The Yankees hired Matt Blake as their new pitching coach on November 7, 2019. The Holy Cross graduate previously served as the pitching coordinator for the Cleveland Indians. When the 34-year-old came on board, it signaled a shift in the team’s on-field philosophy. While the Yankees always had been a data-forward organization, they took a leap to the bleeding edge, to analytic innovators instead of followers.
Latching on to the Yankees, who are in the middle of a championship window, your first experience as a pitching coach has to be difficult. But to do so right as the coronavirus pandemic hits, and teams had to shut down spring training for three months? That could make your head spin.
Blake, however, seems ready for the challenge. He joined Suzyn Waldman and Howie Rose on WFAN yesterday to discuss his experience, as well as the adjustments the team will have to make as summer camp ramps up in a few days. Some of the biggest differences will involve how he communicates with the pitching staff.
I think just the way we were operating in spring training, there’s gonna be some differences in like, can you have group meetings anymore? Probably not. So do you have Zoom calls with them? Do you have smaller group meetings? When we’re in the bullpen, guys had their own bag of balls. When you go to the mound, you get a mask and stand a certain distance away. So, there’s definitely little things that, as we get into the flow of the day, I think we’ll realize where the nuances of these changes are, and some of the ones that might have a bigger impact than others. But, I mean, this is all uncharted territory for everybody. I was joking with [Aaron Boone], that at least throw the experience card out the window and we’re all kind of learning from it.
He also talked about the tightrope he’ll have to walk, balancing pitcher health and getting them ready for a 60-game sprint.
That’s one of things Booney and Mike Harkey, our bullpen coach, we’ve kind of talked a lot about. Just in terms of like, what’s realistic to ask these guys in spring training to build up to? We kinda crowdsourced a little bit with some of the other teams and how they’re approaching it, with some of the relationships we have. But, yeah, I think with where we’re at, I think we value our depth. Hopefully we put our guys in the best position to be healthy and get out of the gates in a good spot, while still remaining competitive and putting our best players out there. So, once we get to spring training and take inventory of where everybody’s at and what they’re capable of doing, because everyone was kind of in a different situaiton.
Like, luckily, we had [Adam Ottavino] and [Gerrit Cole] here in New York, so Booney and Radley Haddad, our bullpen catcher, could be around them every day. So we have a good handle on that. But, some of these guys, like [Jonathan Loaisiga] was down in Nicaragua and sending us video, so you’re kind of all over the map as far as what the guys had access to for resources, and availability of catchers and hitters and things like that. So, I think we’ll really need to be individual in how we build them up in the 21-day period to get to the season, then take it from there.
The Yankees are smart to not take a one size fits all approach to their pitchers when they return. After all, Dr. Chris Ahmad, the Yankees’ own team physician, warned the ramp-up period could lead to an increase in Tommy John surgeries.
“Year after year I have observed a consistent spike in Tommy John surgeries in the spring compared to other months/seasons,” Ahmad wrote in a Medium post, the bold emphasis his own. “The reasons behind the spikes are related to some combination of the sudden start of play, rapid competition intensity, lack of early season physical conditioning, lower preparation coming from offseason, not yet fully optimized throwing mechanics, and playing with elbow pain. Many players after the long offseason waiting period, are unwilling to disclose elbow pain or acknowledge their lack of preparation fearing they will be shut down right away.”
The club will need to pay close attention to their pitchers as they increase workload, and thankfully, Blake already has that on his radar.
Blake also talked about his excitement in working with young pitchers, such as Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt, as well as his background in psychology. The entire conversation is worth listening to, as it gives an interesting peek into the mind of the team’s pitching coach.