Bryan Price has kept close tabs on Phillies pitchers since that March day when spring training stopped and they went their separate ways. Lately, though, the check-ins have become more frequent, the messaging more direct.
In a half-hour phone conversation Thursday, as Major League Baseball and the Players Association continued to pore over a proposal to launch the 2020 season, Price outlined his instructions to the two dozen or so pitchers who could be part of an expanded Phillies roster and taxi squad.
“What we’ve asked them to do,” said the veteran pitching coach, who is in his first year with the Phillies, “is to continue to throw and not be so conservative with limiting themselves to only keeping their arm in shape to the point where they can re-initiate spring training. We have a higher expectation.”
Nothing in baseball history can serve as a reference point for pitching coaches as they attempt to prepare for even the possibility of a shortened season. When COVID-19 brought spring training to a screeching halt on March 12 without a return date, the season was two weeks from opening. Most healthy pitchers had made three starts or a handful of relief appearances. In theory, they were built up to about 75% of their arm strength.
The closest approximation was the 1981 strike. Players walked out on June 12, nine weeks into the season, without knowing when they might return or how pitchers should condition their arms in the interim. Games didn’t resume until Aug. 10.
But Price noted that it’s “a completely different environment in the way we train our pitchers now.” Because training protocols and pitching philosophy were more primitive 39 years ago, Price said, 1981 can’t be relied upon as a road map.
In March and April, with the season on an indefinite hold, Price said, Phillies pitchers were directed to decelerate their throwing programs. For most, that meant two weekly sessions of 30-40 pitches apiece to maintain a manageable volume of pitches.
But as May began and it became clear that the season will be abbreviated if it is played at all, Price shifted the focus. No longer concerned with pitchers taxing their arms too much during the downtime, he has asked them to throw a bullpen session early in the week and to simulate a two-inning start — off a mound, if possible — a few days later to ensure that their workload is appropriate heading into next season.
Take, for instance, top prospect Spencer Howard. After he threw a total of 99 innings last season between the minor leagues and the Arizona Fall League, the Phillies were careful in spring training about managing his usage to keep him fresh later in the season. Now, Price said they must make sure Howard throws enough pitches to be ready for 2021.
"We want replication, especially for the starting pitchers or the guys that we're concerned a little bit about workload this year," Price said. "The biggest question for me, beyond the challenge of keeping these guys ready to play in 2020, is what would our goal be for 2021 if we are really limited in the amount of games that we play."
Don't interpret that as a concession from Price that the 2020 season is a hopeless cause. On the contrary, he has told pitchers to approach their training this month as though it's late January or even early February as opposed to November or December. He wants them building up to a season, even simulating the equivalent of a two-inning start, rather than plateauing.
Price said he has stayed in touch with Phillies pitchers through phone calls, individual text messages, and group texts. While Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Nick Pivetta, and a few others, including catcher J.T. Realmuto, stayed in the Clearwater, Fla., area, other pitchers such as Zack Wheeler worked out near their offseason homes.
If MLB is able to return, Price said, he’s hopeful that spring training 2.0 will last for a minimum of three weeks. Even then, he wouldn’t expect Nola or Wheeler to come out throwing seven innings.
“But we can’t have our starters stretched out to throw two or three innings, either,” Price said. “In a shortened season, teams that are successful out of the gate are the ones that are going to be able to stay in the race. You can’t really afford a slow start in a shortened-season environment and expect to be able to rally back in the last 30-40 games if you’re already eight or 10 or 11 games out.
"The value of us getting off to a good start is huge, and a lot of that is going to fall on the success and readiness of the starting rotation.”
Depth will matter, too. Teams will make use of expanded rosters, likely 30 active players with a 20-player taxi squad, but they will also need more than the standard 13-pitcher staff to make up for starters on pitch counts and relievers not being ready to pitch on back-to-back days, at least at the outset.
"The guys who may be pitching as your 14th or 15th or 16th guy are going to be more important," Price said. "There's going to be some exposure for some less experienced pitchers in games that are going to be extremely meaningful."
That’s why the phone calls, text messages, and Zoom chats have picked up in volume. Price doesn’t have any insider information and can’t guarantee Phillies pitchers that there’s going to be a season. If there is, though, he knows they will need to be ready.
“Our guys should be coming back to spring training in advance of how they typically arrive in February,” Price said. “That’s the one thing that has been impressed upon everybody. If we go back to spring training, we’re not picking up like it’s Feb. 15 again.”