The trickle-down effect of MLB’s weird 2020 is an emphasis on pitching depth in 2021

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Many teams have long-standing internal policies about what percentage of innings increases they’re willing to place on an untested arm. Normally, those numbers top out around 30 to 40 percent. Anything more, consensus holds, and the risk of injury becomes too great.

This season, nearly every major league starter who participated in the 2020 pandemic-shortened campaign will be upping their innings by a much higher percentage — in many cases, by 100 percent or more. In a sport where teams’ fates are so often guided by the health of a starting rotation, the prospect of such a collective increase has increased concerns leaguewide about pitchers’ durability.

“For pitchers, arm safety is going to be critical to build these guys up properly and get off and going,” San Diego Padres Manager Jayce Tingler said. “In 2021, certainly with the pandemic, the challenge of 162 games after playing 60, there’s going to be real value in depth.”

In 2019, the median innings count was 111⅓ for starters who threw more than 30 innings. No starter threw more than 84 innings last season. The median innings count was 54.

An optimist could argue the shortened season saved veteran arms more than half-season of wear and tear. For veterans accustomed to building up each spring, the jump will represent more of a return to normal than a shock to the system.

New York Yankees’ ace Gerrit Cole, for example, said he considered this offseason “normal” despite the fact that he threw about one-third the number of innings in 2020 (73) as he did for Houston during the Astros’ 2019 World Series run (212).

“I’m not anticipating a lot of big changes. There’s going to be a lot of managing how people feel throughout the season,” Cole said this week. “It’s the manager’s job, the pitching coach’s job, the organization to keep that big picture at the forefront of their minds and understand how they want to head about that process.”

Chicago Cubs veteran Kyle Hendricks said his innings count last season did not reflect his actual workload since he threw extra bullpen sessions out of concern he wasn’t throwing enough. Many pitchers, including Hendricks, Los Angeles Angels’ right-hander Andrew Heaney and Los Angeles Dodgers’ star Walker Buehler, among others, started throwing earlier than usual this winter to counter the reduced workload of 2020.

New York Mets Manager Luis Rojas said Friday he has already noticed an encouraging pattern among his veteran pitchers, such as Jacob deGrom. In the few early bullpen sessions Rojas has watched, he said many of the pitchers who may have been caught off-guard by the uncertainty of 2020 have come to camp sharp.

“They didn’t want to get surprised again,” Rojas said.

But not everyone was able to replicate a normal offseason. For every player that headed to elite training facilities in Arizona or Florida, another had to get creative to continue throwing in the face of pandemic-imposed constraints.

Cincinnati Reds’ reliever Amir Garrett, for example, said he played catch every day with one ball in his backyard. Occasionally, his dog would retrieve the ball for him, which often meant he needed another ball shortly after. But usually, Garrett would have to retrieve the ball himself between each throw.

“I just adapted to that kind of routine that I have. It’s not ideal, but you got to adapt to the situations at hand, man,” Garrett said.

Exactly how teams will adapt remains to be seen. Over the past few days, most managers dodged the question of whether they would employ a six-man rotation, though fewer ruled it out than might have been the case in years past. Almost all of them touted the importance of depth.

The Padres, too, added depth on depth when they traded for Cy Young Award winners Yu Darvish and Blake Snell on back-to-back days, adding to a rotation that was already dripping with young talent. The Dodgers added Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer to their already overflowing arsenal, which now contains seven or eight proven big league starters for at least five spots. The Yankees added several veterans, including recently injured former stars Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon.

“It’ll be something that’s very fluid and probably a bit unique to each individual,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “The feedback we’re getting from things we can actually measure with their pitches and their stuff, to conversations with them about how they’re feeling … that’s all going to be really important. I don’t think with anyone we’ll say, ‘This guy can pitch this number of innings, this guy can pitch that number of innings, but we’ll certainly be mindful of all of them.’

Boone acknowledged that the Yankees have to be “more conscious of the incremental buildup” with younger pitchers than older ones. But starters who have missed significant amounts of time due to injury — such as, say, Kluber and Taillon — have often been able to come back and handle a full season’s workload with no trouble.

For teams like the Washington Nationals, whose rotation centers on four well-worn starters over age 31, staying healthy would be a concern in any season. Besides, any attempt to tell a veteran such as Max Scherzer to limit his innings would be a very short conversation.

“We’re going to prepare the same way. But the difference between the veteran pitchers and the young pitchers are that we hope that the veteran pitchers are a little bit more cautious and intelligent on their own workload,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “So obviously, we’re going to we’re going to listen to Max and [Stephen Strasburg] and Patrick [Corbin] and [Jon] Lester because they’ve been through the rigors of full seasons before.”

Like Boone, Rizzo warned that younger pitchers, particularly those recently drafted who lost college or minor league seasons to the pandemic last year, will need to be handled more carefully.

“We’re going to have to have to take that into consideration,” Rizzo said. “That depth in your organization is really going to come to the forefront maybe more than ever before this season because of the lack of innings last year.”

But even maintaining depth may be tricky. While the league announced this week that a Class AAA season will start April 6 and the lower minor league levels on May 4, some around the league worry that covid-19 concerns could limit those seasons, reducing the number of places where teams can stash pitching depth and keep arms sharp. Stockpiling pitchers is one thing, but they need work to be ready to step in at a moment’s notice.

“Nobody wants to go to the minor leagues. Nobody wants to be in the minor leagues. But you have to have an outstanding minor league system that you set up in order to sustain you through doubleheaders, through injuries, through consecutive games,” Houston Astros Manager Dusty Baker said. “ … but it all depends on whether they’re ready to perform at a high level.”

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