Baseball is inherently different than other sports in unique ways particularly when it comes to safely conditioning pitchers’ arms for a new season and maintaining a healthy mound corps throughout a full season.
Add in strategy, including fielding cut-offs, baserunning and infielders’ timing on plays and you have what can be an intricate game plan receiving relatively minimum attention before the first game.
New Jersey high school baseball, which had traditionally started its pre-season on the first Friday in March, did not begin the precursor to the pre-season - which is the first three days when pitchers and catchers report – until Monday, March 13, this year, with full squads not beginning tryouts and full workouts until Thursday, March 16.
Essex County coaches are concerned with the way it is all transpiring this year; and even though the total number of days in the 2023 pre-season are only three days less than was the case last spring, when you combine the inevitable wet weather in late March, the April 3rd season-opening date seems to be coming up all too quickly.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association approved the later start to the pre-season partially with the intent for winter sport athletes to have a bit of a break before starting the spring campaign.
“Our executive committee voted unanimously for the later start,” said Michael Cherenson, spokesman for the NJSIAA. “Actually, even with the later start this year, the pre-season, minus the three days when pitchers and catchers report, is still 18 days instead of 21.
“There was a consensus to try and give a few days for winter sport athletes to have some sort of break before getting started again with practice in another sport.”
There is appreciation about what the state is attempting to accomplish, but there still remain overriding factors that need to be taken into account when trying to prepare a full baseball team for a new season.
“I think the NJSIAA’s intentions were good but I don’t think they considered all the possible negatives,” said Millburn coach Brian Chapman whose Millers are expected to once again be near or at the top of the best teams in Essex County. “On the surface, starting two weeks later than what had been the norm seems practical because it (a) allows winter sport athletes and coaches a break before diving into their spring seasons and (b), at least in theory, it also should mean we are starting in warmer weather and avoiding indoor scheduling nightmares.
“But, by not moving the regular season start date back accordingly, they’ve created a scenario where our preparation window is so tight that any type of sustained rain - as occurred on Thursday and is predicted on Saturday - can leave you scrambling to get your pitchers competitive innings against live batters.
“In the Northeast live at bats are scarce between November and March and as a result we need to schedule as many scrimmages as possible. In this shortened format, we were forced to stack these scrimmages on back-to-back days, leaving next to zero room for makeups.”
“I think as a result of the shortened prep time you’re going to see a very compromised product in the early going. Without a chance for 3-4 outings to ramp up, pitchers will (hopefully) not be asked to go too deep in games initially, which will create a need for more pitchers (conceivably younger, inexperienced ones) to help shoulder the load.
“That, coupled with far fewer practice days this March to go over team defense concepts, could make for some ugly baseball in April.
“Add in the fact that the NJSIAA also took a week off the back end of the regular season schedule, forcing two months of 4-games per week (also with very few opening dates to schedule makeups) and we have the makings of a very difficult season.
There is also the suggestion that there should be more input on the topic of a start date for baseball to also involve those directly involved with working at the diamond sport on a daily basis from March through early June.
“I think the state needs to start involving the head baseball coaches in the decision making for start dates, etc,” said Bloomfield’s veteran coach Mike Policastro. “I think the late start to the pre-season is an awful decision by the state, especially for preparing pitchers.
“Not every player/pitcher can afford private instruction to go see an instructor during the winter months to get work in, nor does every program have the facilities or money for someone not on staff to run winter workouts for teams, so the teams or players who cannot afford this will be way behind when we actually do get to start.
“One of my pitchers played Basketball, so as far as pitch counts go, he is way behind the other pitcher because of his late start in the winter throwing program.
“The late start affects your opportunities to evaluate players properly because you are only getting a few days. Example, we had three days of tryouts before making cuts, now I have three days to input stuff before the first scrimmage (scheduled for Thursday, March 23).
“(After Thursday) we literally have 10 days until the opening games. It is certainly not enough time to practice or scrimmage to evaluate who is going to start when the season begins, especially if you have many position battles going on in your program for that particular season.
Rain at the tail end of this week would nullify scrimmages on Thursday and Saturday. Now you only have one week to prep.
“It certainly doesn't do us any favors as coaches. We all used to complain when we would start the first Friday in March, we thought having 26 days was not long enough, now we are starting the third Thursday in March. Hopefully, no player gets hurt because of the lack of time to get ready.
“I wish everyone the best on a successful season!”
Livingston’s Mickey Ennis has extensive experience coaching baseball at both the collegiate and scholastic levels and is also concerned about what the Jersey high school coaches face this spring, including in the all-important aspect of molding a pitching staff.
“I think it has put all of us in a tough spot,” said the veteran head diamond mentor who guided the Lancers to a state sectional title last spring. ”We have a shorter period to build up pitch counts, but - more importantly - we won't have the opportunity to evaluate as many pitchers with fewer scrimmages.
“We need pre-season games, but we also need practice time. It's tough to find that balance.
“We have a few guys returning who need to build up their pitch count, but we also need to see who can help us in game situations. It's going to be tough to evaluate pitchers prior to opening day. I think most teams may have to use their first 5-6 regular season games to get a fair read on their staff.”
Montclair’s Ron Gavazzi, who serves as the Mounties co-head coach with Anthony Genchi, would prefer a later ending to the season in concert with any later start to all the proceedings.
“I do not mind the later start of the preseason,” said Gavazzi. “However, the start of the regular season should be later and also the state playoffs.
“This is a tight squeeze! We will be going into games perhaps repping some aspects only once and others not at all.
“Most pitchers have been throwing in some sort of a winter program, but I think about some other schools, in which their players were not involved in off-season training. In that situation it is not enough time to condition the arms. Hopefully, whoever is making these decisions realizes that it is not ideal to shorten spring training.
“We are giving players in a sport that requires a longer period of time very few opportunities to earn a place on the team.”
(Note: Tony Maselli, who is the NJSIAA representative who handles baseball matters, is on medical leave and was not available to respond to phone calls to discuss the subject)
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister