A Nightmare On Keystone Street

We recap Jose Altuve's case of the "yips" (or were they?) in the first three games of the ALCS.

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Pregame Pepper

Did you know…

. . . Former pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel had one of the most famous cases of the “yips” in baseball history. He pitched for the Cardinals from 1999 until 2001, but he suddenly lost control of the strike zone during the 2000 postseason. Ankiel returned to form as a full-time outfielder in 2005 and enjoyed great success as a position player.

He briefly played for the Houston Astros in 2013 before finishing his playing career with the New York Mets that year. Ankiel’s final postseason start for the Cardinals had been against the Mets in the 2000 NLCS, a series that the Cardinals ended up losing.

Leading Off

Examining José Altuve’s case of the “yips” during this year’s ALCS

By Jeff Kallman

Now hear this. Especially you, Astroworld. And you, too, anti-Astroworld. José Altuve deserves your sympathy and empathy. Not your scorn.

Some of the greatest fielders in the business come up short or falter off line. Much of the time it happens not when they’re doing what they shouldn’t be doing, but when they’re fielding the way they should be.

Baseball’s irrevocable laws include that anything can happen—and usually does. Even and especially in the negative. It doesn’t just happen to players who know better, but also to players who did what they knew going in might be wrong. It happens to the best in the business, to ballplayers who try to do right and end up doing wrong without even trying.

A six-time All-Star who has at least one Gold Glove on his resume doesn’t premeditate and plot to turn a pitcher’s duel into a Monty Python’s Flying Circus-like comedy of error and surreality with his team on the wrong end of the laugh-so-hard-you’ll-weep meter. And landing on the brink of being swept into winter vacation.

Bad enough that Altuve had two throws disobey his right arm’s orders in Game Two, especially since one of them might have been tried and convicted on the right side if Astro first baseman Yuli Gurriel had gotten his mitt on instead of in front of the ball.

But all Altuve did in top of the sixth in Game Three was pick Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe’s bouncing grounder with vacuum cleaner hands, throw to shortstop Carlos Correa ready to start a double play . . . and watch as though witness to a murder as the ball bounced past Correa, handing the Rays first and second and nobody out.

Altuve might have preferred an on-the-spot assassination over what followed. An opposite-field two-run single. The first sacrifice bunt seen all postseason long, from a team who avoided the bunt like the coronavirus during the regular season. Back-to-back hit batsmen to re-load the bases and push a run home. A pinch-hit shuttlecock becoming a two-run double.

None of that is on Altuve. He didn’t surrender those hits or hit those batters. Remember that.

A 5-1 Rays lead—turned a mere 5-2 when Michael Brantley hit a kind of excuse-me solo homer in the bottom of the sixth—wasn’t the way either Altuve or the Astros planned things. Altuve’s one-out solo bomb in the bottom of the first had handed the Astros a 1-0 lead that would last exactly four more innings.

The two starting pitchers, Houston’s José Urquidy and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Yarbrough, fenced sharply through five innings, if you didn’t count Yarbrough’s slightly shaky second (walk, plunk). Urquidy’s harder stuff pitted well against Yarbrough’s repertoire of off-speed breakers that have movement enough to avoid being dismissed as slop.

They reminded the history-minded of Casey Stengel’s ancient observation, made after the Ol’ Perfesser watched his Yankee craftsman Eddie Lopat duel Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe in a 1952 World Series game:

Those two fellas certainly make baseball look like a simple game, don’t they? It makes you wonder. You pay all that money to great big fellas with a lot of muscles and straight stomachs who go up there and start swinging. And [Lopat and Roe] give ’em a little of this and a little of that and swindle ’em.

Then Astros manager Dusty Baker got Urquidy the hell out of there right after Altuve’s sad betrayal. He wasn’t going to let his sharp young righthander hang around in case fumble turned into funeral. His Astros had enough problems coming into this postseason in the first place.

Didn’t they barely manage to survive injuries, inconsistency, sleeping bats, and their sometimes self-amplified status as the Show’s number one bandits, just to sneak into commissioner Rob Manfred’s pandemic-inspired, sixteen-team postseason at all?

Don’t they have enough trouble going 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position through the first three games of this ALCS and sending not one of them home? Or leaving a combined 31 men on base? Against a collection of Rays known only to themselves and each other—until they get their acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, high-wire walkers, and human cannonballs in motion at the merest hint of a hard-hit ball?

The last must feel especially as though rubbing it into the usually proud, suddenly hapless Altuve. You can’t blame the man. These games between the Rays and the Astros have been something straight out of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

For the benefit of Mr. Kite/there will be a show tonight/on trampoline.

The Hendersons will all be there/late of Pablo Fanques Faire/what a scene!

Over men and horses/hoops and garters/lastly through a hogshead of real fire—

in this way, Mr. K will challenge the world!

“Nobody feels worse than José, because he takes it very serious and takes it to heart,” said Baker after Game Three, mindful that Altuve has a history of all but beating himself senseless whenever he hits a slump. “He’s one of ours, and we’ve all been through this before. Not in this spotlight like this. It hurts us all to see him hurting.”

The Rays’ Mr. K is manager Kevin Cash. He and his Hendersons are challenging the world, indeed. He has his Arozarenas, Kiermaiers, Margots, Renfroes, and Wendles going over men, horses, hoops, and garters.

He even had his relief pitcher John Curtiss going through the hogshead of fire in the seventh Tuesday night. Curtiss took a lunging leap to his right to spear Gurriel’s high bouncer to the third base side of the hill, and threw Gurriel out while springing up from his knees. 

About the only thing Mr. K didn’t have in the repertoire was his reliever Diego Castillo choosing the bottom of the ninth to form his own escape trap. Starting with a swinging strikeout, he walked pinch-hitter Abraham Toro plus George Springer back-to-back.

Then, Castillo struck poor Altuve out on a check swing that may or may not have been a gift from plate umpire Jeff Nelson. The best explanation may have been Altuve leaning so far forward checking his swing that it looked as though his bat nicked across the front of the plate. At minimum, Nelson should have called for help to be absolutely sure.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered in the end, but still. Castillo jammed Brantley into a fist fly to left center that Margot hustled in to grab to end it. The check swing won’t be dissected nearly as much as Altuve’s throwing trouble.

There’s no good time to catch what sports calls the yips—the sudden inability of a ballplayer to execute what he’s been doing blindfolded all his life. And there isn’t always a good explanation for just how and why it happens. Just ask one of the most notorious cases, the only infielder in baseball who beat the yips successfully while he still had a lot of career left.

“I can feel for José. There’s nothing worse in the world,” said Steve Sax, the one-time Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman whose thirty 1983 throwing errors were attributable to the yips—until, he once said, his final conversation with his dying father, when Dad told him it wasn’t a physical or mental block but unexpected lost confidence.

“It’s the most lonely place to be,” Sax continued in a telephone interview. “It’s embarrassing. It’s just awful. I hope he can grasp this as soon as possible because this thing is very simple. It’s right in front of him. So many people are going to say, ‘Oh, José, you have a mental block.’ He doesn’t. He has a temporary loss of confidence. It has nothing to do with his mental state. Something triggered him to start questioning his ability, that’s why he’s doing this. When he gets his confidence, this will disappear.”

As has been customary in the baseball world in 2020, there have been plenty of Astros fans ready to plant the goat horns into Altuve’s forehead and anti-Astros fans proclaiming this is nothing but Astrogate karma. Enough of both to fill ALCS venue Petco Park, and then some. He might be lucky that there have been no fans at the ballpark to react to his yips in person.

Jeff Kallman has been a professional journalist since 1988. He writes Throneberry Fields Forever (throneberryfields.com) covering the whole game, and is a Met fan since the day they were born, the poor devil. You can follow him on Twitter @JeffKallman55.

Extra Innings

“When [players] are going through [the yips], all they have is this self-loathing, this angst they carry around in their heart about themselves. They hate themselves for putting themselves through this. One thing they have to know is there is nothing wrong with them. Let yourself out of jail… But players are so hard on themselves.”

- Steve Sax