The Royals and Mental Toughness

The Kansas City Royals have talent, but to they have what it takes mentally to win?

In watching the 2012 version of the Kansas City Royals, it is hard to deny that this is the most talented team they have put on the field in quite some time. This is not the same collections of “has-been’s” and “never-will-be’s” that Royals fans have become accustomed to seeing. But the fact of the matter is, the Royals are currently sitting with the second-worst record in the major leagues at 9-19. And it is hard to ignore idea that mental toughness is a big reason for the slow start.

Not just baseball, but all sports have seen supremely talented players who were not successful because they couldn’t hack it mentally. Whether that equates to a player buckling under pressure, a player’s lack of desire to properly prepare, or a combination of the two, there is no denying that the mental side of the game is absolutely critical to success. The two most recent demonstrations of a lack of mental toughness were put on display on Sunday agains the Yankees and Monday against the Red Sox by starting pitchers Luke Hochevar and Jonathan Sanchez. Both of these players have talent. And not just enough talent to be a big league player. These guys both have the talent to excel in the big leagues. They have each demonstrated that at different points in their careers.

Luke Hochevar was a #1 overall pick in 2006. In 2009 he threw an 80 pitch complete game against the Cincinnati Reds, and later in the season struck out 13 against the Texas Rangers. This is why the Royals continue to put up with his inconsistency and made him their Opening Day starter in 2011 and de facto “ace” going into 2012.

On Sunday, Hochevar made it only 2 1/3 innings into his start, giving up 7 earned runs on 7 hits. This was the 3rd time in 6 starts this season that Hochevar had put his team in a hole early in the ballgame that they had almost no chance of digging out of. His ERA for the season is now 9.00.

Jonathan Sanchez has averaged 9.3 SO per 9 innings over his 6+ year career. He also struck out 205 batters in 193 innings for the San Francisco Giants in 2010. This is why the Royals traded Melky Cabrera for him this past off-season.

In his start on Monday, Sanchez made it only 3 innings, giving up 6 earned runs on 6 hits while throwing only 35 of his 73 pitches for strikes. His ERA for the season is now 6.75.

There are other examples. Earlier in the season, over about a week period, Alex Gordon seemed to be coming up to bat on a nightly basis in key late-game situations. Each time he came up short-handed. While Gordon has begun to catch fire at the plate after an extremely slow start, his lack of success in these pressure situations is telling. This could be explained away by saying that since Gordon got off to such a slow start, he was lacking confidence in these situations which led to his inability to produce. Let’s hope this is true and now that he has snapped out of his funk that this pattern comes to a halt.

Last October, St. Louis Cardinals fans watched one of the most magnificent displays of the other side of this. On the largest stage in the sport, David Freese, Lance Berkman, and other Cardinals players showed the world the importance of mental toughness. Until the Royals have a team full of players who are not afraid to prepare for the big situations, and not afraid of the spotlight, they will be nothing more than a talented team that won’t win anything.

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