There might not be an implement in sports that is both as important and as delicate as a pitching arm. The modern pitcher—and the modern pitching staff—is the result of more than 100 years of experience, research, and data analysis. Today’s MLB pitchers hone their craft through biometric, mechanical, and aerodynamic study rivaling that of even Formula 1 constructors in its depth, wonkiness, and pursuit of a fractional edge.
Modern pitching coaches have the equivalent of a PhD in the art and science of chucking a 5-ounce spheroid from here to there. They know how to maximize velocity, break, and command. Perhaps more crucially, they know how far they can push the bounds of human biomechanics over a 162-game season without having their charges’ ligaments snap like aging guitar strings.
Thirty teams were on the cusp of such a season in mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic spread across North America and the sports world went dark overnight. Pitchers spent more than three months in unstructured solo workouts before returning to camp. Once MLB announced plans for a 60-game season in late June, pitchers were left with about three weeks to ramp back up for a sprint to the postseason unlike anything in big league history. That race will begin on Thursday.
The compressed format doesn’t mean that pitchers, coaches, and managers have to throw away all of the information they’ve accumulated over the years, but the road map from Opening Day to the postseason won’t resemble any MLB season before. And managing a pitching staff may well be the most complicated part. “The biggest challenge in all this, for me, is that the body doesn’t know that we’re in a 60-game season,” Twins pitching coach Wes Johnson says.
It’s not like each pitcher knows he has a finite number of pitches to throw in a given season. While it’s reasonable to expect pitchers to go harder in a shortened slate, adapting playoff-style usage and being willing to move from the rotation to the bullpen and back, the extent of that change is unclear. In order to figure out just how much harder pitchers can go, pitchers and coaches will have to be flexible and communicate openly.
“I think rest management is more important than workload management,” Athletics pitching coach Scott Emerson says. “Let them pitch and let’s see how they respond. Starters are going every fifth day. How do we monitor their bullpens? And it’s a 12-start season, but we have to remember most of these guys have been throwing [during the layoff].”
When the A’s shut down their training camp in March, their pitchers went home for lockdown without a standardized training plan. Each pitcher’s lockdown situation was different in terms of the availability of equipment, a mound, or a dedicated throwing partner. Other teams had similar situations. Orioles prospect Blaine Knight, who played for Johnson at the University of Arkansas, spent the spring throwing bullpen sessions to his wife, a former college catcher.
“Most of our guys were able to throw in the backyard, and as things opened up in their states, they were able to get on the mound and actually face some hitters,” Emerson says. “When they came back, our athletic trainer, our strength and conditioning coach, and I had a Zoom meeting with all the pitchers about what they’ve actually been doing, what type of hitters they’ve been facing and how often they were doing it. Then we formulated the game plan.”
Even though pitchers continued to work out during the layoff, and even though teams can access Trackman data to quantify velocity, movement, and other significant data points, three and a half weeks isn’t a whole lot of time to prepare for an unprecedented season. Or, to be more specific, an unprecedented MLB season. The league’s 60-game schedule follows three and a half weeks of summer camp and will feature 30 players on Opening Day rosters. The NCAA’s Division I baseball season starts in mid-February after about three weeks of practice and, in normal conditions, lasts 56 games. Teams are allowed to roster up to 35 players.
Johnson is the first pitching coach to join an MLB team directly from the college ranks. In addition to his time at Arkansas, he coached at Mississippi State and Dallas Baptist, where he helped build one of the best pitcher development programs outside the Power Five conferences. He’s right at home having such little lead time to prepare his staff.
According to Johnson, the key to ramping up to game fitness in such a condensed period of time is the ability to scrimmage instead of playing exhibition games. While spring training is traditionally a distinct fan experience and commercial product, and while there’s utility to having pitchers face unfamiliar opponents, there’s immense value in being able to control the environment in which a pitcher gets his reps. “Rich Hill was scheduled to go four innings and 65 pitches [in a recent scrimmage],” Johnson says. ”And instead he was at four and 51. The beauty of scrimmaging is we’re able to leave Rich out there and continue to build him. We got hitters back in the box. In spring training, we’d have to send him down to the bullpen. He’d get 15 more pitches, but it’s not the same as having a hitter in the box.”
Johnson mentioned another instance in which Twins ace José Berríos pitched well in a scrimmage, so Johnson and manager Rocco Baldelli started an inning with a runner on second base to force Berrios to practice pitching out of the stretch and holding the runner on. They wouldn’t have been able to do that in a typical spring training game.
Of course, these scrimmages don’t necessarily expedite pitchers’ ability to build up endurance, and in the opening weeks of the season workload will vary by team and even by player. While most Opening Day rosters will include at least 10 relief pitchers, those expanded bullpens open up a variety of options.
“Most of these pitchers in the league, in my opinion, aren’t ready to go 100 pitches,” Emerson says. He expects his starters to throw somewhere in the 80-pitch range the first time through the rotation. “That might only be five innings, so that opens up the door for an extra guy to come into the game. And you may see teams, with their fourth or fifth starters, just go two times through the lineup because they can take advantage of the extra pitchers on the staff.”
The A’s rotation features rookie A.J. Puk and fourth-year hurler Sean Manaea, who missed almost all of 2019 with a shoulder injury. Frankie Montas’s Opening Day start will represent just his 30th in the big leagues, and Jesús Luzardo will start the season in the bullpen after a positive COVID-19 test delayed his arrival in camp. With an exceptional bullpen anchored by All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, Oakland can keep its starters on a short leash. So too can the Padres, who have one of the best bullpens in baseball and might not want to push Garrett Richards, Chris Paddack, or Dinelson Lamet due to age or injury history. And while the Rays’ aversion to orthodoxy is well documented even in a 162-game schedule, their deep bullpen and somewhat injury-prone rotation could lead them to start this season with a relief-heavy pitcher usage pattern.
Other teams will likely be more aggressive with their rotations. Washington, with its unpredictable middle relief corps and star-studded rotation, is the most obvious example, but by no means the only one. Take Minnesota: Berrios, a two-time All-Star, is the least experienced member of the staff. As a result, Johnson seems willing to push his starters harder sooner.
“With an [expanded] bullpen, you’re more apt to go to your pen early, because you’ve got the weapons there and you’ve got the bodies,” Johnson says. “But we’ve looked at it a lot of different ways. If our guys are going well, we’re not going to have any apprehension about throwing them out there for 100 pitches right out of the chute.”
Preparation is not just a matter of quantity but quality. Different types of pitchers could take longer to find their groove than others. By way of explanation, Johnson alludes to a baseball axiom: hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing.
“This is going to sound stupid because it’s pretty obvious,” he says, “but I think what you’ll see early is guys with really good secondary stuff—and not so much secondary stuff, but guys that have good command of secondary stuff—I think those are the guys that might jump out early and be ahead for a while.”
To some extent that is obvious; few competent MLB starters, even power pitchers, lack good command of at least one off-speed pitch. But if pitchers with spot-perfect command, an elite change-up, and a good breaking ball—Aaron Nola, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Zack Greinke are just three examples—are ahead of the curve for two or three starts, that now constitutes a huge percentage of the season.
“MLB hitters are so good that some of these guys can roll out of bed and hit anybody’s fastball in the league,” Johnson says. “Every guy on our club can still hit the fastball, but the timing’s off just a tick right now on breaking stuff. Which is normal, it’s what you’d expect to see in spring training by now.”
This is a convenient thing to say for a coach who has several pitchers—like Berrios, Hill, and Devin Smeltzer—who throw a ton of curveballs. But Emerson agrees with the assessment. “The touch and feel guys don’t need to pitch with velocity,” Emerson says. “So those guys are gonna generally be who they are. Then the high-velocity guys who just have fair command are going to have to find the ability to throw a strike.”
Between the unpredictability of who will acclimate best to the shortened ramp-up to Opening Day and the possibility of a starting pitcher going into quarantine if he tests positive for COVID-19, every team will need extra starters on hand, ready to pitch on short notice. “We’ve been building most of our guys for at least two innings,” Emerson says. “That means when the season starts, if they really had to go three we could push them to three.” Teams will also need to be strategic about when they deploy relievers. With 10-man bullpens, Emerson says that one option could be to “go five innings with your starter, use five relievers, and you’d still have five relievers for the next day.”
In 2019, a slew of late-season injuries, along with Michael Pineda’s PED suspension, forced the Twins to thrust a few untested minor leaguers into starting or high-volume relief roles down the stretch. Johnson expects to rely on that formula again this summer. Minnesota could rotate pitchers like Smeltzer, Randy Dobnak, and Lewis Thorpe as swingmen and spot starters if the need arises. The Rays, with their surfeit of starting pitchers, are also well positioned to withstand an absence from one of their top starters, as are teams like the Braves or Tigers, if they’re willing to dip into their pool of near-MLB-ready prospects.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen with testing. You gotta be prepared,” Johnson says. “So our mindset is we took our pitcher pool and said we need to get eight to 12 guys ready to go a minimum of four innings when the season starts. And when we get there, if everybody’s good and everybody’s healthy, that’s when we’re going to be able to really pull back and get creative.”
For as much as a 10-man bullpen to start the season could lend itself to a day-on, day-off schedule for relievers, though, there are drawbacks to that approach. “You want to pitch the guys that are important to you at the end of the game too,” Emerson says. “This is Major League Baseball. These guys know who pitches at the end of the game. When the game is on the line, they know their roles.”
That could mean more work for high-leverage, high-volume relievers. In 2019, only one reliever, Brewers lefty specialist Alex Claudio, appeared in more than half his team’s games, and in 83 appearances he threw only 62 innings. But in the playoffs, three relief pitchers on the Astros alone (Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Ryan Pressly) appeared in more than half of Houston’s 18 postseason games. Harris pitched 12 times, which over a 162-game season would’ve put him on pace to break the single-season relief appearances record. If he pitched that much in a 162-game season, his arm would fall off. But what about 35 or 40 appearances in 60 games?
Emerson thinks the expanded rosters will lend themselves to more pinch hitting, and even with the three-batter minimum, more tactical pitching changes. “Some teams don’t really pinch hit for catchers because they’re nervous about not having a backup,” he says. “But if you’re carrying three catchers, you may see a little quicker hook. I think the strategy is going to be fun. But as far as relievers going more on back-to-back days, you may see that especially once September hits and then you really find out if you’re in the race or not.”
Once again, Johnson plans to draw from his college experience. “If you go back and look at the college season, what you see is a slow ramp-up for the first two or three weeks, and then boom, SEC play hits and you’ve got 10 weeks of no-holds-barred action. The teams and the schedule are so tough,” Johnson says. “It’s something Rocco and I have talked about. I don’t think we can jump out of the gate and go to the Will Harris model. But there’s going to be a point in the season where you look at this and go, ‘It’s time.’ Is that 20 games in? Is that 30 games in? I don’t know yet.”
Both Emerson and Johnson pointed out that the progressive roster contraction—two weeks of 30-man rosters, followed by two weeks of 28-man rosters before teams settle in with the 26-man rosters they’ll use until the end of the year—creates an obvious waypoint. After that, someone like the Athletics’ Hendriks or the Twins’ Taylor Rogers could pitch four times a week, and maybe more. Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle, both of whom pitched more than 70 times for the Yankees last regular season, appeared in eight of the team’s nine 2019 playoff games. How frequently could manager Aaron Boone call on them if crunch time comes halfway through the 2020 campaign?
Getting there will require all sorts of clever and unorthodox machinations, from creative training camp scheduling to bullpen games to piggyback starters and the return of the swingman. It’s been more than 100 years since we knew this little about how pitchers ought to be used—there’s no better time to try something different.