As he gets set to begin his third season in the Orioles organization, but first as the major league pitching coach, 41-year-old Chris Holt faces challenges everywhere he looks. How to continue to improve a staff that finished with a 4.51 ERA last year, up from 5.59 in 2019. How to continue to introduce more young pitching to the staff.
And how to manage pitcher workloads in a 162-game season that followed a 60-game year. How do pitchers go from throwing 40 or 50 innings to getting back to, for the starters, innings loads between 150 and 200 innings?
Spreading out innings is possible in a six-man rotation. Several teams are considering doing that to start the year, including the Orioles, according to manager Brandon Hyde, who confirmed yesterday the club is at least pondering a six-man.
During a Zoom interview today, I asked Holt: Just how seriously are they considering this?
“My interest level is to make sure that we take care of pitchers’ health and win as many games as we can,” said Holt. “And whatever we have to do to do that is the priority. So, again, I’m open to anything that we feel is a suitable means to achieve those ends.”
Holt said that pitchers being used to pitching every fifth day and now having to adjust, if the O’s make such a move, does not pose a major concern.
“I think that, as we have learned in the last year, guys have been able to adapt and make transitions to whatever is needed to navigate the intricacies of what we have to go through now with our schedule,” he said. “And meeting new challenges that we’ve all had to meet. I chalk it up on that side of the fence with making adjustments and disrupting work. We’re not too worried about that. We’re more concerned with managing workload, managing rest and recovery time. And doing the things that help guys stay on track and also sharpen their weapons between outings.”
There is just a lot of math to consider. Some pitchers may have gone from 150 or more innings in 2019 to less than 50 or 60. Some young pitchers have different situations. Left-hander Keegan Akin threw 112 1/3 innings in Triple-A in 2019 and just 25 2/3 last season for the Orioles. Right-hander Dean Kremer threw 113 2/3 innings on the farm in 2019 and 18 2/3 in 2020 for the Orioles. In the cases of those pitchers though, they added other innings pitching in sim games at the alternate site, plus anything they added on their own at home during the sport’s shutdown between March and July.
“The big picture on this is it’s important to manage workload on a micro level, so that we can sustain it across the macro level,” stated Holt. “And so when you look at all the innings totals and numbers and things that are dealing with math, it can be a little bit noisy. The reality is that we have to be able to manage their work and their recovery and their buildup between outings, and then manage that workload over a longer period. So that there is a steady, sustainable method to how they stay in rhythm and how they basically get back to baseline recovery before the next outing.
“So all the sudden you start having a spike in a certain game with a high pitch total or a spike in innings where now you really have to adjust for that in the ensuing games. To not keep them redlining for a longer period of time. So, it’s going to be a real-time read and there is going to need to be a proactive approach to managing their workload based on what they have just done and what they will be looking to do in their next outings.”
Holt used an example of a pitcher during the upcoming season that might have several games in a row of four to five innings and then have one night when he might get eight innings. There could be an adjustment needed for his outing following the longer one.
Holt would not say if any pitchers that worked out of the bullpen last year are being stretched out right now as options for long relief or the rotation.
“Those things should sort themselves out,” he said. “It would be irresponsible to throw any names into that mix right now. We know that we have the ability to have starting pitchers go for shorter stints, and we do have a handful of relievers that are capable of going two or two-plus innings. And so, those things should naturally sort themselves out as we go as we determine who is capable of doing what. And sustaining it as we go throughout the season. That’s going to be a big piece: sustainability.”
Said Holt on Hernández: “Number one, he knows who he is and he knows what he has to do to get ready. Physically, he looks like he’s in tremendous shape. His first bullpen was yesterday. Delivery looks like he’s on time and pitches coming out of hand looked very true. And he’s been doing work at home. Encouraging to see him come in and be ready to roll right from the outset.”
Minor league schedules: MLB and individual minor league teams released the 2021 minors schedules today. Triple-A teams in the east - including the O’s affiliate, the Norfolk Tides - will play 142 games between April 6 and Sept. 19. Norfolk’s home opener is April 13 versus Jacksonville.
The rest of the minor league teams in Single-A and Double-A ball will play 120 games beginning May 4 and ending Sept. 19. This year most series will be six-game series running from Tuesday through Sunday, and each club will have Mondays off.
Whether fans can attend and how that works are details that will likely be coming soon from each individual club. Many teams seem to expect that at least some fans will be allowed in at the start of the year or early in the season. This can vary from team to team because guidelines can vary from state to state and even county to county. So stay tuned for more updates. But it’s exciting to see a schedule out after a year without minor league baseball.