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Lance Lynn was in the midst of his worst MLB season when the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for him. Now it's up to L.A. to figure out how to turn things around for the veteran pitcher. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Lance Lynn was in the midst of his worst MLB season when the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for him. Now it’s up to L.A. to figure out how to turn things around for the veteran pitcher. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

On the baseball calendar, the three weeks between the All-Star Game and the beginning of August are always circled. That’s trade season, the crunch time when teams make key decisions about their trajectory, and then lean into those assessments with transactions ahead of the MLB trade deadline.

As this year’s swaps are highlighting, though, there’s a whole other section of the calendar that will, in retrospect, help define those decisions. Serious contenders such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles closed up shop on Aug. 1 with headline additions that bet heavily on players rediscovering past form, such as Lance Lynn (6.47 ERA pre-trade) and Amed Rosario (85 wRC+, -0.1 WAR) in Los Angeles, or solving serious control problems a la Jack Flaherty (4.43 ERA) and Shintaro Fujinami (8.57 ERA) in Baltimore.

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The moves of a tightly wound 2023 deadline market drove home the rising prevalence and importance of deadline swaps that are a starting point, not an instant fix. These deals aren’t necessarily about acquiring the players who appear to be the best right now, but the players who might be molded or tweaked to fit the team’s needs.

When those players, especially the crucial pitchers thrown into the contenders’ plans, arrive in their new clubhouses, a new stage of the competitive calendar begins. It’s not just the dog days of August. It’s Adjustment SZN. And it could totally change how you view the deadline and the players traded during it.

New team, new plan

Beneath the cloud of trade deadline opinions and trade grades and winners and losers, inside the much smaller bubble of the clubhouse, the players changing uniforms are dealing with a mix of emotional and logistical challenges of such a sudden change, and also embracing the obvious but often overlooked baseline of a trade: this is all happening because they were wanted.

When Tampa Bay Rays closer Pete Fairbanks joined the organization in a July 2019 trade from the Texas Rangers, he had just eight major-league games (and a 9.35 ERA) under his belt. He was sent to Triple-A Durham, meeting the team in Toledo. Within days after arriving, he had a meeting in the coach’s office where the team outlined priorities for him and the path that could lead him to success.

“Most of the time when it is a transaction like that, it is not a negative,” Fairbanks said, noting that he got the now-famous Rays instruction to chuck his stuff down the middle more often. “To hear what they basically laid out for me, and what they thought I had the capability to turn into, was nothing but positive.”

Kendall Graveman, the veteran relief pitcher who joined the Houston Astros in a deadline deal for the second time in three seasons, said his initial adjustment meeting with the Astros back in 2021 came at a roundtable at the team offices in Houston, in a big conference room. Around the table sat Brent Strom, the Astros pitching coach at the time, and fellow coaches Josh Miller and Bill Murphy, plus a member of the front office’s analytics department, Graveman recalled this week, “computers pulled up.”

“Each team probably values a player differently, and values their pitch arsenal a little differently,” Graveman said.

For him, there were pitches the Astros felt could be better used based on the platoon advantage of the hitter, right-handed or left-handed. For many others, there are blanket suggestions for using one pitch more or less. Ryan Pressly, the Astros closer whose career took off when they traded for him at the 2018 deadline, ramped up the usage of his breaking pitches, which boasted top-of-the-league spin rates, and cut back on his fastball.

“They just called me into the office as soon as I got traded over and said, look, this is what we think is going to work for you,” Pressly said.

Aware of spin rates, and of the impression that the Astros organization was “kind of the tip of the spear with the analytics,” but not fully versed in the information at the time, Pressly remembered bristling at the tweaks they suggested upon his arrival.

Even in what he said was an advantageous move — traded to Houston from the Minnesota Twins, Pressly had grown up in Texas, and his wife’s family was based in Houston — the non-baseball aspects of being traded were still weighing on him, with getting his family situated ranking as his first priority.

“It’s tough. You’re trying to find housing, you’re trying to get everything set up,” Pressly said. “And then on top of that, you gotta go to the field, you’ve got to pitch and you’ve got to try to make your teammates happy and the fan base happy — because you go out there and you start not doing well, it’s gonna be miserable for you.”

With the Twins, Pressly had found some success prior to the deal, but not acclaim or high-leverage work. His first outing for Houston, which was his first trying to implement the suggested usage plan, did not inspire confidence that the changes would be good ones.

“I think I pitched the next day and gave up a home run and told them, ‘I think I could have done this in Minnesota.’ They were just like, ‘listen, just trust it, it’s gonna work,’” he said this week, 5 1/2 years into a run as one of the game’s best relievers. “And I rattled off 40 scoreless appearances.”

Big in-season changes are on the rise

Most adjustments aren’t as successful as Pressly’s. Yet the potential for that type of transformative impact is tantalizing. And around the game, taking a swing at these sorts of midseason alterations is becoming more accessible and more common, especially for pitchers.

“Changes occur far more now in-season, developmentally — adding a pitch, fine-tuning a pitch shape” said Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, “where four years ago most of that was done in spring training.”

Part of that is just the nature of pitching. It will always be easier to step back and consider the nature of the game’s proactive half than it will be to tinker with the reactive art of hitting. Another part of it stems from advances in understanding around how pitching works.

“It’s a lot more black and white than it’s ever been in terms of what we understand to be good,” Snyder said.

Add it all up, and MLB teams are increasingly comfortable helping hurlers shift course on the fly, which becomes the name of the game for contenders in August.

If you don’t believe it, just check under the hood of the pitchers who have recently been traded. Flaherty, the 27-year-old approaching free agency, displayed a velocity spike in his first Orioles start. And Lynn, the 36-year-old right-hander the Dodgers dealt for in the midst of his worst season, has more or less completely scrambled the pitch mix he had been using with the Chicago White Sox.

Lance Lynn has drastically shifted his pitch-use strategy since being traded to from the Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers last monhth. (MLB.com)

Lance Lynn has drastically shifted his pitch-use strategy since being traded to from the Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers last monhth. (MLB.com)

Since donning blue, he has emphasized his four-seam fastball, mostly abandoned a cutter and leaned more on his slider.

Snyder, whose star post-trade improvement examples include Tyler Glasnow and Drew Rasmussen, said he tries not to “hard charge” at new pitchers, but finds most of them ready to hear what he has to say.

“I want to get to know them. I want to get to know how open they are, especially when we’re talking about in-season,” he said, emphasizing the need to earn their trust even when the organization is confident in a plan that could help.

When Snyder does deliver his vision for a new member of the Rays staff, he’s aiming to make the conversation “very positive, and always really trying to show and illustrate for them what makes them good and how their stuff is best put to work.”

“And that’s different for each guy,” Snyder said, “but what that means for each guy is the critical thing that you’re trying to deliver a message.”

From there, pitchers can get to work on making the changes more or less instantaneously. Snyder attributed the rise of significant midseason changes, in large part, to player development technology and rising fluency in the burgeoning language around it.

“It’s more of a common language than people probably realize,” Snyder said, noting that Rays pitcher Aaron Civale, another trade acquisition this season, wouldn’t likely be encountering any new jargon coming over from the Cleveland Guardians.

Players are familiar with ball-tracking technology and high-speed cameras that can show them exactly how they are releasing each of their pitches. They are comfortable with data-driven scouting reports detailing the effectiveness of their arsenal based on location or situation or batter handedness or even more specific breakdowns, such as a batter’s swing plane.

Making the types of changes often recommended in these meetings requires support and conversation, but it often doesn’t require much protracted explanation or detailed instruction in 2023.

“It’s probably simpler than people think it is,” Snyder said. “Especially in today’s environment where most of these guys are fairly in tune with what’s available nowadays.”

Even baseball players need onboarding at their new job

The Tampa Bay Rays traded for Aaron Civale ahead of the deadline in what could prove to be a very important addition to a pitching staff dealing with injuries. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The Tampa Bay Rays traded for Aaron Civale ahead of the deadline in what could prove to be a very important addition to a pitching staff dealing with injuries. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

For most players, even now, joining a new team won’t mean dramatic changes to how they play the game. Civale, the Rays’ top trade deadline addition as they try to chase down the Orioles in the AL East, was sporting a 2.34 ERA at the time of the deal. Snyder wasn’t planning anything approaching an overhaul for the 28-year-old who he called “an elite commander of the baseball,” yet there was plenty of work to be done to set him up for success.

Civale’s first tosses in a Rays uniform came in a bullpen session at Yankee Stadium, with both of the team’s catchers involved to quickly get up to speed on how he prefers them to set up, how he utilizes visual cues to facilitate strike-throwing, and so on.

From there, Snyder and the Rays front office will try to build up trust, which will in turn build up Civale’s comfort and confidence as he adapts to a new team and is thrust into an even more crucial role as ace Shane McClanahan joins pitchers Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs on the injured list.

“We think really highly of him,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said shortly after Civale threw that initial bullpen. “And whenever we acquire a new pitcher I’m always really excited to see — in person, with our group, with our staff with everything that we can provide for them — what they can do.”

That’s the underlying thread. Every team and every player is constantly considering ways of getting better, pondering something that might count as an adjustment. Trades offer nice, clean line breaks on stat pages. They provide obvious delineation even though the impact of any given idea, any given move, can’t be known immediately.

The upheaval is an opportunity for a fresh perspective, though. In the best-case scenario, a team can make it crystal clear to a new pitcher that their work on the field won’t be judged harshly if they make an earnest attempt at the plan, that they won’t be shoved aside for giving up a single homer.

“I think that’s a valuable point of this whole conversation,” Graveman, the Astros reliever, said. “One thing that it does is it simplifies it, I think, for a pitcher — especially like a reliever. If they trust it, they feel like it’s going to be successful, it gives you the freedom to go out there and perform.”

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