Spring training is too long. Find a ballplayer who disagrees with that assessment. You won’t.
Six weeks in Florida and Arizona is a long time, and it gets awfully repetitive awfully quick. You can only run pickoff drills and practice fielding bunts so many times before your brain goes numb.
But as everyone gathers in the warm sunshine this week, you might find more than a few ballplayers who are actually looking forward to the long slog of spring training this time. They may not have realized it before, but they do now: They actually do need six full weeks to get their bodies and their game ready for the regular season.
It just took a global pandemic and an unprecedented 2020 season for everyone to realize it.
As they hastily made plans to put the 60-game regular season together, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to hold three-week summer training camps. They would be held at the team’s ballpark in their hometowns. They would include only three exhibition games against other clubs. This was the quickest and easiest way to get players ready for the season.
Except it was probably too quick. With so little time to ramp up, the regular season got off to a rocky start. Pitchers lost velocity and some were injured. Hitters looked out of sorts. Players in the field looked tentative.
So even though the notion of six weeks of spring training while adhering to COVID-19 protocols is daunting in some respects, players are thrilled just to return to a training program that feels familiar again.
“I’m looking forward to that, being able to progress, being able to build up that pitch count and make sure your arm’s ready to go for a full season,” Nationals left-hander Patrick Corbin said from West Palm Beach during a Zoom session with reporters. “Last year, with the four months off and not knowing if we were going to play or when we were going to play, I think it was definitely hard on some guys. It just made things a lot different.”
It’s impossible to know for sure what difference the short summer training had on players’ 2020 performance, but it certainly seemed to negatively impact the Nationals, especially their star-studded pitching staff.
Corbin saw his velocity diminish, perhaps contributing to a career-worst 1.569 WHIP that ranked dead-last among all qualifying major league pitchers. And it wasn’t for lack of command: Corbin actually lowered his walk rate, but gave up an astounding 11.6 hits per nine innings. Clearly, he wasn’t himself.
“I don’t know if I really felt great at all last year,” he said. “Hopefully, having this normal offseason and normal spring training, things will come around. I feel pretty good where I’m at right now. I’m excited for that. Last year was just a tough year for myself. I’m trying to move past that and get ready for a normal year.”
Corbin wasn’t alone. Stephen Strasburg made only two starts and threw a total of five innings before departing with a wrist injury that required surgery for carpal tunnel neuritis. Max Scherzer also finished with a career-worst 1.381 WHIP, though the three-time Cy Young Award winner didn’t blame his struggles on the schedule but rather poor mechanics that often led to a poor arm slot as he delivered pitches.
“I saw some things I did well in 2020, but I also saw some things I didn’t do as well in 2020 that I thought kind of compromised me in some different ways,” Scherzer said. “I think if I can kind of correct (that) mechanically, that’ll help every pitch play out a little bit better.”
Scherzer, like others on the Nationals staff, did see improvement as the season progressed. As a group, Nats pitchers posted a respectable 3.92 ERA over their final 10 games, and that stretch included a 12-run shellacking at the hands of the Phillies.
“Earlier on, it was tough,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We didn’t know what to expect. We talked about this a lot. As you can see, towards the latter (part) of the year, we started playing better.”
What difference will a full spring make this year? We’ll have to wait a while to find out. But these guys are happy to have so much time to wait instead of rushing to prepare like they did last summer.
“It goes to show you the value of spring training,” Martinez said. “We really played no games ... so it was tough for these guys to really ramp up. All they were doing was facing each other, and that’s kind of tough. Hopefully this spring training goes smoothly and we can get ready to open up April 1 and go from there.”