CHICAGO — If you’ve heard a pitcher say it once, you’ve probably heard him say it a hundred times.
“I lost the feel.”
No matter the age, experience or past success, for lefties and righties alike, losing the feel of the baseball — especially on one’s best pitch — is maddening. It can happen at any time, in the bullpen before a game, in the first inning or even midway through a start. Fortunately, many times pitchers find “it” again and can continue. It’s why you often see a hurler have one bad inning but look like Sandy Koufax before or afterward.
“There are times you wake up, feel great, go to the park, throw a pitch and it’s like you’ve never done this before,” Cubs starter Jon Lester said recently. “Other days, you feel like you couldn’t break a window pane and you go eight shutout. It’s the nature of baseball.”
Lester will take the mound against the Atlanta Braves on Monday night, crossing his fingers that his famed cutter is there for him. Of course, his work between starts ensures a better chance of that happening, but a pitcher never really knows how he’ll feel until he gets out there. It can be hard for the layman to understand what that’s like, but there are several analogies that illustrate the sheer confusion a pitcher encounters when he loses that feel.
“You ever been lost during the day?” Lester asked. “You know where you want to go, you’re trying to find a place and you can’t find it. Then the next day, you have no problem. That’s what it feels like.”
Of course, we have to imagine that scenario in a pre-GPS world, since the moment we’re not sure where we’re going, there’s always a device to show us the way. Fellow lefty Cole Hamels — who incidentally said he has never lost the feel for his change-up — broke it down in the simplest of terms.
“You wake up feeling different every day, right?” he said. “Same with baseball. It’s different every day. A lot of it is exactly that: how you feel that day. How strong you feel, how tired you are.”
The best and most relatable analogy is golf. Just as easily as you can lose your swing, you can find it again. That could be within the same round, or maybe it takes a few times out on the course to click in again. We know it happens, we just don’t always know why or when it will occur. Same with pitching. One important aspect, said another Cubs starter, is to expect it and not panic. That’s the whole key to getting it back.
“It’s weird, but we’ve gone through that a lot, so it doesn’t feel that strange, if that makes sense,” righty Kyle Hendricks said. “You just can’t expect to always have it, because it’s never been that way.
“The better your mental approach and sustaining that, it’ll keep your stuff more consistent. When you get out of it mentally, it’ll snowball on you, big time.”
Emphasizing the randomness of it all, Lester was asked which was more likely to happen: starting the game without the feel for a pitch or losing it once he’s gotten going.
“Either or,” he responded. “I’ve started games without a feel for a pitch, then found it, and other times, it feels great and you try to make it even better and you lose it. More so, that applies to the curveball for me. It’s 0-2, you try to bury one and you throw it 52 feet and you’re like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from,’ and now you may have lost it a little bit.”
So what is the key to finding that feel again, considering there is only so much one can do to prevent it? The pitchers who find it the quickest, of course, are the hurlers who limit damage within a game or reduce their slumps from start to start.
The tricks to finding the feel again
Every pitcher has his own ways of locking back in on a pitch, as no one method is tried and true for everyone. They’ll try anything — even the greats in the game.
“Roy Halladay used to take the ball and trace [the outline of] his fingers on it, however he used his cutter,” Lester said. “So if he lost the feel for it, he would close his eyes and try it, then follow the trace. It helped speed up the process for him. It never worked for me.”
Picture the 6-foot-6 Halladay with a pencil or crayon drawing on a ball and you see how innovative — or desperate — hurlers can be. Lester is such a feel pitcher, in general, it’s a surprise he doesn’t have a go-to method.
“I haven’t had my curveball as much this year,” Lester said. “It feels foreign. I’ll just keep throwing it.”
It’s about the only strategy pitchers agree on when they’ve lost the feel for a pitch: Keep throwing it. That’s not to say they won’t abandon it for a while, especially if it’s, say, the fourth pitch in their arsenal. But if it’s their least-used pitch in the first place, it’s probably not a surprise when they don’t have it on a given day. In other words, Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom isn’t giving up on a pitch he likes to throw.
“My big thing is, early on, if something’s not working, to not completely give up on it,” deGrom said before facing the Cubs over the weekend. “If it’s an out pitch, maybe you throw it first pitch to try and get that feel back. Keep using it.
“It happened to me Opening Day this year. My changeup wasn’t very good, and we stuck with it and ended up coming around. I actually got some big outs with it late in the game. So I’ll mix it up when I throw it, usually earlier in the count.”
Hamels added: “And you have to trust the process of throwing it no matter what. You can’t just put it in the back pocket and take it out and think you’ll have the feel. You have to keep throwing it. … That’s why you have to go with your routine and stick with it. Your routine will get you through situations of feel.”
It wasn’t long ago that Hamels heard of a simple trick from another veteran.
“Bartolo Colon used to throw over to first base to find the feel,” Hamels said. “He just told me that recently. So if you see guys throw over, even though there isn’t a big lead, it could be for that. Trying to find the feel again.”
Some other thoughts on what it’s like to lose the feel and attempt to find it again:
Yu Darvish: “A few starts ago, I didn’t feel my four-seamer. First pitch of the game, I changed my grip. When you change the grip, you bring a little something different. Next time out I changed back. I had never done that.”
Jose Quintana: “When I don’t have it, and I notice it right away, speeding up or opening too soon and not being able to have the command … sometimes it could be the weather. I just rely on the pitches that are working. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you look at all the variables from that day and see what went into it.”
Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy: “My wife used to make fun of me all the time. I used to stand in front of the mirror and literally go like this [imitates his motion and grip] over and over.
“She would ask what I’m doing. I would yell, ‘I lost it, I lost it, I lost it.’
“Other guys would lie in their hotel rooms and spin it toward the ceiling because everything is out front. Just tossing it up like that. Even when I felt good, I would be sitting there flipping it.”
Hendricks: “That’s where the warm-ups between innings can help you. Just go out there and throw six to eight changeups or throw eight curveballs. … If it doesn’t feel good in warm-ups, then you might need to find the right time to work it in.”
Former pitcher and Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies: “I may have used the bottom of the order to get the feel back. Maybe throw an extra curveball or two to the pitcher.”
Tyler Chatwood on losing the well-known spin on his curveball: “It just feels weird. Anytime I’m sitting around watching a game, I’m holding a ball in my hand just to make sure my grips feel good. Some days, it’s just not there. The biggest thing is to keep throwing it. You only need one to click. Sometimes, another pitch can help you. You’re missing with your fastball, you throw a curve and you’re able to find that release point for the next pitch.”
The moments when a pitcher loses it — and his attempts to get the feel back — could go on forever. Some experiences are similar, but many are unique to that individual. It makes pitching the mental exercise that it is. What about the emotion in the moment when a pitcher’s best is lost? Is there anger, confusion or simply a focus on getting it back? Chatwood answered for all pitchers.
“It depends on the score,” he said with a bit of a smile.