Blue Jays: What training focus should the team adopt this off-season?
Based on the Blue Jays 2018 season, there were many areas for improvement. Here is a breakdown of an off-season training approach the team should adopt.
For Major League Baseball, the period between Nov 1st, and mid-Feb is considered the off-season. For front-office personnel, early thoughts shift to trades, free-agency signings, contract extensions, and other personnel decisions. From the GM meetings to the annual Baseball Winter Meetings, the baseball-side of each organization continues in their pursuit to improve their rosters right through to Spring Training.
For players, off-season training offers them the opportunity to refocus both physically and mentally. Pitchers and catchers are typically not required to report to their respective spring training sites until sometime in mid Feb (with position players reporting a few days thereafter).
Where should players put their off-season training focus this year? Here are a few areas to focus on:
Rest and Recovery
Generally, for all position groups (infield, outfield, pitchers, catchers), off-season training begins with rest and recovery. The grind of a 162 game season in baseball forces almost a complete body shutdown for most healthy players. That doesn’t mean someone should spend two months sitting on the couch with a bag of chips doing nothing. It means staying active well within the limits of their body. Eating well and avoiding doing anything that can delay the start of the next season is also important.
For players coming off of an injury or surgery, continuing the processes of rehabilitation under the supervision of their physicians and the team’s medical/training staff is the norm.
It’s also advisable for players to take a mental break from baseball. Travel, attending to home life, spending time with friends and family, and getting involved with charities and the community are great ways to do this.
Once the rest and recovery period ends, players should focus on the following four areas of off-season training, in the following order:
- Flexibility and Stability
- Power and Speed
Initially, non-baseball activities are suggested to get the body back into an optimal training state of mind. That means no throwing, no hitting, nothing similar to baseball. Non-contact, low impact activities that generally utilize all the body’s muscles equally and offer either opportunities to improve flexibility or cardiovascular endurance are a good first start. Swimming, Rowing and Cycling are a few good examples.
Soon thereafter, a progressive off-season training program can begin. Here’s what it should look like:
- Start with resistance training using light weights and high repetitions that help build muscular endurance.
- Exercises that improve joint stability, balance and coordination are suggested (movement similar to those found in Yoga and Martial Arts are good examples).
- After a few weeks, players can transition to more traditional strength training, such as bench press, squats, and lat pull-downs to improve overall strength.
- Finally, exercises that improve speed and power like squat jumps, tuck jumps, medicine ball throws, and various sprinting and agility drills will round things out.
Only after the body is back to optimal physical and mental ability should baseball activities begin. The variable factor in commencing baseball activities is level of effort. Here is an example of what it could look like:
- Start with 50% effort on general baseball activities like Long toss, Batting Practice or Tee Work, and basic fielding so the body begins to move and think baseball.
- Players should then focus on improving the fine skills of their respective positions.
- Simultaneously, players should continue their efforts in improving general baseball skills by slowly increasing to the 80% level and remain there until games begin.
- The last 20% of effort will be developed during spring training game play (where players typically only appear for two or three innings at a time).
Coaches want to see gradual progression and sustained improvement. Ramping up too quickly (only to suffer an injury) is an indication of poor preparations and a rushed process.
What should the Jays focus on during off-season training, this year?
Given the results of 2018, and the current state of the Jays roster, I see three areas where I think the Jays can make the most improvement through off-season training.
There is one thing that affects a pitching staff’s ability to perform more than any other – Injuries. This past season, the Blue Jays used 36 different players (if we include the 1 walk-4 batter 9th inning relief appearance of Kendrys Morales back in May against the A’s) as a pitcher.
It’s difficult to avoid injuries all together at this level, but there are steps we can take to help prevent what are considered ‘over-use injuries’:
- Increase pitching endurance to avoid injuries due to fatigue
- Focus on improving pitching mechanics, and not just getting results.
- Focus on building up a pitcher’s core, trunk and back to generate more power from their lower half to take the strain off of their elbow.
- Work on improving shoulder flexibility (a contributing factor to injuries).
While catchers are also prone to injuries (in their lower-half and shoulders to be specific), catching improvement is more about experience and using good technique than anything else. Therefore, a regimented program of lower body (legs and back) strength and conditioning should continue to go a long way to preventing the majority of catcher injuries. As well, utilizing a program of building arm and shoulder strength, endurance, and flexibility, similar to what pitcher’s follow should improve catching performance as well.
I would also lean on the knowledge and experience of Russel Martin to utilize him as a player/coach for the catchers. From situational teachings to understanding how to build trust with a pitching staff are soft skills that Russell Martin excels at.
It’s difficult to say whether the struggles the Jays had hitting the ball in 2018 was due to one thing or many things. There appears to be enough talent to improve on their hitting fortunes in 2019, but it’s gonna take something this team likely hasn’t focused on in the recent past to improve things.
We can talk about improving swing mechanics, or utilzing a downward vs. upward swing path, or hitting the ball hard each time, but I think the issue lies in something else.
Major League Baseball is loaded with teams with talent that didn’t get anywhere close to the level of success that the last three World Series champions did, in their respective years. For these last three champions, success came down to the same thing, their ability to handle adversity and deal with failure.
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Baseball is a game of failure. On average, more than seven out of 10 at bats lead to an out. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for almost any athlete in any sport. So how you handle that failure is a key contributor to your success both on and off the field. For the Cubs, they didn’t just overcome the very competitive division they were in that season, but overcame ‘The Curse of The Billy Goat’. For the Astros, they had to endure multiple 100+ game losing seasons before breaking through.
For the Red Sox, it’s a little bit different. No matter how deep in a game they were in, or how many runs they were down, the Red Sox never gave up. They came back to win 42 times this past season. That’s 15 games over the Major League average for 2018. As well, when faced with adversity, it wasn’t one or two players that made the difference each time, but it was the entire roster. When one or more players was struggling in their hitting, someone else would step in and make a contribution. Many times, that meant multiple, timely hits by the next guy in the lineup. That’s an example of having a selfless, positive, team-based attitude to hitting (where most look at hitting as the match-up between a pitcher and a batter).
So for the Blue Jays, it means training themselves to face adversity head on and not hide within themselves in their day to day struggles. There is no shame in saying you need help, but in a sport where strength is defined differently, it going to take a different approach to help them realize that true strength comes in numbers, not in individual accomplishments.
Overall Training Approach?
Off-season training is about improving past performance (both successes and failures) both from a physical and mental state.
For the Blue Jays, improving on the three areas that need the most work (or offer the most potential for growth) should be the focus of the current off-season.
Tino Merianos (aka Coach T)