A conversation I had with Rob Whalen on Wednesday took an unexpected, and coincidental, turn. The 24-year-old right-hander brought up the first of the two starts he made for the Seattle Mariners, a game in which he was out-pitched by Boston’s Brian Johnson. A few years earlier, the Red Sox left-hander had taken a leave of absence from baseball to get treated for anxiety and depression.
It turns out that Whalen did the same thing last July — and he should have done it sooner. His mental health had been slowly crumbling, and it finally reached the point where he could no longer function normally — either on or off the field. When Whalen finally walked away from Seattle’s Triple-A affiliate, he did so knowing that he was in serious need of help.
Rob Whalen on his battle with depression: “Mentally, I was in a tough place. A lot of it was personal stuff, and it wasn’t one thing. It was how I’d felt for a few years, even when I was having success. The way I’d describe it would be a perfect storm of not feeling very confident in who I was as a man. I was kind of losing my identity as a person. Baseball is our job — it’s what we do — and I kind of lost that, as well.
“I wasn’t feeling healthy, I wasn’t feeling confident in my ability to compete at the highest level, and I was with a new team and trying to impress guys. When you’re feeling less than 50% in all aspects of your life, that’s hard to do. The season didn’t go well for me. I was going out there fighting myself, every single game. I was also embarrassing myself.
“One thing that made it hard is that I’m more of a redline type of competitor. I get fired up. In the past, I could redline and be fine, but last year, I was redlining out of control. I couldn’t control that emotion. I was living and dying with every outing, so if an outing went bad, it felt like that was how my life was going. I would do things like punch a cooler.
“I was kind of like a rocket ship taking off into space, one that doesn’t have those heating panels, so it’s going to blow up. That’s what happened to me. I just kind of imploded. It got to where I was like, ‘OK, I don’t like the person that I am. I don’t like this attitude that I have. I have to get out of here. I have to hit the reset button and fix this, or else.’
“Basically, I needed to take a couple of steps back in order to take two steps forward. I got some help. I talked about some of the mental things that were going on. I found some tools to help me to deal with failure and anxiety a lot better.
“The Boston game I mentioned, for example. In the first inning, I threw almost 40 pitches. I hit two guys. I hit Hanley [Ramirez] in the head with a slider. I was all over the place, and that was because I was having a frigging panic attack. I could hardly breathe out there.
“Last year, and even a little bit the year before, I started to experience that on the field — and not just off the field in my personal life. It got scary. I wasn’t in control. I couldn’t control my emotions in a lot of ways. Before I let that take away my career, and even ruin my reputation, I was going to have to get help. I obviously wanted to feel better about myself.
“Like I said, a lot of it was personal stuff that had been going on for a few years and had nothing to do with baseball… For the first time, baseball was no longer an outlet for me. It wasn’t helping me forget those things; it was actually making things worse. The expectations I had for myself, and the pressure I was putting on myself… it just got harder and harder. As much as I love the game, I needed to get away from it and take a breather. I needed to clear my mind and fix myself.
“I wish I would have talked about it sooner, rather than letting it get to that point. I think men are too prideful sometimes. I’m not a guy who likes to ask for help. A lot of it I kept to myself. I didn’t talk to my parents about it, and only a few people knew what was going on. When I finally did start talking about it, I began feeling a little better. That was the first step. Getting it off my chest to somebody… right now, all of the emotions kind of come out.
“It’s almost like an alcoholic admitting that he’s an alcoholic for the first time. I couldn’t understand it, so how could I explain it to somebody else? I was in my early 20s and had made it to the big leagues. What did I have to be depressed, or feel sad, about? I have a great life. I’m blessed, yet I was miserable.
“We have a mental-skills guy, and I talked to him throughout the season. He was trying to help me out. I also talked to a few guys in the front office that needed to know the situation. I actually asked to leave a few weeks before I finally did. I said that I needed to take a break, because it was really getting to me. I could be sitting in the clubhouse, and… I was antsy. I’d be freaking out completely. I couldn’t breathe. I’d have to get up and walk outside. That was new to me. I’d never experienced that level of anxiety.
“I talked to a psychiatrist. I needed to get an unbiased opinion of what was going on from someone who wasn’t involved with baseball. That was a big step. Then, once I went home to Orlando, I met with another doctor and talked to him. I also got back into church. My friend invited me to his church and the pastor there helped me to change my life. I got baptized this offseason. That was something I was missing, which goes back to finding my identity as a man. I’m in a much better place because of it. I have a support system around me now.
“I didn’t get any medication. There are people who can benefit from it, and it was recommended to me, but in baseball it’s hard. You have to get a [therapeutic-use exemption] for certain prescriptions, plus I didn’t want to be a guy who was on medication. I wanted to see if I could deal with it in a more natural way. The meds aren’t the ones walking with me every day. Personal interactions… things like that. I need to train myself to deal with situations better. At the end of the day, I can always go down that road if I need to, but right now I’m doing well.
“I do still have my tough days. This is a work in progress, and I like to think of it as ‘every day is a new day.’ When I do wake up not feeling like myself, I’m more equipped to deal with it. I can snap out of it better. I can reflect and get back into the moment, instead of letting that feeling bring me down for the entire day, or for an entire week, or longer.
“Things are a lot better for me now, and if opening up about this can help even one person, it’s worth it. Tyler Hilinski, the quarterback at Washington State, committed suicide this winter. It never got close to that point for me, but something was wrong and I needed help. Mental health is a serious issue for a lot of people, and that doesn’t exclude people who play baseball.”
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.