It is common knowledge that starting pitchers take the mound every five games, but what happens between starts isn’t as widely know. A lot of work goes into those days between starts, and it typically happens within the parameters of a set routine. The routine itself can differ from pitcher to pitcher, but for almost everyone, it includes a bullpen session. Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer, and his pitching coach, Rick Knapp, talked about their respective approaches to getting ready for day five.
David Laurila: Max, what do you do on the day after a start?
Max Scherzer: For me, the next day is one of the hardest-working days to get my body right. I’ll do a total body lift, lifting every major area. I’ll exercise my legs, back, chest, arms — kind of the whole nine yards. Then I’ll go out and run for awhile, trying to get as tired as I can. Throwing is very minimal. I just kind of loosen up, getting the arm moving to get ready for my pen the next day.
DL: Rick, what do you expect from a pitcher in his bullpen session?
Rick Knapp: Well, Max is a little different than most guys. He doesn’t like to throw a lot. We try to prepare him for the next team he’s facing, and if there is something in particular he wants to work on, we do that. There have been different sessions on different things. Today it was his slider. There have been sessions where we wanted to find the right arm position out of the glove. There have been times we’ve tried to keep his heel underneath him and not let his shoulder get too far away.
Sometimes it’s a mechanical piece and sometimes it’s just a feel piece. We threw around a couple of ideas with the slider today that seemed to take a little. He kind of liked it and we kind of expounded on that. His pens last anywhere between 30 and 45 pitches, which is really a lot shorter than most guys like to throw on the side.
Scherzer: For me, a pen is really for feel. What I’m really trying to work on is what I want to accomplish. I want to get a feel for what I’m trying to do with that certain pitch, or mechanically being able to repeat it. I have to have that feel so I can go into my next game with the mindset of having that feel. That’s why it can take anywhere from 40 to 50 pitches at times to finally lock it in.
In my pens, I also like to get a prep of what I want to do in certain situations with the next team I’m facing. I simulate game situations so I can get my mind focusing on what I’ll have to do in that game.
DL: To what extent are you in game mode when you‘re throwing a pen?
Scherzer: You’re not in full game mode, but you want to get as close as possible. There is the old saying, “practice like you play,” and you kind of have to do that with your pen. You want to try to take it as game-like as you possibly can.
Knapp: You’re visualizing a hitter; you’re visualizing what it is you’re going to see. You’re visualizing the stance and how he’s going to swing. Those are the things he’s trying to key into his pen. Sometimes it’s two hitters and sometimes it’s five hitters.
DL: Rick, do some pitchers need an occasional kick in the pants to get them to focus?
Knapp: I can’t say that I’ve ever used that sort of strategy. I don’t know that at this level it’s really necessary. There are some guys who just throw angry and motivate themselves. There are some guys where you’re just not sure how they feel on a particular day and you have to kind of be careful not to overwork or underwork them.
DL: Max, you’re known to utilize a lot of data. Does any of it apply to your side work?
Scherzer: No. I really don’t even use that much data, I just kind of understand what’s going on. When you start talking about pitching X, per se, what you want to accomplish, the data doesn’t really apply. It’s all about using your mechanics and executing pitches. That’s what you try to work on in between your starts in order to be able to do that in your next game.
Knapp: You’re trying to cipher what data is useful and which is not. Quite frankly, if you generate your pen thoughts on getting ahead and being in the strike zone, that’s preparation for first-pitch strikes. My gosh, if you’re going to be 2-0 on everybody, it doesn’t really matter what other prep you do.
You’re kind of combining situations, like, I want to throw 0-0 fastballs here, or I want to throw put-away sliders here. There is a certain amount of work that goes into that and that’s about as statistically deep as we’ll get.
DL: Where should velocity be relative to a game?
Knapp: It depends. Certain guys… usually at the end of the pen is when they’re going to push themselves a little bit further than they normally would. I’m going to say that for the most part, at least generally speaking, probably 75% to 85%. Rarely do they get more than 85%.
DL: Rick, to what extent are you acting as a psychologist in a bullpen session?
Knapp: Well, again, it’s to the individual. There are certain guys that need a little more of that than others. More than anything else, my job is to try to get them to feel good when they walk off that mound, that they feel ready and able to compete. That’s as much a part of psychology as anything, to have them feel confident that they can perform.
Scherzer: I don’t think it’s so much about psychology. It is, but it’s also using the right words. He’s getting to see how I work from a different angle. I don’t get to see everything, so he might be able to relate some words about what I should be thinking to keep myself in the right position. He’ll mention something like, “focus on this,” and all of a sudden, once I get that train of thought, that’s what I’m focusing on. That’s what’s big about having a pitching coach who communicates with you well.
DL: Are you throwing all of your pitches or are you primarily focusing on one?
Scherzer: You’re using all of them and in all different ways. You’re throwing them for strikes, as well as just out of the zone. You’re trying to do a lot of different things with different pitches. You’re working on executing different situations in different counts.
Knapp: That’s important, because there are certain…and it depends on the guy, too. There are some guys who will try to invent something new in every pen. Let’s focus on what you do well and work off of that. Max is one who — speaking of the words you use — it has taken us this long for me to throw words at him and for him to come back and say, “this doesn’t work for me, tell it to me this way.” That’s kind of the way it works. Everybody is wired differently.
DL: Is there room for much experimentation?
Knapp: Oh, yeah. We’re open to that. We’re not stymieing anybody’s creativeness at all. But at the same time, let’s not get too far away. We had something happen a few weeks ago where Justin Verlander was working on his changeup. He wanted to try different grips; he wanted to do different things. I said, “Where are we at with that changeup?“ and his words were, “Well, I’m not using it; I shit-canned it.” I said, “OK, well that’s good news to me.” Getting back to his regular changeup, the one he’s been using, and working on that one, really helped lead him into his next start.
You don’t want to take anything away from them, as far as trying something new, but at the same time you have to make sure you’re perfecting the stuff they already have.
DL; How much do you monitor workload in side sessions?
Knapp: Again, it kind of goes to the individual. There are certain guys who feel that they need to throw more to be ready. There are certain guys whose pre-games are longer than others. Max’s pre-game is about as short as I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t take him many bullets to be ready to compete, and other guys take longer.
Do I log how much they throw? It’s more mentally than anything. Brad Penny, early in the season, wanted to throw half-an-hour bullpens and we had to say, ’Hey, look, that’s taking its toll; we have a long season ahead of us.” At the same time, his point was that we were talking and trying to figure things out, so 30 minutes isn’t really 30 minutes. He also works a little bit slower than most. So you kind of take it all into account. I log it as far as what they’re doing, at what intensity, but as far as it being concrete and locked in, no, I don’t do it that way.
If you have a tough travel day and you want to push a pen back a day, I give them that latitude. They can do one the second day, the third day, whenever. Some guys do both days.
DL: Max, why do you throw shorter-than-normal pens and pre-games?
Scherzer: In the bullpens, I’m just trying to accomplish what I need to get done. Usually, I’m able to mentally and physically do that in a relatively short amount of time so that I feel good enough about going into my next start.
As far as pre-game, I’ve always been one to warm up quickly. If I can get my body loose, and if I can start getting my arm loose, I want to save all of my bullets for the game. When you’re at that 100, or 110, pitch count, you want to be at your best and have every single bullet that you can. You want to be executing in that situation, so for me, as soon as I can get loose, let’s play ball.
DL: Rick, what is the long-toss program you have in place?
Knapp: Each guy has their own deal as far as…I mean, we’ve had guys trying to throw the ball 350 feet and we have guys who don’t go past 120. For the most part, I don’t have an opinion other than I don’t want you to throw 400 balls, 350 feet. If you want to feel it a little bit longer, then throw it a little bit longer. Feel the extension. If you don’t feel that way, on that particular day…look, I know that there are some teams that have absolutes. I don’t have an absolute. Certain guys have to throw a little bit longer to feel loose, and other guys don’t.
I think that most everybody goes every day. I mean, they’re not throwing for 30 minutes when they long toss. They’ll throw to feel the extension and feel loose, and they’ll shorten up.
DL: Max, what happens in the days between your bullpen session and your ensuing start?
Scherzer: The day after my pen, I do another short total-body lift, just to make sure that my body is right, and strong, for that next start. It’s kind of that I’m somewhat tight. You want to have that good tightness after you work out, that on your start day you’re feeling strong. I’ll usually run on that day, too. I’ll also kind of stretch it out playing catch that day, working on flat ground with the things I was working on in the previous pen.
The day before my start day, it’s just getting loose. I’ll play catch from 90 feet, then come in and do some more flat-ground stuff, and then it’s game day.
DL: Rick, how much do you talk to your pitchers between their starts?
Knapp: They’ll have questions during the game, while we’re hitting, and we’ll talk. We’ll talk about a particular guy or about a particular tendency. Maybe it will be something he’s seen, or something I’ve seen. There can be a lot of communication. And I’m not sure if Max is even aware of this, but when our pitchers are pitching, I’m pitching. I’m not just watching, I’m into the game.
DL; So, if Max is having a bad game, you are as well?
Knapp: Yes, I’m getting beat. I‘m having a better game if he‘s pitching well.