Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, his pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes and the club’s front office, among others, have to ponder something important about pitchers for the coming season: How do they get from here to there?
In this case, the here is the innings load that pitchers were given in a shortened 60-game 2020 season, and the there is how it will work out now with 162 games facing the club. Last year Alex Cobb led O’s pitchers with 52 1/3 innings and John Means was second with 43 2/3. In the last full season of 2019, Dylan Bundy led the club with 161 2/3 innings and Means was next at 155 innings.
Can pitchers go from here to there and make such a big jump in innings with more games facing them now?
During a Zoom interview with O’s reporters Wednesday on the first day of spring camp in Sarasota, Means, the expected opening day starter, indicated he’s up for taking on a normal full-season innings load if the club chooses to give him that chance.
“You know, honestly, I look it as less wear and tear on my arm,” he said. “I look at it as kind of a positive - more time to recover. But I think it’s been voiced here that they want guys to make sure they feel good in the buildup. I think guys will start to find out if there is any wear and tear on the buildup and then kind of when August hits, guys will start to get an idea of how their arm is feeling. We’re going to be a little bit more cautious, but at the end of the day, we’re going to out there and try to compete, and I’ll try to go six or seven innings every time out.”
Here is Hyde on this topic: “It is a challenge. We’re in a unique situation with the season being so short last year. Guys are coming off an unusual year where they were ramped up for spring, shut down, ramped back up for summer camp and the season. But I do feel how our guys prepared last year and how they continued to throw I feel we are prepared for this year. But it’s definitely a concern and something we’re going to monitor closely, is our pitchers’ innings and how they are feeling on a daily basis. It’s a reasonable concern to have of guys coming off a year that was unusual and see how they are going to react this year, especially later in the year.
“This factors into your bullpen decisions also. Guys able to go multiple innings is going to be huge. Having a 26-man roster, two less than last year, is going to be tough and it’s going to take a lot of pitchers that are able to give you as many innings as possible.”
One way to divide the innings or spread them out to a larger extent would be to go a six-man rotation. It is something Hyde is considering.
“I think so, yeah,” Hyde said of the possibility. “I think anything is possible this year when it comes to pitching.”
During a January Zoom interview with reporters, Holt talked about the innings situation that his pitchers will face this year in ramping back up to 162 games and what that could mean.
“It’s a big question going on in the industry right now and I think that everybody’s consulting with medical and strength and conditioning, sports science,” Holt said. “As far as what we know we have going into 2021, it’s always going to be a real-time read, whether they’re coming off a season where they threw 150 or a season where they threw 75 innings. So as far as consulting regularly with our medical staff, strength and conditioning, sports science, we will have a proactive approach toward managing innings, recovery and workload in 2021.”
Similar innings decisions will have to be made about minor league pitchers - some that got into zero games in 2020 and some that didn’t even pitch at the alternate site at Double-A Bowie. They were on their own and no doubt threw the equivalent of a certain amount of innings totals in side sessions, bullpen sessions or live BP sessions. They got work in any way they could and no doubt some pitchers probably got in more work than we might have imagined.
During a winter interview on this topic, O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias talked on how it applies on the farm.
“We’re going to be a little bit careful with that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it is what it is. And you know, these guys are professional baseball players and we’re going to have a season and we’re going to have to go pitch. So, I think we’ll see people kind of stretching the limits of what player development and the industry have been comfortable with the past few years in terms of year-on-year innings increases. ... There’s not really a science to it, but there are some comfort levels that have been established across baseball the last couple of years. And I think they’re going to get tested and stretched.
“But most of our guys, we had them count all the innings they threw at home against their college teammates or friends or whatever, and then we added that to what we did at the alternate site. And then those that went on to the instructional league, we tacked those on. We got some pretty robust totals for a lot of the upper-level guys. But I think the lower-level pitching prospects, we’re going to have to be more delicate with it.”
On another topic, Hyde discussed the progress he has seen in his two years as O’s manager.
“I think we’ve taken strides,” he said. “As an organization, we have gotten a lot more talent in the system. Watching us throw today, we’ve got some really good arms in camp. We’ve gotten better and I think we proved that last year. We had some young players get to the big leagues - both on the mound and in the field - and that’s going to continue. We’re continuing to raise the talent level. I’m really happy with how far we’ve come in two years. I thought we were really competitive last year and no one gave us a chance last year. I thought we were competitive, especially the first 40 or 50 games of that season. Just want to build on that this year.”
Hyde said the veteran pitchers that signed minor league deals - Félix Hernández and Wade LeBlanc and also Matt Harvey, whose deal became official Wednesday - could help the team in the rotation but also as mentors to younger talent.
“It’s three guys that have pitched a lot of innings in the big leagues and it’s fun to have them in camp,” Hyde said. “Talking a bit with Félix and Wade today, great to see Wade back. We don’t have a ton of veterans on this team. So, to have guys that have pitched in big games and done this for a long time, I think it’s really, really important. It’s huge for our younger players to be able to lean on somebody that’s done it. And the little I know of Félix, he’s a great guy to be around. Excited to have those guys in camp. I’m a believer in veterans can help young players. They have every opportunity to make this club and we’ll see where it goes,”
Orange and back. pic.twitter.com/lph0tJOYde-- Baltimore Orioles 😷 (@Orioles) February 17, 2021
Skip keeping it 💯 pic.twitter.com/8yWwlmoeOV-- Baltimore Orioles 😷 (@Orioles) February 18, 2021