Mike Wright's year-end mental inventory of an uncomfortable and unsatisfying 2016 season made him realize he has been in such a place before, and knew just how to fix it.
Armed with the wisdom of well-worn books from his college coach and father, plus a sinker he hopes will completely change his profile on the mound, Wright hopes whatever role 2017 holds for him will be one he fills more satisfactorily for the Orioles. And more importantly, for himself.
"It's stretched all the way back to college," Wright said. "My freshman and sophomore year, I was terrible. … Good games here, bad games there. And then, my junior fall, my head coach gave me a book and I read it, and my dad also gave me another book. I read that, and it really calmed me down and helped me really focus pitch to pitch. I won a starting rotation [spot] in college, and the rest was history and got me here. It's a beautiful thing, and obviously, you have to revisit those things."
The parallels are striking. Armed with the same fiery fastball and a personality to match it, his early years at East Carolina were inconsistent. Wright was two years into his college career with a 7.22 ERA as a reliever and spot starter with little draft interest brewing for the following year. The next season, he was the Friday night starter with a 2.79 ERA and the Orioles took him in the third round.
He enters this spring with a 5.88 lifetime big league ERA, and is on the periphery of the major league rotation. So the 27-year-old drew on what changed his career six summers ago.
His coach at East Carolina, Billy Godwin, had just finished reading renowned sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman's book, "The Mental Game of Baseball," and saw that the tantalizing right-hander in his care could benefit from the practices within.
"Previous to that, he would make pitches, and you would go, 'Wow,'" Godwin said. "Then, all of a sudden he'd give up a flare and it could unravel quickly on him. The wheels could come off quickly on him. … My experience tells me that was simply, really, the mental side."
Dorfman worked personally with Cy Young Award winners Greg Maddux and Roy Halladay, and 2014 American League Cy Young winner Corey Kluber swears by the book. Godwin has reason to believe the copy Wright returned to this winter is his own, considering he doesn't believe it was returned.
Wright's father, Dennis, got him another of Dorfman's books, "The Mental ABC's of Pitching." Both texts focus on alleviating stress-causing distractions during the competition itself, and promote skills to stay focused amid those. More recently, new Orioles bullpen coach Alan Mills recommended Wright read "Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: Taosports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business, and Life," in which sports psychologist and T'ai Chi master Chungliang Al Huang relates stories of success from all walks of life with examples of relaxation and performance related to each.
Just because Wright has renewed his connection with the books doesn't mean he ever lost touch with them, but now he hopes the lessons permeate every facet of his life.
"I know where it's gotten me," Wright said. "I know when I started reading the books, I became better. It's not like I wasn't reading last year. It's just a different focus while reading, really putting it into perspective of, how did you feel last year when you were giving ups six runs in two innings? How do you feel? Then forget about that and think about the positives."
He applies it to everything from his pregame catches and bullpens between starts to pitcher fielding practice, but what counts is when the Orioles call on him in game action.
At times last year, Wright's mentality on the mound, and between his starts, could be a detriment. His passion, in the moment, seemed to take him out of games, and it didn't end there.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it stayed with me," he said, "Just my all-around approach, even when I had a good game, it was just hard when you're not playing for yourself anymore and playing to have fun and playing for your teammates. You're playing for acceptance from whoever, and making sure that you're doing the right things, you're saying the right things when people ask you questions, and things like that."
Still, he sees his competitive fire (and even the occasional emotional reaction) as big of a weapon as any of his pitches. Taking it away would be like taking away a curveball someone loves to use on the mound, and "that's a terrible way to feel," Wright said.
But to extend the best pitch analogy further, his success on the mound this year could stem from the fact that a different one of his offerings might assume that title. Late last year, Wright felt his two-seam fastball sinking more than ever before. He has been taking advice from pitching coach Roger McDowell on the pitch and rolling with it all spring long, though manager Buck Showalter said he's sometimes caught in between as the transition progresses.
"He's just trying to get consistent in what he's trying to be," Showalter said. "That's something Roger has been talking to him about. Who are you, and how can you do this best? I'm hoping that he continues to throw that hard sinker on the outer half and keep getting ground balls."
A good two-seam fastball could help Wright against left-handed batters, who collectively had a .990 OPS off him last season, and that could be the decider that keeps him as a starting pitcher long term. Showalter said it could be the "separator" for Wright.
"That's absolutely the plan, to throw that sinker and keep the thing on the ground because they don't leave the park," Wright said.
He knows you still have to locate, but even the best pitch can get hit. Wright knows that, too, and is prepared to flush it to get back to the mantra Godwin often reminds him of: next pitch.
His new mental clarity was tested Saturday in his third start this spring. Wright continued to use his sinker to good effect, but everything found patches of grass. Two bloops scored a run. A pickoff attempt slid out of his hand for an error. A scorched two-run single went off first baseman Mark Trumbo's glove.
Wright walked off the mound with two outs in the third inning having allowed three runs (two earned) on six hits and a walk. This spring, he has allowed four earned runs in 7 2/3 innings. And once his most trying start of the Grapefruit League calendar ended, he could tell where things improved from his new outlook.
"One thing you definitely have to avoid is, 'Here we go again,'" Wright said. "If you start saying here we go again, you're already thinking negatively about what's happening in the future instead of, 'All right, that's fine. I threw the pitch I wanted. He did not hit it well. It's just one of those things that happened, and what can I do on this next pitch now to get me back in the dugout?'"