Left-hander Tony Sipp continues to build strength in his shoulder even as the season heads into its fourth week.
Sipp said working to strengthen his shoulder has been the focus for him since spring training. But Sipp signed late with the Nationals this offseason, so this first month with the team has felt like an extended spring training as he works the shoulder back to where he can throw every pitch and full velocity and torque.
There have been some rough appearances to begin the season for the veteran reliever. Sipp has made eight appearances and has allowed at least one run in four of those, including a couple of singles against the Pirates Friday night that turned into runs. In three of his outings, he has allowed two hits.
"There's always work to be done for me because I've been playing catch-up," Sipp said. "Even when I'm not in the game, I'm still trying to strengthen the shoulder. Anything that I can do to make myself a little bit more ready and try to play catch up because it's a little tougher than what I thought, going out there (at) game speed right away. But it's definitely manageable. It's something that you have to work on every day, even when you are not in the game."
Sipp's fastball is sitting around 88 to 89 mph. He would love to push that velocity higher as the strength returns. But it has not been easy to build strength in the shoulder and still go out and pitch in regular season games. In Philadelphia last week, he lasted only four pitches before exiting due to a stiff shoulder.
"I think fastball is the thing that probably comes last because that's just pure strength," Sipp said. "Sliders, any other off-speed, a lot of it is a feel pitch, and over time, you start to develop a feel and that will come back quicker, but the strength is literally going out there, weakening the shoulder, and building it back up and repeating the process. I think honestly that's one of the last things to come."
And with each at-bat and each appearance, hitters monitor a pitcher's sequences. See what they like to throw in certain situations, certain counts. Sipp says this happens before the game when he goes down the list of each hitter and focuses on their tendencies. Then he uses that information when he gets to the game. Sipp says he buys time in the at-bat as he attempts to figure out what the hitter is looking for.
"I change because you are trying to get a read off the hitter and you are playing a cat-and-mouse game, trying to hopefully pick up something. Maybe they are trying to go opposite field or maybe sitting fastball," Sipp said. "Just collecting data out there. Obviously, they are really talented. You really are just trying to get a feel, the same reason why we look at film before we actually go out and face a batter. You try to see what you can collect and give it your best shot from there."
This is where video can help him. When he studies a batter, he watches for aggressiveness leading off an inning or going after a first pitch.
"I like looking at 0-0 counts and seeing who is aggressive 0-0, and the deeper they go in counts, see who chases balls out of the zone late," Sipp said. "It's just a lot that you look at. The more you know, the more you have out there when you are actually going and battling that hitter. The more information you have the better chance you have deeper in counts, it works in every situation."
After he uses video before a game and learns from his matchups during a game, Sipp also gains knowledge from talking to his hitting teammates after games to see what they see and what they think will work against him. That helps him change it up so the next time he can look to keep the hitter guessing in a real game.
"I like to keep the conversation going with hitters," Sipp said. "We both give each other too much credit because they think we know exactly what we're doing out there and we think the same (of the hitter's psyche). I think we give each other a lot of credit because we both work hard to get here, trying to master the craft. The more and more you talk to hitters and pitchers the more you see we still got a lot of figuring out to do. That's why we come here, still working every day. There's always something to learn."
It's fascinating to see into Sipp's strategy for each outing. But he acknowledges that, more than anything else, he needs to get his shoulder back to 100 percent. When he does that, the mental tactics that he has accrued to get hitters out will carry more weight.