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Finishing out minor league season a gritty task for young pitchers

Photo by Bobby DeMuro
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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — When the San Diego Padres drafted Brett Kennedy in the 11th round out of Fordham University last summer, the right-handed pitcher had never thrown more than 88 innings (2014) or started more than 15 games (2015) in a season in his life. And by the time the hurler wrapped up his rookie summer at short-season Tri-City with his first 30 professional innings under his belt last September, he still hadn’t yet experienced the grind of a full minor league summer.

Now, one year—and 136 innings pitched—later, Kennedy is closing the book on a strong 2016 that has been encouraging in regards to his development on the mound, as well as proven a challenge in pushing through expected full-season fatigue in the proverbial dog days of August. As such, Kennedy’s case in pushing himself to nearly 30 starts this summer serves as a somewhat representative look into what young professional pitchers must adjust to, both physically and mentally, as they take their first shot at full-season pro ball.

“I think everyone is a little fatigued at this point in the year, especially guys in their first year,” Kennedy, pitching for the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm, told Today’s Knuckleball after a recent August start. “For me it’s a learning experience, and it’s been a great experience. Everyone says ‘oh, it’s six months, and you’ll have to get used to it,’ but you never know until you actually do it. At the end of the year, everybody is tired but it has to be about being strong powering through it mentally.”

 

For Kennedy personally, the final month of the season has been an up-and-down endeavor — three very good starts to open August gave into a couple decent ones later in the month, and then one legitimately bad outing at High Desert on Aug. 28. The righty ought to get one more regular season start this weekend as the Storm finish out their regular season schedule, which would give him 28 on the season—more than double the most in his college career. (Lake Elsinore is not likely to make the playoffs, and could be eliminated as early as Thursday night.)

Broader than Kennedy, this challenge in adjusting to full-season ball can be seen throughout the Cal League and across both Low-A and High-A as the full season minor league schedules wind down.

The Mariners’ Zack Littell, already north of 160 innings pitched after throwing just 112 last year, has been brought along slowly in his last several outings by Seattle, including one start that lasted just two innings by design. The Athletics’ Brett Graves used fatigue to his advantage in the best start of his career that came on an August day where he physically felt as though he had little to give.

The Mariners’ Tyler Herb revealed he was fighting through some general total body fatigue, even during the best time of his career in July. The Rockies’ Ryan Castellani, who’s now up to 162 innings pitched this summer, has been allowed free rein up to 105 pitches per game by his parent organization, but ‘dog days’ fatigue likely played a role in some middling starts through late July and early August.

The trick, in all these cases, becomes figuring out how to push through that initial, sustained fatigue shock that typically hits around Aug. 1 in so many of these new, young rotation members. While organizations will lighten the load for young starters late in the year, as the Mariners have done with Littell, it’s also on the pitchers themselves to quickly figure out the adjustments their bodies need in day-to-day preparations. That means altering between-start routines—and sometimes, doing so radically.

For Graves, who has actually gotten better as he’s gotten more fatigued across the end of the year, that means altering his between-start workout routines to adjust to an exceptionally hot, relentless summer in the Cal League.

“I’ll focus a little more on recovery rather than strength-building type things, go a little easier on my lifts, at least weight-wise, while keeping the intensity,” the Athletics prospect admitted of what changes for him late in the season after making more than two dozen starts. “It’s more gauging on recovery, my hydration level, and sleep and stuff like that.”

 

For Kennedy, that means throwing fewer breaking balls in bullpens, and placing less stress on his arm to preserve reps for game situations as the summer wears on.

“In some bullpens lately I’ve been taking it a little lighter, and I work mostly fastball, because you want to save your arm,” Kennedy admitted about adjusting his start-to-start workouts late in the summer. “At this point of the year, we’ve thrown so many bullpens, and we’ve done so many flat grounds, that it’s not really about getting your mechanics down, it’s more about feeling good.”

“If you’re feeling good, you just pitch, and the stats will come,” Kennedy continued. “It’s the days where you’re not feeling good that it’s actually kind of fun to pitch because that’s when you don’t have your best stuff, and that’s when you have to really work for your feel and execution.”

Kennedy will get one more shot at that this weekend, and in the process, he’ll eclipse 140 innings on the year—about 55 more frames than he’s ever thrown in a single season in his life. Across Low-A and High-A, all kinds of professional newcomers in their first full-season summers are experiencing similar feelings this week.

It’s all a part of the development process, an inevitable point that challenges many a young pitcher only to make them a little bit better, and a little bit hardier, and above all, a little more mentally mature.

“It’s just August,” Graves admitted of late-season physical challenges taking their toll. “We’ve played one hundred and something games so far, and all that factors in, all those little details. But you go into the season expecting to have games like that, and they pop up sporadically, so mentally learning how to deal with them is the biggest hurdle.”

 

If anything, after seeing countless young prospects wear down as they straddle innings limits, fight through exhaustion, and battle to make it through anywhere from 25-29 starts in their first full summer, it ought to make one appreciate just a bit more those every-fifth-day big league workhorses that throw 200+ innings every summer.

As skilled as big league starting pitchers may be, their ability to grow into consistent, six-plus month pitchers ought not be overlooked. After all, those very same big leaguers went through this exact adjustment period in their own minor league careers just a few short summers ago.

Finishing out minor league season a gritty task for young pitchers

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