The Minnesota Twins are loaded with the latest gadgets and technology. They have the capability of measuring foot pressure into the mound, hip speed, chest speed, arm speed, arm path, release height, release speed, breakdown which fingertip touched the ball last, spin rate, spin direction, velocity and on and on.
They have a team dedicated to biomechanical science to sniff out inefficiencies. They have what amounts to a world class pitching lab to isolate the root cause of any abnormalities.
There are times, however, when a player requires more than metrics. There are times when a player needs not to be told what is wrong. They need to hear what they did right.
This past November Wes Johnson was a presenter at an ABCA pitching clinic. There, the Twins pitching coach shared a story about Berrios’ late season issues and how they addressed them.
“He was struggling a little bit,” Johnson said of Berrios. “Struggling mentally, struggling physically. I said ‘Jose that’s it, you are meeting me in the video room today at 2 and we’re gonna go over some stuff.’”
As Berrios hit a rough patch, the pitching coach took his star pitcher and showed him a supercut of all his strikeouts. No mechanical talk. No pitch selection talk. It was simply a session for Berrios to be reminded of how dominating he can be.
“It spurs the conversation,” Johnson tells the crowd about the video session. “What happened was his own perception of his own potential had fallen because he was struggling. All I did was show him was no, no, you are still pretty good. I didn’t do anything.”
Berrios returned to the mound. The loud contact subsided, the walks decreased, and the strikeouts returned. Velocity was ticking northward and he began to execute his pitches with more precision. He had improved.
And yet Wes Johnson claimed he did not do anything.
He told the coaches at the conference that in the aftermath, reporters would bombard him with questions. They wanted to know what he did with Jose Berrios to get him back on track. What was the secret?
“He just got back to who he was,” said Johnson. “Knew that he was pretty good. He watched himself execute pitches. I didn’t do anything with his delivery, I didn’t do anything with his throwing.”
Of course Johnson did something. What he is saying is that he didn’t do anything conventional. There were no changes to his weighted ball routine. No messing with his pitch arsenal. No additional pregame hours working through movements on the mound. Nothing that a pitching coach traditionally does.
It was all about the headspace.
In Trevor Moawad’s book, It Takes What It Takes, the mental skills coach detailed some accomplishments he had with some professional athletes and how they achieved those victories.
One of Moawad’s main clients is Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson. When the Seahawks went to Arizona for Super Bowl XLIX, Moawad compiled a video of Wilson’s extraordinary plays to help him prepare.
“We started by giving Russell examples of the times when he has been at his most commanding,” Moawad wrote. “As he watched, he allowed himself to relive incredible moments when he was at his best.”
The film included some of Wilson’s memorable moments in his college and professional career. It zeroed in on his posture before and after big plays. It captured the language he used on the sidelines to describe how he felt about the execution. Moawad goes further, adding that he included a song from the band The Head & The Heart that would remind Wilson that he is home in these moments.
Johnson’s film session likely didn’t include a soundtrack set to an indie folk rock band but the overall intent mirrors what the mental performance coach was trying to accomplish with Russell Wilson: remind Jose Berrios that he is an elite performer.
As we know, Wilson went out and threw the game-losing interception that Super Bowl. Berrios had more shaky outings later in the season. It’s not a magic elixir.
Studies suggest that reviewing positive imagery before competition has helped athletes elevate their game.
Researchers found that using imagery can stimulate various parts of an athletes’ brain, activating recall of a feel. By watching some performance clips the same athletes can experience those moments in great vividness. What’s more, if those images are overwhelmingly positive, such as Berrios throwing a dirty ass hook against one of the league’s better hitters, he may increase his self-confidence which can affect his future performance. He may also trigger the portion of his brain that remembers exactly how that pitch felt.
So when Wes Johnson says he did nothing for Berrios, he’s simply being modest.
It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. After all, the Twins have given him a new offseason workout routine, a new shape to his curveball, and have tried to get him to sit in his heel more again this spring. They hope they can continue to build him into the pitcher who can last throughout an entire season -- be it 162 or 60 games.
But while there are things to work on physically, sometimes it’s best to have someone in the clubhouse reminding him what he can do right.