Off-Season Baseball Training

Roy Halladay

It is officially the beginning of December, and after a few months of boozing, eating ice cream and general debauchery for most, baseball players’ (both big leaguers and men’s leaguers around the world) thoughts turn to an offseason training regimen in preparation for the upcoming baseball season (Spring Training is only 3 months away!!). I’ll be the first to tell you that I am now fat, out of shape and sit at a desk all day long. That doesn’t discount the fact that I’ve learned a few things in my day.

Whoever said “baseball players aren’t athletes” never played the game. If you look at the (arguably) most dominant pitcher in the game today, Roy Halladay, and other dominant pitchers like Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan, they all share the same thing: a rigorous training program.

Now that it is December, you should have already been training for at least 2 months, moreso if your season ended earlier. Don’t believe me? Just ask Eric Cressey of Cressey Performance, the man who trains Tim Collins, Kevin Youkilis and Tyler Beede:

We were discussing baseball development, and one of them mentioned that one of his teammates had just commented on how he was taking a few weeks off and then was going to start training again. Keep in mind that this conversation took place on October 1, and just about every minor league baseball team wrapped things up on September 7 (playoffs excluded). While some guys were called up to play at high levels, and others shipped off to instructionals or the Arizona Fall League, most guys went straight home.

Now, if someone takes an extra month off after the season, he’s only getting 80% of the benefit of the off-season that his teammates are getting. In a sport where only 3% of draft picks make it to the big leagues, if I’m a prospect, I don’t like my chances if I only have 80% of the preparation of those around me.

Last off-season, we put 17 pounds of meat on one of our pitchers (and he got leaner!) between November 11 and February 20. He looked like a completely different person – in just three months and nine days. His broad jump went up ten inches and vertical jump up 4.3 inches in spite of this big jump in body weight, meaning that he improved in both relative and absolute power. This is not uncommon at all in the baseball guys with whom I’ve worked, particularly those who were drafted out of high school and never got the benefit of college strength and conditioning.

All that said, in my eyes, guys should be back in the gym as soon as possible after the season ends – even if it’s just a few days per week. Simply getting the ball rolling on the endocrine, immunological, and rehabilitative benefits of strength training will do wonders in itself. Getting started on improving soft tissue quality and addressing mobility/stability deficits is also tremendously valuable, as it paves the way for better training as the December-February “crunch time.” These guys can take a week to gather their thoughts, and then get back to work; otherwise, they’ll have more vacation time when they’re out of work!Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens are pioneers, both proving that one can pitch well into their 40’s by eating right and taking care of themselves. Clemens has been known to have a legendary work ethic and he taught Halladay the importance of conditioning during his time in Toronto. Thanks to Clemens, Halladay’s spring-training routine in Dunedin, Fla., began at 6 each morning. He taught Halladay the value of a solo workout before the team’s workouts, especially on days he pitched. Clemens used to walk from the trainer’s room “dripping with sweat” on days he pitched spring training games Halladay once said. The extra work, plus the exercise between innings, built stamina. During the regular season, the extra workouts meant fewer pre-game pitches in the bullpen. Before a spring training start, Halladay does 30 minutes each on the treadmill and bicycle, then lifts weights. During the regular season, he spends 15 minutes on a bicycle before he pitches. The training pays dividends later. SaysHalladay:

“In May, the sixth and seventh inning comes and you are familiar with it,” says Halladay, who won the 2003 AL Cy Young Award. “You don’t feel tired. It makes a big difference.”

Roy Halladay

True that. The key to being a durable, successful pitcher is training the legs. Although its not sexy to train legs, the legs are where a pitcher gets all of his power from. Ever wonder how a skinny guy like Tim Lincecum is able to dial it up to the mid 90’s and throw in excess of 200 innings per year without getting hurt? My money is on good mechanics and powerful legs. I’ll give you a few tips from what I’ve learned over the years. Take from it what you will, because I am far from a stud, however whenever I play with or against players – guys who have been drafted or play Division I College Ball – I will always pick their brain.

1) Eat right. Like big wave surfing legend Laird Hamilton says, when garbage comes in – garbage will come out. What he means is that if you eat crappy food, you are going to exhibit a crappy performance. Eat a well balanced diet and don’t ever skip breakfast… and try to lay off the chew if you can. This point is even more important for teenagers. Pitch velocity is much more erratic in high level teenagers than any other population, and the reason for that is fluctuations in body weight. From Cressey Performance:

EVERY single time it happens, it’s because he has let his body weight drop – usually due to being on the road for games and not packing enough food. We see it all the time in kids who throw great up here in New England, but then head down South for tournaments. All of a sudden, they are living out of hotels and eating out of restaurants multiple times per day – which certainly isn’t going to be as conducive to maintaining body weight as “grazing” around the house and chowing down on Mom’s home-cooking multiple times per day. To make matters worse, a lot of kids lose their appetites when they get out in the heat – and not many people from across the country are prepared for the weather in Georgia or South Carolina in July. So, insufficient caloric intake becomes completely inadequate caloric intake – and that’s not exactly a recipe for throwing the baseball faster.

Regardless of your age, experience level, and current velocity, don’t skimp on calories. If you look at every bit of research on the pitching motion, body weight predicts pitching velocity. If you’re on the road, make sure you pack some shakes, trail mix, bars, fruit, nuts, jerky, or whatever other convenience food helps you to get in the calories you need to light up the radar gun. I love Precision Nutrition as a resource on this front. It doesn’t just help you to eat healthy foods; it helps you with strategies to make getting in enough qualities calories conveniently when you may be pinched for time or kitchen access. 2) Throw in the winter. Don’t go overboard, of course, but ease into it. Begin by throwing 15 – 20 pitch sessions and move it up incrementally from there. You will be a steps ahead of the game come spring and will lower the risk of injuring yourself by trying to overdo it like some of us do…. Also, while I am on the topic, when playing catch make those sessions as meaningful as possible. When playing soft toss or catch, throw the ball at your partners right shoulder and left shoulder and repeat. Trying to hit targets will help to jog your muscle memory in order to get comfortable with your mechanics and release point for the spring.

3) Stay away from the booze as much as possible. Smokes too. You’ve heard it all before but alcohol really does have terrible effects. Just ask Gregg Zaun who quit drinking and turned in a career year at the age of 35. Also watch out for the sports drinks. They are mostly sugar, which is something you don’t need. They are fine when you have finished running a marathon but besides that water is good enough.

4) Eat before ballgames. Playing on an empty stomach is just stupid so don’t do it, even if you are experiencing butterflies.

5) Avoid the bench press. Yes, everyone seems to think the standard of strength and studliness is how much one can bench. As a pitcher or anyone who does any significant amount of throwing, the bench press is a counter-productive exercise. The same goes for overhead presses.

Overhead throwing athletes (and pitchers in particular) demonstrate significantly less scapular upward rotation – and that makes overhead work a problem.

Comparing most overhead weight training movements (lower velocity, higher load) to throwing a baseball is like comparing apples and oranges. Throwing a baseball is a significant traction (humerus pulled away from the glenoid fossa), whereas overhead pressing is approximation (humerus pushed into the glenoid fossa). The former is markedly less stressful on the shoulder – and why chin-ups are easier on the joint than shoulder pressing.

Likewise, comparing an overhead-throwing athlete to a non-overhead-throwing athlete is apples and oranges again. Throwing shoulders have more humeral and glenoid retroversion, an adaptation that many believe occurs when pre-pubescent athletes throw when the proximal humeral epiphysis (growth plate) isn’t closed yet. This retroversion gives rise to a greater arc of total rotation range-of-motion. Wilk et al termed this the “total motion concept” (internal rotation + external rotation ROM) and noted that the total arc is equal on the throwing and non-throwing shoulders – yet the composition (IR vs. ER) is different in overhead athletes, who have more less internal rotation in their throwing shoulders.6) Run. Like crazy. Halladay used to run the stairs in the 500 level at the SkyDome, but if you don’t have access to your local ballpark then find your closest hill to do hill sprints. Because of the inclined surface, you are forced to lean forward as you sprint, which teaches you the proper acceleration mechanics that you would want when sprinting on a flat surface. Mix in long distance running as well to round out your game and you will become familiar with the 6th and 7th innings on a regular basis.

Trevor Hoffman

7) Think about the last time you threw a bullpen in practice. What did you do? If you’re like most baseball pitchers, you threw a bullpen consisting of about 35 to 80 or 90 pitches, all in a row.

Hmm. Is this how you pitch in a game? Do you ever make this many pitches in a row in a game? Of course you don’t (unless you’re getting completely shelled). That’s because the goal of a pitcher is to be out of an inning in 12 to 15 pitches. So guess what: By throwing those 35- to 90-pitch bullpens, all in a row, you’re wasting your time — because that’s not how you pitch in a game. You’re not reaping the full benefit of the “work” your putting into your workout. And who has time for that?

So what can you do to make your bullpen routines more sport specific and beneficial to your development as a pitcher? Divide the number of pitches you’re going to throw on a given day into five or six smaller increments or “sets.” For instance, if you are going to throw a 75-pitch bullpen, instead of throwing 75 pitches in a row, throw five “sets” of 15 pitches, with about five minutes rest in between each “set.”

and last, but certainly the most important piece of advice:

8) Throw Strike 1, get ahead, expand the zone and mix in the offspeed stuff. Young guys always forget about how to pitch and resort to throwing. When behind in the count, a pitcher’s natural reaction is to reach back and put a little something extra on the heater and blow it by the hitter. Unless you are topping out in the high 90’s, this is usually not successful. Instead of putting something on, take something off. Successful pitchers change speeds and location to disrupt a hitters timing and strike zone judgement.

Also, don’t be afraid to use a supplement here and there to help you out. Kman is probably the go-to guy on that one, but to “cover the bases” so to speak, make sure you have some protein supplementation, fish oil, a post workout recovery drink and maybe a zinc and magnesium supplement. Again, always stay hydrated!

Quotes and video clips courtesy of Cressey Performance. For additional information, consult the Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual.

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