March 9, 2015
An Ace In Spring
Clayton Kershaw is known for his unrelenting training schedule. In past interviews, he admits that he has difficulty taking off two weeks after a season to let his body heal. Kershaw notes that he feels much worse at the end of a training-free break, so he will only let himself stay idle for a week. His reasoning is that his workouts are already a month or more behind minor-league players—whose season ends in early September—as well as those pitchers on the 20 teams that failed to make the playoffs. He's already behind most players, in fact. Therefore, he must not wait any longer; he begins his throwing, lifting, and running offseason regimen almost immediately.
Kershaw’s approach to training also appears reflected in his spring training workload as he returns to his in-season schedule. In any given year, the spring training innings leaders generally consist of those pitchers, like Kershaw, who by personal preference want the work and the routine; and those individuals for whom teams desire a longer look at, or pitchers who are trying to stretch themselves out for a new role. Last year, Alfredo Simon was a good example of the latter. The Reds decided to try Simon as a starting pitcher after he had pitched for several seasons exclusively as a reliever. The club scheduled him for more innings to establish a new routine for him, as well as to evaluate him as he turned over spring training batting orders.
However, those special cases tend to drop out of innings leaderboards when looking across several seasons. The pitchers who rise to the top tend to be established pitchers who are well established as members of pitching rotations and who have experienced good health. Since Kershaw broke into the Dodgers’ major-league camp in 2008, he has accrued 152 spring training innings. Only six pitchers have exceeded this total over the past six years, according to statistics compiled by MLB.com.
The performance that stands out among those seven players is Mike Pelfrey’s 7.12 RA over 155 innings. That performance is rarely tolerated by teams during the regular season. In fact, there has only been a single season so bad and so plentiful since integration: Jeff Fassero’s 1999 season with the Mariners and Rangers.
Perhaps, what is more interesting is that Pelfrey’s dreadful RA—and, for that matter, Kershaw's relatively dreadful (for him) RA—accompanies peripheral statistics that are more similar to his regular season performance. Pelfrey’s RA is 2.55 runs worse than his FIP (using the regular season coefficients). A similar finding is found with the other pitchers in the group, including Kershaw, with their difference ranging from 1.01 to 1.71, the lone exception being Justin Verlander. Verlander’s spring training FIP is only 0.14 better than his RA.
It should not be a surprise that most pitchers' expected RA would be much lower than their actual RA. Spring training typically shows a wide range of defensive capabilities in the field. Teams often will sacrifice team defense, squeezing players into the lineup because more established regulars are passing on a road trip or the club wants to give someone more looks at the plate. A pitcher like Mike Pelfrey who strikes out few batters would be particularly exposed in conditions like these because he relies so much on converting batted balls into outs.
Similar to Kershaw, Pelfrey is another player who dedicates himself to his training. However, Pelfrey appears to experiment a great deal in improving his training regimen. This spring Pelfrey has shown up to camp sporting a respirator. Pelfrey’s respirator makes it possible for him to simulate altitudes ranging from 3,000 to 18,000 feet by restricting air flow. He does this to make his heart work harder, which can improve his cardiovascular health.
What is interesting about Pelfrey’s mask use is that it might place responsibilities on the Twins. For instance, if this does constitute a voluntary respirator use then the Twins are required to ensure that it poses no hazard, that Pelfrey is healthy enough to use one, to provide him with applicable information from OSHA, and to make sure he properly uses and maintains the equipment. That includes discussing his facial hair with him, because in order for the equipment to do what it is supposed to do, it needs to fit properly. Of course, he is not exposed to any substances that require a proper seal, so that might be an unimportant consideration.
Anyway, I imagine that the spring training workhorse group identified above does share similar desire to maximize their training and to get into their routine. Kershaw’s perspective is probably on the more traditional end of things, while Pelfrey is off into the void with the modern day version of a black plastic trash bag.