We’ve all dealt with situations in which we find it difficult to be ourselves. Whether it’s a new school, new job, or new relationship, concerns with perception and propriety can get in the way of personality and performance. Though they’re not always viewed through the same lens as “normal” people, money and fame don’t inoculate professional athletes against the same struggles.
We’re seeing that with Yu Darvish in his first go-round with the Cubs this season. While some of his issues have obvious physical roots, it’s impossible to deny the psychological seed from which they sprouted. Expectations aren’t just heaped upon a player by the fans who want to see them live up to a lofty free agent contract, but that external baggage can add to what that athlete is already carrying on his own.
Veteran catcher Chris Gimenez spoke to Steve Greenberg of the Sun-Times about how Darvish “thinks that Chicago hates him for going on the DL a couple of times.” As unwise as it may have been for Gimenez to give voice to those thoughts on the record, thereby putting Darvish in the uncomfortable position of having to walk them back, it does offer some insight into the pitcher’s sensitivity to public perception.
But this isn’t an entirely new thing for Darvish, nor is it simply a construct of signing a huge deal with the Cubs prior to the season. Being cognizant of how other people view him is simply part of who he is, as Peter Gammons shared with Mully and Hanley back in May.
“I’m not so sure Yu has quite the same approach and, again, I think it’s self esteem,” Gammons explained. “There are times when he pitches, to me, as if he doesn’t want to let people down.”
That makes a lot of sense when you think about the reality of the situation in which Darvish finds himself these days and it actually provides a fair bit of hope for his ability to self-correct. Wait, how’s that? While recency bias and revisionist history so often fit us with blinders that don’t allow for a full field of vision, the Cubs have seen this exact emotional struggle before.
Well, maybe “exact” is a bit strong, but Jon Lester wasn’t completely comfortable in his new uniform when he first joined the Cubs for the 2015 season. I’d also argue that he suffered through more of the same last season when he was trying to be the same pitcher he’d always been despite the natural effects of aging.
“You want to try so hard to do well and kind of live up to your expectations that you kind of forget the process, and I was guilty of that for probably two months in ’15 of worrying about stuff I can’t control,” Lester told The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg (subscription required/recommended). “I’m trying to fulfill six years of a contract in one start, you know what I mean? As soon as you can kind of forget that and go back to the process that got you there…it’s easier said than done, for sure.”
The quicker you kind of realize that and go ‘F— it. I am who I am, I’m going to be me and I’m going to pitch my butt off.
What Lester’s talking about isn’t new by any stretch, it’s something corporate culture might refer to as worrying about “gravity issues.” Certain things are going to be there no matter what you do, so the sooner you stop putting effort into preventing or slowing them down, the sooner you can get back to having an impact on other areas of your performance.
“The quicker you kind of realize that and go ‘F— it. I am who I am, I’m going to be me and I’m going to pitch my butt off. I’m going to give you everything I got and that’s all I can control.’”
Far from just a fun quip for a local media guy, you can be sure that the long-tenured lefty is sharing that same advice with his next-door neighbor in the locker room. As Lester admitted, letting go of those things is easier said than done, but Darvish has teammates who’ve been there and done that with the Cubs and elsewhere and who can guide him through a transition that will surely continue for some time yet.
But if Darvish can stop trying to be Atlas by carrying a world of expectations on his shoulders, he may well be able to anchor the rotation just as Lester has these last several years.