Caught up with Hong-Chih Kuo, seen above in a photo from this morning’s warmup stretch, inside the clubhouse. Kuo is only 30, but has a dozen years of professional baseball, five surgeries and two serious cases of “the yips” behind him already.
The most recent surgery on his elbow came just last October, after he’d mused openly to reporters in Los Angeles about possibly retiring from baseball and returning to his native Taiwan to run a restaurant. He’d also spent two stints on the DL for a return of his “yips” issues, which lead to ballplayers being unable to control throws despite no obvious physical issues.
Kuo had battled a yips problem in 2009, then became arguably the game’s top reliever in 2010 with the Dodgers. In the interim, he’d worked with famed sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman to curtail his throwing issues.
But Dorfman passed away last February at age 75. By April, the yips troubles were once agan starting to overwhelm Kuo. He returned after the first DL stint, struggled again, then went back on the DL in May. I asked Kuo whether Dorfman’s death made it tougher for him to bounce back, since he could no longer phone him up for instant advice.
“Yes, it was hard,” he told me. “But you still have to fix it. It can’t come from somebody else.”
Then, he looked at me and pumped his chest with his fist.
“It has to come from inside here,” he said. “It has to come from inside me.”
That was much of what Kuo took away from Dorfman’s teachings and his book, The Mental ABC’s of Pitching.
The book teaches pitchers about setting up personal pre-game routines so they have a better chance of repeating their in-game mechanics and doing what they do best. He also coaches pitchers to clear their mind of all but a handful of thoughts related to executing each pitch.
Several major leaguers, including Roy Halladay, Brad Lidge and Rick Ankiel, have credited the book with reviving their careers. This past winter, after the book was translated into Chinese for the first time, Kuo agreed to travel back to Taiwan from his home in Los Angeles and help promote it at bookstore and autograph events there.
“Over here, a lot of people know him,” Kuo said of Dorfman. “But in Asia, not a lot of people know about this book. So, hopefully, now they can and it can help them like it helped me.”
As for his yips struggles, Kuo continues to work on the mental strategies to help him prevent recurrence. He says he now has other mental coaching experts who are working with him behind the scenes.
But in the end, he knows it will ultimately come down to him.
“It’s up to me right now,” he said.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he’s counting on Kuo being a solid bullpen addition from the left side.
“We’ve got to keep an eye on him and make sure we keep him healthy,” Wedge said. “Make sure we keep him available for us.”
Beyond the physical issues, the Mariners are also keeping tabs on Kuo’s mechanics. Kuo threw a bullpen session on Sunday and has another one tomorrow. Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro liked what he saw, given Kuo’s consistent arm slot and ability to repeat his delivery.
“We’re just watching the arm slot and his mechanics and how he’s dealing with that,” Navarro said. “We’re going to keep a close watch on him through the spring. He has to keep the same arm slot and the mechanics. That’s huge.”
The Mariners aren’t about to ease Kuo into anything, despite his history and the fact he’s suffering from a bit of a cold these early days of camp. One reliever they are taking it easy with is left-hander George Sherrill, now 35 and with increasing mileage on his arm.
Sherrill hasn’t thrown a bullpen yet and Wedge said the team will wait a few more days before getting him in there, so as not to wear his arm down before the season begins and it’s truly needed. The Mariners know what Sherrill is capable of and he’s not exactly auditioning for his situational lefty role.
So, they just want to keep him healthy and get him just enough work so he’s ready.