Your place for Minnesota Twins and New Britain Rock Cats coverage, analysis and opinion.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Do the Twins Need to Hire a Sports Psychologist?

Much has been made over the past year or so of the physical injuries suffered by the Twins, especially injuries to Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Denard Span and, to a lesser extent Francisco Liriano. All of these players had a tough time staying in the lineup last season, and we are hoping for better health this year. But that might only be half the battle.

In yesterday's Spring Training game, for example, Liriano was perfect for two innings (striking out three), then imploded in the third inning, giving up four runs very quickly. "I started rushing like I always do," Liriano was quoted as saying. He also stated, "I can't get mad at myself like that."

Then there's Mauer, who hit 28 home runs in a shortened 2009 season, and who has hardly hit any since then. It's abundantly clear that the not-so-friendly confines of Target Field have gotten in his head. I can scarcely remember Mauer pulling a ball in Target Field that even looked close to becoming a home run; rather, it seems that has become a singles and doubles hitter, with the occasional home run (on the road, no less). Would this change have occurred even if the Twins had stayed in the Metrodome, or was this brought on by Target Field? Or was it some combination in between?

Finally, Span and Morneau are both recovering from concussions. The pair has been playing hard all spring, and despite the fact that Span sat out the last couple games with neck pain, there has been no indication that either is suffering from post-concussion symptoms -- right now. But you have to wonder what's going on inside their heads. We all know, because Morneau told us, that he is essentially one injury away from retiring. Span, though younger and with less of a history of concussions, has had a tough road to recovery, as well. Certainly, these players -- arguably the core of the Twins -- are thinking about more than balls, strikes, and what restaurant they're going to after the game.

As far as I can tell, the Twins do not employ a full-time sports psychologist. A computer search reveals a few websites for professional sports psychologists that have consulted with the Twins. The Twins website listing their front office personnel notes four physicians: two orthopedic surgeons, and two preventative/occupational medicine specialists. There are also two trainers and one strength and conditioning coordinator. It appears that the physicians all have their own individual practices, which is no surprise, but as far as I know, the trainers and strength coordinator are full-time Twins employees. In other words, there are seven professionals on the Twins' payroll that deal exclusively with the body, but not one that is trained in dealing with the mind.

Might it be a good idea to staff a full-time sports psychologist for this team? I can't see the harm. We have a would-be ace pitcher who is consistently inconsistent and gets too amped up, even for Spring Training games; a former MVP whose power has taken a nosedive after his team moved stadiums; and two very good players that are enduring a difficult physical and mental period. Granted, these players are all multi-millionaires, represented by premiere sports agencies, and have, at their disposal, access to first rate medical care across the globe. But just maybe, when the team is on the road, say in Kansas City, and it's two in the morning, and Morneau can't sleep because something is plaguing him, might it not be useful for the Twins to have a trained and experienced professional sports psychologist just down the hall at the team hotel? Or, think about Liriano, pitching in an important nationally televised game against the Tigers in August, with the Twins just two games back in the division. It's a situation where, if history is any indication, Liriano might be too amped up to be successful. Having someone on staff -- someone that can talk about something other that sliders, shoulders and arm angles -- seems potentially valuable to me. For all the money the Twins have spent on player payroll, and even on insurance for certain player contracts, it might be beneficial to bring a psychologist into the fold.

What do you think? As always, I'm happy to hear your thoughts.


  1. I think there is somewhat of a common theme here... let's think of the players who were characterized as "head cases" the last 3 seasons:


    What do they have in common? Pretty obvious. I think that the Twins better hire a Latino coach or 2 before they hire a Psychologist. They can afford that if they can afford Nishioka's translator...

  2. It would be a good idea for the Twins to have a sports psychologist on the staff, but as thrylos98 noted, there are some other issues to consider as well. The need for a Spanish-speaking coach is also high. I don't think it is a complete coincidence that the catcher in his first two spring appearances was Rene Rivera and this one where Liriano melts down has Mauer behind the plate. There is no doubt in my mind that a visit to the mound by his Spanish-speaking catcher helps calm him down.

    As for others who might benefit from the psychologist - maybe some of the young players who seem to have problems handling criticism could learn that life is not all about being praised for just showing up.

    1. Thanks for the comments, and I think you both raise valid points. I'm not sure how many teams have Latino coaches at the major league level, but I can't imagine that the number is very high.

      In "Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit," by former Angels prospect Matt McCarthy, he writes in pretty good detail about the cultural differences between the American players and the (just to genarlize), Spanish speaking players -- guys that have no English skills and come from a totally different culture, and are now thrown together with a bunch of Americans, essentially to live like brothers. It's a good read, and underscores your point about the need for native language speakers in the management ranks, and simply the need to communicate with people with whom you might have something in common.

  3. I was pleased to read in the Sano article at that the Twins employ a translator to teach English to the Spanish-speaking players in the minors and that Sano will live with a host family in Beloit to help him make the transition. But I have always had the feeling that when they get to the big league club, the Spanish-speaking players are somewhat left on their own. Some probably make the transition much more easily than others. I have to think that Anderson and Gardenhire have picked up some Spanish over the years -- but it would be hard to understand all the cultural differences. It would be nice to see a Latin American coach on the staff but that would be a real shake-up in the coaching staff.

    As for a Sports Psychologist, I've actually said that in my comments a number of times the last few years -- and only half-jokingly. It is going to be interesting to see what happens this year. It seems like Target Field has gotten into the heads of some of the players. Will a change in some of the personnel coupled with a (hopeful) return to health for Mauer and Morneau allow them to thrive at TF? If not, perhaps they need a sports psychologist -- and if not that, a voodoo master to remove the curse of the Spruce trees.