This week’s guest is Cal State Fullerton Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Chad Cordero. Cordero was an All-American pitcher at Cal State Fullerton and was the 20th overall pick in the 2003 draft. He was the 1st player to make the Major Leagues from that draft, spending less than 2 months in the minor leagues and breaking through with the Montreal Expos on August 30, 2003.
In 2005 he achieved an MLB record of 15 saves in one month and led the MLB with 47 saves that season. Cordero has 128 Major League saves, 20 wins and 300 strikeouts. He was a Major League Baseball All-Star in 2005 with the Washington Nationals and was named Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year. From 2005-2007 he had 113 saves, 2nd only to future MLB Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. A master of the mental game, Cordero is now assisting with the Cal State Fullerton program and mentoring players on the mental game.
In this podcast he shares insight into his mental game and how he would “flip the switch” to go from one of the nicest people you will ever meet to one of the fiercest competitors.
Cain: Hey how are you doing? Brian Cain, your Peak Performance coach here with another episode of the Peak Performance Podcast. Today our guest, a Cal State Fullerton baseball current Hall of Famer? Not yet. Will be Hall of Famer Cal State Fullerton, no question, Chad “The Chief” Cordero.
Chad was a former All American pitcher at Cal State Fullerton. He was the 20th overall pick in the first round, in the 2003 Major League Baseball draft by the Montreal Expos. He spent very little time in the minor leagues busting through and making his Major League debut in that first season, August 30th, 2013. So he is pitching in the College World Series in June 2013 and then in Olympic Stadium in Montreal with the Expos two months later.
Chad was a 2005 Major League Baseball All Star with, at the time, the Washington Nationals. He played seasons in the major leagues with Expos and Nationals and the Seattle Mariners. In 2005 he was named Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year as the best reliever in Major League Baseball.
Chad, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule here and sitting down with us to talk about the Mental Game.
Cordero: Thank you for having me.
Cain: If you would could you take our listeners back through your career and kind of where you went to high school and then your path through Cal State Fullerton up into the major leagues and how you got to where you are today now back at Fullerton?
Cordero: I went to Don Lugo High School which is in Chino, California, which is maybe 15 minutes from Cal State Fullerton so I was a local kid. I grew up watching Fullerton idolizing the Titans and stuff so I knew from when I was really young that I wanted to go to Fullerton.
But in high school I wasn’t very highly recruited. I was only recruited by three schools, Fullerton being one of them, the other two being UC Santa Barbara and the University of the Pacific. So it was kind of like a no brainer for me. I was pretty much a late bloomer in high school and kind of didn’t really start learning how to pitch until I got to Fullerton. That is kind of pretty much what helped me get here.
I was off the radar in high school pretty much until I think it was my junior year when I was facing off against a kid in the same league named Justin Germano. He pitched out in Claremont. We were facing each other head to head. He threw a one hitter, I threw a two hitter, and that is kind of pretty much what put me on the map with schools and as far as major league teams.
It was a good run in high school. I had fun. Then obviously I made it to Fullerton where I think it was my freshman year is when I started closing. That was 2001.
Cain: So 2001 you come here as a freshman. You’re a Closer. You guys go to the College World Series in 2001. What was it like for you as a freshman to be pitching in Omaha in 2001 as a freshman?
Cordero: I’ve always told people that was probably the most exciting moment in my life as far as baseball goes. I remember that first game we played. In Rosenblatt you grow up as a little kid who knows if you want to play baseball in college you grow up watching the College World Series. You want to get to Rosenblatt, you want to experience everything, and for me to get there was awesome.
For us our very first game was against Nebraska. It was their very first time ever getting into Omaha. It was their first game ever. It was like a football atmosphere. It was a sea of red and we had maybe 214 fans and the rest were probably 20,000 Nebraska fans. So it was exciting and that game was – gosh I mean it was probably one of the funnest times I’ve ever had on a baseball field. We ended up beating them 5-3, ended up closing at – I think I threw the last inning and 2/3rds, two innings I think it was. I can’t remember exactly what it was. But just the excitement and the roar of the crowd and that energy of the crowd is something that I will never forget.
Cain: Chad, you were drafted out of high school, is that right?
Cordero: Right. By the Padres.
Cain: And you decided to come to college and then you got to go to the Omaha not only in 2001 but in 2003 with one of the best titan teams of all time. Go wire to wire with the number one team in the country. Then you played in Major League Baseball, played in the All Star game, and one of your highlights is playing in the College World Series.
What is the importance of college baseball for that development as a person who is drafted out of high school, chose to go to college and prove his stock, to become a first round pick, what advice would you give to those high school baseball players that are going to get drafted about should they go pro and start their career or should they go to college? What would your advice be?
Cordero: For me it was kind of like a no brainer to go to college. It’s something that I grew up wanting to do. I knew I wanted to have a fallback in case my baseball career never panned out. You go to college, you’re going to get at least three years of school in. And say something does happen to where you get hurt, you’re going to want to still go ahead and get your degree and hopefully get a good job right after that.
Going to college allows yourself to mature. You get to be on your own probably for the first time in your life so you get to learn how to pay bills, be responsible, wake up to go to class because no one is there to tell you to go to class so you get to do that all on your own. It kind of gives you a chance to mature and realize who you are as a person. I’ve seen a lot of kids who are signed out of high school and they’re not ready for it. They can’t handle the pressure. They can’t handle being away from their parents, being away from their friends. It’s a grind.
The minor league season is a long season. I think the actual season is 5 months. You’re gone for probably about 7 and maybe see your parents and your friends twice a year at the most. Whereas in college I grew up 15 minutes away so I saw my parents all the time. It allowed me to mature but at the same time if I needed help or asked questions they were right there to help me out. So for me college is the way to go because (like I said) there are so many kids who aren’t ready for the jump to pro ball. They are not ready for that lifestyle yet. And there are so many guys who fall into it with the wrong crowds. They start drinking and start going out too much. Whereas in college you have structure.
In pro ball there is really no one there taking care of you. You are on your own. Whereas college ball you have your coaches there, you have your counselors, you have your AD. If something messes up your AD is going to get on you. So you’re learning responsibility and at the same time you are maturing and figuring out the type of person that you are.
Cain: I think a big part of that maturation process too for any player – and you grew up in the system so you may not know any differently coming to Cal State Fullerton – is the mental game. In 2001 you’re here, you get exposed to Ken Ravizza, you’re working with Dave Serrano who was the pitching coach here at the time, now the head coach at the University of Tennessee. What importance did the mental game play in your career, Chief?
Cordero: I always prided myself on being mentally strong. It was something that I knew if I wanted to get better and figure out what type of person I was I knew I had to utilize it. Luckily here at Fullerton we had Ravizza and my third year we had you so I mean it worked out for me. I ended up taking Ravizza’s class here. It helps you because it makes you realize that, you know what, it’s just a game. There are ways (if you are struggling) to take a step back and kind of relax, find your focal point. I remember at that time the walls were just plastered with billboarding stuff. I remember there was a Carl’s JR sign on the wall. It had the happy star on the wall. So I used that as my focal point.
If there was ever a time where I would struggle I would take a step back, look at that happy star (because it had that big old yellow and red smile on his face) and it reminded me it’s just a game. Don’t worry about it. There are so many worse things that could happen to you in life. If you give up a run it’s the least of your worries. It just helped me remind myself that, you know what, it’s a game. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I was 3 years old. And just to go out there and have fun.
I remember in Omaha when I was facing up against Nebraska I remember that the focal point was looking up at the big old sign that said “Rosenblatt” up on the press box and I’m like “gosh.” You realize this is what I dreamed of doing. I wanted to play here and I’m here. So it’s just like why not enjoy it while it lasts. You never know, baseball could be gone, taken from you like that. Of course for me it was later on down the line. But the mental game for me was huge.
That is what I do right here right now in the bullpen. Basically I pride myself here at Fullerton in helping those guys relax. I’m still learning the mechanical side and the pitching techniques as far as a coach goes. But what I provide here at Fullerton in the bullpen is more of like the mental aspect of the game. Helping them with a focus on helping them to remind themselves that it’s just a game and not to get too stressed out over certain situations. Basically just to help them relax and have fun.
Cain: You talk about having fun and being able to relax. When you are a first round pick and you are in the major leagues and there is money at stake and you’re on TV and every move that you make is being watched by – not so much in Montreal but in Washington I’m sure thousands of people. Were you able to keep that same mindset when you get up there?
Cordero: I mean I was. I never try to worry about the business side of baseball because unfortunately it is a business once you get up there. But when I was up there, I remember the guys used to always tell me I was a good kid brother. I was always smiling, always having a good time. I never really got bothered by too much. If I blew a save I knew the next day I was going to have a chance to come back and get another save. So I was always having a good time. I was always relaxed and always having fun – listening to music, joking around.
It took me a year before I could joke around. My rookie year I was really quiet. I didn’t really say too much. I was kind of respecting the older guys and how hard they worked to get to do this. But for the most part I was always having fun, always having a good time. I just never try to get away from that.
Cain: You know, Chad, you are one of the nicest guys I’ve probably ever met. But I will say this, when you come out of the bullpen and you go out to the mound you flip a switch and there is a guy out there that looks like a natural born killer. So tell me about the difference between the Chad Cordero off the mound and the Chief when he steps on the rubber. Is it still the same mindset or was there a different level of focus? Was there a different level of self talk? What was going on that got you into that elite state as the best closer in Major League Baseball in 2005 and one of the best ever in college baseball?
Cordero: For me it was just like off the field I am very quiet. Very shy. I don’t really say too much. It takes me a while to get comfortable around new people when I am off the field. But when I’m on the field – I used to tell people too, the minute I stepped through those gates onto the field it’s something like clicked in me. It’s something that I grew up. Baseball, I feel, was in my blood.
I remember going out behind my grandparents’ house. They lived behind a school and every Sunday we would go and play softball with my grandpa. On my mom’s side he had five girls, he had no boys. So we were always playing softball out there on the back of the school, hanging out. I think that is kind of where I got that love for the game. When I got onto the field, onto that mound, it was just I knew I had a mission. My mission was to make sure I got those last three outs and reserved that win. So I was going to do everything that I could to get those last three outs and make sure we got that win.
I can’t really explain what it was that snapped inside of me. It’s just I love the game that much and I didn’t want to fail. I always told myself that I was better than the hitter. Even if maybe stats-wise I wasn’t at the time. But I told myself if I’m going to be successful I am going to be better than you.
It didn’t matter who I was facing. I didn’t care if it was Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Andrew Jones. It didn’t really matter at the time. I knew my role and my job was to get those last three outs and I was going to do whatever I could. That is why I always kind of had my hat all the way down. I wanted to kind of give off that sense that I was a mean SOB pretty much. Even though deep down I know I’m not.
Cain: Right. But you can act that way.
Cordero: Right. Because I mean if you have a presence on the mound that gives off a sense of being scared or being nervous the hitter is going to feed off of that. Everybody in the stands can see that. Even if you’re not confident that day in your stuff, you don’t have the best stuff, you’ve got to act on the mound like you do have it, like you have your A+ stuff. Even on the days that you don’t.
I remember the best days I had as a pitcher were the days where I think it was maybe my fourth day in a row where I didn’t have my best stuff. Maybe I was throwing 3-4 miles an hour slower. But I knew at that time that if I was going to be successful I couldn’t do too much. I had to stay within myself and still give out that presence that I have my A+ stuff and I’m going to get you out no matter what.
Cain: So there is an element when you are at that level. And Jake Arrieta talks about this all the time now – the Scion Award Winner of 2015 with the Chicago Cubs. Jake talks a lot about underneath his hat he has the word “ace” – acting changes everything. He talks a lot about this past offseason he spoke to the TCU pitching staff and has talked about there are days when you go out there and you don’t feel good and you have to act and you have to act as if it’s impossible to fail. He said “fake it till you make it.” But then he said “what it really is is fake it till you find it.” Did you do some of that in your career? Was there kind of an acting part of fake it till you make it to try to not tip off that maybe you don’t have your best stuff?
Cordero: Oh for sure. I think it was – like I said when I was in DC I was throwing almost every day. I think I threw my second year (2005 I think it was) I think I threw like 77 games as a closer. And probably on top of that getting up another 30 times where I didn’t go in. So the majority of the time I didn’t have my best stuff. But you still have to act as if you do.
You have to give off that presence that you are on top of your game. Even on those days where you are feeling sick, you are feeling down, maybe something happened off the field that is getting to you, you go on the mound and you still have a job to do. You can’t let any of that affect you. You have to go out there and act like you are the meanest guy out there, like you are the best pitcher out there or the best hitter or whatever position you play. You have to give off this presence that you are the best, you know you’re the best even on those days where you are just feeling like you don’t’ have it.
Cain: So those days where you feel like you don’t have it, and just the consistency of pitching in 77 games as a closer, of getting up in 100 games, talk about the routine that you would go through, Chad, if you would, just kind of the day-to-day routine. Not so much the pre-pitch (we’ll get to that) but just about the day-to-day routine that you had to go through to consistently be able to get out there and perform at that highest level.
Cordero: I mean it’s a grind. Major League Baseball the season is 162 games and pat spread over 180 days. So you don’t really have a whole lot of time to relax with off days or anything like that because the majority of the time on your off days you are probably not getting in to the next city until 3:00-4:00 in the morning. So the majority of your off day is maybe sleeping, trying to catch up on your rest and stuff like that.
So for me I get to the field kind of relaxed, grab something to eat, maybe go in the training room, have my shoulder rubbed out. Like you said throwing 77 games, that wears on your arm. So for me I would do that.
Then once the game started I was always out there from the first pitch on. I wasn’t one of those guys who liked to be inside of the clubhouse. I couldn’t stand it. For me I always felt like if my teammates are out there the entire game then I had a duty to be out there supporting there because they are going to be out there in the 9th inning supporting me. So for me I always had to be out there watching the game.
I was always in tune. When we were on defense I wanted to see what was going on, what we were throwing to guys, what we were doing. When we were offense that was my time to kind of joke around and have fun. But then usually in the 5th inning was when I started playing catch. I started playing catch with the outfielder to get my arm loose. I would do that from about the 5th, 6th, and 7th, inning. The 8th inning is when I used to say I looked like a caged lion out in the bullpen because I was always pacing. I would pace back and forth. I would go from the mound to the plate, plate to the mound, mound to the plate, plate to the mound, just nonstop until I got that phone call to tell me I was going in.
When I started pacing like that is really when I started focusing. I started looking, “okay I am probably going to face this, I am going to face these three guys,” which for the most part it was their 3, 4, 5 guys. There were probably only a handful of times where I didn’t face a hard order when I was closing. So you’re constantly facing their top guys so you have to be on top of your game even on those days when you are not.
So when I was pacing I would kind of visualize “okay I am going to do this, I want to do this, I want to try and get out of there in 10 pitches or less,” especially on those days where I have thrown 3-4 days in a row. You try to minimize your pitch count because that was it allows you to go another day.
Or what I would also do – which is kind of random – I used to play MLB2K all the time and surprisingly that helped me out a lot. I always used to throw the hot and cold zones. So I would play the night before, kind of visualize “what do I do on the hitter now.” It’s just a video game, maybe that is not going to really matter too much, but for me it always did. It always played into my game for some reason.
Cordero: So as I was pacing I would always g back to the night before playing that game and see what I did to that hitter. It helped out.
Cain: And when you would pitch in the MLB2000 game did you pitch as yourself?
Cordero: I always pitched as myself, yeah.
Cain: That’s awesome. So you’d pitch as yourself against the team that you are going to be facing.
Cordero: Right, yeah.
Cain: And it would show – probably statistically relevant – it would show their hot/cold zones and then you would visualize yourself executing those.
Cordero: Yeah. I just remember Julio Franco, his cold zone was anything over the letters so I was throwing fastball to fastball to fastball above the letters and he would swing right through I every time. That is when I really started realizing “okay maybe I should look at this more.”
Cain: How about that. That is fascinating. Unbelievable. The game has to get that information from somewhere right? And every pitcher in Major League Baseball is tracked so it’s probably pretty accurate. It’s unbelievable.
Talk about you mentioned the visualization. When you are pacing back and forth from home plate to the mound you are visualizing yourself throwing the way you want to throw, maybe even replaying the pitches you threw in the video game the night before. How else did you use mental imagery?
David Price talks about sometimes he would come to set he would sort of see the last 4-5 feet of the pitch. Did you ever see the pitch before you would throw it or lay down in your room the night before, in the training room, and visualize yourself pitching?
Cordero: Yeah. I started doing that when I was young. I remember my parents used to always comment on it. Even on those days where I wasn’t pitching, the times when I wasn’t pitching (if I was playing first or outfield or something) in between each pitch if I knew I was going to go in that day I always pretended like I was on the mound. Every single pitch.
As a catcher throwing it back to the pitcher who was on the mound at the time I would be on the outfield for first base (like I said) and going through my motion. I was always doing that. If it was the night before the first game of a new series I would kind of visualize “okay this is who they have” and just kind of go pitch by pitch and say “okay he can’t hit a slider so maybe I might throw my slider today” which was very rare because I threw probably 99% fastballs every time. So I would visualize. I was constantly visualizing. I love the game so much I just kind of wanted to be playing it in my head as much as I could.
Cain: Talk about the importance of body language. We talk a lot about confidence comes from three things. I’d like you to kind of talk about these three things if you would. I’m a big believer that confidence is not necessarily something that you get. Confidence is something that you do. Confidence is done by what we call your “bfs” – your body language, your focus, and your self talk.
You’ve kind of alluded to all these three things already, Chief, but if you would could you talk specifically about what was your body language like, where was your focus, and was there any self talk when you were on the mound in the pre-pitch routine when you are out there dealing?
Cordero: Body language, I mean you can tell from the get go if a guy is on or not. Let’s say if he’s on the mound and his first three pitches are wild and he kind of starts shrugging his shoulders, he starts talking to himself or he puts his head down, you can tell he is just over-thinking everything, over analyzing it. You can tell right then and there he’s probably not going to have his best stuff. He is probably going to leave pitches all over the plate. You can kind of feed off that. Everybody at that field, even the fans, can see that.
Body language plays a huge role because (like we were talking about earlier) if you don’t have your best stuff but you have that body language that you do, I mean the other team is never going to know. They’re never going to know that maybe you couldn’t save the night before. They’re never going to know that maybe your arm is a bit sorer that it normally is. If you kind of have that same confidence like that you are mean, you are going to go out and do it, you don’t care how you are feeling, nobody is going to be able to see that you might be struggling that day.
As far as focus you have to focus on each pitch. You can’t really focus on the next hit. You have to focus on that pitch at hand because if you’re looking past the guy at your face and to the next face – say David Eckstein is up but Poole is on deck and he is the tie in rep. Well if you are not focus on David Eckstein at the time chances are you are going to leave a fat pitch on the play where he is going to get a base hit. Now Poole really is at that tie in run.
So you have to focus on each pitch, each hitter. You can’t take any hitter for granted and you can’t really overlook anybody because that 9-only hitter can have a 12 pitch at bat, get a walk, and that sets that table for their top of the lineup. So you always have to be focused on each pitch, each hitter, and not really worry about who is coming up next.
And self talk, I mean I do that all the time. For me my self talk was singing to myself on the mound. That is pretty much what helped me relax. I’d usually sing whatever song I heard last. It was always kind of like not necessarily humming because I didn’t want anybody to hear me but in my head I always had a tune and that kind of helped me focus and relax and stay confident.
Cain: Was it always the same song?
Cordero: It was kind of random. I mean I’d always listen to whatever. It would kind of depend on the mood I was in. Sometimes I wanted to be the mean SOB that I thought I was I listened to punk. I listened to The Misfits or Pennywise or maybe metal or something like Pantera or Metallica or something like that. But if it was a Sunday and I was kind of chilling, hanging out, relaxing, maybe I listened to some Temptations or something like that. Or maybe if I thought I was a West Coast rapper I listened to Dr. Dre or something. So it kind of depended on my mood.
Cain: And you kind of use the music to help create the mindset.
Cain: Awesome. Chief, what do you know now if you could rewind the clock and go back to let’s say the freshman 2001 Chad Cordero what would you tell him that you know now? Going back to that freshman college baseball player, what are you saying to him?
Cordero: Don’t take anything for granted. Baseball is a short lifespan. I think the average career is three years in the Major Leagues. So don’t take anything for granted. Always have fun. Always have a smile on your face. I did that anyway but never take anything for granted because baseball – and like life in general – it can be taken from you like that. Unfortunately for me it was. I dealt with the ending of my career and stuff. It was taken from me. But you know what? Just never take anything for granted. Have fun and enjoy it.
Cain: Would you say the same thing to the Chad Cordero professional baseball player? Would you say anything different to that guy or it would be the same?
Cordero: Same thing. The same exact thing. Always have fun. Appreciate where you are at. You have thousands and thousands of kids who grow up wanting to do the same thing that you do and you have a chance to live out your dream and be a kid for another couple of years until you have to go back into the real world. I would just always tell myself to have fun and appreciate everything that was given to me.
Cain: Awesome. Well, Chief, we appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to sit down with us. For people who are listening this is one of my favorite podcasts we’ve ever done here. Follow Chad on Twitter. It’s @ChadCordero32. I can’t wait to see how your career is going to take off, what you are going to be doing 2, 3, 5 years from now. It’s going to be exciting. Chief, thanks so much man. I appreciate it.