Across minor league baseball, players experiencing the low-A level for the first time have to be prepared for the longest season of their lives to date. It's an even bigger transition for players selected in the 2016 draft, who were in high school or college at this time a year ago.
"The offseason was a little longer than what I'm used to going into the college season, then from last year's college season right into pro season. So it was a little different to go into spring training for almost two whole months, get in that process and then come here and be looking at six months of baseball," pitcher Zack Brown said.
The Brewers selected Brown with their fifth round pick in the 2016 draft. He made nine appearances for Wisconsin in his professional debut season and was the Timber Rattlers' Opening Day starter in 2017. Two days later Thomas Jankins, the Brewers' 13th round pick from Quinnipiac College, started the team's home opener.
"It's just been a more gradual buildup, I'd say," Jankins said. "Coming into last year I had a full season of college under my belt, which is more of a sprint of a season. In pro ball you kind of build your way up in spring training. It's been a little easier on the body and they take pretty good care of us here, so it's been a little easier."
Brown, Jankins and their teammates prepared for a long Midwest League season under the watchful eyes of trainer Jeff Paxson and Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Mendelson. Their work started early as pitchers began reporting to early minor league camp in February.
"I think one of the important factors is making sure you're starting early," Mendelson said. "We've already got a rapport built from our experiences last year, so it's just getting with them early on and developing a routine to get them ready for each and every day. Some of them are brand new to the volume of what they're doing on the field. It's all very new to them, so you have to guide them through and educate them a lot on how they're recovering and taking care of themselves to get ready to play."
Looking further back, Timber Rattlers pitching coach Steve Cline noted that the effort to get pitchers ready for a full season really begins in the fall of the previous year.
"What will happen is once they're finished, there's usually a number of them that come to Instructional League, but then there's an offseason program in place for everybody in the organization, pitcher-specific, when they should start throwing," Cline said. "Then progressing into spring training, there's a natural progression once they get into spring training to get them ready to start the year in April. Then you have not only some inning limits but also some pitch limits as well, and those gradually increase as the summer goes on."
Both during the winter and the regular season, workouts and programs are tailored to each individual player to meet their specific needs.
"You have to make individual choices based on every person," Mendelson said. "There are guys who share certain needs and certain characteristics about them, but everyone has their unique characteristics and balances. So you have to take a keen eye and get to know the person just to see how they react to certain things."
Cline also said pitchers are monitored very carefully in their throwing program throughout the year.
"We monitor that, we watch that pretty well," Cline said. "It's a natural progression as well. It's individualized per guy dependent on the day. We watch that, their bullpens…What we do in terms of bullpen workload is probably a little heavier in the beginning, then as you gradually get through the summer that's cut down a little bit because now the innings and the pitches are starting to mount."
Both Brown and Jankins were Friday night starters in college, where pitchers routinely go a week between outings. Both noted that the transition to starting every fifth day as a professional requires a much greater focus on proper recovery.
"Taking the recovery a little more seriously, not that I didn't in college, but now it's even more relevant to everyday routine and just getting ready to make those starts every five days," Brown said. "If you take four days off of treatment it's going to hurt you later."
"It's just a lot more recovery and focus on doing all the things the trainers tell you to get your shoulder and your elbow feeling right for your start," Jankins said. "In college you have a week in between, in the pros you only have four days to get ready but you have more resources here. So it's been a little easier in that sense in that you don't have to worry about class or anything like that, you can just focus on getting your body ready."
After a long offseason waiting to get back on the field, Mendelson said there is a risk that players will try to overdo it early in the season and burn out over the course of a long campaign, but there are steps taken to address it.
"I think that we do a pretty good job of getting to know the guys and educating them on what's necessary to do for that day, and then kind of taking the season into context," Mendelson said. "Some guys might think that they always need to do certain things on certain days because it's part of the routine, but then that's part of the educational process of, 'hey, we just got off a long bus ride,' or contextual factors around that day that would indicate that maybe we need to make an adjustment. So those are some of the things that we work on with these guys, just helping them see the forest from the trees."
Mendelson described both Brown and Jankins as "good, hard-working players" and said his job with them is helping them find a routine to help them stay healthy and strong through a long year.
"Part of that is dealing with the travel, this is an interesting league for travel with how many hours they spend on the bus, so I'm making sure they take advantage of every opportunity to get their recovery or get good nutrition, all the things that any strength coach would be looking for. For a lot of things it's taking care of the basics and getting good at the little things," Mendelson said.
Jankins emphasized trust in the system and the ability to unplug as keys for staying ready to peform.
"You just trust in the process they give you, trust that you're given all the tools that you need to keep your body and your mind ready to go," Jankins said. "It's definitely a grind, so you have to be able to turn your mind on and off. You can't be focused every single day when you come in, you have to be able to relax when you're not throwing and then dial it up when you are throwing."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.