Throwing the ball back to the pitching mound may be the simplest part of a catcher's job, but it's got former Texas Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia stumped.
Since shoulder surgery late last season, Saltalamacchia can catch a pitch at 90 miles an hour, he can hit it out of the park, but ask him to return the ball 60 feet to the mound and things go awry.
Physically, he can make the toss, but something in his psyche is tripping him up, says Dr. Michael Lardon, who is a psychological consultant for Major League Baseball.
"When you first start off playing a sport, it's physical -- but at the higher level it becomes disproportionally mental," he said.
A mechanical glitch like this can become a persistent unconscious resposne.
"What's frustrating me the most is this is the only thing keeping me from being back in the big leagues," Saltalamacchia told ESPN. "I'm hitting. I'm catching. The only one thing is a simple throw back to the pitcher."
Playing for Triple-A Oklahoma Redhawks this season, Saltalamacchia was off to a rocky start last week when he had a dozen wild throws in a single game.
But Salty -- as the catcher is often called -- has got a new game plan.
In addition to working with sports psychologists, Saltalamacchia has changed his grip on the baseball and is using a tap-tap-throw rhythm for his tosses to the mound, tapping the ball twice against his glove before the throw, according to the Associated Press.
So far, so good. The catcher made it through an entire game with only one inaccurate throw on Monday when he tested out his new system for the first time.
"Hopefully, this is step one," the catcher told the Associated Press. "There's going to be good days. There's going to be bad days. I'm expecting that, [but] I know I'm ready."
Psyched Out Sports Pros
Bizarre glitches like Saltalmacchia's are the stuff of movie plot lines -- a similar case was featured in the movie "Major League 2" -- but this type of sports psyche-out is fairly common, said sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn.
Llewellyn has worked with "tons" of players with this exact problem, including Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees' second baseman who notoriously stopped being able to throw to first.
"It's a tough problem to work with mentally because very seldom do you know why it happened," Llewellyn said. "It's almost like a short circuit in the neurological system, like someone pulled the plug on that throw."
Mackey Sasser was another major league catcher with the issue, and Rick Ankiel, a pitcher for St. Louis Cardinals, finally had to be removed from the mound when he couldn't resolve his wild pitches.
Even for those who recover, Llewellyn noted that the problem may not "completely go away."
"It's like it's sitting back there waiting to rear its ugly head," he says.
Often coming on in the blink of an eye, sports psychologists say these mental blocks have a lot to do with an overactive mind.
Llewellyn said often the problem will only occur when players have time to think about their toss. That is why their throws to the base are often spot-on -- because they are split-second reaction throws to tag a man out, not the leisurely lob back to the mound.
Once a player realizes he has a problem, and teammates and even the media are talking about it, it can be hard to relax and "let yourself throw," Llewellyn said.
Though the player may be perfectly aware that it's all in his head, at the moment of release, "the unconscious mind takes over and he twitches," said Lardon.
"You're no longer trying to make good throws," Llewellyn said. "You're trying to not make bad throws. All your energy gets to be spent on not making mistakes, so you can't allow yourself to just throw."
Both Llewellyn and Lardon believe getting the player out of his own head is needed to overcome the mental block.
Lardon would advise desensitizing Saltalamacchia to the troublesome throw by "generalizing the experience." That could be done by having the pitcher stand closer to the plate and then moving back gradually or by practicing throwing to the pitcher at different bases.
Llewellyn described the healing process as "getting the mud out of the water" -- meaning that the player needed to be taught how to clear his mind of all the outside stresses and worries that may be keeping him from tapping into the natural movements he used to have.
Neurology Meets Psychology
Though performance glitches often can arise out of nowhere, Saltalamacchia feels his problem stemmed from surgery he had late last season to correct Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in his right shoulder.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is a rare problem that occurs when there is compression of the nerves in the neck. Symptoms include tingling or fatigue in the arms and sometimes pain, said Dr. Neal Chen, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Michigan.
Saltalamacchia told ESPN that he "rushed back" to playing, which is why he thinks his throwing is off.
"I knew not to do it, [but] I wanted to play," he said.
Now the pain is gone, but the mental block remains, at least in part. Though he had a good game Monday, Saltalamacchia told the Associated Press that he knows he still has a lot to prove before he can get back to the major leagues.
""As soon as I can prove that I can do that," he said, "I don't see any reason why I shouldn't be there."