Lakeland, Fla. — One of the first things Ron Gardenhire said to the assembled pitchers before the first official workout on Wednesday was, take it easy.
“We’re not trying to be silly,” he said. “Just get through these first few days healthy and get your work in. No one is going to make a baseball team the first couple of days.”
Good thing Gardenhire wasn’t watching his ace right-hander Michael Fulmer’s bullpen session on Wednesday. The 2016 American League Rookie of the Year was, in the parlance, letting it eat. He was pumping his fastball with maximum effort in a 40-pitch session.
“Letting it eat, for sure,” Fulmer said. “Probably just to prove to myself that there is no mental block there — which there isn’t. I’ve been letting it eat for the last week and a half to two weeks. Everything feels good right now.”
Fulmer has experienced no physical setbacks related to the ulnar nerve transposition surgery he had on his right elbow last September. It’s been all systems go and he looks stronger than ever. His delivery looks a little less violent, too, which is something he’s worked on with pitching coach Chris Bosio.
“The good thing about being down here early was that Bosio’s been down here, too, and he’s been able to tweak some things in my mechanics that we’ve worked on quite a bit and I felt it pay off today.”
The mechanical adjustment wasn’t done because of the surgery, which is a relatively common procedure for pitchers and not nearly as worrisome as ligament replacement surgery (Tommy John).
But like nearly every pitching coach who’s ever studied Fulmer, Bosio felt it would be best for his long-term health if he could take some of the intensity and ferocity out of his delivery.
“You throw how you throw and once you get to this level it’s hard to change,” Fulmer said. “We’re doing everything we can to quiet down my delivery and mechanics to help me stay healthy longer.”
The adjustment has been subtle, but Fulmer believes it will help him locate pitches down in the zone more consistently. Bosio is trying to get Fulmer to adjust how he lands his back leg after he pushes off and delivers the pitch.
“Just being able to push off the rubber and have my back leg swing a little higher, up toward my head, as opposed to just coming around to the ground,” Fulmer said. “That helps me keep my release point out front, helps keep my weight back longer and helps me get the ball down in the zone.”
There is a fine line between working hard and over-cooking yourself. Fulmer believes he’s finally found the right balance.
“I feel like in 2016 I came in to camp at 110 percent (max effort),” he said. “I had already thrown between 10 and 15 bullpens during the offseason before even reporting. That was a little much. Last year I tapered back and I felt good in my arm and body, it was just the elbow thing. I felt like my throwing program was more routine this year with our training staff and physical therapist.
“They’ve really been on it and it’s paying dividends.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in Tampa Thursday that there will be pace of play changes in place by the first exhibition games next week. He is hoping the players’ association signs off on them, but made it clear they would be put into effect one way or another.
Although the specifics haven’t been set, these changes will likely include a pitch clock and possibly a limit on mound visits.
“We talked about it a lot at the winter meetings,” Gardenhire said. “I have questions; a lot of managers do. The shot clock, I don’t really have a grasp on it yet: How they do it? When they start it?
“The biggest thing is, are they going to take it seriously and use it? Is an umpire going to say, ‘Ball one, you stood out there too long’? Can’t wait till that happens. I’ll probably be in the press box with you.”
Gardenhire said if the league wanted to shorten the length of the games, they’d trim the time between innings — though he knows that won’t happen because of the revenue produced by commercials and sponsors.
“Those two and a half, three-minute breaks between innings, that’s a lot of waiting,” he said. “In all honesty, we could get started a lot quicker between innings. But this is the big leagues and there are a lot of things on the side of it. I don’t know if they’ll ever be able to fix that part of it.
“There are a few hitters that take a long time and few pitchers who take a long time. But I don’t think that is the biggest problem. I think it’s all the time between innings.”
Gardenhire was asked why he thought Bosio was such a good fit as his pitching coach: “I can outrun him,” he said with a grin. “So I can get to the lineup card faster and I can take pitchers out faster.”