TAMPA, Fla. — Wednesday the Yankees pitchers and catchers will report to Tampa, take their physicals and get ready for their first official workout of 2021 spring training. It’s a familiar routine in the middle of February despite the fact that nothing will be normal for pitchers this season.
“I think it’s the biggest unknown and challenge for 2021,” one American League executive said. “No playbook for how to navigate it.”
After over a century of developing a routine on how to prepare and care for pitchers, everything was turned upside down last season. After ramping up the pitchers to a very near “ready” state everything was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. Pitchers were ultimately left to prepare on their own — though with pitching coaches counting throws and monitoring the best they could via Zoom and FaceTime. The shortened ramp up in July before the abbreviated 60-game season is what some pitchers believed contributed to injuries last year. The workload even for the teams’ aces and workhorses was well below normal.
So, where does that leave them heading into spring?
With a lot of speculation and questions.
“This will be hard, even for 2020 starters, because no one threw 100 innings last season. We’re counting the (Alternate Training Site) innings, but those were done with caution because the (pitchers’) next outing could be in (the major leagues), in case there was a COVID breakout,” the executive said. “I think you’ll see some six-man rotations some piggy-backed (starts). I think you’ll see starts skipped in-season (even) when (a pitcher is) healthy as well. Don’t think you can (count on) too many that offer length. I think it’s a risky bet to be counting on your top three (starters) to gobble up 500 (innings) this year.”
The concern about work load is why teams are even more concerned about stockpiling a depth of pitchers for the rotation and the bullpen this winter. It may not be the aces, like Gerrit Cole, who make the difference this season.
“It’s more about the quality of your one through 15 pitchers, the belly of your pitching,” the executive added.
So, the Yankees will be looking at the quality — and potential quantity — they get from guys like Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, both of whom are coming back from major injuries, and Jordan Montgomery, who last pitched more than 50 innings in 2017. They are counting on solid comebacks from Luis Severino, expected to return from Tommy John in midseason, and Domingo German, who has not pitched in the big leagues since 2019 because of a suspension under the domestic violence policy.
Those are pitchers with experience, who know how to build themselves up.
“I’m convinced that they will be able to withstand the workloads that will be brought on them,” one rival pitching coach said. “The teams that have built up their pitchers properly shouldn’t see an increase in time missed.”
The Yankees are also hoping that youngsters Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia can step up and contribute, but considering they officially threw 6 1/3 innings and 34 1/3 innings respectively they should be facing some innings limits this year.
One rival pitching coach, however, said that there has been a change in the belief of holding young pitchers to just a 30-inning increase per year until they hit 200 innings. He also said that the youngsters work from the beginning of spring training through the ATS and in the big leagues will likely be considered.
“We logged all live batting practices, bullpens, etc., during the quarantine time. So, yes it may look like starters only threw a certain amount of innings, but (for us) we are working off a different base number,” the pitching coach said. “Additionally, new research and literature is saying that how we’ve traditionally thought about year over year increases is likely wrong … and it’s more how you build them up than total volume.”
“I think all of this will be different for every club,” the coach added.
For the Yankees it will be finding quality depth after Cole and keeping their pitching healthy.