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MLB Opening Day: Milwaukee Brewers face difficult mental challenges in 2021

Managing the mental game could mean the difference between success and failure

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Detroit Tigers
Learning a new position poses a physical and mental challenge for Hiura.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Physical strength and skill are vital qualities of the most successful players in MLB. The 2021 Milwaukee Brewers, like all teams, have tremendous talent – more than the average person truly understands. However, there are countless players with fantastic ability who never reach their full potential, wallow in mediocrity, or fail completely.

Many times it comes down to the mental side of this great game. With all the stats, metrics and measurements, we often forget these are humans on the field. So while the accuracy of player analysis and projection has certainly improved dramatically, we still can’t measure or predict the impact of stress, pressure, doubt, or any number of intangible effects.

The 2021 Brewers have a number of players who will be challenged mentally this coming season. Though every Brewer is faced with the usual psychological strain of baseball, some will have additional items to consider. How they handle their own situations – and the potential mind games that involved – could go a long way in determining success for the individual and the club.

Freddy Peralta: The mental hurdle of becoming a bona fide starting pitcher

Manager Craig Counsell announced that Peralta would begin the season in the starting rotation. Considering his electric stuff and spring performance (15.1 K/9, 7.67 K/BB), he certainly earned a look. Peralta has had stints in the rotation in the past, but he hasn’t been able to live up to the hype so far. Does the pressure of high expectations get to him?

Peralta has posted a 5.45 ERA in 23 career starts with a 1.32 WHIP, 2.69 K/BB ratio, and .739 OPS allowed. His work out of the bullpen has been what the team believes he can produce in the rotation: 3.59 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 3.19 K/BB and .644 opponent OPS. Can the talented right-hander get over the mental hump of expectations as a starter?

Seattle Mariners v Milwaukee Brewers
Peralta looks poised for a breakout season as a starter in 2021.
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

One reason the Brewers and Peralta have more confidence this season lies in his pitch repertoire. Now with a four-pitch mix of fastball, curve, slider and changeup, Peralta may have the tools to consistently work through the lineup multiple times. While he may not have each pitch mastered, his slider continues to improve and the newly-added changeup could adds another wrinkle.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Peralta is only 24 years old. Maturity and experience can be invaluable, especially when it comes to the mental side of the game. Since Peralta broke into the big leagues at a young age (22), many forget he is still so young — especially when you think of successful starting pitchers. He may just be hitting his prime at a time when his head and talent work sync up.

Keston Hiura: Learning a new position quickly and not letting it affect his offense

By now, every Brewers fan knows the dual reasoning for Hiura’s move to first base: the signing of Kolten Wong’s Gold Glove to play second base and the increasing concern with Hiura’s defense at second base. Since most of Hiura’s issues at the pivot were related to his throws, a switch to first seemed to make some sense.

While most people assume first base is a simple position to learn, many underestimate the challenges — particularly at the MLB level. Hiura’s athleticism will be a help in his new spot, but he has a lot more to learn and understand when it comes to the instinct side of the position. For example, Hiura needs to get a feel for how far he can be from the base and still get back for a throw. Also, when does he range to the hole for a grounder versus putting on the brakes and heading back to the bag.

Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Angels
Will the mental focus on learning first base hurt or help Hiura at the plate?
Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Let’s not forget learning to field from a slightly new view, being closer to the hitter, taking countless throws from a variety angles with a need to stretch, scoop, jump and/or throw on a swipe tag. Even the act of holding a runner, jumping off the bag and being ready for a rocket from a lefty. So how much mental real estate will all this take up, and will he “get it” quick enough? How might it affect Hiura offensively?

Perhaps Hiura’s focus on learning something new will help him become a better defender. There will be ups and downs, but the key will be how well Hiura shakes off those errors and miscues to bounce back on the next play. Of course, the rest of the infielders may also need to practice patience. If Hiura botches some simple throws or easy picks, the mental side of things will be in their court.

As for the Hiura’s mental state, his bat could be involved, too. Some think defensive issues can negatively impact the offense. There are other who feel maybe he hits better because he won’t have time to think about his bat. Considering his struggles at the dish last year (.212 average, .297 OBP, league-worst 85 strikeouts), one would hope taking his mind off his offense will be beneficial.

Adrian Houser: Handling adversity with poise and limiting the damage

Houser, like Peralta, appears to have a chance to be a reliable starter. Also similar to Peralta, Houser has posted strong numbers as a reliever: 1.90 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and .593 OPS allowed. But his stats as a starter flip quite dramatically with a 4.91 ERA, 1.42 WHIP and .789 OPS against. However, Houser’s mental issues are a bit different.

Just about every time I’ve watched a Houser start, he has an inning or two where he is visibly flustered. His body language is terrible in these times, stalking around, making faces, even yelling out toward umpires. Sometimes emotional response and reactions can be a positive, but it’s definitely not the case for Houser.

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers
Milwaukee could use a stronger, more consistent version of Houser in the rotation.
Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

When things start to go south - a bad call on a pitch, a seeing eye single, some defensive troubles — Houser needs to stay in control. His apparent inability to stay mentally tough certainly plays into his propensity for allowing big innings. The loss of focus affects his performance, and before you know it, two or runs are on the board.

In the last two seasons, Houser has pitched five innings or less 23 times in his 29 starts. Of those 23 stints of five frames or less, he gave up at least four runs on 11 occasions (48% of the time). Basically, half the time things unravel quickly for Houser. Sure, part of his problem stems from lefties posting a ridiculous .861 OPS against him - but perhaps that has become a mental issue for Houser as well.

Orlando Arcia and Luis Urias: Managing the mental side of their shortstop timeshare

On the one hand, Arcia has been given many opportunities over the years to truly take hold of the shortstop position. In five seasons with the Brewers, Arcia has a 73 OPS+ to go with a .295 OBP and .366 slugging percentage. And while you see flashes of his brilliance in the field, some advanced metrics see a flawed defender, which the eye test shows at times. For 2021, Arcia will split time between third and short.

On the other hand, Urias is a former top prospect with San Diego who the Milwaukee brass seems intent on providing him his own shot at the position full time. Urias has battled some injuries since coming to the Brewers before last season, slowing his potential progress. After playing some second and third base as well last season, Counsell noted Urias will primarily stick to shortstop in 2021.

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee Brewers
Teammates and competitors: How will it work between Arcia and Urias?
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

So how do these two handle the new setup? Do the young infielders view it as a healthy competition that drives them to success or a type of threat or insult causing them to press? Arcia has been given some challenges in the past - occasionally getting hot and showing what he can truly do. This year could determine his fate with the Brewers as team control expires after next season.

Meanwhile, Urias has played in just 124 MLB games and won’t reach free agency until 2026. Clearly the Brewers want to see what they have in the 23-year-old. The thinking may be that Urias getting the nod at short and a legitimate shot to prove himself will bode well. He certainly responded in Arizona with a .314 average, .429 OBP and .543 slugging for a .971 OPS (Six walks, five doubles, one home run). While it’s only Spring Training, his overall play was solid all around and a positive sign.

Will Urias or Arcia feel too much pressure? Is there anything to Arcia’s struggles in spring, both defensively at third and with the bat (.196 average, .512 OPS, 15 strikeouts to 2 walks)? It will be fascinating to watch how each handle the added mental focus that will be needed this year.

With all the numbers we can track and the impressive physical displays we clearly see on the field, it’s fun to have a little bit of mystery still in the game — particularly, the mental game. There should be plenty of that to look for with the 2021 Milwaukee Brewers.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference