TORONTO — Matt Shoemaker was battling his release point Tuesday night at Rogers Centre. He was overthrowing his fastball, leading to a series of misses up to Toronto Blue Jays hitters. Sometimes that resulted in a ball outside the zone when he knew he could have located a strike. Sometimes it resulted in a ball rocketed in the opposite direction, as two teammates took him deep over 4.2 intrasquad innings.
Fortunately, correcting that flaw only takes a minor adjustment — one Shoemaker’s made many times before. And it’s really all he has to worry about ahead of a likely start in Toronto’s second game of the regular season on July 25 vs. the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s not so easy for a lot of other starting pitchers across baseball. They’re scrambling to get stretched out over a compressed training camp, walking the fine line between not pushing so hard that they suffer an injury, but pushing hard enough to get ready for a regular season beginning late next week. Many of them won’t be able to pitch particularly deep into their first outings — but Shoemaker will.
“It definitely feels great to be at that point. Now it’s about mixing the workload at 90 to 100-plus pitches with executing pitches the way you want,” he said Tuesday, after allowing four runs on six hits and two walks while striking out six. “That was my mindset going into this break with this whole virus situation during our layoff. It was, ‘Hey, I want to be as ready as possible when I come back.’”
While plenty of MLB clubs are no doubt looking to install back-up plans for their less-than-stretched-out starters during the first week of the season, the Blue Jays appear to be in pretty good shape at the top of their rotation.
Shoemaker threw 93 pitches (54 strikes) Tuesday and likely opening day starter Hyun-Jin Ryu could be budgeted for a similar workload the next time he takes the mound after getting up over 70 pitches between a game and a side session on Monday. Plus, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo says Tanner Roark is “as built up as Shoemaker is.”
“This is why we worked so hard during the time we were all away from each other,” said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. “They’ve all been throwing consistently because they knew this day would come when they’d be back on the mound.
“I think we’re going to get deeper than people think. I know we’re going to be able to carry extra pitchers, which is awesome — so we don’t have to push anybody. But from a pitch count standpoint, we should be in a real good position.”
Shoemaker spent the shutdown throwing to Wayne State University catcher Kyle Ray at a high school near his off-season home in Michigan. He worked out six days a week, regularly throwing against live hitters. He began building up his workload a month ago, getting up to a 60-pitch bullpen before he even reported to Blue Jays camp.
Ryu followed a similarly involved program while spending the break in Florida, beginning to build up his pitch count during live bullpens at Toronto’s Dunedin facility once it was cleared to reopen for limited workouts. Every week, Walker would check in on all of his starters and relievers via group Zoom calls. And on a near-daily basis he was reviewing video from side sessions being thrown all over the continent.
“We tried to keep them all on a five-day routine,” Walker said of the club’s starters. “And I think its benefitted all of them. It’s something that really was our focus during this downtime — making sure our starters were getting consistent work. Not taxing them and not pushing them too hard, but keeping them on their routine so when the time came they were ready to get back into their normal routine.
“I think the teams that do the best job of that and bring guys in prepared are going to be in the driver’s seat. We’re hoping to get off to a hot start, a good start because of it.”
Guerrero getting up to speed at first
Come opening day, Cavan Biggio will be covering second base on the Blue Jays infield, as he did in 84 of the 111 games the club played after his late-May call-up. What will be different is the man standing to his left at first base — Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
“I understand the feeling of being so new to a position, especially first base. So I understand the thoughts and feelings and what’s going through his head while he’s trying to learn,” Biggio said. “When I was first leaning how to play first base, a lot of [the advice] that I would receive was positioning. I had never played there before so I would ask the second baseman, I would ask our infield coach, or manager at the time, whoever it was in the minor leagues, I would ask them, ‘Hey, am I good right there?’ Every batter.”
Guerrero Jr. has less than two weeks to prepare for live reps at the position, an impossible task that will no doubt lead to growing pains. There’s positioning to learn, short-hops to read, footwork to drill, and a bevy of unique plays to encounter as Guerrero Jr. makes the transition across the diamond.
While his poor defence was a driving factor in moving him off third base — according to StatCast’s outs above average, Guerrero Jr. was the worst statistical third baseman in the game last season — the 21-year-old will now be handling the baseball more than ever. The position ought to be less physically demanding. But he’ll still have important plays to make.
To that end, it’s going to be a learning experience. In the third inning of Tuesday’s game, Guerrero nearly collided with his team’s catcher, Caleb Joseph, trying to make a play on a pop up in first base foul territory. Joseph made the catch, and had a quick discussion with Guerrero afterwards about it. First base coach Mark Budzinski also gave Guerrero some pointers as he returned to his position.
Getting some of those teachable moments out of the way now is huge. And they continued throughout the game. At one point, with fellow first baseman Rowdy Tellez having reached first, Guerrero asked his opponent for advice on positioning. And throughout the night he was looking over to Biggio — who played some first base in the minors — for pointers.
“For myself, having played second base a lot and played in the shift a good bit, I know where that first baseman has to be. So, I can look over at Vladdy and tell him, ‘Hey, scoot two to the left or two to the right,’” Biggio said. “It’s something that is going to take time to learn. It’s going to take time to feel it out. But when you allow yourself to be coachable and you listen to everybody — not just coaches — it gives you the best chance of being more comfortable faster.”
Blue Jays unmasked
Some players around MLB have decided they’ll attempt wearing a mask during games this season, including Houston Astros infielder Aledmys Diaz and Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos. The majority, however, have chosen not to, citing a variety of reasons including MLB’s safety protocols and the discomfort of wearing one while playing.
Asked if he might wear a mask while competing this season, Biggio said he wouldn’t.
“I think the protocols that we go through as a team, not only our team, but as a league, I think it provides the most safe gameplay as possible. So, I’m confident in not having to wear a mask while playing,” he said. “Around the ballpark, whether it’s locker room, hotels, hallways, whatever it is, I’ll wear a mask and I think everybody on our team is going to wear a mask. Guys on the field can choose to wear a mask. But I don’t think that I will.”
Shoemaker also said he won’t wear a mask.
“We’re all playing baseball. I want to be focused on baseball. I don’t want to be worrying about grabbing my face, dealing with a mask,” he said. “I want to go out there and focus on the game and focus on pitching. That’s my mindset with that.”
While MLB’s 2020 Operations Manual does not include any stipulations about mask-wearing during games, it does outline some off-field scenarios in which it’s mandatory. That includes the use of hydrotherapy and cryotherapy units, at which point players must wear two masks — a cloth one over a standard surgical one — in order to ensure the efficacy of the masks is not diminished due to moisture exposure.
Another scenario involves players who have come in close contact with an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. Those players who have been exposed to a confirmed case are permitted to continue training with their team, provided they are asymptomatic and have produced a negative COVID-19 test. But they must wear a mask at all times except for when they’re on the field.
Toronto’s 60-man player pool includes some players who fall into that category, although the club has not made their names public. A group of 12 players remained in Dunedin, Fla. when Blue Jays camp shifted to Rogers Centre last weekend due to an individual testing positive during intake screening and having direct contact with teammates. Several of those 12 have since reported to Toronto.
During Tuesday’s intrasquad game, both Ruben Tejada and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. wore masks while playing. Josh Palacios wore a mask during warmups and in the dugout, but removed it when he entered the game. Austin Maritn wore a mask as he watched the game from the third base dugout. Jonathan Davis and Anthony Bass also wore masks while watching the game from the stands. All Blue Jays coaches and staff have worn masks throughout camp, both on-field and off.
Blue Jays starter Chase Anderson, who suffered an oblique injury while warming up for a recent bullpen, played catch on flat ground Tuesday from 90 feet. It remains unlikely Anderson will be ready to pitch for the Blue Jays by opening day, but Montoyo said his progress Tuesday was “a good sign.”
Julian Merryweather is also battling an oblique strain on his left side. It’s currently unclear when he might be ready to begin a return-to-play progression similar to Anderson’s. Merryweather was being stretched out to 2-3 innings during camp and was a candidate to pitch out of Toronto’s bullpen.
Meanwhile, infielder Travis Shaw is day-to-day with a sore groin. He ran the bases on Tuesday and, according to Montoyo, felt good doing so. He’ll be re-evaluated for next steps on Wednesday.