It’s time to pitch, so Connor Hinchliffe does what comes naturally. He slides a mitt on his left hand, takes the ball in his right, stands 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, and uncorks his warm-up pitches with Foo Fighters or Metallica blaring in the background.
And he tries to forget that he hasn’t left his driveway.
“I try to, as much as I can, create an environment where I’m throwing the same way I would in a game and try to keep the same intensity,” Hinchliffe said. “Because the Phillies have still given us an innings benchmark that we have to reach.”
Never mind that the minor-league season got canceled July 1.
Major-league clubs have wishfully opened training camp for this season-within-a-pandemic. Teams were allowed to bring as many as 60 players. The Phillies initially invited 54, including prized prospects Alec Bohm and Spencer Howard. Two dozen players will soon head to triple-A Lehigh Valley to serve as a taxi squad.
But that still leaves nearly 200 players at home without a season to even attempt and a question that burned to be answered: How exactly does player-development -- the lifeblood of every good organization -- work when there aren’t games to play?
“I don’t think anybody would want to lose a season as a player,” Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay said this past week. “But there’s no way to look back on it and say, ‘Hey, it was lost time.’ I don’t believe in lost time. I believe, as an organization, as a development staff, we have to find the best way to continue development. There’s just different ways of doing it.”
Last week, the Phillies gathered together their minor-league players and staff for a Zoom call. It had been presumed for weeks that the season would be scrapped. Unlike Major League Baseball teams, which derive revenue from regional and national television contracts, minor-league clubs are almost entirely an attendance-driven, seasonal operation. Without fans, it made little business sense to play.
But thousands of players’ livelihoods depend on the minor leagues. During the organization-wide video conference, players were told, if they hadn’t already heard, of the Phillies’ commitment to pay them a $400 weekly stipend through Sept. 7, the end of the minor-league season. Team officials also outlined expectations for the next few months. Their central message: Pretend the season is ongoing and train accordingly.
“They want us to treat it as if this is a season,” triple-A reliever Luke Leftwich said by phone Friday, “so that our arm -- or for the position players, their bodies -- doesn’t get into the rut of missing too much time. They want to kind of keep us on that same kind of process, so that when next year does come around and we have to play a full season, our bodies aren’t shocked by the long season.”
For pitchers, that means simulating a volume of innings that equates to a season. For hitters, it’s getting live at-bats wherever possible. For coaches, it’s keeping tabs on players and using technology to replace hands-on instruction.
Great, right? But it isn’t easy in a COVID-19 world.
Leftwich is one of the lucky ones.
A 26-year-old right-hander, he lives in Atlanta, a metropolitan area that is heavily populated by professional baseball players. He doesn’t have to look far to find a throwing partner or hitters he can face. Several Phillies farmhands live within 15 minutes of his house.
“The place that I’ve been working out at has a lot of other minor-leaguers in our same situation,” said Leftwich, who is hoping to simulate 45-50 innings after throwing 43⅔ innings in an injury-curtailed 2019. “They’ve been setting up a bunch of live ABs and simulated games and things like that, and I think most players are in the same boat of wanting to still get work in.”
Hinchliffe had to get a little more creative.
The 23-year-old reliever grew up in Pottsville. Still lives there. He pitched for La Salle and signed with the Phillies last summer as an amateur free agent.
Upon returning home from spring training before what would have been a season that he likely would have spent at short-season single-A Williamsport, he stripped his garage, turned it into a gym, and set up a Rapsodo, the high-tech device that records spin rate and other advanced metrics.
Hinchliffe’s most frequent catch partner: his brother, Gavin, a Kansas State pitcher who has to throw with his left hand because he’s recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. For several weeks, the nearest hitter was Hinchliffe’s neighbor, Travis Blankenhorn, a Minnesota Twins infield prospect who is now in big-league training camp.
“That was a win-win for both of us,” said Hinchliffe, aiming to simulate 50 innings this year. “I got some reps against a major-league hitter, basically, and he got to see some velocity before he showed up for camp.”
The intensity of the workouts have varied. When spring training got suspended, players were directed to stay ready in case they were able to return quickly. By April, they were told to throttle back daily workouts and maintain a baseline level of conditioning.
But the longer the quarantine went, and the bleaker the outlook for playing games in 2020, it became clear that players would need to replace the lost time.
“Now that things have kind of shaken out, we can move forward with just getting in whatever fake season, if you will, that we can,” Leftwich said. “They’re telling us to basically find ways to get in a certain amount of innings, whether that be live at-bats or simulated things, however we can get it in with what means we have.”
Leftwich speaks every Wednesday with triple-A pitching coach Aaron Fultz. He has sent video of nearly every one of his bullpen sessions to the coaching staff and receives regular feedback from minor-league pitching coordinators Rafael Chaves and Travis Hergert.
Hinchliffe’s primary contact is rookie-ball pitching coach Pat Robles.
“Our coaches are on the phones with them constantly,” Bonifay said. “We evaluate their bullpens, we evaluate their throwing, we evaluate their lifting, we monitor certain areas through a lot of the video, and we spend a lot of time helping them understand what needs to be done during this time and making sure that when they come back in they’re ready to go.
"And these kids are amazing. They're really resourceful. They find ways to get in front of certain technologies and really improve their quality of swings and pitches."
But while technology allows for virtual teaching, players still need to be self-motivated to continue working hard for a season that won't be played.
“It’s definitely on you,” Hinchliffe added. “The Phillies are doing a great job communicating with us, laying out a sort-of program so we’ll be on track for 2021. But it’s not like you’re forced to show up to the field every day and throw. It’s now in your own hands in terms of development.”
Here's the stark reality of a year without games: Players are a year older and not much closer to their dream of playing in the big leagues.
Some players might give up on the dream completely.
In a normal year, playing minor-league baseball doesn’t make anyone wealthy. While the average annual salary in the majors last season was $4.09 million, minor-leaguers typically make a monthly salary (for five months) ranging from an average of about $1,200 at single A to roughly $2,500 in triple A.
Bonifay hopes the Phillies’ commitment to the weekly stipends will help curb the rate of attrition.
"With what our ownership has been able to do, I think that allows for our players not to have to make that type of decision right now," Bonifay said. "And if that did ever factor in, they know they can call me and we can always talk."
Last month, before the minor-league season got erased, Baseball America reported that MLB is considering an expanded version of the Arizona Fall League to enable minor-leaguers to recoup lost game action.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. The virus is spiking, after all, in both Arizona and Florida, home to spring-training sites.
But that doesn’t mean Phillies farmhands can’t cross their fingers.
"We're going to have to see how this major-league season goes," Leftwich said. "Because maybe they could replicate that on a minor-league scale and bring in, let's say, 60 guys down to Florida. I'm definitely hopeful that can happen."