SAN DIEGO — There aren’t many people within Major League Baseball who can truly appreciate or acknowledge what Jose Altuve is going through with his sudden inability to do something he has successfully accomplished hundreds of thousands of times: make a simple throw.
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker admitted that Altuve might be slipping into one of baseball’s darkest corners, one that makes players shiver simply hearing the word: “yips.”
“You just hope he isn’t getting the yips, because invariably they come in bunches,” Baker said after Altuve committed two errors in Game 2 of the ALCS. “I just told him to flush it. I mean, this guy’s been awesome for us, and you gotta flush it and move on, or else it multiplies.”
Altuve did not commit a throwing error during the regular season but has committed four in nine postseason games this season, including three in the past two days, each one a backbreaker, that allowed a total of eight Tampa Bay Rays runs to score.
Within the game, getting the “yips” is defined as the unexpected inability to perform one of the simplest acts the game requires: accurately throwing a baseball.
Steve Sax, a former Rookie of the Year, five-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, famously suffered through the yips in the 1980s. He led the majors with 30 errors in 1983, still a record for a second baseman. He knows firsthand what Altuve is suffering through.
“I can feel for Jose,” Sax said when reached by phone. “There’s nothing worse in the world. It’s the most lonely place to be. It’s embarrassing. It’s just awful. I hope he can grasp this as soon as possible because this thing is very simple. It’s right in front of him. So many people are going to say, ‘Oh, Jose, you have a mental block.’ He doesn’t. He has a temporary loss of confidence. It has nothing to do with his mental state. Something triggered him to start questioning his ability; that’s why he’s doing this. When he gets his confidence, this will disappear.”
Sax is part of a fraternity that includes pitcher Steve Blass, a 19-game winner for the 1972 Pirates at age 30 who pitched only 93 2/3 more innings and walked 91 batters in that span, and catcher Mackey Sasser, who used to pop the return throws to the pitcher in his glove repeatedly and then would misfire when it counted.
Then there was Rick Ankiel, who was drafted in the second round as a highly touted high school prospect in 1997. Ankiel was pitching in the 2000 postseason for the Cardinals when he suddenly could not throw strikes. In four playoff innings that year, Ankiel walked 11 batters and threw nine wild pitches. He was then converted into an outfielder and wound up playing until 2013.
Sax is one of the few who overcame his issues, being named to three All-Star teams after that disastrous 1983 season.
Altuve is the third second baseman in recent years to join this club, along with Sax and Chuck Knoblauch. Like Altuve, Knoblauch won a Gold Glove for superior defensive performance earlier in his career before acquiring the yips. He went from winning a Gold Glove in 1997 to committing a combined 31 errors in the 1999 and 2000 seasons.
“It’s the only thing on his mind,” Sax said. “It’s all he’s thinking about right now. He’s the loneliest person in the world, and it’s hard because you’re a professional athlete and he’s one of the best players in the game. I’d advise him that there’s nothing wrong, there’s nothing crazy. It’s actually simple if you just get out of your own way. There is an end to this. The problem is he’s going to bed with this, when he’s eating it’s the only thing on his mind. He wakes up thinking of this. It’s a terrible spot to be in.”