Relaxed Staff is Key to Early 2009 Victories
Have you ever wondered what you favorite pitcher might be doing in the offseason? Besides the regular answer of relax and enjoy the family, would you travel, take up a hobby or maybe help coach a local baseball team? Or maybe you want to just learn a new skill like racquetball or maybe even golf.
All of the above would be a great answer to an offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays youthful starting 5 after their successful and long season. 2 members of the 5 have young ones, Matt Garza and James Shields. So you know Dad is taking a little time with the young ones doing the things he can not do with them during the season. One of the biggest complaints I have heard from major leaguers is the time away from family while the little ones are growing bigger and bigger. It is a bitter sacrifice they make to push the financial envelope for their families competing for a spot in the rotation.
Bachelor Scott Kazmir is one of the guys who has set down roots in the Tampa Bay area in the offseaso. From his Harbour Island shangra-la he is right in the kidlle of Tampa nightlife with the Channelside District just a short walk away from his abode. I have seen and talked with Kazmir when he has wandered out to do the occasional bowling adventure on Friday nights at Splitsville. An off season hobby or sport can make the time go fast and also give them an alternative relaxation during their down time. Most people take to competitive sports or activites becuase it mimics the adrenaline and rush you get every time you hit the pitching rubber during a game.
Andy Sonnanstine has mapped out plans for his offseason. He’ll be heading to a celebrity poker and golf tournament in Las Vegas later this month, and he’s going to find a place in Tampa. He’s is also planning on hanging out with friends, and enjoying his time away from the Rays..
And he’s going to sleep in, day after day — the kind of sleep where you roll over, glance at the clock and then close your eyes for another cycle or three of rapid eye movement, like a college kid back home right after exams. “I’m probably going to take it pretty easy,” said Sonnanstine. “This is definitely the longest season I’ve ever been a part of.”
When Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey hears about this, he will be thrilled, because above all else, he wants his young starters’ to recover this winter. He doesn’t want them throwing at all , doesn’t want them running marathons ( Balfour ), doesn’t want them to discover their inner triathlete. He wants them working very hard at resting and recovering after a long, hard season.
The Rays pulled off a minor miracle last season of not having a regular starter go down for a huge amount of time. All 5 starters went through the season with aches and pains, but none went down for ae tended period during the season, or suffered any effects during the long season. That is a true feat in today’s baseball world. Most teams have at least one of their starters down for months at a time. Sometimes it is a yearly long shutdown for Tommy John’s or shoulder fatique. The grind of the baseball season can wear and tear at a pitcher worst than a fielding player due to the stress and mechanics needed to throw a sphere over 90 miles an hour consistantly during the season.
Because the Rays Coaching staff are well aware, recent baseball history is littered with teams that suffer a physical hangover from a playoff run that takes them deep into October. The Red Sox had all hands on deck in winning the World Series in 2004, and many parts of the staff broke down in 2005. And the Rays were witness to first-hand sightlines as the 2007 World Series winners went down in Tropicana Field after a bitterly fought 7-game series against their team.
The White Sox’s championship staff of 2005 significantly regressed in 2006. Chris Carpenter led the Cardinals to a title in 2006, and he’s never been the same. The Tigers’ pitching staff was fractured by numerous injuries in 2007, with staff members convinced that the team paid a heavy toll for the remarkable success of 2006.
The Rays’ biggest challenge for 2009 might not be in identifying a solid closer, or even determining who their right fielder or DH will be for the openers. The critical factor might be the ability of the Rays’ young pitchers, whom all but Kazmir, set career-highs for innings in 2008, to recover strongly and repeat their collective performance in 2009. Their health might be one of the true keys to their defense of the AL East crown and the AL pennant. With a healthy staff and a productive Bullpen, it might be possible to see advancement beyond the magical dreams of 2008 and claim a world title.
Among the members of the young staff, James Shields is the elder by age ( 26) , but not by overall game time experience. That medal still hangs around Scott Kazmir’s neck as the All-Time leader already in several of the Rays pitching records as such a young age.
In 2008, Shields threw 240 total innings. Which is amazing for such a young star, but it was still only 25 more inngs or 3 starts more than 2007. Shields is one of the guys who will have to be truly aware of his body in 2009. Throwing that many innings can break down a pitchers body over time, and if he listens to his body respond and even send a pain signal, it could save the Rays alot of time and energy trying to replace his persence in the rotation.
Throwing alot of innings can weaken the body the following year. Some say that is why Scott Kazmir might have had the problems he did in 2007. He pitched almost 207 innings in 2007, and had a set back early in Spring Training. Because he listened to the signs and did not push himself beyond a point, he was able to repair and bring himself back from the injury. In 2008, becuase of the injury, Kazmir only threw 190 innings for the Rays.
That is rare in a young pitcher to disregard pain and most just keep throwing knowing their spot in the rotation or even on the team might be in jeopardy if they go down. Matt Garza had a sense he was hurt early in the season, but tried to play with the pain in his forearm and hand. The nerve situation that Garza suffered is an example of a pitcher ignoring the pain until someone else makes him realize he is only hurting himself and the team by not going to the mound 100 percent.
Garza and Kazmir situation were the only episodes for the Rays in a short term injury situation for the team in 2008. With both of them more aware of the team’s committment to them and their own committment to acheiving more in 2009, they will know the problem signs now and can make good decisions on their health.
Even before the end of the Rays’ regular season, Hickey said, the staff had discussed how they planned on preparing the pitchers for 2009, knowing that Spring Training in 2009 will begin a week early. “Spring training is only 12 weeks away,” sighed Hickey . “I want them to flat-out rest. I want a whole 4 or 5 or 6 weeks of nothing but healing and resting up. … Whether they know it or not, they’ll be a bit weary.”
Hickey would love if his pitchers did some low-bore physical conditioning over the next 6 weeks or so, before easing their way back into their preparation for 2009. There is really no need for them to pick up a baseball, for example, until the turn of the year, as far as Hickey is concerned.
Then, in spring training, Hickey already has loose plans to reduce the number of pitches and innings thrown by his starters. Typically, starting pitchers will have built up their arms by the end of spring training to where they are throwing 105 pitches over seven innings. Common knowledge among the team is that they will probably reduce the number of outings for his starters by one, and his relievers will make fewer appearances.
The build-up before the exhibition season begins will be more gradual, with the throwing sessions staggered. It’s possible, as well, that Tampa Bay will have more pitchers in camp in 2009. With the great corp of pitching prospects in the Rays; minor league program, they might get deeper looks and more work in the exhibition season to rest the entire staff a bit in 2009.
The alterations may not sound like much, Hickey says, but he is cognizant of saving wear and tear whenever and wherever he can, after his young starters worked for the first time in a postseason, when every pitch is thrown with much more duress, as he said.
It may be that the Rays’ young starters will be OK because — well, because they’re young, and can bounce back. But Hickey will work specifically to guide Rays pitchers, because unlike the veterans he’s worked with in the past — Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt, among others — the Tampa Bay starters may not know their bodies as well, this early in their careers. “You’ll rein them in a little bit more than you would old guys,” he said.
Sonnanstine will embrace the opportunity to rest. Pitching five innings in the postseason, he said, was like pitching 10 during the regular season. Because of the early start to spring training, he said, “I’ll have to factor that into my plans.”
Others like Shields and Garza will have a little less time with family and doing thing this offseason, but all that will melt away when the 2 banner are raised during the Home Opener against the Yankees. But between now and then, all they have to do is relax and enjoy off season life. Kazmir, meanwhile might be toeing the wood sliding a nice ball towards a 7-10 split and smiling from ear-to-ear.