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).

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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.