Starting pitcher turned mental skills coach Bob “Tewks” Tewksbury authored Ninety Percent Mental, which hits bookstores on March 20. Peppered with stories from his starts over his career and conversations he has had with players, the memoir details his life as a Major Leaguer, what it took for him to get to and stick in The Show, and how after retirement he became part of MLB’s growing movement towards focusing on the mental side of the game. If the title sounds familiar it is an homage back to Yogi Berra who said “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.” We can debate the math. We can debate how important mental coaching is in today’s game.
Tewks managed to carve out a career as a starting pitcher that spanned a dozen years with six different ball clubs that included an All Star appearance. What Tewks lacked in velocity (his fastball was in the mid to upper 80s — low 80s after an elbow and shoulder injury) he made up for in pinpoint control, and his walks-per-nine-innings rate of 1.45 (minimum 1500 innings) puts him at #1 on MLB’s all-time list of starting pitchers since the dead-ball era. Success didn’t come easy for him, even after firmly planting himself in his club’s starting rotation. He constantly fought the inner demons of self-confidence, and he found a way to plow forward on his own during a time when sports psychology was in its infancy and there was no one he could turn to for help. Always interested in how the mind worked, Tewks was naturally drawn to the self-help section of his local bookstores, where he read about guided imagery and positive self-talk. He used these skills throughout his playing career, becoming his own amateur psychologist and counselor.
“Anyone can pitch with a 93 mile per hour fastball,” John Tudor once said about Tewksbury. “It takes courage to pitch throwing 84.”
After the 1998 season, Tewks decided to retire from baseball. Over a lunch that winter with his wife and Red Sox general manager at the time Dan Duquette, he happened to mention that he felt there was a need for players, especially minor leaguers, to have some sort of mentor. He was hired as a pitching consultant and worked with Boston’s Double-A and Triple-A teams, where he encouraged players to strengthen their mental skills along with their physical selves and their baseball fundamentals. Several years into this gig, a player at the Triple-A level in Rhode Island confided in him that he was using cocaine and asked for help, and stated he did not want to share this with his team. Tewks honored his request of keeping this matter private, reached out to the MLB Players Association, and after the minor league gamed ended that evening, drove him through the night to an 8 am appointment in New York the following morning, and then had him back with his ball club before batting practice that afternoon. Up until that point, Tewks had felt confident in his ability to work with players using his personal experience as a pitcher and what he had taught himself with those self-help books. This experience, however, encouraged him to return to school. He enrolled at Boston University and graduated with honors in 2004 with a masters in sports psychology and counseling, and he became a mental skills coach with the Red Sox.
Brian Sabean, executive vice president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, said “Tewks has a lot to be proud of. He’s blazed a trail, being an ex-player and going out later in life age wise to go back to school and take a completely different path. Baseball, to me, was the last sport to really embrace the mental skills side, and Boston was one of the first to do it. He was one of the first.”
Tewks has indeed been a trailblazer in helping baseball realize there is more to playing than just the physical and fundamental aspects of the game. You can have all the raw talent and natural ability in the world, but if you don’t believe in yourself, none of that matters. Mental skills has been slow to develop in the game for several reasons. There is the old school stigma attached to the idea of discussing this with anyone. Men, in order to be men, needed to be strong and not ask for help. There was also the question of how to address this aspect of the game.
When someone is slumping at the plate or struggling with fielding, there’s an easy solution. Take extra batting practice or extra grounders in the field to improve your mechanics. Watch film to see what you’re doing wrong, and go out and correct it. For the mental game, however, there are no clear-cut answers, and every player is different. Just like there is no one size fits all style for managers or coaches, the same is true for mentally managing the game. Each player will respond differently to ideas and tactics, and it’s important for the mental skills coach to help the player find what works for him. Trust, and buying into the process, are fundamental to this working. If a player doesn’t believe that visualizing how he will pitch to the opposing team’s lineup will help him, then going through the process is a pointless exercise. Tewks, and the other mental skills coaches throughout baseball, work on getting to know the players and building relationships with them, so when the players are ready to work on the mental side of their game, they’re already feeling more comfortable and confident that it will help.
This second career has been a natural fit for Tewks. Joe Torre, who managed Tewks with the St. Louis Cardinals, said this about his former pitcher and how important his role as a mental skills coach is to the game: “First of all, Tewksie is a very caring individual. He’s cerebral, he’s an artist type, he does sketching and stuff. He wants to know why. He’s got some thoughts on how to prepare, and all that stuff. So really, it didn’t surprise me. In fact, I was happy to see him in that capacity because when you leave this game, it leaves such a void. Especially if you did well, and now, all of a sudden, you’re going to go work in a job completely separate. It’s not that easy. The lifestyle in our game is unlike pretty much anything you do for a living. It’s a sport, but it’s more a game of life because you play it so often and so long. It doesn’t possess the highs and lows of football, basketball, hockey, where you play two or three times a week, or once a week. You play ‘em every day.”
Torre highlights how the daily grind of baseball is uniquely different from the requirements of other sports, which makes addressing the mental side of the game that much more important. Add to that the sudden change of young athletes going from being the best guy on any team they’ve ever played on to being only mediocre as they compare themselves to their minor league teammates that they will have to simultaneously play with and compete against in hopes of one day earning a spot on a major league team, and you have a recipe for anxiety and depression that can lead to top prospects failing to pan out and bigger issues such as substance abuse. Many teams are also expanding their focus on this side of the game, going beyond mentally handling the rigors and stresses of on-field activity to things that happen outside of the game as well. Players don’t operate in a black box. They’re friends, sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands, and those roles come with additional demands which will affect their performance on the field. Helping players cope with big picture items, such as balancing being an athlete while also being a husband and father, and financially managing millions of dollars for lucky big leaguers, or simply how to make the next car payment for low level minor league guys, and how to do basic things like manage an apartment for the young guys who are international players that travel to the states without their families, can help improve their focus and concentration on the field, which in turn will elevate their play. In a game where the smallest percentage points can mean the different between grounding into a double play and hitting an RBI double, teams are willing to try new things in order to give their club even the slightest the advantage.
Interestingly, in today’s baseball world that is so heavily driven by analytics, this book to me highlighted how important scouting remains to the game. Scouts crisscrossing the county looking for the next great player do more than watch how the athletes play. They talk to coaches, teachers, and family members to get an idea of how they handle stress and adversity. It’s easy to be great on the field with you’re the best player out there, but how do those skills hold up when things get a little dicey? Black and white numbers can’t paint the whole picture. Players are human beings with lives off of the diamond and potential demons in their heads. The difference between a failed prospect and the next generation’s MVP isn’t in who has fewer non-baseball issues or a quieter devil sitting on their shoulder spewing negative talk, it’s in who can handle all those issues better. That’s where mental skills coaches like Tewks come into play, as they help give players tools they need to manage this aspect of the game, just like strength and conditioning coaches help guide workouts and nutritionists help with meal planning.
For Washington Nationals fans, there were references to Dave Martinez when he played for the Montreal Expos as the lead-off man and Tewks had to face him in a crucial game and referred to him as “a tough combination of power and speed and didn’t strike out often”. This part of the book was a key part of Tewksbury’s career during a call-up to the big leagues which he was told by his manager could be a short stay if he didn’t perform. Spoiler alert, Davey touched him up for a two-run home run, but Tewks still got the win and stayed in the majors. There was also a part about going for the perfect game that Tewks could relate to Max Scherzer most recently against the Pirates where a hit-by-pitch spoiled perfection. There are other references as well as tributes to players of all eras and especially people who shaped who he became as a player and a person. There is also some personal wisdom that we can add to this. When John Lannan hung up his spikes, he went back to school and is working towards becoming a life coach. Lannan told us that he cannot call himself a “mental skills coach” without at least a master’s degree in this field which Tewksbury has achieved.
Tewksbury believes in mental preparedness and visual imagery and in the toughest situations just “breathe”. We can equate so much of the pressure of the game and simply breathing to Nationals players who have wilted in the most stressful situations where they could not control the situation. Recently Tanner Roark said he was over-thinking on the mound while Gio Gonzalez is often seen talking to himself and many times seems agitated. There were the days of Drew Storen looking like his heart was going to pound out of his chest. How much of a difference could Bob Tewksbury have made in their careers?
“For every skeptic there will be ten Jon Lesters and Andrew Millers,” Tewksbury writes. “Quietly applying their mental skills in the hours leading up to a game and then dominating during it. The imagery will become sharper and sharper, the self-talk more and more positive and one day soon as it all happens even the ornery Little Man was standing applaud.”
Ninety Percent Mental is a good, engaging read that should appeal to anyone who has interests beyond the black and white numbers behind the heavy analytics of the current baseball world. It shows how a game, steeped in tradition, has modernized itself to maximize player potential and improve return. It also helps continue to erase some of the stigma surrounding improving mental skills and reaching out and asking for help, because even superstars like Jon Lester and Andrew Miller need a little assistance every now and then.