How the Blue Jays will let data drive Nate Pearson’s season

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Nate Pearson stretches at the team's spring training facilities in Dunedin, Fla. (Steve Nesius/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — While most of TD Ballpark — the humble spring training home of the Toronto Blue Jays —has been thoroughly renovated over the last 12 months, with new seats, new concession stands, and a new boardwalk circling the outfield, some critical elements of a minor-league stadium remain missing. The scoreboard radar gun hasn’t been installed yet, for instance. Neither has the TrackMan system, which is said to be coming later this week.

Nate Pearson was well aware of that when he took the mound Tuesday for his 2020 debut — his teammates wouldn’t let him forget all morning. See, Pearson’s a bit data-obsessed, meticulously analyzing every pitch he throws in games with TrackMan and during bullpens with Rapsodo units. Tuesday, he pitched with a fitness tracking device on his wrist that measures his heart rate variability and sleep quality, providing constant feedback on how well he’s recovering from the stresses of being the top pitching prospect in baseball.

“Yeah, some guys use that stuff more than others,” Pearson’s minor-league teammate and close friend Patrick Murphy said. “And Nate’s big into that. He can talk your ear off about it."

But you didn’t need technology to know Pearson was throwing awfully hard Tuesday against the New York Yankees. You could see it in the late swings he was generating. In the way Reese McGuire’s glove popped behind the plate. And in the expressions of all three hitters he faced as they walked back to the dugout, bat in hand.

"He was pretty dialled in, I guess," McGuire said, drolly, after catching Pearson’s inning. "It was almost closer-like in that first inning. Just pumping fastballs, pumping everything right by everyone."

Pearson certainly leaned heavily on his high-90’s heater as he struck out the side in his lone inning Tuesday. He threw nine of his 12 pitches for strikes, four of them swinging. But he also got to his slider twice, and his change-up once, both coming out of his hand at 89-90-m.p.h. Yes, it’s only his first inning of spring, only the fourth day of live pitching for opposition hitters. But it was dominant.

"You know, I had a lot of nerves, this being the first big-league spring training outing. A lot of family and friends here. But I used it to my advantage and threw pretty well," Pearson said. "I just tell myself it’s all part of it. No one’s forcing me to be here. I want to be here. It’s my dream to chase. So, the nerves are all part of it. You’ve just got to handle it.

"It’s all part of it now. I want to be great. And with greatness comes a lot of other stuff. So, I just try to be normal about it."

All that stuff will follow Pearson everywhere he goes this season. The expectations, the pressure, the constant assessing of fatigue on the shoulder and elbow of an arm that throws that hard. But there will be no easing Pearson into this season. No limitations on his innings in the early going with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons to preserve him for September. He’ll be allowed to pitch as deep into games as any starter reasonably would right from the jump in April.

And if those early outings are as dominant as most of his 34 professional starts have been to this point? If a rotation opening develops in Toronto due to another pitcher’s injury or under-performance? If Pearson’s checking every box on the field and off as he has since the Blue Jays drafted him? Then you might see him on the mound at Rogers Centre before long.

"You know what’s incredible? He’s got the electric stuff, big arm, big boy. But he works his butt off. He really puts in the work. He’s so dedicated. Every day he’s doing something," Murphy said. "It doesn’t matter what’s going on, what the day is like — he’s going to take care of his business. You can count on that. And every fifth day he’s going to be ready. He’s going to do all that he can to be ready to go on game day."

Just how many innings Pearson ultimately throws this year will be a constant topic of conversation throughout summer. He set a career high with 101.2 last season after missing almost all of 2018 with a fractured ulna in his pitching arm. The season prior, his draft year, he threw only 28 as a professional.

But that conversation will be flawed in its design. Not all innings are created equal. They’re a measure of outs — and some outs come on one pitch, some on 12. When it comes to managing workloads for the modern pitcher, simply counting innings and targeting an inflexible, incremental year-over-year progression is an archaic approach.

"To say a 20 per cent increase is the right way to go," said Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins, "there’s not a lot of research or evidence behind that."

The Blue Jays utilized a novel tactic to manage Pearson’s workload last season after his lost 2018, having him alternate between outings of five innings and two innings over the first half of his year. That kept his stress low through July, when he began gradually pitching deeper into games. By August, when he reached triple-A, the limitations were removed, and Pearson was regularly throwing 90-100 pitches an outing. In his triple-A debut, he went seven scoreless, allowing only three singles and retiring the final 11 batters he faced.

The most important thing the Blue Jays learned throughout that process was that they can trust Pearson to be open and honest with them regarding his health. When he developed unusual soreness in his hip area after a June outing, Pearson alerted team staff who quickly put a plan in place to address the issue. He missed a couple starts but returned within three weeks looking stronger than before.

That’s the kind of injury a lot of athletes would be tempted to play through unnecessarily, which can only serve to worsen the problem and potentially create additional ones as they compensate for the pain. But Pearson’s taken a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to his own health since before he was ever a Blue Jay, developing diligent, involved arm care routines when he was in college, and spending winters working at Driveline Baseball, gathering data he used to iron out inefficiencies in his movement patterns.

Knowing that, Toronto trusts Pearson to put his health first, and communicate with them openly this season as he pushes his total workload higher than it’s ever been before. That’s why he won’t face a restriction this April when he begins the year with Buffalo. If he runs his innings total up quickly with long outings, so be it. That means he’s pitching extremely well. And the Blue Jays are confident that if there’s ever an issue with Pearson physically, they’ll learn of it when it happens — not after he’s pitched through it for weeks.

"It really comes down to making sure that the communication is there. That’s the big part," Atkins said. "We do have more information in today’s game on fatigue, on effectiveness. But the communication is vital. That’s the most important piece. If he’s willing to say, ‘I’m tired today.’ If he’s willing to say, ‘Yeah, I think my arm slot is dropping or this is bothering me a little bit.’ That really helps to make sure it’s successful in the end."

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Of course, the Blue Jays have plenty of objective ways to measure Pearson’s stress and fatigue as well. High-speed cameras and motion-capture technology will track everything he does on a mound, from the angle of his arm, to the position of his landing foot, to the thousands of revolutions per minute his pitches make as they’re speeding towards home plate.

Those data points will all be monitored throughout the season, and if anything looks unusual it will be brought to the attention of team staff in order to determine whether it’s a sign of excessive fatigue or merely a young pitcher tinkering with different mechanical adjustments in his delivery. What helps is that Pearson’s as interested in the data as anyone. He’s been using Rapsodo units to gauge the velocity, spin, movement, and break of his pitches since before he was drafted.

"We’re using all of those as pieces to the equation to give him the best chance to be successful," Atkins said. "If we’re seeing arm-slot changes, if we’re seeing spin rates decrease, we’d rather have information so we can avoid those things happening. Maybe they’re the most subtle adjustments in spin rates, or position, or arm action, or arm slot, or hand position that we’re able to make and be a little bit more proactive."

So, how many innings will Pearson end up at this season? No one can say. It’s not as simple as merely counting outs. It’s obviously not a great idea to double or triple a pitcher’s workload year over year. But if Pearson maintains his mechanics, his strength, and his effectiveness as he reaches 110, 120, 130 innings? The Blue Jays may be liable to let him keep rolling until the data suggests he’s ready for a break.

It all depends. The Blue Jays aren’t making any decisions with regards to Pearson’s progression today. They’ll let his results, his health, and the club’s needs dictate that as the season develops. If he needs rest, he’ll get it. If an injury occurs, it’ll be dealt with. And if he continues pitching like he did in his spring debut Tuesday? Well, that’d be something else.


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