Submit

The Creature

Aug 9 2017
Khris Davis
Oakland A's
Aug 9 2017

When I’m standing at the plate waiting to swing at a pitch, here’s what is running through my mind:

Nothing.

My mind is clear. There are no distractions. I just wait for the ball to float towards me, and then I perform an action I’ve been practicing since I was a little kid.

I’ve hit 30 home runs so far this season, and I know that my best hitting years are still ahead of me. I know that because I’ve been blessed with a natural swing that I’ve become more and more comfortable with as I’ve matured. I’m at my most confident when I’m standing at home plate with a bat in my hands.

Now, when I have to make a throw from left field … here are some of the things that might be running through my mind:

Is my arm in the right position?

 Don’t mess this up.

 Who’s yelling?

 Focus.

 It’s simple, just throw the ball in there.

 But don’t overthrow the cutoff man.

 Please don’t make a bad throw.

 Everybody’s watching, man … make this throw!

 FOCUS!

For some reason, when it comes to throwing a baseball, my mindset is completely different. I find the entire process stressful. And sometimes when I need to make a throw from the outfield … The Creature emerges.

The Creature is what I call the doubts inside yourself that bubble up, right to the surface of your consciousness, when you’re performing a certain action. It’s that tiny voice inside you that somehow takes over at times, whether you like it or not. It’s a million negative thoughts — not even necessarily fully formed, but just present — that appear at the worst possible moment. It saps all of your confidence when you’re about to do something that you know you’re fully capable of doing well.

I think a lot of people probably have their own version of The Creature for different things.

Maybe it comes out when you have to speak in front of a large group of people. Maybe it’s there when you’re taking a big test and can’t remember any of the stuff you studied. Or maybe it’s present any time you’re simply put in a high-pressure situation.

For me, it’ll sometimes appear as I wind up my arm to throw a baseball.

When stuff like that happens in the sports world, some people call it the yips, or describe it as having a mental block. But to me, it’s The Creature. And it’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

I’ve never really been sure how to talk about it publicly, though, so there are very few people who know that this is something I deal with. Until now, maybe out of embarrassment, or even pride, this wasn’t something I wanted to bring out into the open. Part of the reason was that I never knew where to begin, exactly.

So I guess I’ll go back to where it all started.

Jed Jacobsohn

The Creature was born in Phoenix, Arizona, during the summer of 2009.

I was in the Milwaukee organization then. It was right after I got drafted. I was playing for the Arizona League Brewers at the time.

Almost from Day One, and seemingly out of nowhere, my throws to the infield were awful. It was bizarre. My arm had always been fairly strong in the past, but that summer my throws were just really, really … soft. It was like there was nothing behind them. And there would be no skip when they’d land. They’d just kind of land and roll.

I had no idea what was going on.

At first, I thought it was just a couple of bad throws. Something random. So I didn’t pay it much mind. Then, a few days later, I remember taking outfield practice and a front-office person from the Brewers stopped by to watch. This guy was a big deal, he basically determined who went up and who was sent down in the organization. After practice, he took me aside to talk.

“Hey Khris, why do you throw like that?”

I didn’t really know what he was talking about, and I wasn’t sure what he meant by “like that.” But he clearly had recognized that my throws seemed to be lacking something — almost like I was holding back when I released the ball.

“Does it hurt to throw that way?”

I told him no, and that I didn’t think anything was wrong. I was just throwing the ball, like I always had. No big deal.

He disagreed.

“Something’s wrong, Khris.”

Nothing felt different. But I knew that I didn’t have the velocity or carry on my throws that I was able to achieve while playing in college. I had no clue what the deal was.

What I came to realize was that somehow I’d developed this strange fear of overthrowing the cutoff man — of messing up and costing my team runs with my throws. I can’t tell you how it started or where it came from, but it was there. And it was having an impact on how I played the game.

Everyone had some idea or potential solution, some method for fixing me. So I just ended up thinking about the issue even more. That only made things worse.

I’ve played baseball since I was five. As a kid growing up in Arizona, the sport was my passion. So it was pretty much all baseball, all the time for me. And, throughout all those years, I’d never worried about overthrowing anyone. It didn’t even cross my mind. I had played outfield in college, and it was the same deal. It was like: Get the ball, throw the ball.

I never thought twice about making throws. I just made them. And things always worked out fine.

But there I was in rookie league, getting my first taste of professional ball, and suddenly everything was different. When a ball came my way, all I’d think about was not making a bad throw.

And it became a battle to try to escape that worry, or to block it out of my mind.

At first, I didn’t know what to do. I just wanted to overcome it. So I talked to everybody — coaches, teammates, friends, family. And everybody wanted to help. Everyone I spoke with had some idea or potential solution, some method for fixing me.

The result of all that advice was that I just ended up thinking about the issue even more. That only made things worse.

Sometimes it would get so bad that I’d spend entire games just hoping that the ball wouldn’t be hit my way. No matter what I did to try and focus on what was happening in the inning, or to think about something other than that worry, I just couldn’t do it. That mindset plagued me during my time with the Brewers organization, and it only made throwing even more difficult. I would let go of the ball and have no idea where it was going — which, as a professional baseball player, is embarrassing to admit. Defense comprises literally half of my job. It’s like an airplane pilot who has perfect takeoffs every time but gets really tense when it comes to landing.

When I would talk to my mom about the trouble I was having, she’d sometimes joke that I must have gotten my throwing skills from her. My dad played professional baseball and is a major league scout, so he’s been around baseball his entire life. He had a great arm when he played, and he’d throw perfect BP to me when I was growing up. My mom couldn’t chalk these issues up to him, so she’d wonder aloud whether I somehow got her throwing arm instead of his.

But it was never my arm that was the problem.

In a lot of ways, I wish it had been a purely physical thing. But it wasn’t. The problem, I came to realize, was in my head. And it wasn’t something that was going to just disappear out of the blue.

Fast-forward nearly a decade. I’m in Oakland now, and having a blast.

I love this town, and my teammates and our amazing fans. I’m having the time of my life this season. But, at the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that I still struggle with my throws.

The Creature, unfortunately, is still here in the Bay Area along with me. He may not show himself as often as he did back in the day. But he’s always there, just kind of lurking.

I’m happy to say that I now do a better job of dealing with him than I did when I was younger. I’m proud of that.

Things started to change for the better four years ago, soon after my first year in the bigs. I went to a Tom House camp for pitchers one weekend at USC to work on my throws, and as soon as I got there, and explained what was going on, Tom looked me in the eye and told me that this was something a lot of people experience. In fact, he was the person who first actually called it The Creature, a term I liked and took to.

Tom told me about other players who had fought through similar issues, so I immediately got to work.

I linked up with a friend of mine from back home in Arizona, Danny Bates, and we dug in. Danny’s a former scout, and he knows this game inside and out. We worked on both the mental and the physical side of things. Before long, we recognized that the problem I was having mainly happened when I had plenty of time to make a throw.

Sometimes the ball would come to me and I’d have to get it to an infielder really quickly without thinking. Those plays were usually no problem … because I just did what came natural to me. But If I had some time and started thinking too much about the act of throwing, that’s when The Creature would sneak up on me and take over.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Creature, unfortunately, is still here in the Bay Area along with me. He may not show himself as often as he did back in the day. But he’s always there, just kind of lurking.

Understanding that this problem was something I could actually work on, and improve, was important, because it allowed me to feel like I was in control of what was going on. This wasn’t just something that was happening to me — something that was out of my hands — it was something I could counter through focused work.

So I’ve been working closely with Danny for the past four years, and I’m seeing gradual improvement.

In addition, this spring I spent a lot of time with A’s outfield coach Mike Aldrete performing drills to improve my throws — both technique-wise, and in terms of not overthinking things. I’m aware of the outside criticism. It’s pretty hard to ignore. But I also know that my competitive fire makes me harder on myself than anybody. As much as anything else, that’s what drives me to try to move past this.

It took me a long time — several years, really — to get to a place where it didn’t feel like The Creature had the upper hand on me when it came to throwing. But eventually I learned that the more I work at handling this problem, the more I can take control when the ball comes my way.

At this point, for me, it all comes down to focus. Just maintaining focus and then doing what comes naturally.

There’s lots of time to kill during an inning. So in between pitches I might zone out for a second, or listen to some chant going on in the bleachers, or check the scoreboard. I mean, my crew in the left field bleachers has drums that they beat on, and they scream my name all game long. (Much respect to the left field crew!)

Sometimes I’ll find that my attention is drawn away for a moment, and then it comes back right before the pitcher delivers the pitch.

It’s only human, but I’m constantly working on it — that ability to maintain focus.

I keep on working at everything I can to ensure that I don’t sabotage my throws in from the outfield. And let me tell you, there are a lot of days when I really don’t feel like working on this part of my game.

I beat myself up over this throwing issue. It’s something that’s not easy to fix but that’s extremely easy to get down on yourself about.

It’s not like trying to work out a hitch in your swing at the cages. There’s no mechanical flaw that you can just tinker with until you solve the problem. It’s more like a never-ending puzzle. And sometimes the last thing you want to do is go out there and focus even more on the problem.

Jed Jacobsohn

But I found that once you realize that this is nothing to be ashamed of, you can move forward in a productive way. That was one of the hardest things to get over, really, just the shame I felt about struggling with something that I knew should come easy to me.

I can tell immediately if I’ve made a good throw or a bad throw. And if I make a bad throw, I now really try to compartmentalize it so it doesn’t affect the rest of my game. Because of that I’m much better than I have been in the past about making adjustments on the fly and reminding myself that I need to constantly re-up and refocus.

That has me more confident than I’ve been in years about my throws. And that confidence is multiplied because my teammates in Oakland are all so supportive. They respect me, they respect my game and they know I’m working as hard as I can to get better every day.

Before the 2016 season, I knew that I was going to break out as a player. I could just tell. And 2017 has just been a continuation of that positive momentum. I’ve always had a vision for how I think my career will play out, and I still do. In my future, I see more home runs, higher batting averages and many, many games played in October. All that good stuff.

But, you know what? I also see myself making a huge throw in one of those big playoff games, right on the money, to nail a runner and preserve a win for the A’s.

I can visualize that. I see it in my mind. And I know I have it in me.

I know I can do this.

Khris Davis
Oakland A's