Veteran reliever Hong-Chih Kuo gets another chance with Mariners
Left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo struggled with "the yips" in 2009 and again last season. The Dodgers released Kuo after he had elbow surgery in October and the Mariners signed him.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Hong-Chih Kuo hopes to be as big a hit on the mound this season as he was at book-signing sessions this winter in his native Taiwan.
Not that Kuo is known as much of a writer. In fact, it wasn't his book the onetime Dodgers all-star relief pitcher promoted in stores, where hordes of Taiwanese baseball fans lined up for the chance to meet him. Kuo was actually touting the newly released Chinese-language edition of "The Mental ABC's of Pitching," a sports psychology book by the late Harvey Dorfman.
It was Dorfman who had worked closely with Kuo in Los Angeles the past few seasons and helped save a career the left-hander is again attempting to revive with the Mariners. The difference this time is, with Dorfman having died a year ago this month, Kuo will have to rely increasingly on himself to overcome the anxiety issues that have long plagued him.
"It has to come from inside here," Kuo said, pumping his fist against his chest. "It has to come from inside me."
Kuo, 30, really doesn't know what caused him to throw two balls over his second baseman's head and into center field during pitchers' fielding practice last April. The Dodgers later put him on the disabled list when he couldn't throw a strike while warming up in the bullpen.
That initial DL stint was termed a "back strain" issue, though Kuo admitted at the time the problem wasn't just physical. After struggling in his return, he was put on the DL a second time in May with what was called an "anxiety disorder." He had experienced similar inexplicable throwing issues — known as "the yips" — in 2009 that caused a game stoppage when one of his bullpen pitches sailed out on to the field. The yips refer to a sudden inability to control throws despite no physical problems.
Dorfman had helped ballplayers like Roy Halladay, Brad Lidge, Rick Ankiel and Jim Abbott deal with mental performance issues, and Kuo went to him for help. By the 2010 season, Kuo's issues were under control and he became one of the game's top relievers, posting a 1.20 earned-run average with 73 strikeouts and only 18 walks allowed in 60 innings of work.
But Dorfman passed away last February and within a couple of months, the problems Kuo had kept curtailed began to get the best of him again. He struggled to remember what Dorfman had taught him, even getting a tattoo on his inner forearm last May that reads "For me to believe in myself."
Kuo rolled up his sleeve to reveal the ink. The message was both a tribute to Dorfman and a reminder to himself of what it takes to be great.
"It has to come from me," said Kuo, who was signed by the Dodgers when he was 17. "Even now, there are people who help me. People I talk to. But not all the time. It still has to come from me."
And for the final two months of last season, it did seem to come from within Kuo. He had been sporting a 11.57 ERA before that second DL stint last May, then struggled upon his return.
But in August and September, Kuo rallied for 18 strikeouts over his final 14 innings. His year-end strikeouts-per-nine-innings average of 12.0 was actually better than the 11.0 he managed during his all-star season.
"I worked hard to get back," Kuo said. "I had a lot of rehabilitation work because of my arm and then to work on the other things. I feel better now."
Kuo underwent his fifth elbow surgery in October, and the Dodgers decided not to tender him a contract. At one point late last year, Kuo had talked openly about returning to Taiwan to run a restaurant.
But the surgery went well, the recovery has gone smoothly, and the Mariners picked him up on a one-year, incentive-heavy deal. Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro said he was looking to see that Kuo's mechanics were solid and consistent Sunday during Kuo's first throwing session in the bullpen.
"We're just watching the arm slot and his mechanics and how he's dealing with that," Navarro said. "We're going to keep a close watch on him through the spring. He has to keep the same arm slot and the mechanics. That's huge."
Repeating arm slot and other mechanics are crucial elements for any successful pitcher and something Dorfman delved into in his book. It teaches pitchers how to adopt their own pregame rituals and in-game thought process in order to maximize the chance of repeating quality pitches.
Kuo wanted to help pass on the teachings of his late mentor when he agreed to return to Taiwan — he makes his offseason home in Los Angeles — to promote the book's Chinese edition.
"Over here, a lot of people know him," Kuo said of Dorfman. "But in Asia, not a lot of people know about this book. So, hopefully, now they can and it can help them like it helped me."
Although, as Kuo said, a book can only go so far. There's a limit to what people on the outside can do to keep him from sending a pitch sailing toward the stands.
"It's up to me now," he said.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.