When spring training was suspended in March, players returned home or found somewhere else to wait for the season to begin. With team personnel prohibited from in-person coaching, workouts were monitored via cell phone video.
“I’d have the guys prop their phone up and I’d watch their mechanics as best I could,” Red Sox pitching coach Dave Bush said. “We all had to improvise.”
Once the decision was made to start the season, players had three weeks to prepare.
Injuries were inevitable. But the wave of pitchers placed on the injured list has changed the look of the sport.
Homer Bailey, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Shohei Ohtani, Roberto Osuna, Miles Mikolas, Mike Soroka, Carlos Rodon, Stephen Strasburg, Marcus Stroman, Justin Verlander, Alex Wood, and Jordan Zimmermann are among the pitchers who have gone on the injured list or been unable to pitch since the season started.
That doesn’t take into account pitchers out of action because of COVID-19.
“It’s unheard of,” former major league pitching coach Rick Peterson said. “We’re seeing injuries you would normally expect in spring training. Without having a normal build-up for the season, you see what’s happening.”
Peterson, who has done extensive work with Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Glenn Fleisig researching pitching injuries and coming up with preventative training techniques, said the problem for coaches is not having any experience or data to fall back on.
“We’ve never had a season that had a gap like this,” Peterson said. “It’s trial and error.
“Some injuries are flukes that would have happened anyway. But I have to believe a lot of them are because of the schedule. You don’t normally see pitchers need Tommy John surgery in August and we’ve had that. These are spring training injuries.”
Spring training lasts as long as it does largely so pitchers can build up their arms methodically. But when the pandemic hit, teams were left to improvise plans.
“Constant discussions during that three-month period when we were off,” Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke said. “Trying to figure out how we go about it.”
Many teams, the Sox included, had their starters throw two or three innings off a mound every five days, then increased that workload when workouts started in July. They also built in breaks so the pitchers wouldn’t get fatigued.
But the quality of that work varied. Some pitchers were able to work out at college parks with other pro players. Others were left finding a high school catcher at the local sandlot. Some threw into nets in their backyard.
However the pitchers worked out, it was different from what they had been conditioned to expect.
“I can’t say for sure what pitchers do in spring training is the best method. But it’s what everybody has gotten used to over time and came to accept as being the right thing,” said Brad Ziegler, who pitched parts of 11 seasons in the majors before retiring in 2018.
“Once your arm gets used to a certain routine, it’s hard to change that. You know you need a certain number of innings or games to get ready and when you don’t have that, it’s hard. You can’t simulate those games at home.”
Both Peterson and Ziegler believe a big issue for pitchers was they didn’t know when Opening Day would be until late June.
“As a pitcher, you build back from when the season will start,” Peterson said. “You throw bullpens, you face hitters, you get into games and then you work on a regular schedule.
“You know when you’re two weeks away and that you have to ramp it up. That was usually when I’d meet with the pitchers and we’d decide what they needed before the season started. This season that all got condensed.”
As a reliever, Ziegler wasn’t concerned with stamina on the mound. He worked instead on preparing his body to warm up quickly and pitch on consecutive days.
“There’s a reason spring training isn’t three weeks long,” he said. “Some stuff gets tedious but there was a reason behind it. Once you’ve done that for 10 or 12 years, you know what your body needs to be ready for the season.
“It takes you longer, I can attest to that. Now you have guys going from slow and easy to going crazy to get ready and play games. There are definitely challenges in that. I’m not surprised to see the injuries.”
MLB planned ahead with expanded rosters, a 60-player pool to have reserves on hand and taxi squads for road trips. Success this season likely will hinge on which teams can come up with enough healthy major league-quality pitchers in September.
Through Thursday, the Pirates had used 21 pitchers to get through 13 games. Four are now on the injured list.
Peterson thinks next season could be even more problematic as pitchers will experience two build-up periods in a span of roughly eight months with an abbreviated season in the middle.
Pitchers used to throwing 150-175 innings in a season will have thrown maybe 60. How their arms will react is unknown.
“I hate to say it but there probably will be more injuries than you’d expect next spring training,” Peterson said. “This is all such new ground for everybody.”
Mazza has deep Red Sox connections
The Red Sox claimed righthander Chris Mazza off waivers from the Mets in December. He pitched 2⅔ scoreless innings against the Yankees in his debut with the team. He faced Aaron Judge twice and didn’t allow a home run, so that’s something.
For Mazza, pitching for the Red Sox against the Yankees was a particularly memorable occasion because he is related to Dom and Joe DiMaggio.
“It was a very cool thing for me and my family that I pitched in that game,” said Mazza, who took time before the game to snap a photo of Joe DiMaggio’s plaque in Monument Park.
Mazza grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and learned that the DiMaggios were his grandmother’s cousins. He met Joe DiMaggio at a family reunion when he was 6.
“I didn’t realize who he actually was at the time,” Mazza said.
Mazza went on to play baseball and was drafted out of Menlo College by the Twins in 2011. He has since been with the Marlins, Mariners, Mets and now the Sox.
“Baseball is in my blood,” Mazza said. “I’ve always loved it. It was definitely a big deal in my family.”
Like so many others, Mazza has performed well in the minors but struggled to find a place in the majors. That game against the Yankees was only his 10th major league appearance.
Mazza has yet to play a regular-season game at Fenway Park. Dom DiMaggio played for the Sox from 1940-53. He was a seven-time All-Star.
“I’ve read up on Dom. He was a great player who was overshadowed,” Mazza said. “Hopefully I’ll get to pitch at Fenway and play a game on the same field he did.”
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ Alex Verdugo was clearly the best player the Sox received from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade. The 24-year-old outfielder showed last year he could be a key contributor to a contending team, something Jeter Downs and Connor Wong still have to prove.
So why isn’t Verdugo playing every day?
Verdugo started only nine of the first 12 games, sitting three times against an opposing lefthanders. He actually had a .785 OPS in 133 plate appearances against lefthanders prior to this season. Verdugo had a .783 OPS in 355 plate appearances against righthanders.
Verdugo also needs at-bats after missing the final two months of last season with a back injury. He went nearly a calendar year between games.
It’s understandable Roenicke wants to use the entire roster. But if he wants to sit one of the outfielders against a lefty it should be Andrew Benintendi or Jackie Bradley Jr.
You’d like to think the Sox got something better than a platoon corner outfielder as the centerpiece of that trade.
▪ Bullpen catcher and coaching staff assistant Mike Brenly took on added responsibilities this season. He’s now the replay coordinator and makes the decision on whether to challenge calls by the umpire.
Brenly, 33, has been with the Sox since 2015 after retiring as a player. His father is former major league manager Bob Brenly.
▪ Counting the postseason, the Red Sox were 13-10 against the Yankees in 2018 and outscored them by 27 runs. They are 5-17 against their rivals since and have been outscored by 30 runs.
▪ This week marks Tom Caron’s 25th anniversary at NESN. He started with the network Aug. 9, 1995 and has been a part of their Red Sox coverage for 19 years.
Caron’s first appearance on NESN was July 28, 1995 when he filled in for Tom Larson hosting the pregame show. The Sox beat the Rangers that day behind two homers from Luis Alicea.
Ross sparking Cubs
The Cubs went into the weekend at 10-3, tied with the Twins for the best record in the game. That eight of the victories have been by three runs or less is a testament to how well new manager David Ross has handled his pitching staff.
The hope was Ross could revitalize an underachieving group of players and so far that has happened.
“He has stepped in and helped address some things that have been lingering for years,” president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. “For him to do that in the first two weeks [of the season] is really impressive.”
As a player, Ross wasn’t afraid to challenge teammates who weren’t doing enough or take charge of a situation in the clubhouse so the manager didn’t have to step in. Those qualities serve him well as a manager.
Ross, who worked for ESPN before taking over for Joe Maddon, understands the weight of a manager’s public comments, whether it’s praise or criticism, and uses those tools effectively.
The players have responded.
“I’ve never given up faith in our guys,” said Epstein, who considered breaking up the group that won the 2016 championship but wanted to give it one more shot under Ross. “I think we had more talent than the results would indicate the last couple years.”
The Cubs have hit Kris Bryant leadoff for the first time in his career, usually with Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Kyle Schwarber following.
“The most important thing is throwing the best players out there as much as possible and letting them do their thing,” Epstein said.
Righthander Rowan Wick, who had his first taste of major league success at age 26 last season, has stepped in as closer with Craig Kimbrel struggling.
Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester, and Alec Mills have pitched well in the rotation.
Lester, now in the final guaranteed year of his six-year contract, is 75-41 with a 3.50 ERA for the Cubs and hasn’t missed a start.
The Cubs have an important stretch of games coming up. They play a two-game series at Cleveland starting Tuesday ahead of series against Milwaukee, St. Louis, and the improved White Sox.
“There’s a long way to go and a lot of challenges ahead,” Epstein said.
Nothing says baseball in 2020 more than Miami getting off to a 6-1 start and making 24 roster moves on Tuesday alone. Their roster now includes former Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway and 30-year-old rookie infielder Eddy Alvarez, who was a silver medalist in speedskating in the 2014 Olympics before turning to baseball. For Lavarnway, the Marlins are his seventh major league team … Best wishes to Terry Francona, who hasn’t managed the Indians since last Saturday because of what has been described as a gastrointestinal issue. The hope is he will return this week … Nick Swisher played for the White Sox in 2008 and it didn’t go well. All these years later, manager Ozzie Guillen is still carrying a grudge. “I hate Nick Swisher with my heart,” Guillen said on NBC Sports Chicago when Swisher’s name came up in a postgame conversation. “I think he hates me back. There’s nothing wrong with that.” The White Sox traded Swisher to the Yankees after the ’08 season, getting what proved to be three worthless prospects in return. Swisher had 11.9 WAR in four years for the Yankees and won a ring in 2009. He has so far held back from commenting about Guillen … Melanie Newman became only the fourth woman to call radio play-by-play for a major league team when she debuted on-air in the third inning of the Orioles game on Tuesday. She joined Jenny Cavnar (Rockies 2018-present), Gayle Gardner (Rockies 1993), and Newton’s Suzyn Waldman (Yankees 2005-present). Newman called games in radio and television for Single A Salem last season … Max Kepler of the Twins scored two runs and had an RBI on Tuesday without an official at-bat. He walked four times and had a sacrifice fly against the Pirates … How could this happen? The Blue Jays optioned righthander Jacob Waguespack before Thursday’s game at Atlanta then reversed the move when righthander Trent Thornton went on the injured list. But Waguespack wasn’t on the lineup card that went to the umpires and wasn’t allowed to enter the game in the sixth inning. They did not allow him to enter the game in the sixth inning. Meanwhile, Toronto is scheduled to play its first home game on Tuesday when it hosts Miami in Buffalo. Their first 13 games were on the road after Canada did not grant Major League Baseball permission to host games in Toronto … The Yankees and Phillies played a doubleheader on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Yankees were the home team in the first game as it was a makeup from a July 30 game in New York postponed by a coronavirus outbreak among the Phillies. The Phillies were the home team in the second game. Because of coronavirus-related schedule changes, the Phillies will play six doubleheaders this season. So that’s 12 seven-inning games, 20 percent of the schedule … Happy birthday to Bill Campbell, who is 71. “Soup” was with the Red Sox from 1977-81. From 1976-77, Campbell appeared in 147 games and threw 307⅔ innings for the Twins and Red Sox, all in relief. Buddy Hunter is 73. He was with the Sox for 22 games between 1971-75. The second baseman was 5 of 17 with two doubles. He was a third-round pick in 1969, two rounds ahead of Dwight Evans.