Grange on MLB: Less is more for pitchers

Major league pitchers tend not to overwork their arms while preparing for the regular season in Spring Training.
March 11, 2013, 8:42 AM

DUNEDIN — When Mies van der Rohe coined the expression ‘less is more’ he was referring to modernist architecture. But he could have been talking about pitchers in spring training, who do lots of not much, entirely by design.

Looking for a dream job?

If you’re the type that considers doing some moderate exercise under the gentle morning Florida sun while swapping tales with your buddies something like work, then being a major league pitcher in spring training is the job for you.

Toronto Blue Jays reliever Darren Oliver is in his 20th big-league camp and well past pretending what he does equates to something most people would identify as a job.

The toughest part is keeping yourself busy.

“You need to find a hobby, you really do, otherwise you’re done,” he said the other day, which happened to be the day after he pitched an inning in a spring training game and thus was a day off for him.

That he’d spent most of the day before catching up on Breaking Bad on his iPad suggests the work day wasn’t exactly heavy lifting either. “It’s just a lot of dead time,” he says.

Old baseball joke: What’s the difference between cows in a field and a pitcher in spring?

Two legs and a pair of sunglasses.

Okay, it’s not an old baseball joke — at least that I’m aware of – but it could be.

It’s not anyone’s fault. Blame the delicate line pitchers have to walk between getting their arms prepared for the season and avoiding a season-ending injury, the threat of that lurks on every throw, as the collection of surgical scars across many Blue Jays pitchers’ elbows and shoulders proves.

When it comes to pitching, more is not more. More can mean a year on the disabled list.

Hitters take a few hundred extra cuts in the batting cage to fine tune a change in their swing. If they want to become bigger and more powerful, they can spend hours in the weight room. As well they have fielding skills to work on, their own arm strength to build up. And they play most days, usually for more than an inning or two at a time.

Pitching is not the same. The number of throws a pitcher can make in a given day or week — and thus the amount of time they spend actually doing stuff during spring training — is widely viewed as sand in an hourglass: finite.

“You can do a bunch of eye-washing and sit out there and do PFPs [fielding drills] and shag flies, but after that, what else?” reasons Mark Buehrle, who seems to have the right attitude, given he’s pitched at least 200 innings for 12 straight seasons. “We’re not hitting as much or fielding as much as the position guys do, but those guys play every day and we don’t. You can only throw so much before your arm falls off or starts to hurt.”

It’s not like they do nothing; they just don’t do much and doesn’t take more than about 90 minutes to do it.

“It’s quality over quantity. It’s not like a basketball player who can go out and take 500 shots,” says Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “You want to make sure they have enough innings in so they’re ready to go. You definitely don’t want to overwork them just because you have time.”

Pitchers and position players generally are in the clubhouse for 8 a.m. where a fair bit of hanging out ensues, spiced with some television watching; reading or intense smartphone inspecting.

At about 9 a.m., they gather on the green grass for 15 or 20 minutes of team stretching, followed by some long toss — quite literally playing catch — for about the same amount of time.

That might be followed some days –but not all days — by some PFPs (pitcher fielding fundamentals) where they work on fielding bunts or covering first base on balls hit to the right side of the infield. That’s another 20 minutes.

Depending on their throwing schedule they may have work to do in the weight room to strengthen and stabilize their throwing arms as well as some cardio work — sprints some days, perhaps a two mile run on others — that also serves to keep their legs strong.

About every third day between actual appearances in games, a pitcher will be listed on a chart in the clubhouse under the heading ‘work’. That means a session off the mound in the bullpen that will last anywhere from 20-to-40 pitches; perhaps as many as 60 as Opening Day approaches.

“Short and sweet,” says Ricky Romero.

Pitchers work hours are a fact of baseball life that is so ingrained it barely raised an eyebrow, until someone brings it up.

“I’m jealous of them, no doubt,” says 16-year veteran Mark DeRosa. “Early in camp they’re walking out at 10:30 in the morning with their golf attire on going to tee it up and we got (batting practice) and gassers and everything else on the docket, but I learned pretty quick that that’s the way it’s going to be.”

“It’s kind of like kickers in football. They practice for the first 10 minutes and then they’re done for the rest of the day. But then again they hold the fate of the entire organization in their hands at any given moment.”

Or, as Blue Jays manager John Gibbons — who has earned praise from his veteran pitchers and position players alike for running a low-key, no nonsense camp– puts it: “If you’re a good pitcher it’s the best job in the world. Work every five days, make a lot of money. As long as you throw strikes, everyone’s happy.”

The whole set-up raises the question of why pitchers even come in to work at all on days when they’re not supposed to pitch off a mound or appear in a game – which is at least half the time.

Could Roger Clemens have been on to something a few years back when he was able to secure a deal from the Houston Astros that required him to show up for work only on the days he was scheduled to start?

Oliver admits the idea has some appeal, at least in an abstract sense.

“A day like today? I didn’t do much today. I pitched yesterday and I’m taking the day off today,” he said. “I probably did, like, five minutes worth of work.”

But he did those five minutes over two hours. Why not stay home?

It’s a baseball tradition, that’s why.

“You got to come in,” says Oliver. “It’s a team sport. You have to show up early and be here. Even when you’re sick. They won’t even let us call in sick. You have to show up, see the team doctor and then they’ll let you go. You show up, he sees you and then they let you go. But you always got show up. It’s always been like that.”

Buerhle, who will have his family stay behind in Florida and St. Louis while he works in Toronto this season, can’t imagine not coming into the office, even if coming into the office might mean watching bad reality TV in the clubhouse followed by some light cardio.

“I would never do that. I would retire before that,” he said when asked about ‘working’ from home. “People are going to look at you different. If there are plays where they’re going to run into a wall or dive to make a play, they’re going to say ‘why am I going to risk injury or take a chance like that if you’re not rooting us on every day to get a big hit?’ or stuff like that. I would retire before that ever happens.”

But there is the matter of filling time. After they stretch and throw and do their cardio, pitchers spend a good portion in Spring Training shagging flies during batting practice.

“There’s only so many games you can play on your iPad or TV you can watch,” said Jays reliever Steve Delabar. “So it’s nice to get out there.”

But even that has its limits.

“You see the pitchers, they usually bunch up by the right field line because it’s closer to the clubhouse for lunch time,” says Gibbons, a former catcher. “The other guys might be in centre or left field, the pitchers don’t go too far.”

Everyone once in a while real life intrudes and provides a moment for reflection.

“We were out on the [back] field and it was an early day again …. and we go out and we’re fielding ground balls and you look across the way at the school [across the street] and we’re getting paid to field ground balls and they’re over their teaching kids,” says Delabar. “It puts in perspective. We’re playing a game; we’re doing something we love. It’s great.”

About the time recess is over, the day is done for pitchers not scheduled to pitch in game.

If the Blue Jays are at home they generally stick around and watch, but when the team is playing an away game, the afternoon yawns like a vacant canvas for those not on the trip.

It’s a baseball thing and a pitchers thing, but one of those things that doesn’t translate all that well to civilian life, even if the civilians know the rhythms of baseball life all too well.

“My wife wears me out. I catch some heat; I’m catching heat right now,” says Oliver, 42, who has boys aged 12 and 10, the responsibility for whom falls on his wife Melissa who is at home.

“She’s driving them around all the time and I’ll tell her ‘I’m going to go to a movie or something or play some golf’,” says Oliver.

She’s all: “It must be nice.”

And I’m like: “What do you want me to do?”

Stay healthy and throw strikes – for a pitcher in the lazy days of Spring, what more is there?

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