From 2007-2009, Ryan Rowland-Smith was an effective pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. The Australian-born southpaw appeared in 88 games and logged an ERA below 4.00 for three years running. His move from the bullpen to the starting rotation had been seamless. His future looked bright.
Then the roof caved in. In 2010, Rowland-Smith went 1-10 with a 6.75 ERA. He allowed 141 hits in 109 innings and walked nearly as many batters as he struck out. He hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since.
He’s on the verge of returning. Inked to a contract by the Red Sox during the off-season, the 30-year-old is pitching like his old self with Triple-A Pawtucket. In 11 games out of the PawSox pen he has a 0.40 ERA and has allowed just nine hits in 22-and-a-third innings. He has walked seven and fanned 17. The reason behind his comeback? Rowland-Smith has overcome fear.
Ryan Rowland-Smith: “I got to the big leagues as a guy who always had that underdog mentality. There are guys who don’t get talked about a lot but sort of come through in the end, and I did that throughout my minor-league career. I got to the big leagues and was having a good ride — a good go at it — and was figuring it out. Then 2010 rolled around.
“I had a couple of bad starts at the beginning of 2010. It wasn’t so much mechanics. You think that’s what it is, but it was psychological more than anything. You start to doubt yourself, and the minute you start doubting yourself at the major league level — you can look at stats, you can look at mechanics, you can watch video, but until you overcome that doubt, it’s not going to matter.
“I was pitching away from contact. I doubted I was good enough to really go after hitters and get them out. It was an absolute spiral down. In 2010, I had the worst year I ever had. My numbers were terrible, and I pitched terrible.
“The ball comes out of your hand differently when there’s doubt. What happens is, you have a process and that process is pretty simple. You lift your leg up, get your arm going, and throw to the glove. It’s as simple as that — stuff you learn in Little League. The minute you start getting hit, you start questioning your process. You start trying to make alterations to what you’ve done for years and years and years. I lost who I was.
“People try to help you. They don’t mean any harm, but you have coaches and people telling you ‘try this, try that.’ You end up getting away from what you know, deep down. You’re the one who has to throw the ball. You’re the one on the mound who knows what feels right. You have five or six people saying, ‘try this try that,’ and you start altering what you’re doing physically. That stems from the psychological battle you’re having with yourself.
“It’s great to look at the numbers you can use to try to predict how someone is going to do. But when your confidence is gone — when something is wrong, physically or psychologically — those numbers don’t mean anything. You don’t now what someone is going through.
“When things were going bad, we’d look at video. We’d nitpick, trying to find stuff, find stuff, find stuff. One thing we could see was my presence on the mound; there was none. My head was down, I was walking around — stuff that had nothing to do with mechanics. But then you look at the progression, from when I was doing well to where I ended up, and you see little changes. For one thing, I was slower.
“When something is in front of you, at 60 feet, and you have to attack it, but you’re hesitant, you become timid and slow down. Everything backs up. All of a sudden your release point is back here, instead of here, because you’re not 100 percent convicted.
“When you’re pitching away from contact, there is timid action on your ball. If you’re thinking ‘here it is, try to hit it,’ everything moves faster — your body moves faster, your release point is right, your pitch has more bite. But if you’re thinking ‘if I miss my spot, he’s going to crush it,’ you’re slower and lose a little bit of velocity and bite.
“Is it fear? I think it’s fair to call it that. I’ll admit I still get nervous, whether it’s here or in the big leagues. It’s how you channel it. You can’t be thinking, ‘I can’t get nervous, I can’t get nervous.’ If you’re not 100 percent right, psychologically, you start worrying and doubting. You fear what you’re dealing with out there on the mound.
“When I was in Seattle, I tried to talk to Cliff Lee, because he had gone through a bunch of stuff. But he and I just have different personalities. He keeps it simple, no matter what. I’m a guy who tends to think, think, think, and analyze, analyze, analyze. Sometimes that’s not a good thing. Baseball is… I’m not going to say dumb, but most guys want to keep it simple. That doesn’t mean you’re not a thinker in any way, you’re just keeping your thoughts short. It helps to be able to do that. As simple as it sounds, pick the leg up, get the arm up, attack the hitter.
“I talked to Daniel Bard in spring training. I was curious and had to ask him what happened. It’s funny, because I’m sitting there looking at a guy who has some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen. Guys would kill to have that stuff. But here he is, breaking it down like he throws 85 as opposed to 95. It’s so easy to have that happen, especially when you’re in the middle of it. You keep searching and searching for that answer. He just has to get to a place where he realizes who he is, how he got there, and keep it as simple as he can. When you’re on the mound in a situation where you need to bury that fastball, you have to say to yourself, ‘my stuff is good enough,’ and just go after him. It’s speed up and let’s go.
“My stuff was good enough to get me to the big leagues and have some success. Then, somehow, I ended up not knowing how I got there. I lost my confidence and competitiveness. Right now, I’m back to the place I was before 2010. I’m in a great place. I’m waiting for an opportunity to get back to the big leagues and do what I used to do.”
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.