Cedric Mullins' 2021 season was one of the best by an Orioles hitter in recent memory. Mullins, who won a Silver Slugger Award and finished ninth in the American League Most Valuable Player voting, failed to reach base 64 percent of the time and did not record a hit in 71 percent of his at-bats.
Pretty great, right?
It's easy to forget just how often the best hitters in the game fail to record a hit. That was the outcome in 63.4 percent of the at-bats of Ty Cobb, the all-time leader in career batting average.
"Baseball is a game of failure," says Kathryn Rowe, the minor leagues mental skills coordinator for the Orioles. "I try to help players figure out what their ideal performance mindset is so that we can help them consistently perform at their best, despite all of the failure that's gonna be happening."
Gunnar Henderson, the Orioles' No. 4 prospect according to MLBPipeline.com, experienced a lot of that failure upon his promotion to the high Single-A Aberdeen IronBirds in June. After a 35-game offensive outburst in low Single-A Delmarva to start the season, Henderson struggled to find his groove at Aberdeen, recording just one hit in his first 44 plate appearances with the IronBirds.
The solution for the 20-year-old wasn't shortening his swing or laying off a high fastball. Henderson needed a change in his mentality and went to Rowe for help.
"She was just like, 'What got you here? Just go back to what got you here,' " Henderson said.
Starting July 6, Henderson recorded an OPS of .823 with nine home runs in 54 games for the IronBirds.
"I was wanting to change things every day. It's so easy to do that, because you're just trying to find something that works," Henderson said. "When I got back to what got me there, I started hitting the ball a lot better."
At just 20, Henderson is developing his mental skills early, right along with his physical skills. In her role, Rowe is tasked with working with some of the youngest, most promising players in the Orioles farm system. And getting into good mental habits early can make a huge difference, she said.
"I wish we could be teaching this in Little League. The younger and earlier they start to learn it, the better it's gonna be for them," Rowe said. "Once they're in the big leagues, they'll have it in place already, and it's gonna be second nature for them, just like anything else that they're learning on the field."
Conversations surrounding mental skills or mental health always come with hurdles. The stigma surrounding the start of the conversation can be just as difficult as the topic itself, especially for professional athletes. As a former NCAA soccer player, Rowe can empathize.
"I think the biggest challenge can be breaking the stigma that doing mental skills work is considered a weakness," Rowe said. "It's a conversation that we have to keep having, but it also has to be genuine and authentic. I'm a human, I'm an athlete myself. I know how this impacts you. This isn't a foreign thing that's really weird, it's really helpful."
With the No. 1 farm system in all of baseball, the Orioles' future hinges on the development of their prospects. Their on-the-field skills are honed by coaches and managers. With the help of Rowe, their mental skills and mental health are becoming a growing priority.
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