When and if Major League Baseball returns in 2020, the sport faces a particular challenge in restarting from the suspension of play caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. All players will require something of a second spring training, but one player position needs even more time to prepare: pitcher.
To get their arms in shape for baseball’s opening day, which would have been today, March 26, most pitchers reported to their teams’ spring training camps on Feb. 12, giving them what would have been 43 days of preparation. It’s hard to know when the 2020 season will start for sure — some scenarios would have the regular season begin in June or July. But to have an as-early-as-possible start date and play as many games as possible in what could be the shortest season in history,1 could MLB safely prepare its pitchers with a truncated training schedule?
MLB decision makers say no firm plans have been made. A spokesperson from the MLB commissioner’s office told FiveThirtyEight that mapping out specific training plans is “impossible” at this point with so much uncertainty remaining. Others in the industry have told FiveThirtyEight that a three-week camp might be possible. Expanding rosters is another possibility to relax pressure on arms, though that would have to be negotiated between MLB and the players’ union. The league could even push back the calender deeper into the fall. Player agent Scott Boras has suggested playing a 162-game season that would conclude with a World Series lasting until Christmas.
Mitch Horacek, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization, was told that the ramp-up period would need to be at least three weeks. Starting pitchers require more of a build up than relievers because of their workload.
“I think the minimum number of days needed for starters should be around 21, but 28 would be more realistic,” Horacek told FiveThirtyEight. “Unfortunately, I think a lot of guys will be at risk of injury no matter what happens, just because there’s no way to be prepared as you should be under current conditions.”
There isn’t much of a precedent for this pause. Since World War II, there have been only three seasons with fewer than 150 games played per team: 1981,2 1994 and 1995 — all seasons with labor disputes. The 1995 season is perhaps the best comparison, since the start to that season was delayed by the work stoppage that wiped out the 1994 World Series and lingered until April 3, 1995, when an agreement was reached. In 1995, players had to report to spring training by April 7, with most teams opening on April 26. That gave pitchers 19 days to prepare.
Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto was a major league pitcher with the New York Mets in 1995. Did he have enough time to prepare? “I did feel we had plenty of time during the spring of ’95,” Dipoto told FiveThirtyEight. “Unfortunately, we are dealing with a variety of variables that weren’t a factor back then but likely will be when we return from this crisis.”
How many training days will baseball trade for games? Both players and owners have an interest in playing as many games as is safely possible. If the season were to still end on Oct. 1 and 0.87 games were played per day, an opening day of June 1 could allow for 107 games per team, according to ESPN. Under the same rate of games per day, a June 15 start date could reduce the season to 95 games, while kicking things off on July 1 would mean just 81 games played. Every missed game will result in lost revenue — and possibly lost service time for players, which would affect player eligibility for free agency and arbitration. MLB and the players are trying to work around that issue.
If pitchers are closer to game readiness heading into the second spring training, they may be able to shorten the duration of necessary training time. So how are they keeping their arms in shape? The answer varies.
Cincinnati Reds pitching coordinator Kyle Boddy says the club has given pitchers a “basic maintenance program” through April 1, and the club will re-evaluate then. MLB teams are keeping skeleton crews at their spring training facilities, but only select players on 40-man rosters, like rehabbing Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Brent Honeywell, are allowed to work out there. There is no group training permitted. The Twins are providing 20 players in their organization access to work out at their facility in Fort Myers, Florida. One MLB executive told FiveThirtyEight that pitchers in that organization are essentially resetting their calendars to something akin to January, with each pitcher back on an individualized offseason program.
“Like everyone else, we are challenged with creating a timing-sensitive plan without a hard target date,” Dipoto said. “We have built eight-, 10- and 12-week programs designed to maintain the highest floor possible.”
Most pitchers, like Horacek, are back on their own. “Like all other pitchers in baseball right now, training for me has been a struggle,” Horacek told FiveThirtyEight. “While I’m fortunate enough to still be in Florida where the weather is nice enough to get outside, training like I should is just not possible. Gyms are closed.”
Horacek found a throwing partner, a college player whose season was postponed, but they can’t work together every day. “On days we don’t meet up, I have been throwing [weighted balls used for training] at a palm tree right outside the apartment. … It’s very very far from ideal, but it’s the best I can do right now.”
Rob Kaminsky, a pitcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, says he is “throwing five days a week” and is trying to stay as close to game-ready as possible. “It’s very hard to mimic the stressors of being in a game or a Rapsodo (pitch-tracking technology] bullpen,” Kaminsky said. “Catchers are hard to come by, so getting off the mound once a week is the goal for now.”
The goal is to be ready for an opening day they hope will arrive, but staying ready is a challenge.