Imagine an Olympic javelin thrower preparing to go set a world record for throwing the javelin as far as they can. Now imagine it’s their job to do that 4 times a week. Can you imagine going out, 6+ hours before your world record attempt, and training by making the same move with intent and intensity every day? Do you suspect that’s the best way to throw it the farthest?
I’m in Tulum, Mexico, home of some inspiring ancient Mayan archeological sites. Among other things, the Mayans developed a complex calendar system and were expert builders of systems. This atmosphere sparked some thoughts on how to reimagine our processes and systems in Major League Baseball for improved health and performance. I’ll ultimately cover relievers, starters and position players, but this particular piece will be part 1 of a 2 part post focusing on the schedule for relievers. In this first part, we’ll look at the physical reasons and benefits to make a change; part 2 will riff on the mental and cultural impacts.
Throwing a pitch (or making a throw from the outfield, across the diamond or taking a swing) is a plyometric move. The goal is for the body to achieve maximum force in a short period of time. When we make these moves, we’re also programming the body to repeat them the next time, basically, simultaneously performing and training. We don’t think of it this way, but the act of throwing a baseball hard many times is also a workout just like any other strength and conditioning routine.
Teams already ask relievers to be at their best for potentially dozens of pitches in the case of a long inning or a multiple inning outing. Even in the dream scenario of 3 lightning quick outs, you’re still likely looking at 5-15 pitches thrown at maximum force and effort. It’s a physical beast of a challenge. Some of this is unavoidable. The game, and winning it, is everything for everyone involved. It’s the event that feeds their families. The current system doesn’t reflect that or adequately support relievers in preparing for the magnitude of those moments. We may not be able to remove the game stress, but we can remove some of the volume from earlier in the day and recover for longer.
As it stands, the biggest workload of the day is often taking place not at 8:45 when the game is on the line, but at 3pm. Relievers loosen up their entire bodies inside before going outside to the outfield line to stretch and run before making throws, either with plyo balls (rubber-coated weighted balls filled with a sand-like material and here, used to warm up) or regular catch play. Most will make a combination of some light and high intensity throws, often stretching it out to some big distances, which is known as long toss. Finally, many will do “flat ground” work, with their throwing partner getting into a catcher’s stance so they can work on their delivery, often spinning breaking balls and other secondary pitches. Probably 80% of guys roll out (myofascial release) and do some type of mobility work in the weight room. One reliever told me he likes to throw his changeup daily from 90 feet (the mound is 60 feet, 6 inches away from the plate) to see the spin. By the time the game is actually here, their gas tank is half empty because they’ve been at the ballpark working and hanging out for 8 hours!
If you did this routine once in a while, fine. But this is a daily event that starts in spring training and lasts through the season. As I mentioned at the top, other elite athletes don’t do this.
Right now, almost all relief pitchers throw with some degree of intensity early in the day nearly every day of the season. They’re also pitching in sometimes 70 or more games a year. This may simply be too much work for them to be at their best, and we’re likely leaving innings, health and performance on the bone. If pitchers didn’t throw on days in which they hit the mound to compete, they’re saving themselves 60, 70 or more workouts during the season. Think about how important that is. The Mayans would probably design a reliever’s day differently.
“The best predictors of whether or not you will have a shoulder injury in the coming year are whether you had a shoulder injury last year, how many pitches you threw last year, whether you had a shoulder injury two years ago, how many extra batters you faced last year from the year before (with a greater increase meaning that you were less likely to be injured), and the two-strike foul rate (just barely). It’s clear that guys with pre-existing conditions are a risk.”Russell Carleton: Baseball Therapy: What Really Predicts Pitcher Injuries?
If a typical workout includes just 20 full intensity pitches and we remove the workouts only on days he pitches, that could be 60 games. That would be 1,200 throws over the course of a season or 80 average innings. If you remove 80 innings of workload from a pitcher, that’s a significant injury risk predictor we’re removing.
But doesn’t a reliever need to work on his craft away from game action? I believe they do. We just don’t want our relievers ramping up and using a not insignificant amount of fuel at 3 in the afternoon, cooling down completely, then doing it again 5 or 6 hours later when their livelihoods are at stake and wins are on the line. All of this non game work should be done post game, and there’s a sensible way to make it work. Typically, the game ends, and like the rest of the team, relievers make their way to the clubhouse to either celebrate or ponder in the silence (more on this craziness in a later post).
Instead of this routine after the game, go to the outfield line or the performance center and run the routine you’d normally run at 3pm. Or if you prefer, go to the club(house) first, shake hands, have a quick celebration and put your beer on ice (it’ll be colder after you’re done with your training). Of course, if you pitched in the game, there’s no postgame throwing because why would you beat your body up further after plenty of that? I know I could have stayed healthier throughout my career if I had trained less and probably would have spent less time on the DL (IL). I know I’m not alone. Relievers are often seen as fungible, mostly because their performances and health fluctuate dramatically year to year. Makes you wonder why that’s more true for this specialized role.
So let’s take a peek at a more efficient day for a reliever. You’re a pitcher in our newly constructed system. And you’re up tonight! You’re slated to pitch the 7th or the 8th in an up game against the toughest part of the opposition’s lineup, a string of righties with a lefty somewhere in there. Here’s your schedule:
- sleep in as late as you like before leisurely coffee with your partner
- quick zoom with your pitching coach crew to go over opposing hitters
- a walk/stretch/light yoga to get the body moving
- good lunch on your balcony looking at your garden
- pick your kids up from school, get some nice family time
- a little video study of the opposing hitters you might face
- head to the ballpark at 5 for the 6:45 start, arrive at 5:30, strut into the clubhouse after what felt like an off day
- walk outside and feel the field, look around and visualize striking out the side
- get dressed and be in uni by 6:30 (or whatever’s right for you and your team)
- head out to the pen totally fresh and ready to perform
- the bullpen coach is getting you ready during the game with any relevant info; you don’t have to remember anything from earlier in the game
The game begins and the 7th rolls around, but some bonehead manager opts to use someone else, so you don’t pitch. The game ends, and instead of walking to the clubhouse, you walk to the performance center or down the line. You go through a throwing program designed to work on your delivery and strength. It takes you 20-30 minutes; it’s now 10:15. You meet with your strength coach and get your work for the day and your recovery protocol; this takes you until 11pm. You have a nice meal with your teammates to refuel and connect, shower and head home. You’re in bed by 12:30, 1am. You crash knowing that you have all day to relax tomorrow before doing it all again.
Relievers don’t know if they are going to pitch for sure on any given night, but it makes sense to not train and drain battery power until that question has been answered. Of course they need to train; all players do. But there’s a better path where relievers can be stronger every night, healthier over the course of the season, give their clubs a better path to win and their families more time with their husbands and fathers.
I love baseball. In particular, I love professional baseball. Even more specifically, I love Major League Baseball. And I want to see the game grow, improve…and change. The Mayans had a beautiful way of blending tradition and innovation. MLB does the same. With some continued open mindedness, relievers can be healthier and better, making for an even more exciting brand of pitching and baseball.