A few weeks ago, I approached Tampa Bay (and former San Francisco) infielder Matt Duffy in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park. I wanted to talk to him about the mental side of the game. He was getting dressed, so we agreed to meet in the dugout in five minutes. At that very moment, Brian Kenny began talking about the idea of clutch on MLB Network, which was showing on the TV a few steps from where were standing.
Duffy kept his eyes and ears on the MLB Network discussion as he pulled on his uniform and cleats. With that in mind, I began our subsequent conversation with that very subject. From there, we segued into his mindset as a hitter, which is heavily influenced by Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental Keys of Hitting.
Duffy on clutch hitting and heart rate: “I think there is something to [the idea of clutch]. When you look at the RBI leaders every year — the guys who do well with runners in scoring position — for the most part it’s the same guys. To me, that’s not an accident. I think a lot of people think RBIs are purely a result of the opportunities you have. That does play into it, but I also think that, in certain situations, if I can keep my heart rate at a more efficient level than the pitcher does, more times than not I’ll succeed. I don’t want my heart rate to be so low to where I’m not awake, but I also don’t want it to be so high that I’m jumping at everything in the box.
“There are just some guys who, personality-wise, are not fit for certain situations. Some guys get really amped up. Others don’t. Evan Longoria is the type of guy who does really well keeping his heart rate low. Personally, sometimes I get to the point where mine is too low, or too high. It’s about finding your perfect zone. It’s about recognizing, ‘Hey, I need to take a breath and calm down here, just relax.’ Other times it’s ‘Hey, I need to wake up’ — I need to metaphorically slap myself and get my head into this.”
On WPA and facing Bartolo: “Some guys are getting 80 RBI and 35 of them are in 10-2 ballgames. What is the meaning of… it goes back to how much you’re adding to your team’s win chances. Like with pitchers. You look at bullpen guys — closers and high-leverage situations — there’s Win Probability Added. They do nothing but pitch in close ballgames. It’s almost like taking a hitter and only looking at his at-bats in the ninth inning.
“I don’t think there is one encompassing stat that says, ‘This guy is better than that guy.’ I think you have to take them all into account. There’s what you see on the baseball field, as well — how a guy reacts to adversity, how a guy handles himself against a pitcher. That’s something you can’t read anywhere. A lot of times you can’t even ask a guy how he does when he feels the pitcher is better than him.
“When I first came up, my second game I faced Bartolo Colon. I was looking at him like, ‘That’s Bartolo Colon.’ I was an Angels fan growing up and saw him win a Cy Young. I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m an equal to him, let’s compete.’ I was like, ‘That’s cool. I’m facing Bartolo Colon. Where am I?’
“Hunter Pence is a good example of someone who doesn’t care who is on the mound. He respects his competition, but he also respectfully feels he can bury them. To him, the pitcher isn’t controlling the ball with a joystick or a GPS tracker that is going to make it miss his bat. He doesn’t see a major leaguer on the mound so much as he sees a guy throwing a baseball that he’s going to crush. That’s a mental edge.
“When you’re hot, you don’t care who is on the mound. Of course, when you come into a series, you have to know who’s hot and who’s not. Even the best hitters go through stretches where they’re 0 for 20. It doesn’t matter what you throw up there, they’re going to get out. And vice versa. A guy who is a career .220 hitter can be hot, and be on anything the pitcher throws up there. That’s how baseball works.
“I’ve tried to implement some of [Pence’s mentality] in my game. I respect the abilities of other players, but by no means do I feel I don’t belong on the same field as them. If anything, I try to go beyond that and believe that no matter who you are, I’m better.”
On Cape Cod and Harvey Dorfman: “I was a below-average player in college, but I had good summer on the Cape following my sophomore year. I made some adjustments to my swing and started learning how to load slower and earlier. I got more balanced in my swing. I was in a better position to hit velocity, which was something I didn’t do very well at Long Beach my first two years.
“I ended up having an illness before my junior year and was essentially in bed before the season started. I lost everything I had gained over the summer. My junior-year opening day at Long Beach was like the first day of spring training. I struggled. I hit .150 my first month and a half. I didn’t use the health issue as an excuse. A lot of teams didn’t even know about it.
“I kind of carried average performance through my first half-season of pro ball. Then I was able to kind of get back to where I was on the Cape, during that offseason, before my first spring training. That’s when I first read The Mental Keys to Hitting. That book really helped relax my mind when I was in the box.”
On his mental keys to hitting: “I don’t want to have a clear mind. A totally empty, clear mind will search for something to look for. It will search for something to think about. Your mind needs to be given some sort of direction in the box. It’s just a matter of how simple and concise that direction is.
“Before, when I’d get in the box, I’d have a clear mind, take a deep breath and relax. I’d totally clear everything. Then I’d start thinking, ‘What is he going to throw and where is he going to throw it?’ Or I’d start thinking about what I’d worked on in the batting cage that day. Where are my hands? Where are my feet? Is everything in the right spot? Then boom! The ball was by me. I was thinking about the wrong things.
“Reading the book taught me that you need to give your mind some direction, and it needs to be simple. In the first chapter, it was ‘See the ball as big as you can.’ It sounds so simple, but a lot of times that’s a secondary thing in guys’ minds when they’re in the box. What if I told you that you had the perfect mechanics — the perfect balance, everything — but I blindfolded you? How would you hit? You have the perfect swing, so why aren’t you hitting? It’s because you can’t see the ball.
“Vice versa, you have Hunter Pence, who is moving around. He’s jumping around, his feet are moving, he’s loading late and fast. All he’s caring about is seeing the ball and crushing it. That’s it. Seeing the ball should be the one and only thing on your mind.
“You should see the ball the same way as when the count is 3-0 and you’re straight taking. A lot of guys say it doesn’t matter how fast it was or how it was moving, it’s like ‘Wow, I thought I could hammer that pitch.’ That’s because all they were doing was tracking the ball.
“My first spring training is when I put that in, and I felt like I was on everything. Even if I got out, I was right there. No matter what the pitcher threw me, I was all over it. A light bulb went off. It was career-changing. Something that simple. Try to make the ball look like a balloon, and if you get out, ask yourself, ‘Did I see the ball as well as I could?’ If you ask guys who are in the zone — guys who are on fire — what they’re doing differently, their answer is going to be, ‘I don’t know; I’m just seeing the ball.’ They all say that, so why am I not thinking about that all the time?
“When your swing doesn’t feel good, or your swing is slower that day, you start thinking, ‘Why am I slow? What’s wrong with my hands? Am I loading wrong?’ All of these mechanical things start creeping into your head. Then, when you get fooled on pitches, you start guessing. Stuff starts clouding your brain.”
On his routine: “Outside the box, I take my breath and tell myself, ‘Be calm and see the ball as big as possible.’ I’m doing that as I’m looking at my bat. It’s a conscious thought. That’s something I was actually terrible at, at the beginning of this year. If I don’t consciously think about it, my mind wanders. I start thinking, ‘He’s going to throw a curveball here’ or ‘He’s going to throw a fastball in.’ Again, all this different stuff that can creep into your mind. But if you just focus on the ball, with enough energy, the ball will tell you everything you need to know. The ball is going to tell you what the pitch is.
“When you’re thinking, ‘Oh no, he’s going to throw a curveball,’ then that fastball surprises you. It’s 91, but it looks like 95 because you weren’t expecting it. As a small example, in my first at bat last night, [Rick] Porcello went fastball away, then fastball way in, off the plate. He kind of stood me up a little bit. I thought to myself, ‘All right, now he’s going to throw me a slider.’ As a result, I sat on a slider so much that when he threw a fastball in, I swung anyway and jammed myself. I wasn’t watching the ball; I was thinking slider, so my brain was surprised.”
On Brain Games: “There’s a show on Netflix called Brain Games. On episode two, they do an experiment in Vegas. There’s this dance crew called Jabbawockeez, which is on stage. There are two spotlights. Half of them are wearing these blue jackets, and they tell the crowd, ‘We want you to count — during the routine — how many times the blue guys go in and out of the spotlights.’
“I’m watching, and I’m focused as hell on these spotlights and on these guys. I was like, ‘OK, I counted 24.’ I knew I didn’t miss any. Then the guy asked the audience, ‘Who got 0 to 15? Who got 15 or more?’ Then he went, ‘One more question: did anybody see the penguin?’
“A dude — a grown man in a penguin suit — slowly walks behind the dance crew, stops in the center of the stage, looks at the camera, then walks out the other side. I was blind to the penguin. That’s a little insight to how your brain works to fill in the blanks of what you’re not 100% focused on. That’s why people who are texting and driving and think they can see in their peripherals still get into car accidents. Your brain uses all the stimuli around it to create a semi-accurate sense of a 360-degree reality.
“Sometimes you can see a guy’s slider very well. You’re only focused on seeing the ball. Boom. You see that spin, you see that dot on the ball, you see a slider. Other times, guys are so zoned in on fastballs that when the ball disappears… they don’t see it, because their brain tricked them, trying to fill in the blanks. When something unexpected happens, like a slider, you’re blind to it. Guys spin themselves in the ground on sliders because they don’t see the penguin.
“The spotlight and the dance group represent your hands and your feet — your mechanics — and the penguin represents the baseball. That’s why sometimes a fastball — even if you’re looking for a fastball — can look like a BB going by. Other times, when you’re just focused on the baseball, it will look like a beach ball. It’s the same size. It’s always the same size. It just looks different, depending on what your brain is looking at.”
On getting away from his approach: “For some reason, at the beginning of this year, I… once I struggled a little bit, instead of sticking to my principles — the things that got me to where I am — I started changing things. I didn’t consciously try to change everything. It was more that I started looking for, ‘What’s the problem? Why am I struggling?’ Not to sound like a broken record, but I stopped just trying to see the ball.
“I think I was putting pressure on myself to live up to last year. There was a lot of personal stress. I was trying to put up a whole season’s worth of numbers in one at-bat. I was trying too hard. That was detrimental, mentally. I was trying to get hits — trying to get results — and that’s a stressful thing, because all you can control in the box is trying to see the ball and put the barrel to it. Once you put the barrel on it, where it goes is where it goes.
“You’re going to have those little peaks and valleys of bad luck and better luck. You have to stay mentally strong, and within your foundation, when that bad luck comes. When you have that valley, you can’t try to revamp everything. When you do that, a slump can turn into a major slide. When it didn’t happen for me right away this year, I panicked. That’s an intense way to word it, but at the same time, it’s not completely incorrect. I stopped seeing the ball and kind of panicked.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.