How Necessary Are Mound Visits?

The commissioner’s office, as we know, is interested in quickening a game that continues to slow, a trend recently revisited here by Jeff Sullivan.

While the intentional walk no longer requires four actual pitches to be thrown, while limits have been placed upon the length of instant-replay decisions, and while pitch clocks might be on their way to the major leagues after having been present in the minors for a couple years, there’s been less discussion about another pace-of-play variable currently under inspection: mound visits.

Mound visits undoubtedly slow the game. Part of the problem with regulating them, however, is that we don’t know how much (if any) value they provide for the pitchers and coaches meeting in the middle of the infield. While there must certainly be occasions when they benefit a club, does that occur often enough to warrant the frequency of the meetings?

Consider an extreme case from Monday night’s game in Pittsburgh. Talented but erratic Pirates starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow was having a rough go of it in his first start of the the season.

After he issued back-to-back walks to load the bases in the first, Ray Searage did what has been done for as long as there have been pitching coaches and struggling pitchers. He went out to have a word, to press pause, to change focus, to hopefully hit a sort of reset button with Glasnow.

Searage appeared to implore Glasnow to “Go after these guys.”

It didn’t work.

Command has always been an issue for Glasnow, and it — along with his ability to control the run game — are the road blocks in his path in becoming an effective major-league starter.

Glasnow’s wildness persisted, as he walked the following two batters to force in two runs. Mercifully, he was able to get Scooter Gennett to ground out on a 2-2 pitch (allowing a third run). Tucker Barnhart inexplicably swung at a first pitch to end the inning.

Glasnow’s troubles continued in the second inning.

Four of the first five Reds to bat singled, as the Reds’ advantage grew to five runs. Then an unusual thing occurred — one that I don’t recall ever witnessing while serving as a Pirates beat writer. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle normally only rises from the dugout to remove a pitcher form a game or to argue a call. But in this case he waved off his infield, a signal that there would be no pitching change.

He wanted a one-one-talk with Glasnow. And since it was such a rare type of meeting, Hurdle must have thought it was important that he could perhaps be a positive influence ….

Searage has said his key attribute as a pitching coach is empathy. He rarely if ever scolds a pitcher or loses patience. Perhaps, in this case, Hurdle was more direct. Hurdle was brief when asked about the nature of the chat after the game.

“I just needed to speak to him,” Hurdle told reporters. “We just needed to have a chat. What we’re looking for. Short and simple.”

I’m not aware of any studies on the effects of mound visits. If there are, please share! While there are no halftime speeches in baseball or fiery timeout huddles, perhaps mound visits are something of an equivalent. And perhaps that’s a sufficient argument not to curtail them. A study of California high school basketball teams, for example, found that more “unpleasant” half-time talks lead to better second-half performance.

“Unpleasantness does lead to success in the second half,” University of Victoria professor Richard Wolfe said.

Wolfe says the cliched “inspiring speech” is an aspect of organizational dynamics often overlooked by teams, but it is important.

So perhaps there is some value to mound visits. In the Pirates’ case, however, the second visit did not help, either: Glasnow walked the following batter, Eugenio Suarez. In his brief 25-inning career, Glasnow hasnow walked 15.1% of batter he has faced.

Hurdle then again rose from the dugout. Glasnow’s day was done. He had walked five and required three visits in 1.2 innings. Perhaps no words or meeting could helped on this day.

It was just one game and just a few mound visits. The above GIFs are simply anecdotal evidence.

Many want to believe in the significance of the words that managers and coaches utter in these moments — or during halftime or time-out huddles. Coaches are hired in part because they are supposed to be able to motivate and inspire. As a writer, I’d like to believe words matter.

We like to build narratives around fiery, motivational speeches and pep talks, including those stories written of Game Seven of the World Series. It was suggested that perhaps Jason Heyward’s rain-delay talk had some effect on the outcome. It makes a nice story. But we have no idea if it matters or how much it matters. Perhaps the most successful North American pro coach of our time in any sport, Bill Belichick, is rarely emotional or impassioned in such addresses,
according to NESN’s Mike Cole.

Perhaps pep talks are most effective between innings or rain delays, or during halftime in other sports, when there’s more time to find the right message to address an issue.

What we do know, however, is that teams are becoming more interested in sports psychology. We can understand why when we see a player like Glasnow clearly fighting himself perhaps as much mentally as physically Monday. The South Carolina Gamecocks had a sports psychologist, Dr. Ron Casper, in the dugout when the team advanced to three straight College World Series from 2010 to -12. Perhaps there’s something there in helping players through real-time struggles that can be learned from and implemented.

But it’s tough to know how much can be corrected during a mound visit. After all, as Belichick believes, most battles are won before they are fought. I suspect in the middle of the inning it’s tough for a pitcher having mechanical issues to quickly get back on track regardless of what is said. Perhaps the visits are even counterproductive at times, as they only magnify the issue and the moment. Perhaps everyone would be better off with fewer of them.

We hoped you liked reading How Necessary Are Mound Visits? by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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tmthjdb
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tmthjdb

Another outstanding think piece Travis. If psychology matters enough to be medicated and counseled then in-game adjustments to psychology must matter too. (Not for Glasnow this time, though.) “Coaching visit” appears on MLB.com’s Game Day and ESPN’s tracker but not sure if these are stored? Or if they appear in pitching logs? Would be and interesting pre/post analysis.