Jim Henneman: As Starters’ Workloads Change, So Too Does Their Preparation

SARASOTA, Fla. — It may or may not be part of the analytics movement, but it’s obvious that the way starting pitchers prepare for the opening of the regular season these days is a drastic change from what can only be called the “old school” way. Or, perhaps more accurately in modern terminology, the “not so good old days.”

The accepted rule of thumb in a bygone era was for each team to get its top starters up and running as soon as possible. With complete games an expected goal, rather than an accidental accomplishment, every member of the starting rotation would go seven innings at least once before breaking camp.

If you were so inclined, you could make book that the first pitcher on the mound for the first exhibition game would also be on the Opening Day starter. Those days seem light years ago compared to today’s emphasis of starting the control of innings pitched from the very outset of spring training.

For instance, the Orioles will have played at least five games before Dylan Bundy makes an appearance, and the preseason will be at least a week old before Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner get in the act. Bundy made 31 starts last year, including Opening Day, while Cobb and Cashner had 28. Cobb’s slow start a year ago was at least partially attributed to the fact he missed most of spring training, but not necessarily because he logged few spring-training innings.

With medical data suggesting that higher velocity readings and the number of pitches — and therefore innings pitched — are the primary cause of serious injuries, all 30 major league teams are following almost identical guidelines when it comes to controlling those numbers. And with even the best starting pitchers barely averaging six innings a game, few if any will pitch that long in a preseason game.

And, yes, the debate will go on, but you find yourself yearning for those (good or bad) old days, well … best you understand they are gone.

“Team control” is a term you hear a lot in the analytics age — and it most likely will be a primary reason why some of the Orioles’ youngest prospects won’t be in the major leagues until they have to be.

General manager Mike Elias is on record as saying the Orioles “won’t rush anyone” while “trying to improve the [talent] base across the system.”

The strictest, and some might say harshest, interpretation of this plan is that the team will be in no rush to start the clock on the six-year time frame teams control before a player can hit free agency. It’s not a new tactic; in fact, it has been in effect since the earliest days of free agency, some 43 years ago.

But with contracts stretching to 10 years and worth hundreds of millions of dollars, it is part of the analytics game that goes way beyond WAR, OPS or innings pitched — and hits at the real heart of the matter: finding a way to get the most bangs for the buck.

The Orioles have made some mistakes in the past by “starting the clock” too soon on some players, including Jonathan Schoop, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart. You could even put Cedric Mullins in that category, but the O’s seem somewhat committed to him at the moment.

If the Orioles struggle anywhere near as much as they did last year and players like Ryan Mountcastle or Yusniel Díaz (who aren’t even on the 40-man roster) or a healthy Hunter Harvey (who is) are having productive years in the minor leagues, there will be a clamoring among a restless fan base to force feed the new blood. It will go unheeded, at least for the first year of this rebuild and maybe part of a second.

Of all the analytics lessons to be learned this summer, understanding where the alarm is set on a player’s time clock will be the most important.

For the most part, home runs in spring training are either overrated or overblown (and sometimes merely blown away), but occasionally there is a “feel good” moment. One such took place in Sarasota Feb. 26.

You’d have to say that Chris Davis’ reboot during the Orioles’ rebuild had gotten off to a rather inauspicious start — with three strikeouts in his first three plate appearances, a streak interrupted by an infield ground out in his fourth at-bat. So when he launched a drive over the right-centerfield fence at Ed Smith Stadium in the fifth inning, it’s safe to assume he felt a sense of relief.

Not that it will make any difference March 28 when they start playing for real, but in this case 1-for-5 looks like a hot streak for the much maligned first baseman.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: David Driver/PressBox