The high school baseball season is just a few weeks old. Don’t tell Kenny Michael . The Norwood High senior ace has hardly taken any time off since last June, when the Mustangs’ 2012 season ended with a loss to Xaverian in the Division 1 South semifinals.
He jumped into American Legion ball, which consumed most of his summer, and skipped his senior football season in favor of joining the Grand Slam Samurai, a Taunton-based club team, for a fall full of New England road trips and four-game weekends.
Then, while the temperatures were bitter and baseball fields frozen, the righthander worked on just about every aspect of his pitching game — cardio, mechanics, arm strength — with clear goals in mind: a stronger arm and a stronger changeup.
“The more you throw, the stronger your arm gets,” said Michael, also a captain this spring. “The offseason is a prime time to do it because you want to build your arm for the regular season.”
But the changeup is not quite as simple. He can put his four-seam fastball anywhere catcher Mark Saulnier wants the ball, he said, and is pretty confident in his curveball, too. Michael said he knows a quality third pitch could put him over the top in an extremely competitive Bay State Conference.
Problem is, it just did not come as naturally to him as the other pitches did.
“The changeup I’ve been working on a lot; it’s getting there,” Michael said. “I have to get that down. If I want to pitch anywhere — even in high school right now — if I want to be successful, I need a changeup. You need that in your repertoire, especially as a righty.”
During the winter, while working twice each week with Ken Lalli, a Brockton native who skippers the Samurai, coaches the varsity at Coyle & Cassidy, and serves as a scout for the Seattle Mariners, Michael changed his grip. He had been having problems with his circle changeup grip, so he adjusted to the split changeup, which falls like a splitter toward a batter’s toes.
Michael, who also plays shortstop, said early returns are positive. He beat Bay State Conference foe Milton, 6-3, in the season opener on Tuesday.
Norwood coach Kevin Igoe said Michael “should dominate, quite frankly.”
In an age of athletic specialization and year-round training regimens, Michael is hardly the exception.
Just ask Walpole High senior southpaw Mike Gaughan , who with Michael could be among the top pitchers in the Bay State Conference.
The 6-2, 210-pound Gaughan spent much of his summer playing in tournaments across the country with the Southern California-based Garciaparra Baseball Group — a team coached by former Red Sox star Nomar Garciaparra’s brother, Michael , and father, Ramon , and did not stop during the colder months.
He threw three days a week, be it long toss or bullpen sessions, and spent a lot of time working on his mechanics, trying to make his delivery effortless.
So far, it has paid off. Catcher Ricky Ordway told Gaughan he has been popping the mitt a lot more, though he has not had the chance to use a radar gun to prove it.
Gaughan started his team’s opener on Tuesday, striking out 13 and scattering four hits in six innings of work in a 14-3 win over Natick.
“I find a way to compete and keep my team in the game,” he said. “I have a mentality that you have to beat me, because I’m not going to let you win.”
But if it were up to his coach, 35-year skipper Bill Tompkins , Gaughan would not do nearly that much offseason work.
Tompkins, a self-described old-school guy who is also the school’s athletic director, is a big believer in his players being well-rounded athletes and not focusing so much on a single sport. However, mounting pressure from parents and coaches in recent years has helped lead to student-athletes specializing.
Sure, there are exceptions, Tompkins said.
But not everyone is a Pat Delano , the 2012 Braintree High graduate drafted by the Red Sox last June who is now pitching at Vanderbilt. Most are better off distributing their athletic efforts more equally.
Tompkins has his pitchers build arm strength during the season by having them throw every day. They will take it easy after a 110-pitch outing, of course, but they get at least some long toss in.
“I feel pretty confident to say we’ve had very, very few pitching arm injuries at Walpole,” Tompkins said.
Oliver Ames senior captain David MacKinnon falls in line with the thinking of Tompkins.
MacKinnon, who will play soccer and baseball at the University of Hartford next year, stepped away from basketball halfway through high school to focus on offseason baseball training, but did a lot more conditioning than actual throwing this winter. After lots of core and back strengthening, the 6-2, 200-pound righty has added, by his estimation, 5 miles per hour to his fastball.
But MacKinnon, who also plays shortstop and uses his arm for long throws to first, is strategic about making it last over the course of a long season. He said he will likely pitch in relief for most of the season before making starts toward the end, when the Tigers’ season could, potentially, hinge on a single win or loss.
MacKinnon’s message is clear, and is one pitchers and coaches on either side of the debate could agree with: “It’s all about saving my arm.”