Over the last calendar year, Houston righty Josh Fields has been a top-30 reliever. That may not be the type of lede that grabs you by your collar and shakes a click out of you, but the “how” might intrigue you. Because Fields has changed one thing — a new pitch has helped — but it’s something that he changed mentally that really made the difference. And his faith had everything to do with that change.
On May 7th, 2014, Field was sent down. He was called up a week later, and it was somewhat procedural, but at the time, he had a “clean” 12 ERA and maybe needed a fresh start.
Everything changed for him immediately upon getting the news. “Once that happened, I instantly relaxed,” Fields told me as he reminisced on the day he got the news. “Even while I was still with the team after I’d been sent down, that night, I was just fine, that’s what happened, nothing I can do about it now.”
This comes in the context of Fields’ Christian faith. “The good lord, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “God allowed that to happen for a reason. He really blessed me through that experience, that setback and hard time. That fresh perspective really helped and I felt better about the whole thing.”
Baseball is tied strongly to religion, so you’ll hear something like this in any clubhouse. That’s no surprise. But Fields explicitly made a link that has been shown to be important in sports psychology. Watch.
Fields is saying this:
“The good lord has been gracious. I was just thinking about things I couldn’t control, and he provided a fresh perspective and a way to reset.”
And it’s leading to this:
“Stopped caring about the outcomes, whatever I guess. It frees you up to do your thing instead of thinking ‘I don’t want this to happen, this to happen.’ Now a guy gets on and I really don’t care if he scores or not. I’m going to get this guy out and whatever happens, happens. Just takes the pressure off so you can relax. It’s a way to cope.”
A combination of his faith in god and being sent down gave him a new perspective… and that perspective is one in which he’s not dwelling on negative outcomes.
Sports psychology treats the power of positive thoughts as a settled matter — a meta-study looking at 32 well-respected smaller studies found that different types of upbeat personal thoughts and routines could have a positive effect on outcomes. The destructive power of negative thoughts seems to be just as settled — just looking at a list of negative words can make a person more anxious and depressed, for one, and the list of studies is just as impressive on this side of the coin.
Fields’ path isn’t necessarily the only path to positive thinking, of course. This isn’t a prescription for the rest of baseball, and though faith has been shown to be powerful, there are other ways that players can start to change their thinking on the field.
John Jaso, who doesn’t ascribe to a faith, talked to me of stepping to the plate “calm and collected” and “focusing on your strengths” mentally, and how this is more of a struggle as a designated hitter, where all he has is time to think. He prefers to use his memory of friends and teammates past to help reshape negative thoughts into positive ones.
“Whenever I have a bad game, or I don’t feel right — like right now, I’m probably one for my last 12 or something, with no production — I’m not so far removed a four-for-five game, and also not far removed from being in the minor leagues and seeing guys trying really hard and getting released. Whenever I think that right now is the worst thing ever, I think back to then, and my really good friends that were so passionate about baseball and I look at what they did and and how happy they would be to be in my position and that helps me get through tough times in my own life.” — John Jaso
If you’re not buying it when it comes to Fields, and you’re currently looking through his player card to explain why he was so terrible before he was sent down (6.66 ERA in 50 innings with a 4.5 walks per nine rate) and since then has a 2.86 ERA with a 2.7 BB/9 in 88 innings… I’m with you. I did the same thing, and I prodded the reliever.
Did he change his position on the mound? Not on purpose. Did he change his sequencing, or pitching mix? Not from what he knows — “I throw what the catcher calls. Those guys studied the hitters.”
Did he add a pitch? Yes. A new slider. “Kinda started as a cutter but my arm angle doesn’t allow me to get a lot of horizontal movement, so it goes more down than side to side,” he said of his ‘cutter.’ “Kind of like a cutter I guess, but a cutter that goes down because I’m way over the top.”
Certainly that pitch has helped. He’s cut his changeup usage by more than half, and the slider has basically replaced the change as his third pitch. The changeup got 10% whiffs last year, and the slider is getting 11% whiffs this year. The slider gives up fewer line drives and coaxes more grounders. It’s probably a better pitch.
You could point to this as a major change, but there are two problems.
For one, the change is relatively minor on the pitch level. He’s basically replaced 54 2014 changeups with 2015 sliders, so maybe he’s gotten one more whiff and traded one fly ball for a ground ball by switching from the change to the slider. Does that seem like the engine of change? The slider is a ball more often than his change was last year.
And the second point? Fields was already better last year, when he was still throwing the change. He came up and just stopped walking people, and had fewer blowups.
So when Josh Fields says that he “kinda stopped caring,” he’s saying something important and not at all saying his head isn’t in the game. He’s saying that a major life moment (being sent down) combined with a good stabilizing force in his life (his faith) allowed him to shift his focus from negative outcomes to positive outcomes. Fields now exudes a calmness that’s immediately obvious the minute you shake his hand.
And that is something that has been shown to have value. Now? “I just want to have fun,” the Astros reliever said.
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.