TORONTO — On the eve of what was once scheduled to be Opening Day, the Blue Jays find themselves with some time on their hands. The club’s focus remains on health and the human aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, but there’s also an understanding that this time can be used in constructive ways related to baseball, too.
Player development is unpredictable and rarely linear, but it tends to come more naturally when a player’s focus can be set entirely on the progression of one tool, whether physical or mental. This isn’t the reality any club wants to be living in, but general manager Ross Atkins sees an opening for players to continue their development through this uncertain period.
“Often times, the biggest adjustments do occur in the offseason,” Atkins said. “That probably is intuitive to most of you, but it's really, really hard when you’re trying to compete for performance stats and to stay in lineups or win ballgames to make adjustments. This, for some players, will create extended windows and opportunities to really lock in an adjustment that they were working on.”
The easy example is to look back to the not-so-distant past when players arrived for Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla. Some players had changed their bodies over the offseason, while others tinkered with pitch grips or simplified their swing mechanics.
These are adjustments best made in the offseason, when there isn’t a 100-mph fastball zipping by or the pressure to go 2-for-4 to stay in the lineup the next day. All involved know where baseball player development ranks in terms of importance in the global picture right now, but this is a piece of the players’ lives that they can still control and lean on for a sense of normalcy.
“What I’ve been so encouraged by is that I haven’t heard the level of frustration that one might expect,” Atkins said, “and I think that’s because of perspective. Professional athletes are cognizant of how fortunate they are, to be where they are in this world and the health that they have.”
This will mean different things for different players, of course. A 33-year-old veteran in the big leagues will handle the coming days and weeks differently than a 20-year-old prospect fighting their way up the ladder.
For hitters, the focus remains on staying healthy, both physically and mentally. If they can hit in a cage, or hit off a tee into a net, that’s a bonus — but staying in peak game shape isn’t realistic right now. For pitchers, arm care comes into the picture, making their equation more complicated.
If teams knew with certainty when baseball would return, throwing plans could be set. Until then, though, the Blue Jays have their pitchers in what Atkins called “January mode,” where they’re still throwing and doing bullpen sessions, but not extending much further.
“The overarching [strategy] has been to pull back in a very significant way, so we’re not creating any simulated games,” Atkins said. “To my knowledge, no pitchers are pitching in simulated games.”