striving to develop human beings, teaching practices that produce wins on the field and in life. Comparing the mental toughness they need to that of golfers and MMA fighters, his aim is to help players successfully navigate the grinding start-stop-wait format of baseball and the intense focus and concentration required when action arrives. With so much time spent in their own minds during a game, Lifrak utilizes a chalkboard analogy to help players learn to mentally get clean:
“…if you erase that chalkboard, and you get that nice and clean, then you can write whatever you want to write in there. And if you know what to write, if you know what to focus on, then you can write it clearly, boldly, loudly, and then people can see it and understand it.”
Lifrak’s multifaceted procedure for achieving a clear mind includes meditation, mindfulness practice, and establishing a consistent routine that works. South Bend minor leaguer Charcer Burks has publicly expressed gratitude for how this mental conditioning has improved his performance over their grinding schedule. From what we know of Jake Arrieta last season, and the mental clarity and routine he was able to achieve, he must have been one of Lifrak’s star pupils.
As much as the Mental Skills Program is focusing on the individual minds they are trying to develop, an equally important duty responds to that problem of team chemistry. They are establishing a new culture based on hard work, mutual support, and a positive outlook. Basically, heart. It’s a winning mindset with a mantra that transcends clubhouse differences: “That’s Cub.” According to Lifrak, in their practice it’s actually, “That’s C.U.B.”:
“…it’s really about three factors: Courage, the courage to do things at the right time and the right place. Urgency, having the urgency to want to get better right now…and then the Belief, the belief to do things the right way, the belief in yourself, the belief in your teammates, the belief in your coaching staff, the belief in your training… C.U.B. It’s Cub. So we say it all over the place, ‘that’s cub, that’s cub, that’s cub.’ You’ll hear it all over our organization. And that’s what we believe in. The Courage to do things the right way, the Urgency to do it right now, and the Belief that we’re going to get it done.”
Inspiring stuff to be sure, but it pales in comparison to Lifrak’s discussion of his ultimate goal:
“Big pile on the mound at Wrigley Field…Win the World Series. That’s all of our dreams right now. That’s it. That’s the pinnacle for us right now. Once I get there and I jump on that pile, and drink the champagne and all that good stuff, and stay up for three straight days, then I’ll set another one. But right now, that’s it… It’s not scary, though, it’s exciting. But it keeps me up at night. It keeps me up because I’m constantly, ‘how can we do it, how can we do it, how can we help, how can we help, how can we help?’ It keeps me up at night, but it’s not scary, it’s exciting.”
Putting him in charge of convincing a diverse group to unite in this dream and, more importantly, all the work needed to make it a reality seems to be another stellar personnel move from Theo Epstein. Just listening to Lifrak’s thirty minute podcast made me want to strengthen my own mindset and take on the world.
There is an edge to be found here. It can’t be measured, but it can be seen. Mental conditioning underlies confidence at the plate, clarity in the field, awareness on the bases, and focus on the mound. It fuels locker room antics and dugout harmony. Sure, so would a lot of winning. But it’s only logical that such a holistic, mind-body approach to team preparation makes winning that much easier. Committing resources to mental skills may be a faith-based endeavor, but you don’t need stats to know this can only help the club. No stone unturned.
As for excitement, I’m fine without it. I like focus and consistency. I like performance as predicted. I like unbroken bats, unmolested gatorade dispensers, and unbitten fingernails. This season I’m looking to be downright bored by Arrieta. Boredom is the luxury of winners. Let’s stay in the moment, clear the chalkboard, and save all the drama for that big pile.
1Mike Stadler, The Psychology of Baseball: Inside the Mental Game of the Major League Player (New York: Gotham Books, 2007), 124-125.
Lead photo courtesy Jayne Kamin-Oncea—USA Today Sports.