Zach Greinke’s Mental Game
I am looking forward to the coming season for the Milwaukee Brewers. It’s hard not to be excited about the way they have upgraded their pitching staff, acquiring Shaun Marcum and — in a move that shook the baseball world — one-time Cy Young award winner Zach Greinke. It would seem that the Crew has positioned themselves for a run at the post-season.
But there is something nagging, a lingering pang in the back of my mind. The issue is how Greinke will deal with the sky-high expectations that accompany him to Milwaukee. The fan base that has been making the turnstiles spin at Miller Park thirsts for a winner. The dalliance that was the team’s appearance in the 2008 post-season was merely a tease for long-suffering fans. The drama of Doug Melvin’s bold moves has energized the fanbase and Greinke, who has suffered bouts of social anxiety disorder and depression during his professional career, is sailing into this storm.
Many people don’t understand the seriousness of mental health issues like Greinke’s. We have a feel for the common athletic debilitations–shoulders, elbows, knees; tears, breaks and strains. We’ve even learned that concussions are much more serious than merely getting one’s “bell rung.” But I suspect we are much less well acquainted with how crushing anxiety and depression can be. We see these disorders illustrated on commercials for Cymbalta on TV–the people are sad and mopey one second and, presumably after popping a few blue and white pills, presto! and it’s all good. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy and it’s far from that clear cut.
Brewers fans should examine Greinke’s history and do a little reading about these disorders before the season starts. It might be helpful in giving a fuller perspective to the state of the incoming ace of the pitching staff.
I’m not saying Greinke’s mental health issues will result is subpar performance and grave disappointment. But I would raise concerns about the new expectations for Greinke and this team. Greinke is not CC Sabathia even though Melvin did broach that comparison (though I believe he was referring to the trades impact as opposed to the abilities of the two, a distinction might by lost on many fans). It’s worth noting that Greinke’s past mental health problems were enough to make the Yankees question whether he’d be able to handle playing in New York. By his own admission, Greinke said that his numbers last year were affected by his disillusionment in K.C. That doesn’t exactly suggest a “bulldog mentality” that one would normally expect from a #1 starter. The question I would have is if the Brewers get off to a slow start or face a run of bad luck, how is he going to respond?
The mental aspect of the game is huge. Pitchers face challenges and adversity all the time. Does Greinke have the composition to perform under pressure and/or when the chips are down? Or, instead, will he lose interest or, worse, collapse in trying circumstances? It’s one thing to be lights out in KC when there is little pressure and few expectations. But in MKE this season, there will be huge crowds every night with sky-high expectations. Does his past struggle with social anxiety suggest that he is not suited to such a stage, even in a small market like MKE?