TAMPA, Fla. -- Three weeks ago, Matt Blake was settling into a new role with the Yankees' organization, overseeing every detail of a staff that figured to be headlined by Gerrit Cole, Masahiro Tanaka and Aroldis Chapman. The rookie pitching coach is still tracking the progress of those hurlers, but he is now doing it via an online spreadsheet, examined daily from his home in the Cleveland suburbs.
“It's like one of those like weird dreams where you’re about to do something cool, then you wake up and it wasn't real,” Blake said on Tuesday. “It’s a very serious situation, but we were building and I felt like we were in a good rhythm in Spring Training. Guys were performing at a high level and were kind of coming together, getting a good rapport amongst the group. Then you kind of hit this hard stop.”
Baseball’s pause during the ongoing coronavirus situation has prompted Blake and the Yankees to find creative solutions in order to keep pitchers prepared for a resumption date that has not yet been established. Players are largely being entrusted to follow their own programs at home, responsible for entering their personal workloads on a Google Sheet workbook monitored by the coaching staff.
Those entries have included the catches that Cole shared with manager Aaron Boone -- and, alternately, his wife, Amy -- in the front yard of his Connecticut home, as well as the heaters that Chapman showcased across Miami pavement for all of Instagram to see. James Paxton is playing catch in Wisconsin, and though J.A. Happ has been continuing to commute to George M. Steinbrenner Field, that will cease now that Florida enacted a statewide stay-at-home order.
“There’s no playbook here,” Blake said. “Nobody's ever gone through it, so there's no tried-and-true recipe to fall back on.”
With pitchers having shifted into something more closely resembling their offseason workouts, Blake has swapped messages and calls with most hurlers, as have Boone, bullpen coach Mike Harkey and bullpen catcher Radley Haddad. The team is "crowdsourcing" its data internally, and Blake said that he has shared some information with Major League Baseball and other coaches as they search for an optimal balance between remaining sharp and respecting the players’ space.
“You don't have your eyes on everybody,” Blake said. “You don't want to be burdensome because we want to give them a breather. This is something very stressful for a lot of people and there are a lot of different circumstances. They're trying to get home and take care of their families, make sure they're healthy and then still focus on baseball. I think that we've been trying to be sensitive to the idea that this isn't normal.”
Blake said that when baseball receives the all clear to have players reassemble with their teams, he believes that it would be beneficial to have pitchers work under controlled circumstances -- like live batting practices and simulated games -- rather than reintroducing exhibition games quickly. Blake said that he and Boone believe that if MLB provides a second Spring Training of about three weeks, starting pitchers could safely build to 55 or 60 pitches for Opening Day.
“We obviously know that our depth will be tested, as with most teams,” Blake said. “I think with the way that Spring Training was run and having a good look at the bulk of our pitchers -- both Major and Minor [League] and some of the non-roster guys -- we know we've got a nice roster of pitchers that will contribute here.”