The psychology of baseball players – McCovey Chronicles

Players think about baseball differently than you do. It’s a hard thing to accept about being a fan, but it’s true: their mindset just isn’t the same as yours. As fans, we think about the long run. “WheRE are they drafting next year?” or “When does their window close?” or “How can I be as negative as humanly possible in order to stand out from a merely kinda negative crowd?” But for players, that’s not their primary concern. They spend their time wondering “How can I help the team today?”, which is how we get guys playing through injury.

Angel Pagan played hurt for months this year, of course. “What are you doing?” we all asked. “Stop that. Go on the DL, fix your problem, and come back healthy. You’re not helping the team with two knees that are literally made of drywall.” We were all misusing the word literally, of course, but it was in the hopes that Pagan would point that out and we could be sure he’d heard us.

It’s almost incomprehensible to fans that he wouldn’t have just gone on the DL to get healed – the team had Gregor Blanco and Nori Aoki healthy when he injured that second knee in late June, along with Justin Maxwell, who in addition to his abilities to stand upright and respire, is also a professional baseball player. They could form an outfield that, while not ideal, was serviceable for a couple of weeks until Pagan came back, rested, better, and ready to contribute.

But that’s not how baseball players think. They don’t look for reasons not to play; they look for reasons to play.

“Ah HA!” you might be shouting at your computer screen as if I can hear you. “But I never blamed Pagan! I blamed Bochy!” Yes, you did, and bully for you. And it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Bochy and Evans and the organization did the right thing here, but presumably they had their own reasons which were something like this: the options to replace Pagan in AAA were bad, they thought he would heal without DL time, he said he felt okay, putting him on the DL when he didn’t want to go would be bad in the clubhouse, and his knees were actually demons and the only way to hurt them was to keep running on them in baseball games, so Pagan would go “Ow, ow” but the demons would go “OWWW, OWWWW.”

With hindsight, and foresight, and at the time with just regular ol’ sight, those reasons seemed to not be good enough. They seem that way now too. But from the players’ perspective, they’re pretty much all fine. JT Snow was interviewed on KNBR yesterday, and he said this:

If you’re hurting, if you’re banged up, you gotta go out there and play

That’s how they think. You give everything you have today. You do your best today. You don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow isn’t today, and today is the day when you can do things, so you’d better do things today. Did you know that it’ll never even be tomorrow? When we get to tomorrow, it’ll suddenly be today! Time is crazy like that.

And when it comes to playing through injury, that’s a mindset that can come back to bite them. But it’s also one that gets them through the season. Because by the time September rolls around, every player has some kind of minor injury they’re working through. There is always some sort of pain, or cramp, or general malaise that affects some body part, and it’s a simple fact that to get through a long baseball year, what they have to do is just play through it.

So when you wonder why Andrew Susac was on a major league roster for most of the year even though his wrist had been acting up since spring training, that’s why. He’s always played through injury. He’s been taught that playing through injury is what you have to do to have any success at all in baseball. The same thing goes for Buster Posey playing through a fracture in his ring finger in 2013, or, sigh, Curt Schilling and the Stupid Bloody Sock That I’m Sorry I’m Making You Think About. It’s why Nori Aoki rushed back from a concussion twice this year, and why Noah Lowry threw some pitches in spring training in 2008, and why Robb Nen destroyed his arm in 2002.

This isn’t something that’s unique to the Giants either. Jason Kipnis played through a shoulder injury this year, Albert Pujols played through plantar fasciitis in 2013, and the list goes on endlessly. Jeff Sullivan even wrote about it, so I’m in good company. And I don’t think it’s because they’re jocks who just want to jock it up jockularly. It’s because they push themselves. They have to push themselves, because that’s how they made themselves into major league players. They don’t succeed at that high of a level without constant dedication to maintaining their bodies and studying opposing players and working on their mechanics. They push themselves harder than you think possible because that’s how to impress major league coaches, and it’s how to maintain an edge.

And yes, that pushing themselves can have negative consequences in terms of injuries, but it’s also what made them who they are. And it bleeds over into other areas too: why are Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey not going to get much rest in an almost certainly lost September? Because they want to keep competing. Why is Brandon Belt playing through what seems to be an alien clawing its way out through his abdomen? Because if he were the kind of person who wouldn’t, he’d have never made it in the majors. The psychology of playing through injury and the relentless drive to be great are intertwined much closer than a lot of fans want to admit.

Baseball players want to play baseball. It’s how they define themselves, or prove themselves, or forge a legacy, or win respect from their peers, or just earn their paycheck. There is always disappointment in every year that they don’t win the World Series, and more disappointment if they don’t even make the playoffs. But each at bat, and each batter faced has meaning for them, even at the end of a season that they think should have gone better. Should Posey play every day down the stretch, wearing himself out for a lost cause? No, of course not. But if you think there’s a single person in that clubhouse who wants him to let Jackson Williams play even a third of the team’s remaining games, you’re just wrong. Buster and Angel Pagan and Nori Aoki are going to spend most of their lives not playing professional baseball. So while they’re here, they want to do as much as they can. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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