How To Effectively On-Ramp For Pitchers: A Workload Management Guide

In this week's blog post, Adam Schuck gives his advice for how college pitcher's should be spending their time away from campus. He also provides insight on why it's crucial to monitor a pitcher's workload, especially as you begin to on-ramp to a competition phase.

Well, it’s officially December which means its about that time of year I start getting real antsy thinking about scouting reports, traveling, and finally seeing some competition again. Most teams (up here in the Midwest at least) finished up their Fall competition phase 6 weeks ago and have spent the time between now and the end of that phase doing offensive and/or defensive individuals with their allotted 8 hours/week. I commonly refer to this phase as indies or individuals. For pitchers, what they do during this time is often quite different from program to program. Some programs may go back to strictly long toss, some may take off throwing entirely, a few may do a velocity building phase, etc.

Regardless of what pitchers did during individuals, the season approaches at the same speed for all of us and it’s about time to start getting geared in that direction. Today I’m going to take you through what I think a healthy and effective on-ramp up to your first game looks like for a pitching staff. We will cover the different phases of on-ramping and workload management all with the goal of keeping our athletes healthy. I’ll even share a two-month throwing program at the end!

Defining The End Goal

In an ideal world, it makes sense to build your on-ramping program backwards from the first game back in order to figure out exactly how long it might take you to build up an adequate workload to compete. I like to think of things in chunks, so in my mind there are really 3 parts to a good on-ramping phase.

1) On-ramping to begin bullpens (0-3 weeks)

2) On-ramping to begin live sets (4-5 weeks)

3) On-ramping to begin games (4-5 weeks)

In reality it is just one big long one, but it’s easier for me to break them down into these smaller sections. For now, let’s put our focus on building backwards from on-ramping for the season to on-ramping for bullpens for a starter who is not throwing off the mound during the individuals period.

First thing we need to do is identify where we want our pitchers to be that first weekend of the season. There are two common approaches here.

1) Do I feel more comfortable having my pitchers throw more pitches in live sets than I plan for them to throw in their first appearance?

2) Am I comfortable just building them up to the workload in which they will throw Week 1 of the season?

Both have each seen success, but let’s dive a little deeper into the logic behind these methods. The thinking behind building them beyond their expected workload (approach #1) is that the same number of in-game throws might stress the central nervous system more than in live sets. The thought is that simply being in a competitive environment with a score heightens your emotions, stress, hormones, etc. and hence causes each throw to be just slightly more taxing on the body than it would be inside a gym back in the midwest.

Regarding approach #2, teams that compete outside all year may not have that drastic of a change in stimulus going from live-sets to a game. Ultimately, the environments may be similarly weighted in terms of added stress. Some feel that one approach over the other allows their pitchers to reach optimum performance, or “peak”, at a more favorable time than the other. Personally, I have not seen any research suggesting either approach is better than the other. Feel free to add any in the comments below!

Whatever method you choose depends on your environment and what you feel enables your staff to peak at the right time for your program. Right or wrong, I am most familiar with the over building method, approach #1 above, so that is what I am going to use for examples in this piece.

So, let's finally answer the question. What is my anticipated workload for starters and relievers the first week of the season? For starters, I’m comfortable having them throw up to 75 pitches Week 1. For relievers, it’s a bit more flexible depending on their role. Let’s group them into long guys that throw once a weekend and short guys that throw 1-2 times a weekend. I’ll plan on-ramping up long guys to 45 pitches and short guys to 20 pitches 1-2 times.

Note: I’m going to mention live sets a lot now. This is a bullpen thrown to live hitters typically in a cage setting.

Working Backwards

This year, the first game of the season was originally scheduled for February 12th, so that’s going to be our starting point. Typically, we would like to throw as many live sets as possible before then so our guys can be reacclimated to a game-like environment. The first day we can be together as a team is usually January 1st, so we have between January 1st and February 5th to throw live sets. Since we are choosing to approach our training with the over building method, this means we need to be at about 90 pitches (for starters) on February 5th.

Next, comes a decision regarding how much you’d like to increase the pitch count each week. Let’s say we feel comfortable increasing at a rate of 10-12% of your total pitch count a week. The top row of the image below details the live set phase while the bottom row describes the bullpens leading up to that point.

It would be unwise to just jump in to a 50 pitch live set, so we need to build up to that as well. Typically, I prefer to take this phase a little bit slower as guys reacclimate themselves to the mound. That gives us 5 live sets and 5 high intensity bullpens to prepare for game day. If you would like to increment your pitch count at a higher or lower rate then obviously you may need more/less bullpens to build up to that 90 pitch workload.

Long relievers will be most similar, while a little different approach probably needs to be taken for your short guys who will throw multiple times. For me, I’d like those guys to be able to throw 20 pitches twice a weekend. In order to do this using the over building philosophy I’d like to build them up to 25-30 pitches twice a week with one day rest. Following the structure above, that would look as such:

Again, the top row denotes live sets and the bottom denotes the bullpens prior. Since we only need to build up to a 30 pitch bullpen, things will be structured a little different before live sets as well with a later start. This gives you a little wiggle room for an extra 2 weeks of skill development or you can throw in another couple bullpens just like the starters.

Context is Key

Continuing our trend of working backwards, we’ve covered our last two on-ramping chunks (on-ramping to begin games through live sets and on-ramping to begin live sets through bullpens). Now, we need to cover the first chunk (on-ramping to begin bullpens through catch play) and build up to that first bullpen. 20 high intensity pitches still is going to require an adequate on-ramping if you plan on recovering quickly to move onto 25 the next week. What this on-ramping looks like really depends on what you did during your individual period and where things start to get a little hairy talking through all the different scenarios. The big question we are looking to answer is: How far are my guys from being in good enough shape to start throwing high intensity bullpens? At the end of the day, your athletes need to have enough chronic workload built up where throwing a 20-25 pitch bullpen has a minimal effect on their ability to recover for the next step.

If your athletes have been doing a 4-week velo or pitch design phase off the mound then you may not really need any on-ramping for that first bullpen and can just jump right into it! If you decided to take some time completely off from throwing after the Fall that’s fine, but typically you will need equal to ½ the amount of time they took off to build back up to long tossing 2-3 times a week at 100% intensity. If your guys are somewhere in between these two extremes, adjust accordingly to be able to build them back up to that long toss 2-3 times a week at 100% intensity. Once you get there, I’d be comfortable moving them to the mound.

On-Ramping From Individuals

Ideally, you’ve already thought this out in July and you adjust your individual period plans to your desired goals for on-ramping by working backwards. However, this isn’t always the case and some many need to adjust their goals for their on-ramping starting from now and working forwards to the season. At the end of the day, making sure the athletes are healthy is goal #1 and it is not something we can sacrifice. If your pitchers aren’t in a place where they can consistently throw hard off the mound by early December, then that should be priority #1. If they can only throw 40 pitches week 1 because they needed adequate time to on-ramp to the mound then so be it, their health is most important.

Without adequate time to properly on-ramp you run an increased risk of injury for your athletes, especially pitcher arms. We need to be cognizant of something called acute to chronic (A:C) workload ratio. In simple terms, this is how much work you’ve done recently compared to how much work you are accustomed to doing over a recent, but longer period of time. Popularized in the baseball world by Motus Throw, we typically talk about A:C ratio using the 7:28 ratio. This compares the throwing you have done this week to the throwing you’ve done for the past month (28 days). When the throwing you are doing now greatly exceeds the workload (includes volume and intensity) of throwing your body is currently accustomed to, you significantly increase your risk of injury. An example here would be going from no-throw for 2 weeks, to a week of long toss, right into bullpens. Your A:C ratio would be through the roof as your body has not yet adapted to the level of fitness needed to safely do that. If you’re interested in learning more about A:C workload, Casey Mulholland touches on it a bit more in his Simple Sabermetrics debut.

Every year injuries are highest in football, baseball, and basketball during the pre-season or spring training for this exact reason. Athlete’s failed to on-ramp properly and their bodies couldn’t adapt to the new load quick enough. This process was really exposed this year when MLB shut down and then restarted abruptly as seen in the graphic below.

Credit: The Ringer

Solidify A Routine

So far we’ve covered timing and potential workloads for on-ramping to bullpen #1, on-ramping to live set #1, and on-ramping to game #1. However, all I mentioned was one bullpen a week for starters and 1-2 for short relievers. After you begin throwing bullpens, what are you supposed to do between them? Well, that is entirely up to you and what works best for each individual player. Some guys may throw two short bullpens/flat grounds between their weekly high intensity bullpens, some may take two no-throw days, some may only long toss, etc. Whatever works best for them and fits into your program is what you should do. What is not ideal is changing what that routine is week to week.

In addition to keeping athletes healthy, the overall goal of this entire period is to properly build throwing workload up to game #1. The way we do this is by holding everything else constant except the workload on designated bullpen days. Each week this workload is minutely increased just enough to challenge our athlete’s while not over challenging their fitness levels. The number of throws you make in catch play each Monday, the number of throws in your flat ground the day before your bullpen, your plyo activation, etc. should be exactly the same week to week during this phase. We are looking to incrementally increase workload only by 8-10 total throws a week.

Days when athletes feel good and go extra on long-toss can be detrimental to this process. We want them to feel good and be as recovered as possible for their main event, the live set or bullpen, each week. Adding or subtracting just a few more throws here and there can compound over time and take your fitness levels away from the steadily increasing track we are looking for.

Whatever you and your athlete decide is best for them between bullpens is between you two, but be sure that holds constant every day and week after bullpen #1.

Note: This is a bit different for guys who are throwing twice a week and you’ll see those changes reflected in the example throwing program PDF.

Wrapping Up

Pre-season baseball is an exciting, but often injury plagued time of the year for everyone from little league to the big leagues. You can never entirely remove the risk of injury, especially since we are repeatedly asking the human body to rotate through end ranges faster than any other sport on earth. However, by being smart and methodical about our on-ramping process, we can attempt to mitigate some of that risk. By taking the time to sit down in the summer and build your on-ramping and individual periods backwards from game #1 via the methods above, you will be giving your athletes a solid foundation to excel when it really matters during the season.

At the end of the day, there unfortunately is not a magic formula regarding on-ramping and nothing here is the concrete “right way” to go about things. However, I hope this blog and the attached throwing program gets you thinking about how you can implement bits and pieces into your program to promote athlete health.

Example Throwing Program

Other Related Resources:

Back to blog