PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- “You've been developed a certain way,” Rays right-hander Charlie Morton said, “and you think a certain way. And I think what Justin does -- and people like him in that field -- they help provide different ways of thinking about the game and different ways of thinking about yourself.”
Morton didn’t know Justin Su’a when he signed with the Tampa Bay Rays 14 months ago. Coincidentally, he joined the Rays the same week Su’a was named the team’s “Major League mental skills coach.”
Around that time, the Rays promoted another member of the front office, Jonathan Erlichman, who has a math degree from Princeton, to their Major League staff with the title “process and analytics coach.”
Mental skills? Process and analytics? Welcome to the Tampa Bay Rays view of the world. That one of baseball’s most progressive and efficient organizations would add two unconventional coaching assignments is no surprise.
The Rays pride themselves on turning over every stone and peeking around every corner. That’s obvious when their pitchers spend time throwing in something called “the lab,” an area equipped with high-speed cameras and sensors to track spin rate, arm slot, etc. In this environment, pitchers get immediate feedback.
This is what the Rays proudly call “the Ray Way,” that is a willingness to explore thoughts and attitudes along with bat speed, arm strength and pitch usage. This is baseball’s new world.
A’s executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane put it bluntly: “Baseball is the smartest industry in the country right now. We routinely have people turning down six-figure jobs in Silicon Valley because they’re intrigued by baseball.”
Erlichman was one of those. His interest in baseball was piqued when his parents gave him a copy of Moneyball, the brilliant Michael Lewis bestseller that detailed Beane’s ushering MLB into its data age. Why is baseball so appealing?
“It’s the inherent competition you can’t get anyplace else,” Erlichman said.
In other words, they keep score. The Rays aren’t traveling this path alone. Every team explores analytics to some degree, and plenty of them -- Yankees, Dodgers, Brewers, Orioles, lots of others -- have set up similar programs. The Ray Way is backed up by success. The 2019 team won 96 games with baseball’s lowest payroll.
Why so open to new ideas?
“So much of it starts with [manager] Kevin Cash and his openness in having people embedded with our Major League club that provide a perspective that otherwise is not present,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said.
“They're unique,” Neander said of his new coaches. “They're not typically accessible to a Major League clubhouse day to day. At the end of the day, we're trying to help our players grow in every way possible, not force feed anything but to make sure that they have access to different resources. You never know which one's the right resource to help a player make the next step.”
As Cash put it when asked about a mental skills coach, “I think today's players -- and with no disrespect to players 15-20 years ago -- they've got a lot on their plate. They really do. And I mean, just the phrase ‘social media’ did not exist back in the day.
“I think those mental skills, mental performance coaches can really help. I don't think it's so much pound-the-table messaging, it's more providing comfort as some sounding boards.”
Su’a, 37, became intrigued by the study of mental skills during his undergraduate days at Brigham Young. He got a degree in sports psychology from the University of Utah and worked for the US Army, IMG Academy, the Cleveland Browns and the Red Sox before joining the Rays.
“A lot of times it's strategies on performing under pressure,” Su’a said. “It's how to recap your focus. It's how to stay calm in big moments. There’s a common phrase, ‘When you change the way you look at things, things you look at change.
“Let’s say you’re stressed. OK. Let's take a deep breath, pausing, stepping into that moment and slowing down. When people are stressed, they're usually focused on the past or the future. And it's about giving you strategies to help you come back and be where your feet are.”
Morton put it a bit differently, connecting dots between mental approach and performance.
“You might hear the cliché, ‘It all starts with a thought,’” he said. “And that's true. Your thoughts impact how you physically feel. Your thoughts impact how you go about your day, what kind of mood you're in, you name it.
“It all starts with the way you're thinking. So if you can learn to control your thoughts and have more productive thoughts, then you can be a more productive ballplayer.”
Erlichman joined the Rays as an intern in 2013, and since he had a math degree, former Rays executive Andrew Friedman, now president of Dodgers baseball operations, immediately nicknamed him J-Money.
“I think it's just a whole different mindset, another way of thinking,” Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow said. “I throw questions at J-Money all the time. It's just nice to talk to someone with a different background and a different way of looking at things.”
Cash: “He has helped me as much as anybody the last four or five years in being a manager, in decision making. What he's really good at is challenging the way we go about making decisions and testing and challenging the process to a lot of things.
“Just because what our eyes are always telling us doesn't necessarily back up what some deeper research could find out. I think he's at the forefront of that.”
Su’a and Erlichman said the Rays organizational attitude about such things made the place an appealing place to work. That is, new ideas are welcome. Walls are knocked down.
“Really there's a culture throughout the whole organization that everyone just wants to do anything we can to help win,” Erlichman said. “We’re a really open-minded group, really across the board all the way from [Sternberg, owner] through the front office, through the coaching staff and player development, scouting, the players.
“I don't think we feel like we have all the answers ever. We're always just trying to think about what are the things that might be our blind spots and how can we get better? That makes for a great environment to do your best.”