What makes some MLB players more competitive and rise above the rest?
The few select players who rise to the level of the MLB are already at the peak of baseball, but some few will rise to even higher levels
If you are one of the roughly 900 people who will make an appearance in a Major League Baseball game this season, you are already standing at the top of the pyramid. Peak physical performance, the fabled five tools, usually with better than average eyesight, reflexes, speed, and agility, you seem to have it all.
But there is a sharper edge, even at this peak of sporting performance, of players who transcend greatness, who become somehow sublime, making poetry of their movements, gracefully gliding above the pile of already outstanding baseball talent that surrounds them.
The gap between unskilled and skilled is immense. The one between good and great is a gaping chasm. But how do you surmount the seemingly impossible expanse between great and legendary?
There is an old saying that “it ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” The key to understanding the gigantic leap between being one of the best around to becoming one of the best ever is in understanding this concept.
We’ve all known or seen players who “have that dog in them.” Players who will stop at nothing, let nothing distract them, focussed single-mindedly on their own prowess. They are often unbearable people to be around, because the traits needed to rise above greatness tend to mirror the traits possessed by sociopaths.
Think of players like Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, or Bob Gibson. Off the field and away from sports, they may have been likeable, or at least bearable. But their reputation in baseball was one of fierce competition, often sprinkled with a quality of cold ruthlessness.
Of course, it is perfectly possible, even, I would say, typical, that a fierce competitor is also a nice guy. But that edge, that sharpness that they need to push them over the top carries with it a grain of distaste when it comes to social niceties.
And on the same note, it is worth saying that not everyone who has a grating personality is automatically destined for greatness. They can be simply mean just as easily.
The psychology of excellence often contains traits that we admire in theory, but actively resist in practice. Traits such as self-confidence, an unbending will to power, and an almost complete disregard for failure.
Baseball is famously known as a sport where you can fail seven out of ten times and be considered a hall of fame player. Many otherwise competent players fall down, and at every level of the game, because they simply cannot come to grips with failure.
We’ve all seen them, known them, and shared dugouts with them. Players who go insane when they strike out, who seem to explode at the world around them when they make a fielding error. Their petulance is usually given a pass as simply being “competitive” by coaches and trainers who misunderstand the concept of the word.
The physical attributes that these players posses will carry them only so far, perhaps to college, or even the minor leagues, but at some point they will find the canyon that they must leap to get to the next level too far for their fragile psyche, and those same coaches who failed to teach these players how to disregard failure will shake their heads and mumble about “duds” and “washouts.”
Recently, the focus of much MLB media attention has been the trials and fortunes of Joey Gallo. As a Texas Ranger, Gallo was a standout star. He hit home runs by the bucket load and has an absolute cannon for an arm. But when he was traded to the New York Yankees, he seemed to fold under the pressure. Many players before him have done the same, and so it was simply assumed that he was another “washout” and was duly traded away to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The thing that sets players apart from fans is that they can see the long scope of baseball, the day-in day-out of the game, in a way that is often lost on stat-obsessed fandom. Even when a player is in a slump, they are often still hitting the ball, and simply getting unlucky in that they are hitting it directly at a fielder.
Yankees team mate Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who played with Gallo in Texas as well, was sympathetic to the backlash that was directed at the power hitter, saying, “In Texas, Joey got going because of the fans. They really, really backed him even though he was struggling. They understood that he could break out in any moment. Having that support from the Rangers’ fan base, I feel that allowed Joey to compete better. He continued to feel the confidence that he needed.
“Last year, Joey was the same as this year for a couple months, lots of struggling. Then within two weeks he was suddenly an All Star.”
“I think there’s a misconception,” Kiner-Falefa continued. “There’s stuff fans don’t see. If Joey grounds out, he runs down the line hard every single time. He’s never jogging. He plays the outfield as hard as he can. This has been tough on him. It’s tough when from the beginning of the game he’s hearing the fans and he’s flustered by them a little bit. It’s been tough to get going for a guy who always had a lot of support from the Ranger fans. Here, he’s tried just as hard and it hasn’t worked out, but the effort always has been there all year. The care has always been there. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for of a player.”
Whether Joey Gallo will find his muse in Los Angeles is anybody’s guess, but the important parts of what Kiner-Falefa said show that the difference between a player in a slump and an All-Star are very often the intangibles that come with self-confidence and grinding a play out.
A mental focus that almost looks like denial is another aspect which top players posses. In the case of Joey Gallo, while he acknowledged the difficulty of being the focus of Yankee fans’ wrath, he spoke always of self-belief and knowing that he would get back to hitting at some point. Historically there are parallels, with Barry Bonds still hitting 45 home runs and maintaining a .341 batting average during the season when his father Bobby passed away.
The ability to compartmentalize the struggles that a player is going through, either on the field or in their private lives, and treat each play, each at bat, as if it were just another day in the office is a skill that is much overlooked when talking about five-tool players. Sure they can catch, hit, run, throw, and hit with power, but what is their mindset like? Having a good mental and emotional outlook is every bit as critical to an athlete’s success as their physical tools.
Over the long term, the ability to rise above the situation is most appreciated when it comes to greatness if it is accompanied by stability. Having the game of your life, or the season even, is not enough to rise to this level. A player must be consistent, bringing this ability to bear over the long arch of a career. And that is more to do with will power and mental discipline than any physical attribute.