Have Blue Jays figured out secret to handling pitchers?

Sportsnet Central’s Stephen Brunt sits down with Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos to talk about the Jays run to the MLB post season and all the things that went into putting together this magical season.

TORONTO – Two seasons without any major arm injuries in the rotation or bullpen suggests that the Toronto Blue Jays, who revamped the handling of their pitchers after the 2013 campaign, may be on to something.

What exactly they’re on to Alex Anthopoulos isn’t saying, just in case the organization’s approach to baseball’s most fragile commodity is turning into a competitive edge. But abandoning the strict pitching caps that marked the early years of his time as general manager in favour of a program tailored to each pitcher appears to be paying off, with a staff that’s healthy heading into the American League Division series against the Texas Rangers.

“Generally speaking, we try to watch our players, we don’t treat everybody the same, which is maybe what we did early on,” says Anthopoulos, adding later: “So far, it’s been good. I’m pleased with the results.”

As well he should be.

En route to the club’s first American League East title since 1993, the Blue Jays got 143 of their 162 starts, or 88 per cent, from just six pitchers: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marco Estrada, Drew Hutchison, David Price and Aaron Sanchez, the only pitcher to hit the disabled list this season with arm injury, a lat strain costing him 42 games.

Last year, Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison, J.A. Happ and Marcus Stroman combined to make 144 of the team’s 162 starts, a massive swing from 2013, when only Dickey and Buehrle made more than 20 starts, and 2012, when Hutchison and Kyle Drabek both underwent Tommy John surgery while Brandon Morrow missed two months with an oblique injury, three injuries that torpedoed a promising season.

An absence of injury doesn’t necessarily mean the Blue Jays have solved the frustrating riddle of the throwing arm – they may simply have healthier, stronger dudes chucking the ball now. But by more closely monitoring the workload of each pitcher, inserting a spot starter on occasion to build in some additional rest, limiting throwing between starts, skipping the occasional bullpen and, new this year, collecting data on how much energy players exert during various activities, they’re not leaving things to chance, either.

“So much of what we know now in sports science is about recovery and trying to optimize that day you’re actually on the mound,” says Dickey, who led the staff with 214.1 innings, although Price logged 220.1 frames between the Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers. “There’s a lot of research that points to recovery and sleep and eating right, things you didn’t think about back in 2001. I’ve been doing those things, trying to implement some of those disciplines in an effort to prolong my career and that’s really helped.”

The Blue Jays have cast a very wide net in the search for new gains this season, experimenting with sleep programs (the team napped in the clubhouse between games of a doubleheader in Washington on June 2, beating Max Scherzer in the nightcap), making a bigger foray into biomechanics and training optimization programs.

From spring training onwards, players were periodically outfitted with special geo-tracking monitors from sports science company Catapult to measure how much energy they were expending on a daily basis or in specific workouts. That information was then assessed by the club’s training staff, providing guidance on whether a player needed a break, could push harder, or become more efficient.

Such data was instrumental in Stroman’s rehab of a torn ACL in his left knee, as the medical staff at Duke used Catapult and Omegawave monitors to track his progress.

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“My doctors would take that information and process it every single day and then whatever they saw they’d put into the workouts the next day,” says Stroman. “Omegawave tells you where your body is at, how your brain is thinking, if you’re rested, your stress levels, and then the Catapult system measures your workout load, basically how much power you’re putting forth when you’re doing whatever.

“It’s important, it’s not the olden days, you’ve got to adapt, it’s 2015, they have all this technology out there that’s very useful and people fail to use it because they want to go off the old things. I’m a perfect example of how technology can help. Everything I did was tailored around what they were seeing from these devices.”

Not everything was so cutting edge.

Pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Dane Johnson made a regular point of asking pitchers how they were feeling, whether they needed more work or less work, and adjusted. The training staff did the same thing. Whenever there was an opportunity to build in some rest, or ease someone’s load, the Blue Jays took it.

“There were times they cut a few of my starts short, which at points I didn’t mind because there were times I’d fatigue a little bit, and it’s funny just because of the amount of innings I’ve thrown,” says Estrada, who logged a career best 181 innings, 30 more than last year. “But there were other times I felt great and I could finish the game and they wouldn’t let me. It all evens out. I feel like they did a pretty good job with me this year.”

Another example of the Blue Jays’ evolution in the handling of pitchers is closer Roberto Osuna, who in previous years would never have been allowed to throw 69.2 innings in 68 games after logging just 23 frames in 2014 after Tommy John surgery.

Rather than shutting him down after an arbitrary 25 or 30 per cent increase in innings, like they would have done in the past, the Blue Jays monitored his progress, backing him off as needed to get him through the entire season.

“That’s not to say we wouldn’t shut guys down, we absolutely would, we’re just not locked in to 10 per cent, 20 per cent, 30 per cent increases, 20 innings, 30 innings,” says Anthopoulos. “If we think there’s a fatigue element, or if guys need the rest, or they’re at risk to injure themselves, we would shut them down. We haven’t been put in that position yet, we haven’t seen a need to do it yet.”

The Blue Jays considered shutting down Hutchison late in 2014 before he closed out the season strong, and on a handful of days worked in extra rest for him this season. At the same time, they were willing to break camp with four rookie pitchers in April – Osuna, Sanchez and the since traded Daniel Norris and Miguel Castro – and push them beyond what’s become the industry standard.

The tricky part is that over time, teams have tended to become more conservative with their pitchers as the rate of injury has increased. Veering from that opens a front office up to criticism, even though playing it “safe” with pitchers has proved anything but.

“We’re in an age where guys are making a whole lot of money,” says Dickey. “You’ve got to find that balance between protecting your assets, and getting the most out of your assets.”

The Blue Jays, of course, had little success with a more conservative approach, capping Morrow at 146.1 innings in 2010 and managing his workload to 179.1 innings in 2011 only for him to suffer injury in every season since. Hutchison, Drabek and reliever Luis Perez all blew out in 2012. Josh Johnson was a mess in 2013 and hasn’t been healthy enough to pitch in the big-leagues since.

Rather than sticking with a one-size-fits-all model, they adapted.

“What Buehrle does or what Price does is not the same thing I do, everybody has their own thing that they do routine-wise whatever it may be, whether it’s in the training room, working out,” says Stroman. “I’m 5-8, I’ve got to prepare my body differently than a guy who’s 6-6 because we work differently. I have to get everything out of my 5-8 frame that they get out of their 6-6 frame, but baseball can be very cookie-cutter.

“I feel the Blue Jays have done a very good job of allowing me to be myself and said, ‘OK Stro, whatever gets you ready to pitch every five days.’ And that’s how it should be, it shouldn’t be cookie-cutter programs, throw this amount on this day, throw a bullpen specifically this day. Everyone feels different – people throw third-day bullpens, people throw second-day bullpens, people work out the day after, or two days after. Pitching is unique.”

The challenge for the Blue Jays as they look toward 2016 is in determining if the past two seasons are simply anomalies or something more repeatable, and how much of an impact their approach really made.

What’s clear, given the continuing epidemic of pitching injuries, is that the industry’s generally accepted practices weren’t working, and that change is needed.

“The same way people want to criticize the medical staff when guys are getting hurt, I think you give them a lot of credit, (head trainer) George Poulis and his staff, all our doctors, have done a great job with that,” says Anthopoulos. “Pete Walker and Dane, some of the programs they’ve implemented, some of the things we’ve done as a front office, as well, some of the research we’ve done … right now, things have worked out, and hopefully they continue to work out.”

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