Stress and Anxiety in Baseball

Baseball is a team sport. Between the foul lines, however, the outcome of the game is inextricably composed of multiple individual performances, and in today’s hyper-analytical and overly-critical society that places each individual performance under a microscope, stress amongst baseball players has — by all accounts — risen to never-before-seen levels.

For some players, that stress lacks a healthy outlet. It builds and builds until mental disorders begin to bubble to the surface, and in some cases, they can become debilitating for players.

Taylor Buchholz became the latest major league baseball player to come forward and announce that he will take time away from baseball due to anxiety and depression issues.

His agent released the following statement on the issue:

“If he signs with anyone, it would be with the Mets,” Pasti said. “The way they handled the situation with Taylor meant a lot to him. The Mets really cared about him. As of right now, Taylor is taking the year off. He’s feeling great, but not ready to get back into baseball. He’s taking it one day at a time.”

Buchholz has spent time on the disabled list in recent years due to shoulder and elbow injuries, grinding what appeared to be a blossoming career as a late-inning reliever to a sudden halt. He posted a 2.17 ERA (3.33 FIP) with the Colorado Rockies in 2008, compiling 21 holds and a 3.11 K/BB, but he missed time during the 2009, 2010, and 2011 seasons due to the aforementioned injuries.

The anxiety and depression issues with which Buchholz now copes are every bit as serious as the physical ones that derailed him earlier in his career, but the 30-year-old reliever is far from the only professional baseball player dealing with a mental malady.

Zack Greinke remains the most notable current major leaguer that has publicly announced his struggles with anxiety. Hong-Chih Kuo, Khalil Green, Dontrelle Willis, and Joey Votto are other recent examples of players who have missed playing time due to non-physical issues. Some have been able to bounce back and enjoy success in the major leagues. Some, however, have been unable to overcome the anxiety and now serve as precautionary tales for organizations that ignore the fragile mental state of professional baseball players.

Read these descriptions from baseball players and doctors:

Buchholz: “This has been an ongoing thing for two-and-a-half, three years and I had no idea what was going on. I was totally irritable, but I was able to fake it around people. I would normally be the guy whistling and singing and smiling around the clubhouse. But with total anxiety, I had this tightness all of the time. I was constantly on edge.” (link)

Stan Conte, Dodgers Trainer: “[Kuo] was like a guy in water who couldn’t float and begging to get out of the water. It was very emotional, the way he was begging us not to put him out there.” (link)

Votto: “The very first night I was alone was when I went to the hospital, I couldn’t take it. It got to the point where I thought I was going to die.” (link)

Willis: “This [anxiety disorder] is not depression. This is something totally different. This is something where they saw something in my blood that they didn’t like. I’m not crazy, though my teammates might think that I’m crazy.” (link)

These quotations only provide us with a tiny glimpse into these players’ worlds, but it becomes quite clear that this issue is not one to be ignored. Votto’s quotation is certainly the most jarring, though Willis displays the natural isolation (“my teammates might think that I’m crazy”) that is generally associated with anxiety disorders.

Part of me wonders if the increased use of statistics in baseball has only heightened the spotlight on the individual player. The very term WAR — Wins Above Replacement — seeks to quantify a player’s worth to his team; a single statistic that singles out the individual player, isolates his performance from that of his team, and labels a player as good or bad. In many ways, that statistic has depersonalized the game. While it augments one’s understanding of the game and player value, it also ignores personality, leadership, dedication, and intelligence.

Statistics serve an important tool in today’s game and are being heavily relied upon by more and more front offices, but organizations and fans cannot ignore the fact that baseball is played by individuals. A study out of the United Kingdom suggests 1-in-6 adults have experienced anxiety attacks or currently suffer from an anxiety disorder. That statistic allows us to postulate that anxiety is more prevalent in baseball than widely assumed. Anxiety is an unquantifiable — but very real — issue for which teams must prepare and consider when making personnel moves and when simply attempting to create the healthiest environments for their existing players.

And by all accounts, the New York Mets handled the situation with Taylor Buchholz with class and sensitivity. The fact that Buchholz would have only signed with the Mets signifies a sense of loyalty that was earned during a tough and emotional 2011 season for the reliever. That is encouraging to see for all parties involved.




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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

39 Responses to “Stress and Anxiety in Baseball”

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  1. Macek says:

    In addition to the recent publicity given to players with admitted anxiety/depression issues, I think that the prevalence of substance abuse among players and other individuals around the game is related to, and indicates, the importance of awareness of this issue. I wonder how much teams pay attention to psychological evaluations of players when drafting them or acquiring them from other teams.

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  2. Edgy DC says:

    Thanks for spotlighting a real issue, that baseball is really in it’s infancy with regard to understanding, 60 years after the debut of Jimmy Piersall.

    I’m somewhat in disagreement with where the second half of this article is going. Baseball has virtually always analyzed players by statistics. More sophisticated statistics have arisen, but I can’t necessarily see why players feel more pressure from their VORP in 2011 than they felt from their batting average in 1961. Nor can I see where WAR has necessarily depersonalized the game in a way that ERA didn’t. Folks follow the game online and pore through the statistical manuals for their fantasy teams (though I stay the heck away from that) and they still collect cards — and those are largely impersonal ways to objectify a player rather than understand him in three dimensions — but folks also have filled ballparks in the last 15 years as never before.

    Next, I disagree that WAR definitively “ignores personality, leadership, dedication, and intelligence.” The latter of these two feed directly into a person’s performance where they are measured on the field (WAR). The former two are certainly traits that scouts, GMs, and managers praise and give strong lip service to while constructing rosters.

    Similarity, I disagree that anxiety is ignored or unquantifiable. While the manner has been subjective and the success likely questionable, I’m certain scouts have been giving players ratings on the like of “mental fitness” (including anxiety) for years. It’s hard to measure how that spits out the other end, but there’s probably reams of data organizations have from their scouts, and it would be interesting to isolate that data and see if it’s meaningful at all in predicting which players have faced greater mental and emotional challenges than others.

    (By the way, keep an eye on L*U*C*A*S*D*U*D*A. It absolutely kills me to see how unfomfortable that young man is when he’s being interviewed.)

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  3. BurleighGrimes says:

    I have no idea if this is the case with Buchholz, but I wouldn’t be surprised if depression and/or anxiety disorder is of higher incidence in players with injury histories. Not only is the stress of worrying about your livelihood likely worse, but dealing with chronic pain has been shown to directly lead to severe anxiety and depression. I wouldn’t be surprised of athletes–who push their bodies to the brink, often past the point of trauma–don’t deal with mental health issues as a result. I am glad that teams are taking or at least starting to take mental health issues seriously and with respect.

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  4. futurecfo says:

    Well done, sir. Thank you for bringing this issue into the public view. I speak as one rather ignorant of this disorder. I hope each of these men, and others in the league will get the help they need.

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  5. Matt says:

    are these the same mets that made ike davis play with a broken ankle?

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    • BurleighGrimes says:

      The Mets didn’t make Ike Davis *play* with a broken ankle. They “just” misdiagnosed his injury and gave him treatment the made it worse. Guessing their mental health staff is a different set of (non-incompetent) people.

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    • Greg says:

      Ike Davis didn’t play a game for the rest of the year after injuring his ankle, so I’m not sure what you’re talking about.

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  6. DonnyBaseball says:

    Anxiety disorders can have a debilitating effect on people. Taylors experience where he didn’t know what was wrong but tried to fake it; evidently for years is typical. Yes, some people self medicate to treat the issue which only compounds the problem once they (hopefully) get professional help.
    I suffered from anxiety attacks and generalized anxiety disorder for many years. I thought I had heart problems, was dying, had a thyroid issue – all different sorts of worries. I self medicated and actually had a doctor once tell me to go home and have a couple beers. Eventually, the untreated anxiety became depression and insomnia which finally put in the office of a doctor who knew exactly what the issue was. It was hell for awhile but I’ve had many years of “normalcy” now and life is good.
    I cannot begin to explain the empathy I feel for the Kahlils, Taylors, Zacks and all the regualr every day folks who suffer from the problem.
    The ball clubs seem to be listening to the doctors and putting the patient before business as it should be. There is a stigma though less now than when I was diagnosed.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      This issue has thrown me for a complete loop.

      My10yo son has high anxiety issues. If he has to walk into a room where there’s 10 people he doesn’t know, he’ll lock up and not be able to function. Have to introduce himself to a new person? No chance.

      Have to wear an outfit/clothes to school that is different than what he had planned and we might be in tears for 20 minutes. I know, I know.

      Then, the very same kid will be in absolute “Beast Mode” in a mega baseball tournament with a hundred people watching, and pitch & hit his team to a tourney win.

      Even as an education professional, I don’t understand it … I only understand that it is real, and we have to deal with it effectively.

      There are some situations that seem like no big deal, but make him nervous as hell. Situations that would drive other people nuts by being intimidated y the situation, and he’s perfectly comfortable. It’s almost like “Opposite World” where the little thing are really big issues and the big issues are just little things.

      I always relate to the Greinke situation … where he goes out an and throws a dominant game, he just doesn’t want to talk about it. It’s so far removed from the chest-thumbing, individual-marketing personas that we’re used to that it seems to be “broken”. Naw, just different.

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      • BDF says:

        A recent story that might be somewhat related to your son’s situation, not from the standpoint of an anxiety disorder but the way in which our society celebrates extroversion and punishes introversion:

        http://www.npr.org/2012/01/30/145930229/quiet-please-unleashing-the-power-of-introverts

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      • Cecil Cooper's Twin says:

        I can totally relate to your son’s condition. I always had difficulty with getting any kind of attention, good or bad, around people who I was not close to.

        I was at my most happy and comfortable when I was on a field or court. I always excelled in those high leverage situations late in a game on the mound or at the plate. But if someone brought up the way I was dressed or personal information in public I would become so upset that I tried to avoid those situations ever again.

        I am over it now, after battling some depression. Sometimes, I wonder how much more successful I could have been without this condition.

        I am confident that your son will grow out of the worst of his symptoms. Keep supporting him and work with on determining what is the small stuff. The more different uncomfortable situations you cover with your son, the more comfortable he will become in them.

        I think Zack G rehearses what he is going to say in a press conference and tries not to deviate. This probably helps him get through those required situations. I used to do the same with my own difficult situations.

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      • Jon L. says:

        One issue that I think is really salient for some people who suffer from anxiety is that they can be extremely successful in situations in which success is clearly defined, but terribly anxious in situations where what’s appropriate or ideal is less clear. I think is why some of us do very well with a bat in our hand and the game on the line – or maybe even speaking in public – but feel self-concious, anxious and uncertain in low-stakes social situations that involve new people or unclear relationships and expectations.

        I don’t think there are easy answers, but as this article and the responses imply, there is an ever-growing body of resources to help people address these problems.

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    • Morse says:

      I’ve had anxiety disorder most of my life, and the effects are indeed debilitating. In highschool I didn’t eat lunch because there were too many people there. I couldn’t tell my teacher that we needed an extra copy of a paper. I can only imagine what pain MLB players with this disorder are going through. Hopefully they get to a bearable point to continue playing the joy that is baseball.

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  7. BDF says:

    “Part of me wonders if the increased use of statistics in baseball has only heightened the spotlight on the individual player.”

    This misunderstands the fundamental nature of anxiety disorders, and by extension all mental illness. A proper diagnosis names an indigenous (with the exception of PTSD), organic condition; it may be triggered or worsened by circumstances but it is not a result of them. It is also by no means clear that a high-stress, public-spotlight job like baseball player makes the condition worse: Many sufferers may benefit from the structured, goal-oriented environment with little free time that baseball provides just as many both inside and outside baseball report crippling, truly disabling anxiety from everyday events like running out of dog food or having to take public transportation.

    All that having been said, I think it is FANTASTIC that you are talking about this, and in an intelligent, open manner.

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    • Cliff says:

      It’s hard to say if a condition that is “triggered” for the first time by environmental circumstances was indeed innate all along or in fact a result of those circumstances.

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      • BDF says:

        The consensus in neurobiological circles is that the causes of mental illness (like almost all illness) exist on a sliding scale from environmental to genetic. Anyone can be triggered to an anxiety attack by overwhelming circumstances–you’re getting married, your son was hit by a car, you’re pitching in a major league ballgame–but an underlying biology has to be present for true pathology–a diagnosable anxiety disorder–to develop. This isn’t even really argued about by experts any more.

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  8. Greg says:

    As someone who has suffered from major anxiety problems in the past, let me say that it is a very serious and very real thing, and I want to thank the author for writing a very respectful article. As a Mets fan, I’ve seen too many times where people have taken the “suck it up, cry baby” approach with Mets players with anxiety issues (Mike Pelfrey, for example).

    But anxiety problems make it hard to make it through the day, let alone go out on a mound with tens of thousands of people watching your every pitch. Imagine feeling as much adrenaline and stress as you ever have in your entire life for several hours a day, every day. It’s like being trapped inside your own head with no way out. I’m glad Buchholz realizes he is more important as a person than he is as a pitcher.

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  9. TDW says:

    Kind of makes you wonder what players in bygone era’s did with this sort of thing Drink?(Mantle, Ruth) Punch Teammates?(Joe Medwick) Cocaine?(Gooden, Strawberry) who knows who has dealt with this stuff in years past lets just be glad it gets diagnosed now

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    • Colin says:

      Drugs or just not making it would be my guess. As a ongoing battler myself, as repeated by everyone here, I can say it is completely debilitating if untreated, to the point where basic functioning becomes difficult. A sufferer in an era with little diagnostic ability or treatment available would have a very very difficult time ever making to a professional sports level unless its onset was very late in their development.

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  10. DonnyBaseball says:

    To CircleChange11, one of the most effective treatments to me was cognitive group therapy. The isolation of the disorder lends to thinking you are the only person in the world with the problems; getting into a safe, nurturing group setting moderated by a doctor was a big step in my recovery with phamaceutical help too of course. I highly recommend rather than just seeing a Psychologist that you start with a Psychiatrist so heor she can address the short term symptoms with meds, but then links that with either one on one therapy or group therapy. I am in a very, very public facing job and it almost ruined me. I wanted to stay in a dark room, etc. But it can get better fast. Your son, to me, sounds like he may have Social anxiety which is “better” than Generalized since you can control social settings that become triggers for the attack. Generalized comes and goes with no apparent trigger.

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  11. Beck says:

    “Anxiety is unquantifiable…”

    Just pointing out that therapists have a slew of psychometric tools that quantify anxiety and depression, most of which have been carefully tested with clinical standards. In fact, contemporary clinical psychology is so focused on statistical rigour that they make most sabr-orietated Fangaphs articles look like something from Ogdan Nash’s dream journal.

    (Not that that takes away from the point of the article; just saying)

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    • Cliff says:

      And yet, placebos with side-effects perform just as well as the best drugs for depression. You kind of wonder how statistically rigorous they really are, or how they apply that statistical information anyway.

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      • Cliff B says:

        What I went through 16 years ago was a very real physical demon of depression/anxiety. It had halted my ability to function so much that all of my buddies knew something was wrong. When it got to the point I couldn’t tie my shoes without messing it up was about when I was fortunate enough to find my way to help. Without the meds, I wasn’t getting out of that black hole. Brain chemistry is very real. Just as real as a broken leg.

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  12. Antonio Bananas says:

    I wish I could just take time off work. With 30 hours of studying or in class, 30-40 hours at work where my boss is a raging maniac who cusses at employees when he gets off his meds, 5 hours from home and my dad went to the ER, me just 2 years after having a subdural hematoma that almost killed me and I still feel the side effects, paying for everything on my own on a monthly income of a little over 750, it’d be awesome to make enough money to just be able to take time off.

    I feel bad for people with anxiety issues, but not that bad when they can fix them and not worry about real issues.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      O yea, and my girlfriend has spells of vertigo after having 4 concussions, she also randomly gets incredibly painful ovarian cysts, I’ve been with her for 3 years so it’s not like this is just a crush. “Anxiety”? Give me a break. I know our body chemistry is different, but when you can afford to take time off and get the best care possible and really don’t have real world problems, it’s hard for me to feel too sorry for you.

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      • Jason461 says:

        I’m sorry you’ve had it so rough, but just because you have had a rough time doesn’t invalidate the problems of others. For instance, I could point out the student I once had whose mother walked him out of a war zone in Africa before dying herself and leaving him totally alone and then say that your problems are irrelevant. I could do that, but I won’t, because that would be a mean attempt to invalidate your very real struggles.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        I’m not saying that I’ve had a rough time, I can see how it came off that way. My point was that EVERYONE has a rough time, a majority of people have problems a lot worse than these players and most people can’t afford to fix it. My problems aren’t really that bad, I have a female friend who is just 21 and was told she may not be able to have kids, now the guy she’s engaged to might not marry her. People who work normal jobs and have normal lives have problems worse than baseball players. It’s just incredibly hard for me to feel sorry for the players. I wish I had these “problems”.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        I assume my situation is pretty typical. A lot of people who go to college are going through the same things as me, some have it worse off. The bottom line to me is, only the scale of 1-10 of my “man that sucks”-o-meter, pro baseball players with anxiety is about a 1.

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      • BlackOps says:

        You’re ignorant. You’re proclaiming that your problems are worse even though you haven’t experienced anxiety. Besides, what’s your goal in posting about how much “worse” your problems are than everyone else’s?

        Typically, anxiety and depression stem from some kind of trauma early in life, so anxiety or a major depressive episode aren’t usually things that randomly pop up, it’s a lifelong illness.

        But to be so selfish to try to quantify how much worse your problems are than others’ is just sad. Nobody knows what exactly Taylor Buchholz’ problems are like except for himself, same goes for you and me as well.

        Good luck with all you’re going through, life is a lot to handle sometimes.

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      • Greg says:

        There’s a difference between “life is rough” and anxiety problems. It’s really indescribable. I could hardly eat when I had anxiety problems, to the tune of me dropping from a healthy 170 lbs (at over 6’1) down to 152 pounds in about a month. If I ate any more, I would just throw it up, despite my efforts not to.

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      • bstar says:

        Belittling anxiety and not calling it a “real issue” is definitely an ignorant statement. As a lifelong sufferer, I can tell you that full-blown anxiety issues walk with you every day, every time you encounter another person you are not comfortable with. In extreme cases, that can be the rest of the world except for a few friends and immediate family.

        But seeing as how you are just college-aged, Antonio, I can understand and pardon the fact that you very well may have never met a person with serious, life-altering anxiety issues.

        Best of luck with all you’re dealing with right now.

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      • Archi says:

        Meh. I’d take the ovarian cysts and bouts of vertigo over panic disorder. That’s just me though.

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  13. Warren says:

    A book I read recently does a pretty good job of discussing similar issues. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I thought it was pretty good.

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  14. TexPantego says:

    I’ve always wondered if undiagnosed milder forms of bipiloar disorder might explain some of the more extreme hot streak /cold streak players; particularly the ones who, year in year out, have dramatic first half/second half splits. In mild forms of BP disorder, hypomaniac periods would make an athlete more focussed, more confident and more energized. Unlike most people with BP disorder, the more extreme up and down moods and behavior are usually not present unless the patient takes drugs or alcohol. The disorder is often linked with the seasons, because of sunlight exposure; so just as most athletes are getting tired in July, a player with this disorder would likely be just entering the start of his highly productive hypomanic period, and the depressive phase of the disorder, whch would likely be mild, would occur in the offseason.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Hypomania usually manifests itself as a “problem” when a person with bipolar 2 is depressed. It doesn’t exactly work in cycles like bipolar 1. A person can be hypomanic when they’re not depressed and a lot of the time it doesn’t interfere with everyday life. But if someone is in a mixed state (hypomanic AND depressed) things can get ugly. A person could probably not play baseball in this state.

      There are two other forms of bipolar you talked about it called bipolar 2 and soft bipolar disorder. On a scale of 1-10 of hypomania/mania, bipolar 1 is 8-10, bipolar 2 5-8, soft bipolar 1-4 and there is zero as well. Every one of us has a number on that scale.

      This website (http://www.psycheducation.org/index.html) has a lot of great information on bipolar 2 and how linked it is to anxiety. A large percentage of people who have at least one major depressive episode before 20 are bipolar or have anxiety or similar issues. The “milder” forms of bipolar outnumber bipolar 1 by by nearly double.

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  15. Pedagogy of the Depressed says:

    I remember hearing about a pitcher in 95 or 96 who went on the disabled list for depression. I was a kid then, and it was totally illegible to me. Still, I couldn’t get over the fact that this could happen. Mental illness? Forget it, that can’t make you eligible for the disabled list. I wish I could recall the player’s name. Anybody?

    As someone who went on to develop his own relationship with depression a few years later, it’s amazing to think that it’s only now becoming possible to make space for these kinds of discussions. You have to believe most fans would still remain unconvinced of the seriousness of such conditions. It remains at the margins.

    Never mind questions of sexual orientation. This has to be the elephant in the sports world’s room. I can’t wait to live in a world where that discussion happens. We will have come so far, conceptually

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  16. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    So FANGRAPHS causes depression in players

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  17. designated quitter says:

    I suspect that anxiety and depression are no more or less common in professional baseball than in any other segment of the population. There may conceivably be less of it. Attributing it to heightened scrutiny of their performance is baseless speculation.

    I think what we’re seeing is players and teams more willing to make the issue public and speak without shame about it. This is actually a good thing. Professional sports and the entertainment industries in general have long had a tendency to hide, minimize, and deny that their stars have problems like everyone else’s. That’s why we’ve seen so many actors and singers being treated for ‘exhaustion’ rather than ‘alcoholism,’ ‘drug abuse,’ ‘depression,’ or ‘anorexia.’

    Until very recently, there hasn’t been that much progress in MLB since Jimmy Piersall came forward with his autobiography ‘Fear Strikes Out’ in the late 1950s.

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