The last pitch thrown by Orioles reliever Miguel Castro on March 6 provided evidence that work done on the side, the late tinkering of his delivery, was producing the desired results. But could he keep it going so many miles from the spring training complex?
From his home in the Dominican Republic over the past two months?
Pitching coach Doug Brocail keeps checking on it while back at his residence in Texas. Again, the video technology that’s keeping family and friends connected during the pandemic also is enabling a baseball team to stay whole.
Brocail, bullpen coach Darren Holmes and director of pitching Chris Holt have created a chat room, if you will, to talk baseball with their staff. And to keep an eye on workouts that are spread out all over the U.S. and outside the country.
“I look at my daily chart and we’re getting videos, we’re getting daily work sessions from our guys,” Brocail said this week in a phone conversation. “My guys, I hope, are way ahead of everybody else. It’s one of those things that, we’re on top of it, we’re calling our guys, we’re making sure they’re working out, we’re doing video Zooms, we’re doing all kinds of stuff to make sure guys are getting their work in.
“The Zoom technology is huge. But it’s funny. You’ve got to position your computer just right, you’ve got to back off, you’ve got to go through the delivery when guys have questions about their video that they’re sending us. You have to make sure, ‘OK, can everybody see me? Can you see this? OK, now back up and use this angle.’ It’s been tough, but we’re getting it done and that’s the nice things Staying on top of it has been a blessing.”
The instruction is individualized, which can present complications. There isn’t one message sent out for everyone to follow.
Castro is a prime example, a reliever with a tantalizing arm and an inability to stay consistent and dominate for long stretches. He tossed three scoreless and hitless innings in spring training before the shutdown, striking out the side in his final appearance against the Yankees.
“One of the big things for me was Castro,” Brocail said. “Right near the end, we tried something different. Moved his hands so that he could have a one-piece delivery. And then you get video from him and he’s doing it and you’re like, ‘Oh, thank God that he got it,’ one, and two, that he’s continuing to do it.
“I think we had some questions, like with (Hector) Velázquez. This is a guy that we’re going to build up to start and if he’s going to reliever, so what? We back down. And keeping in touch with (Tommy) Milone and (Wade) LeBlanc and (Alex) Cobb and (Kohl) Stewart and Wojo (Asher Wojciechowski) and (Ty) Blach. Not only your roster guys, but your invites, guys that we think could possibly help during the season. And where those guys are going to be, that’s what spooks me a little bit.”
The minor league season is expected to be canceled. Brocail joins the many voices wondering how pitchers are going to stay in shape and be game ready. How they’re going to face enough hitters and be able to help the club if needed.
“That’s spooky,” he said. “One, you worry about health. The nice thing is, we’re not having to worry about cold weather areas. Everybody’s in good climate now. It’s just whether they can get out and throw or throw down a mound. If they have catchers. Everybody seems to be doing a great job with that.”
We tend to assume that major leaguers have spacious baseball facilities constructed at their homes. But many players have been challenged to find available mounds, cages and workout partners during the shutdown.
“The way we structured the last two and a half months, as soon as we separated, Darren and I stayed there for a little bit and worked everybody out,” Brocail said. “And then when they finally said, ‘OK, everybody’s going home,’ it was one of those things where we’re like, ‘OK, not a big deal. They’ll find a field.’ That was not the truth.
“We had guys throwing into nets, guys throwing into fences. Having to send balls to guys because the guys who were throwing against the fences were ruining balls on a daily basis. Things that I thought were going to be easy, not a big deal - he goes home and gets his catch partner - there were guys who were left with nobody.
“We had a few guys who ended up building mounds, putting up nets, throwing into smaller nets inside the big net, simulating the strike zone. I thought it was going to be something simple and it ended up being pretty difficult to get guys to where they could throw literally off a slope. A lot of guys didn’t have slopes to throw off, especially in Latin America, where the Dominican was shut down for a while. Couldn’t get our guys even into the complex down there to work out because of travel restrictions. It’s been a nightmare.”
Brocail saw the video that John Means posted on Twitter, with the left-hander throwing batting practice to his wife, Caroline, a former professional soccer goalie. She saved him that day.
“The big running joke was, ‘Did she get a hit off you?’ He goes, ‘No, but she fouled one off,’” Brocail said, laughing.
“There’s a woman who’s extremely athletic and John had it good because this woman can catch John. It’s kind of nice knowing that he married somebody who was such a damn good athlete.”
Caroline won’t make the 30-man roster if baseball is played this summer, but that’s one of the few certainties as we try to figure out how the sport’s changes are going to impact the club. How it’s all going to work with the expanded number of players and a taxi squad.
There are educated guesses and shrugged shoulders.
A bullpen that would have held eight relievers can find room for a few more and perhaps alter how the Orioles handle their rotation.
“I think for me, it’s good,” Brocail said. “Darren and I have discussed this. It’s going to be good because you could almost use your starters as openers. Let them start the game, if they go four (innings) and 60-65 (pitches), bring in another guy who can go two or three and then close it out. Just because the buildup is so different.
“Guys can talk all they want about, ‘I’ve been throwing lives.’ Well, OK. I understand that you’ve been throwing lives with no adrenaline, no runners in scoring position, no guy at third with no outs, and you’re trying to get three straight outs and if the guy scores it’s only one run. Whereas if you have second and third, we have to get three outs before that second run scores.
“You can talk about how much you’ve been throwing. It’s like spring training. Every single year, talking to your guys, ‘Hey man, I’m in great shape.’ OK, well, the adrenaline hasn’t been there, so know that you’re going to be sore. Guys are like, ‘Ah, no.’ Sure enough, five days later they’re like, ‘God, my muscles are sore.’ Well, that adrenaline and those endorphines kick in and it does something to the muscle and next thing you know you’re like, ‘Dang, I’m out of shape.’ No, you’re not out of shape. You’re just not in pitching shape because you haven’t had the adrenaline and you haven’t had the issues where guys have been on base or you’re having to field two balls.
“Running to first base takes a little more out of you. You’re backing up bases. All that’s important.”
That’s why spring training 2.0 is a necessity, whether held in Sarasota or Baltimore, and it must last for more than a couple of weeks.
“You couldn’t just go, ‘Hey, we’ve got 10 days,’” Brocail said. “I would hope that we would get almost four weeks at least. Looking at the schedule, I’m trying to have all the guys at four and 60-65. There are guys throwing five innings of work now. Obviously, it’s not that work that we talked about, but it’s going to take time. The last thing we want to do is overdo it, take guys to where they get hurt. Guys are going to have to trust that if we get 83, 81,79 games, there still has to be some kind of buildup.
“I’m not expecting guys to show up, go through spring training and opening day throw seven innings. I’d be fooling everybody if I said that’s what I’d want.”
The Sarasota complex is littered with mounds and allow for social distancing, but pitchers will be lined up to throw at Camden Yards.
“We were talking about how we’re hoping it’s in Florida,” Brocail said. “We can probably get three guys on the mound at once if we play by the rules and the separation of six feet, but we go to Baltimore and you’ve got the game mound and the bullpen mound, and they’re not six feet apart. We have indoor mounds but they’re not the greatest, and it’s different throwing inside than it is out.
“When you listen to all this go down, if people go to Arizona, it’s already 105 (degrees) there. I’m thinking that’s as bad if not worse than guys staying at home and getting in shape there. I don’t know what time you’d have to start games, but I’m assuming it would be really early.
“When they brought out that thing with MLB and they said games would have to start between 7 and no later than 9, it’s like, ‘In the morning? Bodies aren’t woken up.’ For some of my guys who prepare and have a set routine, you’re going to ask your guys to get there at 4:30 in the morning? I mean, we want to get back to work, but we’ve got to be smart about this.”
Brocail thought the owners did “a phenomenal” job of protecting the players in the earlier 67-page proposal that he read. He’s going to stay optimistic and hope to escape the pollen back home that’s left him with a steady cough and aggravated his asthma.
“I just can’t wait to get back to work,” he said.
“I never thought that it would go this far. I really didn’t. I’m like, OK, so what? People wear masks, we wear gloves, we stop this stuff before it gets spread. I think we’ve done a good job with it in the United States, but then seeing the beaches open up and pictures of people on top of people at the beach, it’s like, come on, let’s be smarter please.
“For me, wanting to get back to work, everybody in America is like, come on, open up. The people that are being furloughed, the people that have been let go. It’s one of those things, well, if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to be a little bit smarter America. Come on.”