Addressing one of his pitchers in a mid-month Zoom session, Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black said that his velocity was “good for this point of the spring.” (That may not be an exact quote, but it’s close.) The statement prompted me to ask a question that elicited an expansive response. In a nutshell, I wanted to know how often Black is seeing guys who, having trained for velocity over the offseason, come into camp already throwing gas. Moreover, does he find that concerning?
“I could get longwinded here,” Black began. “As you can imagine, when we talk about velocity and what pitchers have done, really over the last five years… maybe it started about 10 years ago with programs to truly increase velocity. We’ve seen that over the years, with many pitchers pumping their velocity.
“Coming into camp, I think there are certain pitchers, on certain clubs, that are trying to make the team. They have to show their stuff right away, from Day One, whether it’s in bullpens, batting-practice games, or B-games, trying to impress coaching staffs [and] front offices of their ability. They want to show that they can make a big-league roster. Other guys have trained in the offseason, and they want to see if those training methods have resulted in increased velocity in games. They might turn it loose right from the get-go.
“There are risks to that if you’re not in great game-shape — trying to throw the ball with max effort in February or early March if you haven’t had the proper buildup. I think you risk injury. I also think that your mechanics might suffer some, from the max effort of trying to attain velocity. I know the reasons why this is happening, but I would like to think the pitchers can be a little bit more controlled through the six weeks of spring training, [working] to get to their regular-season velocity.”
Following up, I asked the veteran manager if he’s seen pitchers who throw especially hard early in the spring begin to run out of bullets late in the season.
“There’s no doubt about it, that a lengthy season can diminish stuff,” responded Black. “I’ve seen that, for sure. And a lot of times it happens with younger pitchers who start throwing programs early. They get on a mound and start throwing side sessions as early as December, or early January, and they’re throwing with a great deal of effort. By the time summer comes around, they’ve sort of run out of gas. I have seen that.
“Other players sort of do the same thing, but they’re gifted. They’re able to maintain velocity, and maintain their stuff, so it’s sort of individually-based. But in general, I would like to see pitchers train in the offseason with less throwing in November, December, and early January, then start a gradual buildup. Let the six weeks of spring training build up their arm strength, and stuff, as opposed to maybe starting that process as far back as December.”
Leverage suggests that a team’s best reliever — i.e. “the closer” — shouldn’t be limited to the ninth inning. The logic is obvious. Games are often lost in the seventh and eighth innings with a lesser pitcher having entered to face the middle of the order, sometimes with runners on base in a tight game. Conversely, closers all too commonly come in to pitch the ninth with the bases empty and a two- or three-run lead. With the caveat that there’s no such thing as “an easy inning” at the big-league level, the latter is certainly less stressful than the former.
Do closers “deserve” the relatively-easier ninth innings that typically result in saves? Moreover, could exclusively pitching the highest-leverage innings — whether the seventh, eighth, or ninth — be at all detrimental to a pitcher’s health or psyche? Can stress-only outings be a negative for anyone who isn’t truly elite?
I posed that idea, in so many words, to Colorado pitching coach Steve Foster.
“The great thing I have to lean on here is my own career,” responded Foster, who pitched out of the bullpen for the Cincinnati Reds from 1991 to ’93. “I closed in the minor leagues. I set up in the big leagues. A reliever doesn’t look at it as more stress, or less stress. There’s so much pressure each time a major-league pitcher goes out there on the mound, whether it’s the seventh, eighth or ninth inning. You learn to manage stress.”
Foster’s answer having focused on the mental, I followed up with a question about the physical. Pitchers are going to expend more effort in high-leverage situations; is that a factor if he takes the mound the following day?
“I think effort is precarious,” said Foster. “The effort level of every pitcher… I think it’s more the resilience part of it: being able to bounce back, or go three days in a row, or sit for four days if we’ve lost games — those are the stress [scenarios] of being a back-end guy.”
Longtime columnist Tracy Ringolsby followed up with a question/statement that prompted a response well-worth sharing.
“When it’s not a one, two, or three-run game, a lot of times they know they have the night off,” Foster said of closers. “It’s a privilege, because those guys in the seventh and eighth innings don’t have nights off. Their hearts are always beating. Every time the phone rings, they think their names are going to be called. And I know the difference. It is easier on the closer, as far as that’s concerned, but the ninth inning is also big. It takes a special person to be able to close that out.”
Back to Black. Assuming a full 162-game season, the 63-year-old skipper will finish the campaign having managed 2,071 games, a number surpassed by just 54 in big-league history. Now embarking on his fifth season in Colorado, Black was at the helm in San Diego from 2007 to ’15, with a one-year stint as a special assistant for the Angels bridging the two tenures as a manager.
I asked Black for his thoughts on that longevity, noting that No. 2,000 is right around the corner.
“I’ll tell you a quick story,” Black said. “It happened two days ago when we played the White Sox. After the game, Tony La Russa came over. We met just off the mound, down here in Salt River, [and] he said, ‘Us veteran managers have to stick together.’ It sort of struck me. I’ve never viewed myself as that, but I guess I have been doing this a while.
“I still sort of see the game through the lens of a player,” Black added. “I think anybody who played sort of sees the game through their experiences. But I guess that number… and it isn’t all me. It’s the organizations that I’ve been with, the coaches, the players, the owners, the general managers, who have been supportive. In that regard I’m very grateful to [have been[ given the opportunity to manage this long. All of us. My best friends in the game who manage, we talk about how we never take this position for granted, knowing the responsibility that it has, and what it means to the organization, the city, the state, the fans. I’ve been honored to do it.
“I don’t know whether that answers the question or not, David, but it helped me reflect a little bit. Tony, Bobby Cox, Lou Piniella, Mike Scioscia… guys that I’ve managed against. Dusty [Baker], 20-plus years. Being with Scioscia for part of his 18 years. These are great, great managers. To be in those types of circles with guys who have managed a lot… it makes you very grateful.”