‘A Lot of Us Are F—– Up’: Inside the Devastating Gig Economy of Relief Pitching

‘A Lot of Us Are F—– Up’: Inside the Devastating Gig Economy of Relief Pitching

Baseball drove Ryan Buchter deep into drinking and depression. Now, he wants MLB to deal with its mental health crisis.

Ryan Buchter, 34, has spent almost half his life pitching in professional baseball. In those 15 years, Buchter has been traded four times, released three times, changed organizations 10 times, pitched for teams in 22 cities and only once spent a full season in the majors without being demoted or released. What his itinerant playing record does not show is its cost: a drinking problem, depression and mental health issues that left him so wounded he is speaking out because he knows his story is too prevalent among ballplayers.

“I really think it’s important to share my story [because] of how common it is,” Buchter tells Sports Illustrated. “Truly I want guys to be more open about receiving help.

“This is something I’m extremely passionate about … I want guys to know it’s O.K. as a man, [a] baseball player, to know we are not alone. A lot of us are f—– up. Either from childhood, high school and college years, or the years that followed.”

Buchter (pronounced BOOK-ter) wants to change how baseball and its players deal with a growing mental health issue in the game.

“Sometimes to bring change it takes a shockwave,” he says.

Buchter told his story to SI after reading how fellow reliever Ryan Sherriff of the Rays described to SI last month how mental health issues forced him to briefly walk away from the game. Buchter has pitched six seasons in the majors, including with the Angels last year, and currently is on the roster of the Reno Aces, the Triple A affiliate of the Diamondbacks. He says he has been seeing a psychologist for the past year and been on antidepressant medication for the past five months.

“I love it,” he says. “I forgot what it was like to have natural, happy thoughts—to walk down the street and not be miserable. It’s helping me be the person I used to be.”

Baseball is more stressful than ever. COVID-19 shutdowns, isolation protocols and social media negativity have added external triggers to a game with increasingly harsh internal pressures, especially for relief pitchers as job security grows more unstable.

The toll is becoming evident as several players have quit or stepped away from baseball already this season because of personal reasons, including Sherriff, 30, who is back training with Tampa Bay; Arizona reliever Chris Devenski, 30, who returned to the club on April 29 after 22 days on the restricted list; Phillies outfielder Adam Haseley, 25, who remains away from the team after leaving on April 14; and Angels reliever Ty Buttrey, who quit at age 28.

A Diamondbacks prospect, outfielder Kristian Robinson, 20, last week issued a statement through his team in which he said he was “struggling with my mental health” when he was arrested on April 5, 2020, for punching an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer. Robinson cited “the stress of my personal life, the shutdown of the game I love and the overall global pandemic.” Less than two weeks later after Robinson’s incident, Giants outfielder Drew Robinson, then 27, survived a suicide attempt with a handgun while battling mental health issues; he has since opened up about his mental health struggles and is playing with the Giants’ Triple A affiliate.

“This game is failure,” Buchter says. “Failure surrounds us. It engulfs us. We’re reminded of it by fans, scoreboards, websites, coaches, talent evaluators and seemingly everyone else. Even when we’re really good. We’re failing more than succeeding.

“I spent years beating myself up. I’ve spent years drowning myself in booze and running from failure. Like Drew Robinson, this game brought out all the ugly and accentuated my biggest flaws. I pretended like I wasn’t a drunk. Like I wasn’t mentally unstable. I was torturing the ones I loved the most and made them go crazy because of the way I was left untreated.”

(Buchter began communicating with SI through texts, including many of the quotes presented here, explaining that “although less formal, it can help me control what I say about something I’m really passionate about.”)

At first glance Buchter’s baseball journey is a major underdog success story. He originally signed with the Nationals in ’06 out of Gloucester (N.J.) County College after Washington drafted him in the 33rd round in ’05. Since the draft began in 1965, only 42 players signed among the 1,206 players picked in the 33rd round reached the major leagues, which meant Buchter faced a 96.5% chance of never playing a day in the big leagues.

Not only did Buchter beat the odds and make it—after eight years in the minors—he has pitched extraordinarily well when major league teams have given him a chance. Among all active relievers with at least 250 appearances, Buchter, a lefthander, has the best winning percentage (.810, 17–4) and is one of only seven such active relievers with an ERA under 3 (2.90) and at least 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Among all lefthanders in history with 250 games, only Buchter, Aroldis Chapman, Billy Wagner and Felipe Vázquez have combined a sub-3 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

Dig a bit deeper into Buchter’s journey and you begin to understand the fungibility with which the game treats relief pitchers. Despite his success, Buchter never has spent an entire season in the majors with one team. Since his debut seven years ago, he has accumulated only four years of service time and about $3 million in career earnings. He is earning $100,000 this season on a minor league deal with the Diamondbacks. If he is promoted to the big leagues he is paid at the prorated rate of a $925,000 salary, which means three weeks in the majors is worth more than what he would earn in a full minor league season.

The modern game grinds especially hard on relief pitchers like Buchter, even more so when they are late-round draft picks that are not protected by pedigree or the club’s investment of a large signing bonus. These pitchers are under pressure not to just get outs but to get strikeouts. They are shuttled back and forth between the majors and minors with pitchers of similar ilk in their clubs’ zealousness for “fresh” and “hot” arms. Injuries are a constant worry, especially given their frequent use while exerting maximum effort with expectations to be nearly perfect.

Teams last year used as many pitchers to cover 898 games in the pandemic-shortened season as they did over 2,430 games in ’10. The inventory of pitchers used soared 31% in the past decade. Don’t think of them as additional full-time jobs but as “gig economy” jobs—multiple pitchers sharing roster spots. Teams used an average of 18 pitchers in just April of this year. The game has never been so unstable when it comes to roster churn.

Amid these stresses, Buchter wants to be an advocate for change in how baseball recognizes and treats mental illness.

“I’m in the process, the early process of changing the stigma,” he says. “I want to put together a task force of ex-players. Ex-players that care about people. Not money or stats. When guys get sent down, we reach out and ask questions. Talk about s— not baseball-related.”

For instance, Buchter likes to text former teammates while watching highlights to just check in on them and to remind them “how great they are.”

He texted one player, “Hey, man, you O.K.? I don’t care about baseball. I want you to know I’m here for anything and that you’re in a good place.”

“I’m not O.K.,” he says the player replied.

“We talked,” Buchter says, “and he’s seeking help. I’m not saying that to pat myself on the back, but I asked [other friends] of his to also reach out. Say, ‘What’s up?’ Share a funny story from the past and let him know he’s valued.”

Buchter has presented his idea for a peer-to-peer mental health task force to Billy Bean, MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner. He says he also left a phone message with a players association attorney two weeks ago to discuss the idea but has not received a response.

“We are all people,” he says. “We should all be equal. I’ve reached out to the union and [am] still waiting for a call back. We pay the same amount of union dues no matter how much we make. It feels to me that there’s more value on the next guy up than the guy that was just taken off the roster.”

Alluding to labor negotiations in the last year of the collective bargaining agreement, Buchter asks, “If the pandemic brought all of this ugly out, what’s another missed season going to do for our mental health?”

A union official who requested anonymity said he was unaware of Buchter’s phone message and offered to speak directly with him, adding that the protection of jobs from roster churn is an important bargaining issue for the union.

Major League Baseball maintains mental wellness resources under its Player Programs initiative. It is a cooperative venture between MLB, its clubs, and the union. Its administrators include Bean; club Employee Assistance Program personnel; club medical staff; Jon Coyles, vice president of drug, health and safety programs; Dr. Larry Westreich, MLB consultant, behavioral health and addiction; and Dr. John Mariani, MLBPA medical advisor.

Bean, who has helped grow the program over the past several seasons, says the MLB operations manual “for the first time has stringent requirements for mental health resources available for players, staff and employees. Pretty much every team has had those resources in place for a decade; it’s just to what degree. Now it’s written down.

“Owners have embraced the idea that if we are going to protect our players and future of the business, we need to think about our players when they are home as well as at the ballpark.”

Says Bean, who has candidly told his story about the stress of being a closeted gay major league player from ’87–95, “A lot of us are afraid to change the dynamic of the team. There is so much peer pressure. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the player today with all the extreme measurements of analysis. It just feels like … I can understand why it’s stressful.”

Buchter’s story is an example of how those available resources don’t always connect with the player.

Children grow up dreaming of playing Major League Baseball. Nobody grows up dreaming or thinking about the business of Major League Baseball. Ryan Buchter was no different. He grew up in Blackwood, N.J., 15 minutes from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Both of his parents worked. His father, Michael, worked two jobs, then started an overnight office cleaning service so he could coach Ryan and his brother in baseball during the day. Michael would clean commercial office spaces, including bathrooms, until the early hours of the morning, grab three hours of sleep and be up to throw batting practice to his sons.

Before and after Ryan signed with the Nationals, he and his brother would help his father with cleaning jobs in the offseason. He also gave pitching lessons to kids to supplement his minor league salary, which sometimes was less per month than what he scraped up in his offseason odd jobs.

Except for one game with the Braves in ’14, Buchter spent 10 years in the minor leagues. He threw his fastball in the low- to mid-90s and broke off a big curveball. At 6′ 4″ and 230 pounds, he often battled his mechanics. Walks were a problem, but he typically pitched around them to put up good numbers.

“Ten-plus years in the minor leagues, never understanding truly why I never got a shot,” Buchter says. “I reached a point in my career where I had to decide: Double down and outwork everyone, or go home and get a job.”

Given the work ethic example his father set, the choice was obvious.

“I’ve always grinded, just like he did,” Buchter says. “What drove me was a fear of failure. I didn’t want to go home and clean toilets like he did. I didn’t want to embarrass the last name that was on my back, which is essentially all we had. He was the only son. He had a stepsister with a different name. My father, brother and myself were the last Buchters in our family.

“I’ve worked my ass off to get where I am today.”

Fully dedicated to the game, Buchter began to understand the cost of that choice. He learned about the side of baseball that is part of no child’s baseball dream.

“With that came the long bus rides, early morning flights, and what seemed to be eternal debt from not seeing a comma in my check until year eight,” he says. “No one ever talked about the ‘business’ of baseball and what it can do.

“I’m a man, a baseball player amongst 30 other men on any given day. The hardened persona I had to take to the mound was fake. Inside I was a depressed alcoholic that went from town to town smothering my thoughts with bourbon and beer.”

Buchter began drinking, he says, around age 19 or 20. He was a social drinker then. Go to a party and have a few drinks.

“Get drunk and act like an idiot,” he says. “As I got older there was less and less people around.”

His drinking, he says, began to get out of control around ’13 at Gwinnett, the Braves’ Triple A team. He was 26 years old that year and went 4–0 with a 2.76 ERA while striking out 103 batters in 62 innings. He also walked 51 batters. The Braves did not call him up.

“I was convinced I was a better player when I was drinking,” he says. “But looking back on it, I don’t know how I did it, especially pitching day games after night games. It’s amazing what your body does when you are younger. There is no way I could do that now.”

By ’15, he did his drinking mostly alone. Twenty-eight years old, he spent the entire season in Triple A with affiliates of the Dodgers and Cubs. He posted a 1.78 ERA. Again, he did not get called up.

“It was helping to suppress my depression,” he says about his drinking. “The game I was giving my life to was accentuating my depression and bringing out the ugly.

“In 2016–17 I wasn’t drinking as much, but I wasn’t having fun playing baseball. … I was a depressed alcoholic, and I hid it from even people closest to me.”

Teams often use mental skills coaches as a point person in recognizing mental health issues. Buchter did not connect well with such personnel.

“I’ve been on teams that required me to speak with a mental skills coach three, four times a month,” Buchter says. “But what a lot of players do not realize is that a lot of these ‘resources’ are not qualified to deal with what our problems are. They can help us breathe through our eyelids and be ‘confident’ on the mound or at the plate. But they can’t help us with clinical depression. They can’t help with my endless anxiety.”

Buchter once told a club mental skills coach about how he was motivated by his father’s work ethic, and how he did not want to go back to New Jersey to clean toilets for a living.

“I had a mental skills coach—an unqualified one—break me down and tell me this was not right,” he says. “This is not what I should be using for motivation. Told me I couldn’t use the chip on my shoulder and failure to keep me going and how it wasn’t going to last.”

He also says players often are reluctant to open up to such personnel because they work for the club. “The trust factor is an issue,” he says.

Buchter pitched nearly year-round to chase his dream. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League after the ’12 season and in the Mexican Pacific Winter League after the ’13 and ’15 seasons. The Padres signed him after he gave up just two runs in 25 innings in the ’15–16 Mexican League.

Then San Diego manager Andy Green telephoned Buchter to tell him how much the Padres wanted him. They put him on their 40-person roster.

“He was a guy I targeted right away from the amount of confidence he had,” Green said in ’16. “What he said to me in the first conversation I had with him, it was an understanding that this guy believes [he’s] a major league pitcher that just hasn’t received an opportunity to do that on a consistent basis.”

Buchter pitched well for San Diego, but the Padres traded him after a half season to the Royals, which traded him six months later to the A’s, which declined to offer him a contract after the season (because he had become arbitration-eligible), which is how he wound up signing a minor league deal with the Angels, who wanted to assign him to the alternate site last September, which he declined, which is how he wound up at the Yankees’ alternate camp on a minor league deal, which led to the minor league deal with Arizona … which adds up to changing organizations 10 times in the past 14 seasons. It is the kind of story being told over and over around baseball.

“The pandemic wiped out a lot of us ‘up and down’ guys out,” he says. “Guys with 3–5 years of service couldn’t collect stats last year. A lot of MLB teams didn’t share data at the alt sites last year. So when not in MLB we were just basically going through spring training without stats.”

This year the Diamondbacks gave him just four innings of spring training work to make the team. He gave up three earned runs. He was sent to the alternate site to train until the minor league season opened this week. He drove 12 hours overnight from Phoenix to Reno.

For years Buchter played the role of the prototypical relief pitcher by projecting an air of toughness. It was an act.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken the mound and had to fake adrenaline or something to remind me what I’m about to do is kind of important,” he says.

It was not until last year that Buchter said he summoned true toughness: by admitting he needed help and seeking a doctor for his mental health.

“Now the resources were there beyond the unqualified guys in our clubhouse, but I didn’t want to use them,” he says. “I wasn’t going to be tough anymore. Why I reached out to you is because I am tough. I’m a man. A man that cares about my family and understands I have an obligation as a father so that my kids know it’s O.K. not to be O.K. To speak about your feelings and emotions and how to correctly deal with problems in both past and future.

“I’m using the resources and I think many more of my peers should. I’ve been seeing a doctor for the last year. Trying to make my daily process a better one.

“Like a lot of men that speak out—Danny Duffy, Dak Prescott, Drew Robinson, Ryan Sherriff and hopefully some more of my friends and teammates—if one person reads this and goes on this journey to better themselves, then we’ve done right.

“As an athlete, as a man, I need help. And I’m proud to say that I’ve gotten help. I think more players should and go past the mental skills coach if needed. Take it to the next level and use someone qualified to take care of the deep-rooted issues.”

Says MLB’s Bean, “We need to have our mental health program in our player education program, including what resources are available. They need to have it on their phone. It needs to be private. The players are not going to convey that they are struggling. They are taught early if they have something wrong to just spit on it and get out there. Jon Coyles and I are putting together a league-wide conversation. We are going to start elevating these resources.”

In ’17, 17.3 million U.S. adults experienced at least one major depressive episode, representing 6.9% of the adult population, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. On a 40-person major league roster, that’s the equivalent of two or three players per team. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America identifies nine symptoms common to depression, of which one of two are present in all cases: overwhelming sadness or a loss of interest and pleasure in usual activities.

Through professional help and medication, Buchter is regaining his love for baseball and, more important, what it means to be happy. He and his wife, Angela, have two children. When he is asked for advice to give to other players who may be suffering from mental health issues, Buchter emphasizes the importance of talking with family, friends and professionals.

“For advice I would just say lean on someone,” he says. “Talk with someone. You’re not less than by speaking your emotions or getting on medicine. My wife suffered from clinical depression in her late teens, early 20s and [talk] therapy coupled with medication is what she always tried to get me to do. I never did. I didn’t want to hurt my on-field product.

“My family has been really supportive of this journey. They want the best for me. We have two kids now and our roles on this earth have pivoted.”

More From Tom Verducci:
• Four Players Have Already Walked Away From Baseball in 2021. Why?
The Wonder of Albert Pujols
Inside Kris Bryant’s Early-Season Resurgence
The Shift Ended Jay Bruce’s Career. Now MLB Must Act.

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