No room for running: The summer ritual many pitchers have abandoned

The MLB All Star Game rosters were announced on Sunday night and Blue Jay's pitcher J.A. Happ will represent the American League at the festivities.

TORONTO — The summer weather evokes a specific set of memories for Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. Memories of his playing days. Memories of gratifying running sessions along the Toronto waterfront. And memories of former teammate Roy Halladay.

Those who were around Halladay often speak with admiration about the rigorous routine he followed in between the games he pitched. Part of that included long-distance jogs, some of which featured Walker when the right-handers shared the Blue Jays rotation in the early 2000s.

The running club — also consisting of a few relievers, the team’s head trainer and, on occasion, then-first base coach John Gibbons — would head out at 1 p.m. on select game days and jog along Lake Ontario for half an hour.

“I enjoyed it,” Walker recalls. “It was part of my routine. It was not only a physical flush of my system, but also a mental flush as well.”

Distance runs were once a staple for starting pitchers. Workhorses like Halladay and Roger Clemens were known for their feverish commitment to the ritual. It was thought to have a plethora of benefits, such as building stamina and mental fortitude, while lessening soreness.

However, those long-held tenets have largely faded, with advances in sports science changing the way pitchers operate in between outings.

“Strength training has gone to a new level,” says Walker. “They are training smarter. Taking care of their bodies a little different. Obviously, the breakdown of the body with distance running isn’t very beneficial for the pitchers today. We’ve just gotten a lot smarter in that field.”

J.A. Happ, the 35-year-old elder statesman of the Blue Jays rotation, adhered to the old principles when he entered professional baseball in 2004. While pitching in the Phillies minor-league system, the left-hander was a regular distance runner.

“It’s kind of an old-school approach,” Happ says. “It was more for the mental part of grinding through miles to make yourself tougher mentally. But it really doesn’t benefit you as a baseball player.”

As Happ grew older, he was introduced to interval cardio that used explosive, short-burst exercises more in line with what he needs to accomplish on the mound.

“We get more benefit from short bursts of explosion,” he explains. “That’s what we do 100 times a game: short burst of trying to explosively throw the baseball. It’s healthier if you do interval stuff, too. You get a better workout. Your overall cardio is better when you do that. That’s why I changed.”

Those types of workouts are all Ryan Borucki has ever known. The 24-year-old rookie does sprints ranging from 30 to 50 yards on three of the four days in between his starts. Like every pitcher in the organization, he worked closely with the high performance department to develop an individual program designed for his body. He followed that while in the minors and in his brief time in the majors, nothing has changed.

“They just said, ‘Stick to your same routine,’” Borucki says of instruction he received from the Blue Jays. “They said, ‘Do whatever you’ve been doing in the minor leagues.’ That’s what I’ve been doing the last two to three years.”

Right-hander Sam Gaviglio, who has enjoyed success during his recent stint in Toronto’s rotation, has a slightly different routine. There’s just under a kilometre of “controlled” and “easy” jogging on the treadmill the day after his start, followed by sprints on days two through four.

Gaviglio, 28, used to run in the outfield from one foul pole to the other, but curbed that length.

“I stopped doing that last year because my body hurt from the all the impact,” he says. “It didn’t feel very good.”

Marco Estrada, like Happ, comes from a time when long distance was the norm. But the right-hander has been reluctant to completely ditch that form of cardio, compromising with 30 to 45 minutes of jogging on an anti-gravity treadmill the day after each start.

“It used to be a thing,” says Estrada. “Now, I don’t think anyone even runs, to be honest with you. I’m the only starter who runs on this team. I don’t see anybody else.”

Estrada, who turned 35 last week, has been bothered by recurring back problems for several years and is currently dealing with a mild glute strain. Typically, his between-start routine consists of gassers, sprints, and elliptical or bike work, plus the running.

“Not outdoor anymore,” he adds. “It used to be, though. Before I came here, I used to run outside all the time … It was nice, putting your headphones on and listening to music and disappearing.”

Those bygone outdoor treks also offered a needed change to what can be a monotonous in-season routine for hurlers. In Walker’s case, it was especially nice when the baseball schedule took the Blue Jays to Boston or Baltimore, where he would run along the water and in the downtown core.

“It was nice getting out there in different cities across the country and getting a chance to go out for a 30-minute run,” says Walker. “It was an enjoyable release. Put on your headphones and take in the scenery.

“Definitely, it’s not done nowadays, and that experience is something today’s starters are missing.”

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