The best starting pitchers will take the mound once every five games over the course of the season, about 32 times if all goes well.
So what happens on the rest of those days?
For starters, what they do the four days before they pitch is often what determines how they perform on the mound. They are baseball’s versions of independent contractors, free to do what they want as long as the job gets done when it’s needed.
Typically a pitcher will work out the day after he pitches. That could mean running, biking, lifting weights or some combination of all three. There’s also at least a few minutes of playing catch.
The Red Sox also have their pitchers go through a specific program of shoulder exercises designed to protect against injuries.
“Everybody works out the first day,” righthander Clay Buchholz said. “That’s typical. You want to get the lactic acid out your system.”
Pitchers also will spend time in front of a laptop reviewing how they threw, more so after bad starts than good ones.
The second day is for working in the bullpen. Under the direction of the pitching coach, the starter will throw 35-40 pitches.
“A lot of it is working on repeating their delivery. The primary focus of a bullpen day is your delivery,” Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis said. “If you’re struggling with a particular pitch, you’ll work on that.”
When a pitcher is quoted about “throwing a bullpen” or “working on the side” he is usually talking about Day 2 of his routine.
Buchholz prefers to throw on the third day, feeling that gives him a better sense of his pitches closer to his next start.
“There used to be one way to do it. But now you do whatever makes you comfortable,” Willis said. “If that works for Clay, that’s fine. You can’t put everybody under one blanket. There’s an ideal way but you have to take each individual into account and what works for them.”
When he was struggling in the first half of last season, Rick Porcello was throwing twice in the bullpen between starts. Sometimes, particularly late in the season, pitchers will skip bullpen sessions entirely and throw from flat ground.
A conversation with David Price, Brian Bannister, Alex Speier, and Peter Abraham:
“You have to listen to your body,” Porcello said. “The recovery time is important when you need it.”
The third day is typically another workout session and more playing catch. The fourth day is for resting up before making the next start.
“I don’t do a whole lot on the fourth day,” David Price said. “Maybe some sprints. I like to have a little soreness in my body when I pitch.”
Said Joe Kelly: “Every starter loves the fourth day.”
Personal preference determines when a starter will watch video of the next team he will face. Some watch for several days, others on the day they pitch. If he wanted, a pitcher could review every pitch he has ever thrown to a particular batter.
“You can do a lot of work between starts, I think it’s extremely important,” Price said. “It’s physical and mental.”
Said Kelly: “For me, it’s more a physical thing. Everybody has their own routine. You have to figure out what works for you.”
At any one time, the Red Sox have four idle starters working out, receiving treatment or throwing in the bullpen. That involves a lot of coordination.
The major league staff includes two strength coaches (Kiyoshi Momose and Mike Roose), three athletic trainers (head trainer Brad Pearson and assistants Paul Buchheit and Masai Takahashi), a physical therapist (Adam Thomas), two massage therapists (Russel Nua and Shinichiro Uchikubo), and two bullpen coaches (Mike Brenly and Mani Martinez).
“There’s always somebody who can help you out,” Buchholz said.
Willis, who has worked in player development, believes young pitchers should learn a routine as soon as they can.
“It’s paramount to find a routine that works,” he said. “When we draft players and have them at the lower levels, we always talk about their plan and a lot of times the last part of their plan is to develop a consistent day-to-day routine. We kind of came to the realization that it should be at the top of the list.”