What Do Starting Pitchers Do on Their ‘Off’ Days, Anyway?

Ivan Nova was the Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Tuesday night. Wednesday, he’ll mostly be “a cheerleader.”

Such is the life of a starting pitcher. Day of the week? Doesn’t matter. The city they’re in? They might not even play there. It’s all about what day it is in the five-day cycle. There’s the day they pitch and then everything else in a calendar that never has a weekend.

So what exactly do they do those other four days? Well, it depends a lot on the player. Much like a windup or a change-up grip, a five-day starting routine can very a lot from pitcher to pitcher.

Much like other aspects of pitching, they can also be handed down from generation to generation. Nova learned his coming up with the New York Yankees from players like A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon and C.C. Sabathia.

“2011 was the first year in the big leagues pitching every five days,” Nova said. “I used to watch older guys, how they do it, and try to keep their arm fresh. You do some of the same things, see if it works for you, if you feel good.”

What Nova tried as a youngster with the Yankees has worked for him so far, and though he changes things up from time to time throughout the season, it’s basically been the same idea since he started in the majors.

“It’s no different,” he said. “It’s still the same preparation.”

Nova did say that how his previous start went will effect things. His previous outing, against the Washington Nationals, he threw 94 pitches and took the following day off. After throwing just 77 against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday, he’ll be more active Wednesday. But either way, he’s basically “a cheerleader” until it gets time to throw his bullpen session.

He usually throws 25 pitches in a bullpen session and other than that, just plays catch to keep his arm loose. For Nova, that’s more than enough to stay fresh. For a younger pitcher just figuring out his game, it’s sometimes tough to fit everything they’re trying to work on into that one bullpen. For Jameson Taillon, the groundwork for that lesson happened when he was drafted by the Pirates at 18.

“When I got drafted and put into pro ball, they gave me an outline of what your five-day routine should look like building up to your start,” Taillon said. “They gave me an idea of what my bullpen pitches should look like, what I should throw, everything from diet to mechanics and how to play catch the right way.”

Taillon’s current routine has been shaped in a huge way by the series of injuries that he went through in the minors, in particular Tommy John surgery, which heightened his sense of awareness when it came to taking care of his arm.

“I realized that in-season working out is more about maintenance,” he said. “There’s a healthy way to throw bullpens without taxing your body too much. There’s a balance. For me, for example, this last bullpen, I really wanted to work on four-seams and two-seams playing off either to the extension. So, I threw 30 pitches and I threw 25 four-seams and two-seams to that side. You can’t go out there and throw 60 of them at 95 MPH.”

Not throwing every day isn’t the only adjustment pitchers make as they get into their five-day routine. During Spring Training, you’ll see starting pitchers taking batting practice, fielding practice, throwing live batting practice, bunting, running the bases and all kinds of other stuff on a daily basis. Once everyone gets into their routines, that stuff mostly goes out the window.

“I think it’s just such a long season,” Chad Kuhl said. “If the season were shorter, we’d be talking about something else, but with the season being so long, I’ve got 32 starts, hopefully more with playoffs. I think that’s where draw the line, is just trying to get your work in and just trying to stay sharp so that you can get the best out of your game.”

With pitchers taking fewer and fewer on-field reps in between starts, there’s more time for other stuff, such as Trevor Williams pondering how long it would take to touch all the seats in an MLB ballpark.

Williams also has more time for other, more performance-oriented pursuits. With the preponderance of statistical information, video and other scouting reports on future opponents, MLB pitchers have more data than they could possibly consume in four days on every single opponent.

“I study up,” Williams said. “I watched how they did against the last right-hander. It’s tough when you play teams only once or twice a year. It’s almost a crash course on those hitters. Whereas you’re taking upper-level classes against the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers and the Reds because you see them so many times.”

Pitchers will also often use video and statistical data to self-scout and see what’s been working well and what hasn’t been.

“I just need to know what works for me between outings — what I need to work on,” he said. “If my slider was bad or weird coming out of my hand, I’ll know I need to work on my slider. Other than, my preparation is going to be the same every five days.”
Williams said there’s “no magic bullet” and “everyone is different” when it comes to five-day routines. But the interesting part is that whether it was learned through an older pitcher, handed down from the organization, or developed through college and the minors, they’ve all gotten to a pretty similar place. It seems that most of the Pirates pitchers follow a pretty basic pattern of rest, self-evaluation, side work and preparation that’s allowed them to become successful major leaguers. It might not look the same for everyone, but the end product is strikingly similar.

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