When is Major League Baseball going to return? This is the question that lingers each and every day as we trudge through this coronavirus-induced hiatus.
While we wait, here is something else to ponder: Exactly how prepared are these guys going to be when they come back?
This is a very real thing.
Dennis Eckersley lived through it while trying to come back from the 1981 strike. "It just seemed like it took forever and it was hard to keep an edge," he told WEEI.com.
Speaking to GQ Magazine recently Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts struck the same tone. "This is a crazy time and we don’t know if we’re even going to have a season. I don’t want to be the one who’s not doing anything, and then they tell you the season is starting and I’m so far behind. It’s really tough mentally to try and stay in shape."
Think about it: Baseball players are creatures of habit. Their seasons end, they take some time off and then slowly ramp up all physical conditioning with an eye on that reporting date to spring training. And once they enter into the exhibition season everything is mapped out in preparation to that one fixed date where the regular season begins.
This time around, there is no finish line. And to make matters worse, the race is being run in bare feet.
"When we talk about offseason training -- and this is effectively Offseason 2.0 for these guys -- you always have access to the amenities that you need," explained Eric Cressey, Yankees' Director of Player Health and Performance and owner of the highly respected "Cressey Sports Performance" centers. "Whether that’s a facility, in the private sector or spring training complex. There is always someone to throw you BP. There is always a catcher who can catch you. There are the added headaches of guys scrambling to buy turf mounds for the backyards. There is just a lot of noise that can take away from the training process. You think about guys working out at home and there are kids getting in the way when they’re trying to do their stuff. So that side of it is challenging.
"But the other thing is that because of all the social distancing you are inherently working out by themselves. I can tell you having been around pro guys for a long time, they feed off of each other’s energy. There is busting each other’s chops between sets. You’re less likely to miss a training session when you’ve got a teammate or workout partner who is meeting you there. There is no doubt about it, there are going to be guys having a hard time getting it going.
"From the teams’ standpoint, there is also a bigger geographic challenge than there was in the past. There have been guys going all over creation where that would have been minimized a little bit with having our strength training complex open. It’s a lot of variables that are going to make this really challenging."
Cressey has a unique perspective on the current dynamic, spending time both helping organize the Yankees' plan of attack while also monitoring other major league clients (Max Scherzer and Corey Kluber are a couple of names).
Guys like Scherzer and Indians pitcher Aaron Civale have borrowed equipment from their respective teams, taking it back to their place of seclusion. While others already have the kind of setup that has made for a more seamless transition. But even with more or less equipment, the uncertain path that lies ahead is there for each and every one of these major leaguers.
The idea that mindsets and approaches born from this downtime might actually result in a change in approach isn't confined to just Cressey. It's a notion Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly brought up when recently appearing on the Bradfo Sho podcast.
"Some people are doing too much. Some aren’t doing enough," Kelly said. "The season is season already jacked up. The world is jacked up. So you can’t have a plan for that.
"Now Major League Baseball players are going to get a taste of that. They’re going to be like, ‘Man, I don’t have to do that one-hour of stretching.’ It gets repetitive where you think you have to do it. I’ve seen it. Trainers would be like, ‘Man, I wish he would do less. This is all in his head.’ It’s going to save everybody. It’s going to be good. Its’ going to prove to everybody that you don’t have to do all this stuff to do what you do. Some stuff is good. But instead of doing this much, you can do this much. I’m not saying go to zero. I’m not going to zero. But the guys can go here and say, ‘I can go to here,’ and that is going to open up for everything in life."
But no matter what the long-term result, the potential problem persists. There are too many personalities. Too many approaches. Too few opportunities to execute workouts. And because of it all the uncertainty regarding what we're actually going to be witnessing when that green light is given looms large.
"That’s always the concern because injuries are highest during spring training, that first month of the season because guys get caught by surprise," Cressey said. "They aren’t prepared as they thought they were and they ramp up quickly. Whether it’s an old injury that comes to the forefront or something new because of whatever it is. It’s definitely a big thing. It’s definitely a level of complexity right now.
"The best way to get ready is to stay ready. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so with us, we’re trying to be proactive, making sure guys are prepared. If they say, ‘We need you in location X in two weeks,’ we don’t want anybody surprised by that. I’m not freaked about it. I think there are certainly going to be players in professional sports who didn’t attack this time off the right way. We have stood on our head enough to try and maintain contact with these guys and set up with success so we’re in a good place. I also feel good because we had some really good momentum during our spring training so hopefully that carries us through this time."