For most pitchers, spring is stretch time
To be fresh in October, hurlers need to take it slow in March
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Kenny Rogers used to be one of those hard-throwing youngsters he now sees with the Tigers who would go all-out in Spring Training. These days, he can only dream about that in his sleep, which usually comes after he throws.
"I've got a bed -- about 5 o'clock, I'll be in it," Rogers said after his first spring start last weekend. "Sleep until 7 or 8. That's the plan."
He used to be a young power pitcher, the kind whose confidence matches his stamina. He can only look at some of these offseason regimens now. He admits he can't train the same as Justin Verlander or Jeremy Bonderman and keep up.
When it comes to stretching out the arm, though, a quarter-century of Spring Trainings have given him some ideas. He doesn't fire away with his best stuff on day one. He uses only fastballs and changeups in his first couple starts, and he suggests to Bonderman and Nate Robertson that they could do the same. He impresses the value of early starts at 90 percent velocity rather than going all-out.
"You have to check your ego at the door a little bit," Rogers said. "And it's hard to do. We all have it. We want to throw it by somebody once in a while. Just be a little smarter in what you do, and more efficient, and the benefits, I think, for the younger guys are going to be tremendous.
"I do it for self-preservation. They do it to be smarter in their workload and to be able to reach the potential that they have."
For all that has changed about baseball, especially with training, not much has changed in recent years with regard to the Spring Training ritual of stretching arms. The offseason conditioning programs players adopt, as great as they are, can't simulate what they'll face in a game.
"They do all this work to condition, to be in shape," Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. "But still, you have to be in pitching shape, because you're using different muscles in different ways. Once you're on the mound, working downhill, it's just hard to simulate that doing anything else.
"The reality is you can be in great condition, but ... You're getting to the velocity of your fastball, but now you've got to get to the command. You can throw your breaking ball for strikes, but now you've got to bury it. It's going to take a certain amount of time for you to get to that."
Willis remembers his pitching days in the 1980s and early 90s, when part of Spring Training involved actually getting pitchers in physical shape. That's largely gone now. But then, so are the days of the '60s and '70s, when a rubber arm like Mickey Lolich could step on a mound early and throw a long outing like it was July. Nowadays, good arms are far too valuable to risk that.
The nuances are many, but the general principle is the same. Like a runner training for a marathon, stretching out a starting pitcher is about slowly but steadily building endurance while minimizing the risk of injury.
Across the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, starting pitchers start out in games with a light load of one or two innings, then build in increments, usually an extra inning or 15 more pitches each time on the mound.
Many teams will put their starters on rotation, similar to what they'll use in the regular season.
"I got my starters ready on their five-day schedule," Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg said of his plan. "I wanted them to get into the schedule that they're going to be running for the next six months."
What happens within those schedules depends on the pitcher and the situation. A young pitcher trying to win a Major League job, and wanting results to put on a resume, will likely try to do more than a veteran pitcher whose job is secure. A pitcher coming out of winter ball has a head start on arm strength compared with someone who hasn't pitched in a game since last September.
"It's more difficult for the guys who are really trying to make an impression than for the [C.C.] Sabathias and [Fausto] Carmonas," Willis said.
That's where most pitching coaches will adjust. Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, like many others, wants to watch a pitcher in early side sessions before games begin to see where each pitcher is at before working out a plan.
"The first 10 days [before games] are critical here," Hernandez preaches. "Don't be trying out to make the team in the bullpen [sessions]."
For Willis and a few other coaches, there's another factor to consider: Their pitchers went deep into the playoffs. A long run into the postseason can add anywhere from two weeks to a month of extra pitching, all of it taken out of their normal rest time. That difference is one of the biggest factors cited in why so few teams, especially those with younger staffs, repeat anymore.
Some teams will have their pitchers start throwing later in the offseason than normal. Others will try to address it in camp. Willis did a little bit of both with Sabathia and Carmona by tweaking their programs.
"The fine line you walk is, you can't cheat the process or the time it takes on the mound to get your delivery back, to get your arm strength built back up and your endurance built back up," Willis said.
It's the same process in which Rogers centers his own efforts. But within that, he also tries to hone his game.
"For me, it's like I have to earn my right to throw a breaking ball," Rogers said. "My body tells me by me locating fastballs in and fastballs away. When I do that, then it's like a reward to use to a breaking ball. Right now it's like punishment: 'Nope, you're going to have to deal with this.'
"I could throw it now. I would have no doubt about me being able to throw a breaking ball. I think it's more conducive to being consistent for me to get control of my fastball first."
But once pitchers start stretching their arms, there's one truth that they'll run into regardless of their situation. At some point in the spring, they're going to have their dead-arm stretch.
"Some guys are ahead of the program, some guys are a little bit behind," Arnsberg said. "But for the most part, you can rest assured that two-to-three weeks in, you're going to start to see guys put up some ugly numbers on that scoreboard every now and then. It's usually because they're in a dead-arm period. They've been working hard, [doing] a lot of lifting, a lot of running, and that arm just sometimes just leaves you for an outing for two. And then all of a sudden, they'll hit that strong arm again."
Once that arm strength resurfaces, pitchers are just about ready for the season to start. It's in those last couple weeks when teams really set up for the regular season. Pitchers pull out their entire repertoire, rotation orders are further honed and some teams send their Major League starters to Minor League games to try to avoid having the competition see too much of them.
Yet for all the strategy aimed toward Opening Day, the ultimate goal of all this work is the regular season as a whole. That's the marathon that starting pitchers face, and this is their training. Their winter work can give them a head start, but nothing will replace it.
"I guess you're kind of wearing it in, or breaking your body in to an effort level," Rogers said. "If you do it fast, your body's going to talk back to you and be hurting. But if you do it at a regular pace to where your body gets accustomed to it, it's probably not going to be aching as much."
And, at age 43, Rogers knows aches and pains.
"They're so physically talented and bulletproof," he said, wistfully. "They don't have aches and pains that talk to them all night long and say, 'Give me a break!' They're in their prime. I haven't hit mine yet."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.