Blue Jays starters see value in new group warmup routine

Aaron Sanchez and four relievers combined to pitch Toronto's second straight shutout, leading the Blue Jays over the Detroit Tigers 3-0.

TORONTO – The idea first came up during spring training, Charlie Montoyo mentioning it, Clayton Richard championing it and the rest of the Toronto Blue Jays rotation embracing it. Baseball tradition has forever been that a given day’s starter essentially walks out of the dugout to the bullpen on his own, largely preparing in solitude for the isolating experience of pitching in a big-league game. Then the New York Yankees decided to head out for a starter’s warmup as a group, the Tampa Bay Rays followed suit and the Blue Jays saw value there, too.

“We only pitch one out of every five days as a starting pitcher, so our contribution to the team winning a game has to come from other ways 80 per cent of the time,” Richard said before he and his rotation-mates rallied around Aaron Sanchez ahead of his five shutout innings in a 3-0 victory Saturday over the Detroit Tigers. “An easy thing such as coming out with our starting pitcher lets him know and shows that day, we’re all about supporting him. We’re going to do everything we can to help, we’ve got his back. If he needs water, I’m going to get him water. If he needs a towel, I’m going to get him a towel, or a piece of gum – whatever it is. He knows it’s not just him that’s taking the mound, it’s everyone doing everything they can to support him on his day.”

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The Blue Jays debuted the group walkout Friday, once the opening day hoopla had passed and before Matt Shoemaker threw seven shutout innings in a 6-0 win. Leading the charge out of the dugout that day were Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, whose once warm friendship appeared to have cooled before a recent thaw, smiling and joking around together. When Sanchez returned to the dugout Saturday at the end of his outing, Stroman was the first one out of the dugout to greet him.

“We’re working on it. It’s growing. I’m excited about it,” Stroman said of the bond with Sanchez. “It’s something that happened organically and it’s moving in the right direction. Myself and the entire team is pumped about it.”

Sanchez appreciates the support of having the other starters around while warming up, and then surrounding him on the walk back to the dugout from the bullpen.

“You look around the league and see other teams do it and you’re like, that’s tight,” he said. “Not only are you facing one guy that night, you’re facing four other guys, too, because you’re walking in together. We’re obviously trying to change the culture here and incorporate things we didn’t necessarily do in the past and that’s something the guys who have been around came up with. You can really pick their brain about what they see and what they’re doing. That’s the camaraderie we’re trying to build here.”

Stroman feels the same way.

He remembers being struck by the “intimidating feel” the first time he noticed the Yankees starters walk in from the bullpen around CC Sabathia and being impressed with what it showed.

“I think it’s huge, not only for that reason, but also for building camaraderie between starters and also just learning,” he said. “We never really sit and watch another starting pitcher warm up because we’re doing our own routines during the week. Actually watching another starter warm up, you pick up things you might add to your routine. Is he starting out fastballs away? Does he spin the breaking ball? Does he like to throw at an extended pace? I might pick up one thing that I might run with that Sanchie does, that Shoemaker does, Clayton does.”

The potential for payoff is particularly rich for Trent Thornton, who is set to make his big-league debut Sunday starting in the place of the injured Ryan Borucki. The 25-year-old has been all eyes and ears all camp long, and rather than being alone with his emotions before taking the mound, he’ll be surrounded by his fellow starters, each of whom has been there and done that.

“I really like it,” he said. “It’s a good thing to have each other’s backs and it’s another method of support, as well. … I watched Shoe warmup in the bullpen (Friday), saw what his gameplan is all about and I’m just trying to gather as much information and knowledge as I can.”

Thornton will undoubtedly be the first of several youngsters to start for the Blue Jays this season beyond Borucki, with guys like Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley among the immediate level of depth for the team. At some point, other pitching prospects like Patrick Murphy and, further down the line, Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho could emerge, too.

Exposure to the different ways established starters get ready is “big for someone who maybe doesn’t know his routine yet,” said Stroman. “They’re able to see how calm someone works, how this guy starts out in his bullpen, even his timing – what time does he get out there? What time is he on the mound by? There are so many little things you can pick up.”

And, as Shoemaker put it Friday, “We want to support each other, we want to pump each other up, do whatever it takes to have each of us go out there and do well. … You’re facing all of us, not just one of us.”

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Richard, who since the start of spring training has more than lived up to his reputation as one of the game’s top teammates, hadn’t before been a part of any rotation doing the collective warmup. In previous years, he’d watch the side sessions of his teammates, since it’s the second-most-important day of work for a starter after his actual game day, and offer up his insights if sought.

In extending that approach to each starter’s pre-game, he sees benefits beyond simply a strength in numbers approach.

“Like anything you do in this world, there’s a sense of satisfaction when you are doing it at a level that’s worth watching,” Richard explained. “When you go watch a side, when you go watch them warm up before a game, it re-establishes the fact that you’re doing something special.

“It also shows our younger players the game is bigger than an individual. No one person is more important in a team atmosphere like we have. Little acts like that show that we’re in it for the betterment of the team instead of being in the hot tub or doing something selfishly that is helping us at that time. We’re going to give that time to our teammate.”

That type of selflessness is exactly what Montoyo wants in his clubhouse.

“I love that stuff. I brought it up early with them and they bought into it and they already did it, which I love. That’s pretty cool,” he said. “They can watch each other, they can talk about the next day, how they’re going to attack hitters and stuff. It’s good. I loved it when the Yankees do it and then the Rays were doing it also, and I love that we’re doing it.”

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