Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA today, and he played just 60 games this season while his Toronto Raptors locked up the second seed in the Eastern Conference. San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich will go into the Hall of Fame with at least five championships, while creating headlines every year by resting his stars on the second night of a back-to-back or other games, leaving fans scratching their heads.
The NBA calls this strategic use of rest “load management”, and it’s quickly becoming the new paradigm. It is less important for players to get in 82 games through bumps and bruises, and more important that they play 60-65 games in good health. Of course, in a league that’s so stratified between the good and bad teams like the NBA, it’s most important that stars are as close to 100% as possible come playoff time.
Meanwhile, the Yankees are in the throes of arguably the worst injury stretch in MLB history. The only bright side to this cascade of injuries is that they’re coming in April, and the biggest pieces currently on the injured list are all due to come back well in time for the playoffs. Still, with a more holistic approach to health and maintenance evident across sports, one wonders if baseball, and a team like the Yankees in particular, would experiment with load management going forward.
It’s well known that Brian Cashman doesn’t put much weight into “hot streaks”, and issues rest days to players when he feels necessary, despite how they played the previous day. It’s clear that the Yankees don’t pitch relievers three days in a row. In some ways, the team is already strategically limiting time on the field, but a wholesome load management approach goes even further.
Leonard, for example, knew at the beginning of the season he wouldn’t play more than 65 games in the regular season, and with the Raptors all but assured a high seed at the end of the year, considers the regular season to be mostly “practice”. The NBA has become extremely stratified, but so has the American League.
We talk all the time about tanking and the separation of the league into playoff teams and also-rans. Even short bursts that make us question the stratification of baseball quickly fall apart — the Seattle Mariners have yielded the AL West to the Astros just like we all knew they would. Despite having a horrific number of injuries, the Yankees are within a series win of first place in the AL East. These teams are just too good, and their opponents too weak, for the cream not to rise.
It stands to reason then that some of those good teams would see the advantage in strategic resting. Make sure that Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton only play 140 games in a season, potentially get more production in those 140 games, and guarantee the playoff roster will have the most talent possible.
All MLB teams already do this with their pitching - five man starting staffs are still relatively new in the grand scale of baseball’s history, and every year we hear discussions about the potential of six man rotations. Bullpens suck up more and more of the workload in baseball as well:
Teams are continually asking less and less of their starting pitching, and in turn, those pitchers are being more productive per inning pitched:
This isn’t new to any reader. Pitchers are asked to throw fewer innings and so can actively pursue more strikeouts and max-effort pitches, since there’s no point in saving anything for the seventh or eighth inning. Again, one can argue about the aesthetics of this, but its effectiveness is undisputed; strategic management of playing time has made starting pitchers better.
So with all teams working in the same starting pitching paradigm, how come we haven’t seen the same trend with position players? If it’s a question of focus, NBA players like Leonard have credited load management with helping to reduce mental fatigue. Is it simply because nobody has tried it before, and to do so would open a team up to criticism?
If that’s the reason, MLB teams — and especially ones like the Yankees who have such high playoff odds to begin with — would be silly to be frightened of the mean and nasty talk radio callers. Any innovation in baseball will be criticized, but if it helps the team to win, that criticism disappears. If it helps keep the Yankees’ best players on the field, it’ll disappear even quicker.