Maybe you’ve seen the commercials and are tired of them. Maybe you didn’t like the gimp interview. Maybe you think the hair is ridiculous. That’s fine with Brian Wilson. There might be some ancillary benefits to the way he portrays himself on and off the field, but this is more about his work on the mound. Because, to him, the most important facet of pitching is confidence.
I asked him if he was just screwing around. “I never [expletive] around, it’s an out pitch,” Wilson responded. That sort of seems ridiculous at first, given what you know about Wilson. It’s not.
You realize this a little more as you talk to him about his craft. Let’s say you talk about the cutter, which he’s gone to increasingly more often over the course of his career. It’s just the “opposite of a two-seamer,” the natural result of learning how to throw the ball “middle-finger dominant.” Does he throw it too much? “Is it any different than a lefty-handed specialist who comes in and throws slider after slider?” Wilson threw the cutter more than anyone not named Mariano Rivera last year, and he doesn’t have the platoon splits of a righty-only reliever. Does he do it with command? “Ask the hitters.” It’s confidence, is the sense you get.
Even with the knuckleball, the story is the same. He taught himself the knuckler — “everyone in this locker room has a knuckler” — and he’s not scared to throw it this year. “Why would you be scared? I don’t understand,” said the Dodgers reliever, “I’ve seen a lot of lot of home runs on 100 mph fastballs and a lot of people think that’s the best pitch on earth, I’ve seen Mariano give up runs and he’s got arguably the best pitch in the history of baseball.” Once again, there’s this lack of fear that’s pervasive in his image and his approach.
He’ll open up about it and specifically address the role of confidence, too. “If you’re not positive when you pitch, it doesn’t matter” how good you are, he says. Pitching is simple to Wilson: “You just need to be more confident than the hitter.”
Watch batting practice, and you’ll see batters pop up pitches that are 60 mph heaters. Wilson also points out that there have been many pitchers in baseball that have had marginal talent and played a lot of years — “they were more intelligent than the hitter.” They had no fear. “Most of the time you fail, you had fear,” Wilson says. “I don’t know the percentage of preparation, skillset, training, diet, mindset,” go into baseball, he continues, “but I do know that you have to have a brain in order to pitch — you can do all the other stuff physically, but if you don’t have determination behind it, then all the mechanical stuff goes out the window.”
It’s not an act in the way that some might fear. It’s not all bravado designed to make fans gravitate towards him, or to sell books or products or whatever. Not in the immediate sense. No, it’s more that Wilson is showing the confidence that he believes necessary to his job. Listen to him talk about the need to eradicate “I hope” from your mental lexicon: “You’re going to give up a home run if you think about not giving up a home run.”
Brian Wilson is acting confidently because he believes in the power of positive thinking, in effect. And that’s not crazy at all. Players that approach competition as a challenge rather than a threat have shown to be more successful, and the authors of the Mental Game of Baseball would also approve of his confident approach. Think positively, act confidently, even if it comes with a crazy haircut.
Thanks to Arturo Parvadilla for the header image.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.