Sometimes, the seemingly illogical makes all the sense in the world.
It just takes awhile to get there.
Start here: The Rangers are trying to build a strong starting pitching foundation, because any attempt at rebuilding will fail without one. Their first steps: Having their most prized young pitchers not pitch. In fact, they are doing just about everything except pitching. The Rangers call it their “de-load” program. It is about acclimation, education and, they hope, injury prevention.
At high noon on a random Wednesday in August, with the temperature at 105, the garage doors to the Rangers’ spacious and well air-conditioned weight room slowly rise as “Zombie” by the Cranberries blares over the sound system. Among a group of about 15 relievers are five pitchers — including first-, second- and fourth-round picks Cole Winn, Owen White and Forney’s Mason Englert — who will join them for agility, flexibility and weightlifting workouts.
They will then sit in on a “game review” of the previous night’s Arizona Rookie League game, which, on this day is kind of led by 12th-round pick Destin Dotson, another member of the de-load delegation. The pitchers and coaches offer constructive criticism and feedback on the previous day’s performance in a group setting. All those in attendance are encouraged to speak up.
They will stretch and then play catch. And before the night’s giant dust storm (which allows us to work the meteorological term haboob into this story) descends on Surprise to cancel the Rookie League game, they will essentially be done.
They will not pitch off a mound until Aug. 22. They will not pitch in a game until the Fall Instructional League in mid-September.
Consider it their orientation.
“The idea behind the program is basic: How do we best introduce these players to our organization and prepare them for pro ball?” general manager Jon Daniels said. “In an office environment, you’d handle a new employee straight out of school differently than you would a veteran executive hired from another company. Similar concept here — these are high school pitchers who we don’t want to take anything for granted with.
“Let’s give them a more comprehensive orientation, make sure they’re as prepared as possible for what’s to come, on- and off-field,” Daniels added. “There’s already an on-boarding process for new players, with our minicamp program. This is just more detailed for a specific group of players.”
Mason Englert needed a rest.
He pitched Forney to the Class 5A state championship game this spring. Before that, he pitched some during the fall. And the summer before, he did the usual showcase tour as a rising high school senior. When he added it all up, he was over 110 innings of actual game work.
“My arm felt a little tired between 70 and 90 innings, but it felt great the last start,” Englert said. “But it felt like it was time for a little break. It’s best that we get our bodies recovered from a long season. Getting my body better and rested and just getting used to the pro lifestyle is important.”
What the Rangers talked about through the scouting process was exactly what he’d had in mind. It began with a little recuperation time for his arm this summer.
But the program goes much deeper than that. The Rangers laid out a plan for each pitcher that carries through the end of the 2019 instructional league program. It would give them two weeks of full rest while getting used to professional baseball, then a slower buildup to pitching in the instructional league and finally a 2019 season of about 100 innings, including extended spring training work and instructional league.
The first phase, which lasted two weeks, was an introduction to the club’s shoulder maintenance program and classroom work. More often than not, these were group discussions on subjects such as body language, how to properly chart pitches, game situations and being a good teammate. It concluded with a three-day “field trip” to observe Double-A Frisco. The second phase, which began in late July, has them working toward getting on a mound on Aug. 22 and being ready to pitch about seven innings in Instructional League.
The plan was comprehensive. So comprehensive, in fact, that it felt a little like a, um, college class. And that might have been a little bit of a shock to the draftees. After all, pitchers pitch. The Rangers were proposing they not do any of that for two months. It was important to get buy-in, even if it took some convincing.
“I was extremely shocked,” said White, a second-round choice from China Grove, N.C., with a laugh “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to wait how long?’ When they talked about classrooms, it was like, honestly, that’s why we didn’t go to college. But we have to look at it the right way. We’re learning more stuff than we ever have. We’re actually learning about the game. We got here off of our talent. We know we’ve got to get physically prepared, and we’re doing that in the weight room. But we have to get mentally prepared, and the classrooms are doing that.”
Along the way, the high school picks have seen others from their graduating class get their first game action. First-rounder Winn and Englert both know Grayson Rodriguez of Nacogdoches, who went to Baltimore with the 11th pick. He’s already thrown 13 innings for the Orioles’ rookie level Gulf Coast League affiliate. Winn also knows Matt Liberatore, who went one pick after him to Tampa Bay at No. 16. He’s thrown 18 innings.
In all, 16 high school pitchers from the first four rounds signed. All but six of them have pitched this year; three of them are in the Rangers organization.
Winn, who moved from Colorado to Orange County, Calif., before his senior season, wanted to keep pitching initially. The Rangers stood firm.
“I felt the best I’ve ever felt coming off my season; it was hard to just shut down,” Winn said. “Overall, I understood why. But it was hard, at first, to talk so much about pitching and not even throw a baseball. We are getting a foundation, though, and that’s been really important.”
Englert jumped in: “A feel. We’re getting a feel for the game.”