MLB Players who had the “Yips”

Yips: The yips is the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs suddenly and without apparent explanation, usually in mature athletes with years of experience. … The condition is also experienced by snooker players, bowlers in cricket and pitchers in baseball.

The Yips can come at anytime. When Atlanta’s then manager Bobby Cox was watching his team play the Mets. The Mets catcher Mackey Sasser had problems just throwing the ball back to the pitcher. Cox turned and told his second baseman Mark Lemke that anyone on the field is just one bad throw away from having what Mackey has…Cox had seen the yips before.

It’s so hard to watch as the player totally losses his confidence. Many times players cannot pinpoint when it starts and for some they never find the cure.

I just finished a book about the 1981 Dodgers and it reminded me of Steve Sax who had a problem throwing a ball from second base to first. I thought I would find some more players who had problems. Some lasted just a little while while others it took their career.

It has affected pitchers significantly. They lose the ability to throw a strike and their career along with it.

Steve Blass – He may be the most famous case of the yips. He was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1964 to 1974. He went from a 2.49 ERA in 1972 to a 9.85 ERA to 1973…1974 was his last year. For every 1 strikeout he had 3 walks. Balls flying to the backstop at times… Steve Blass: “I had no control over it, nor did I understand it. I would sit in my backyard 2…3…4 o’clock in the morning thinking, ‘My God, what’s happened to me? What is this? Has someone put a curse on me or something?”

He was only 31 when this happened. His stats were 100-67 with a 3.24 ERA from 1964-1972. He was 3-1 in post season with a 3.10 ERA and a World Series winner in 1971. He ended up with a 103-76 record with a 3.63 ERA.

The Yips have been called by some “Steve Blass Disease.”

Rick Ankiel – Ankiel looked like the real deal. A powerful left handed pitcher that USA Today called “the most promising young left-handed pitcher in a generation.” Tony LaRussa put it to the test and inserted the 21 year old into the 2000 NLDS against the Braves. It was painful to watch. Ankiel walked 6 men in 2.2 innings. He eventually went to the minor leagues and it didn’t get any better…in fact it got worse…but he did do something else about it. He became an outfielder and hit as many as 25 homeruns in one season. He was never as good of an outfielder as he was a pitcher though. He played until 2013…I’ve always wondered what his pitching career would have been like.

Chuck Knoblauch – After being traded to the Yankees in 1998 this second baseman’s trouble started. His errors doubled but hardly any throwing errors in 1999. In 2000 it started and his throws to first base would be wild. In fact… an errant throw sailed into the stands and hit sportscaster Keith Olbermann’s mother in the head.

He returned to second base briefly, but never regained his throwing accuracy. He was moved to the outfield and designated hitter for the remaining two years of his career, including New York’s World Series run in 2000.

Steve Sax – Steve joined the Dodgers in 1981 in the last half of the season. Steve was on the playoff roster for the World Series. His troubles started in 1983 after an error involving Andre Dawson. After that he could not throw accurately to first base. This went on for 2 months and he had over twenty errors before the All Star break. Something his dad said broke the spell.

His father told him, “One day you are going to wake up and this problem is going to be gone,” confessing that he had suffered the exact same problem in high school, but his confidence had eventually returned and he overcame it.

Six hours later John Sax died. It was the last conversation his son had with him. But buoyed by his father’s words, Sax persevered, slowly regaining his confidence over time. Baseball became fun again. Sax didn’t make a single error in the last 36 games of the season.

Years later Sax’s mom, who had known his dad since the fifth grade, told him the truth: His father never had a throwing problem. 

“He lied. He didn’t want to see me fail, so he lied,” “He bailed me out on his death bed. And it changed my life.”

Some people also call the yips from a fielder “Steve Sax Syndrome” Steve went on the play with the Dodgers, Yankees, White Sox and A’s after this and the problem never resurfaced.

There have been other players in the MLB and many other sports to suffer from this.