Bridging The Gap: Making A Safe Transition From Amateur To Professional Baseball
The day a pitcher gets drafted or signs a professional contract is probably one of the happiest days of his life. Not only is it a dream come true, but he is validated for all of the hard work and determination that was surely a part of his journey.
A major piece of this hard work is of course the process of understanding “what works best for his arm.” Typically, this is a by-product of many factors, including input from parents and coaches over the years, along with many other resources like books, videos and the vast amount of information available on the internet.
But ultimately, if a pitcher is good enough to get drafted, then he has probably spent a great deal of time getting to know his arm intimately well. This would include a number of essential aspects of development, including his arm care program, throwing program, athleticism, feel and pitching mechanics. The net result is that by the time most pitchers are drafted, they have probably figured out what optimizes the health, strength and endurance of their arm.
In addition to this tangible form of discovery, there is also another very important type of discovery—this is what I’d call the athlete's intuitive discovery of how his arm works best. It’s an unconscious occurrence in which the athlete learns to self-regulate his development based on the “higher intelligence” of the body. There isn’t a manual or workbook for this, it just happens instinctively. We could simply say that it’s the “innate” part of the athlete taking over, organizing them to attain their most optimal movements. It’s a very intimate relationship that matures over time.
And finally, there is a third form of discovery that has become very popular over the past few years—“metrics” (data and analytics). This tool of measurement has not only heightened the awareness of how players train, but it has further demonstrated the importance and reality of athletes intentionally getting to know themselves and what “works best for them” on a more intimate level.
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that occur over a long period of time that are involved in this process of getting to know what works best for a particular individual prior to draft day (or prior to going to college). You could simply argue that today’s pitchers have a significantly deeper understanding of how their body and arm “work” than ever before. And it is crucial that this is understood both by the pitcher going into professional baseball and the professional organization that is about to welcome their new player.
The History and familiarity of the seven-day cycle
In addition to this long and deep progression of events regarding a pitcher's arm development, starting pitchers also develop a very intimate connection and rhythm with a seven-day throwing cycle (relief pitchers will be addressed as well a bit later). Though this rhythm and cycle of pitching “once per week” may have started, in some cases, as far back as Little League, once a pitcher enters middle school (12-14), there’s a chance that they have started to integrate some form of routine whereby they are developing this mentality of “starting once a week.” And for sure, once a pitcher enters high school (15-18), we can assume that a seven-day cycle is pretty much firmly in place for most pitchers.
So for a pitcher drafted out of high school, you can see that there is the potential that they have spent at least four years getting used to this type of rhythm and cycle, and for someone drafted out of college, you can add on an additional 1-4 years (based on junior college or four-year college). In short, whether it’s “only” a few years leading up to the MLB draft or as long as 10 years in some cases (based on starting this cycle around 13 years of age through being signed as a college senior) you could project that this seven-day routine has probably been pretty well ingrained prior to being drafted.
Now, we don’t know for sure “what” this seven-day cycle looks like for each pitcher, or how long they were on it prior to being drafted, but based on how advanced coaching has become in the past 10 years, the vast amount of resources available via the internet and the significantly increased level of competition, it’s safe to say that the pitchers being drafted today have potentially a great deal of history and familiarity with a seven-day cycle.
That means they have probably become very in tune with “how much” they throw on their start day, “how much” they throw on the days after their start and leading up to their bullpen, “how much” they throw on their bullpen day and “how much” they throw on the days after their bullpen leading up to their next start. This not only includes their throwing distance, throwing volume and the degree of throwing intent each day, but how they build up through maintenance and recovery from their throwing throughout the week—not to mention there are so many nuances that manifest as a pitcher adapts and adjusts to what works best for his arm to self-regulate during those seven days. And let’s not forget that there is also a huge mental component to this routine—that players can develop a great deal of mental comfort, trust, familiarity, reliability and connection with what works best for their body.
Lastly, if the pitcher was good enough to be drafted in the first place, you could also extrapolate that each pitcher had to be on a relatively good program in order to stay healthy, throw hard enough and evolve to the point that the arm progressed rather than regressed over the course of time.
The Shock of the Arm: Going from a seven-day to a five-day cycle
So herein lies the central issue—for those pitchers who have incorporated this long standing mode of preparation, whereby the body has acclimated and adapted to a system (seven days) that is potentially protecting and promoting an optimal routine that has been tried and tested to get to the point where the pitcher is being drafted, that pitcher may then be put on a completely different routine (five days).
Fortunately, because Major League Baseball organizations have made such great strides the past number of years regarding pitching development, we also can assume that there is great merit to the five-day cycle. But the problem of course is that the five-day cycle is based on exactly that … five days. So this of course can create a number of concerns:
- A five-day cycle promotes a completely different approach and rhythm to a pitcher's workload, volume, intensity and recovery compared to a seven-day cycle. It is potentially in stark contrast to what the pitcher has been built to do and is intimate with. And it also necessitates that a pitcher throw off a mound twice every five days rather than twice every seven days. In either case, these two cycles are significantly different on many levels.
- Understandably so, you have potentially two competing forces—on the one hand, you may have some MLB organizations ready to bring their new players into a program that they feel works best for the pitcher in this new environment, and then you have pitchers who are excited to bring in their routine that they are extremely comfortable and familiar with leading up to the draft (as you will see later on, the key of course is that there is a collaboration of the two parties).
Though on the surface, it may seem relatively straight forward to “transition” their new draftees into this new condensed cycle, it can actually be very tricky. For starters, not only does a five-day cycle necessitate a completely different rhythm and cycle compared to the pre-existing seven-day cycle, but unless this transition is done correctly (taking into account the pitcher's pre-draft throwing routine) you can see where this could be a real shock to the arm—a shock to the system. And in the case that the MLB organization transitions them in more gradually as to “not” shock the arm, another potential issue may arise. This “decreasing” of the workload on the mound “because the pitcher is entering into a shorter cycle” can lead to a “decreasing” of the workload away from the mound.
This can also work counter to the way that the pitcher has been used to training and conditioning as well because pitchers on a seven-day cycle have the luxury of conditioning away from the mound (i.e. “condensing” the mound workload doesn’t mean it’s proportionate to “condensing” the arm conditioning workload away from the mound). This decreasing workload can thus quickly decondition the arm and can be a major disruption to what the arm is used to doing from a volume, conditioning and maintenance point of view.
In short, if this “new” integration of a throwing schedule doesn’t account for what the pitcher has been doing for years, it can truly shock the arm (and body), and create a great deal of mental frustration.
How to best bridge the seven- to five-day gap
After spending over 30 years working and consulting with players and coaches on arm development and throwing routines, I feel strongly that there are four keys that will help high school and college pitchers transition into professional baseball and put them in a position to thrive.
Recommendation #1 — Maintain their seven-day cycle for year one
An assist to Baseball America’s JJ Cooper for this—If a pitcher is deeply rooted in the rhythm and flow of a seven-day cycle, let’s keep him there for a year. This not only avoids the “shocking” of the arm to a brand new schedule, but it also gives the coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate and see what works best for the pitcher on his seven-day cycle. They can use this time to not only get to know the pitcher, but use this information going forward to collaborate and share ideas (as opposed to by-passing this stage and putting the pitcher on a five- or even six-day cycle). It also allows the pitcher to have a buffer to stay in a comfort zone and adapt to the potential lengthier season and increase in innings. Lastly, and as important as anything, because they are able to maintain the familiarity and rhythm of their seven-day cycle, they can continue to use these two extra days to train and get stronger during this first transitional year.
Recommendation #2 – Transition from seven-day to six-day cycle after year one
Once the first year is completed and the pitcher has had the opportunity to “stay on the program that he is most comfortable and familiar with”, he can more easily be weaned off from a seven-day to a six-day cycle. This small, incremental adjustment is not only more manageable, but it allows the pitcher to make a smooth transition into year two without, again, shocking the arm.
Recommendation #3 – Stay on six-day cycle
As you will see in the sidebar below, I believe strongly that for several reasons, pitchers should generally be on a six-day rotation. Yes, there may be other factors involved like “roster spots,” “financial considerations” and “less starts per pitcher each year,” but strictly from a health and longevity point of view, the six-day rotation offers profound benefits. That’s because compared to a five-day cycle, the benefits of the extra day are actually exponential. The reason why is because this one extra day happens to put a lot of major benefits in motion (see sidebar below). For starters, it provides the pitcher with the luxury of having an extra day to recover and rebuild after their start and prior to their bullpen. This plays a major role in the arm being significantly more fresh and conditioned “for” the bullpen, which in turn, translates to an even more optimal recovery after the bullpen, which in turn, allows for very productive work days (throwing/conditioning) leading up to the next start. In short, even though it’s “only” one extra day, it puts into motion what we call a positive cycle, whereby the arm gets healthier and stronger (or at least maintains) throughout the cycle rather than getting taxed or depleted, or what we call a negative cycle. The bottom line is that this single extra day to recover and rebuild promotes an exponential amount of benefits.
Recommendation #4 – Adapt to and empower each pitcher
Though the ultimate goal is to have this be a total collaboration between player and organization, by giving pitchers the opportunity to maintain the seven-day cycle they were on prior to being drafted, it gives the organization an opportunity to learn about the player, rather than implementing their program for the pitcher to “adjust to pro ball.” This doesn’t mean that some pitchers don’t need a great deal of guidance and input—it’s just implying that, in a lot of cases, the organization may need to “adapt” to the pitcher, rather than the other way around. By having the pitcher come in under these pretenses, the pitcher can be himself, stay on the program that has been successful enough for him to be drafted and put his mind at ease.
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The goal of all coaches is to put each player in the best position possible to succeed. Though in the past, amateur and professional baseball may seem like two different entities, they should actually be seen as interrelated. What a player does prior to signing and how that player transitions into professional baseball should be of the utmost importance to both parties. And when it comes to a pitcher's history and transition, there simply may need to be a much more gradual transition period so that pitchers can not only avoid having their arms shocked, but also, so they have the time and space to maintain their routine that in many cases, was vital to their success prior to being drafted. This space allows for the player and organization time to collaborate and figure out what works best for the pitcher. This not only empowers the pitcher, but earns instant trust and credibility from the pitcher because he has been heard. And naturally, this opens the door for the pitcher to be receptive to the input from the organization as well.
At the end of the day, this really does come down to communication and collaboration between the player and the organization. For the MLB organization, because everyone is so unique, a player’s individuality should be of primary importance. And based on the rich history and infrastructure that is seemingly in place with so many of today’s athletes, it seems that the onus may be more on the organization to adapt to the individual, rather than the other way around. And if a player feels that his pre-draft routine is not being taken into consideration, then it is essential that he communicate this to the organization.
Ultimately, it comes down to teamwork. Everyone is doing their best to ensure that the athlete’s best interest is the main goal. Hopefully, this article has brought some awareness to both sides so that the athlete’s best interest is realized.
You can see more of Alan's content, such as the benefits of a 6 day rotation, advice for handling relief pitcher workloads, handling piggy back starting scenarios and off season throwing advice by following the link to the originally posted story in 2021, here.