A few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Drew.
Me: What should I write my next blog post about?
Drew: The Yips.
Me: OK … that’s actually a really great …
Drew: What should I do for dinner?
Me: … idea because The Yips is a really interesting thing.
Drew: OK but seriously what should I do for dinner.
And now here we are.
The Yips is this ambiguous, hard to explain thing that we generally talk about in the context of sports. It’s a psychological phenomenon that makes it almost impossible to do something that is supposed to be mundane, like throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball. Every throw is wild. Every shot is off. It’s a mental block. And there are so many examples of this throughout the history of professional sports. In most cases it’s incredibly sad and depressing, but it’s also fascinating.
The interaction between the brain and the body and the psychology of it all is just really interesting. It’s not just the Yips – I’m talking ’bout optical and auditory illusions, the autonomic nervous system, the placebo effect, the frikkin’ McGurk Effect!* Things are not always as they seem. Our brain is a jerk sometimes.
*Take a three minute time-out and watch that video! Watch it!
The Yips goes by a number of different names – freezing, whiskey fingers, the jerks, and my favorite, the waggles. Athletes also call it by different names. In darts, it’s dartitis. In gun shooting, it’s flinching. In archery, target panic.
Let’s look at four examples in baseball because that’s what I know best.
Steve Blass. Blass pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 60s and early 70s, and for much of his career he was a very effective starter and even a World Series hero. In 1971, he pitched a complete game and earned the win for the Pirates in Game 7. Everything was going swell.
And then 1973 happened. Blass suddenly and inexplicably lost control. In 88 innings, he walked 84, struck out 27, and had a ridiculous 9.85 ERA. His WAR that year was negative 4, which still stands as the worst single-season WAR for a pitcher. He retired in 1974.
Blass’s condition was so public and so scrutinized that from there on, any inexplicable loss of control was known as Steve Blass Disease. In 1974, Roger Angell wrote a long essay in The New Yorker about Blass’s condition. In a wonderful example of hyperbole, it is called by some “the best piece that anyone has ever written about baseball or any other sport.”
Blass is still alive and to this day talks openly about it.
“I had no control over it, nor did I understand it. I would sit in my backyard 2…3…4 o’clock in the morning thinking, ‘My God, what’s happened to me? What is this? Has someone put a curse on me or something?” – Steve Blass, 2012 on This American Life
Rick Ankiel. In Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, Rick Ankiel threw five – five! – wild pitches in one inning against the Atlanta Braves. This doesn’t happen to major league pitchers. And it wasn’t just normal wildness. It was all mental. The video is still tough to watch.
You’d think this was enough to shut Ankiel down for awhile … except manager Tony La Russa threw him out there a few days later in the NLCS. He threw twenty pitches. Five of them sailed to the wall behind home plate. Two were wild pitches.
You’d think that was enough to shut Ankiel down for awhile … but then in a last-ditch effort to fix Ankiel, La Russa brought him in to pitch the seventh inning of Game Five. He faced four batters, walked two, and threw two more wild pitches.
In that postseason, on the biggest stage, he pitched four innings and threw nine wild pitches. And that was the end of Ankiel’s pitching career.
Of course, this story has a happy ending. Ankiel spent some time in the minors, re-made himself as a hitter and an excellent outfielder, and went on to have a productive career in the later half of the 2000s.
Here’s how Will Leitch described Ankiel: It was a great baseball life, well lived. We should all be honored we got to watch it. It’s a reminder of just how unpredictable this game is, and how wonderful it is for it.
Chuck Knoblauch. Let’s break down Chuck Knoblauch’s life into three stages.
STAGE ONE: ROOKIE OF THE YEAR, WORLD SERIES CHAMPION, EVERYTHING IS AWESOME
Knoblauch debuted in 1991 – a great year to debut, if you ask me – and he was excellent. He won Rookie of the Year and hit over .300 in the playoffs and helped the Minnesota Twins win the World Series.
His 1996 season was one of the best ever for a second baseman. He hit .341 with a 143 OPS+, 45 stolen bases, and an 8.6 WAR.
Then he came to the Yankees in 1998, played on one of the greatest teams ever, and won the World Series again.
STAGE TWO: THE YIPS
At some point in 1999, Knoblauch forgot how to throw a baseball. His throws to first base became more and more erratic, and it was painful to watch because they were coming from second base, which is the shortest throw of any position.
One throw hilariously nailed Keith Olbermann’s mom in the head.
Olbermann: Her face is a little puffy and she expects a shiner. Her eyeglasses were broken, as was her confidence in Knoblauch.
And then this happened on June 15, 2000:
Top 3rd: Ray Durham reaches on E4 (throw to 1B)
Top 5th: Carlos Lee reaches on E4 (throw to 1B)
Top 6th: Frank Thomas advances to second on E4 (throw to 1B)
Top 7th: Wilson Delgado replaces Chuck Knoblauch playing 2B
Knoblauch never played second base again following that season.
STAGE THREE: A HORRIBLE PERSON
Knoblauch retired in 2002 and went on to lead a terrible life.
In 2007, he was named in the Mitchell Report for taking extensive performance enhancing drugs throughout his career. This was the least of his problems.
In 2010, he pled guilty to misdemeanor assault after choking a family member.
Last August, he was arrested again for domestic violence.
And, from time to time, he’ll go on long, odd Twitter rants.
Chuck Knoblauch is a guy that does not seem happy with the world.
Mackey Sasser. Of all the weird, unexplainable, yippiness we’ve seen throughout the history of baseball, I think this is the most interesting.
Sasser was a catcher on the Mets. He was a pretty good player – he hit .307 one year, he hit with some power, he played good defense. And then, some time around 1990, he started hesitating when throwing the ball back to the pitcher. He would double clutch, or triple clutch, or quadruple clutch, until he was finally able to throw the ball back.
It was such an obvious thing. Announcers discussed it at length. Pitchers got frustrated. Opposing fans started harassing him. Earlier this year, ESPN made a short 30-for-30 on Sasser, and it’s one of the most interesting videos I’ve ever watched.
How does that happen? How does a professional major league catcher forget how to throw the ball back to the pitcher? This is the essence of the Yips – it is so mental, so psychological, so wild that it can happen to anyone, at any level.
I don’t think I have a point to make here. I guess, just don’t be a professional athlete if you think you’ll have the Yips. And maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. And meditate. Just don’t think about stuff.