Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Detroit Tigers, Spring Training and Young Athletes...

Spring Training is always a welcome time of year for me because it’s a sign that spring is right around the corner and that the worst of this brutal winter is behind us.

The Detroit Tigers are in Lakeland, Florida preparing for the upcoming Major League Baseball season and several themes have emerged that provide valuable lessons for young athletes.

I am going to contrast the approach between two athletes that are taking two very different approaches as they prepare for the upcoming season.

First up is Josh Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels. For a 5-season stretch (2008-2012) Hamilton was amongst the best players in the sport but last season he slumped terribly and was beset by injuries. Hamilton entered Spring Training last year at about 225 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter than usual after starting an offseason natural-juice diet, and finished the year at 217. His goal this offseason was to add a few pounds, in a healthy manner, in order to play at a weight he's more comfortable with in the summer.

Hamilton has added an additional 18-pounds. He now weighs 235.

"I've never lifted heavy, heavy weight before, so that's what I'm doing this offseason," Hamilton said on MLB Network. "Just trying to put muscle on, trying to have a couple of cheat days here and there, pizzas, burgers every once in a while. But for the most part trying to stay gluten-free, because that makes my joints feel better. So overall I'm feeling better."(1)

Of note in Hamilton’s situation is the importance of nutrition to peak physical/mental performance (avoiding gluten can lead to better digestion/nutrient absorption and more mental clarity). Using a juice diet to shed weight for a brutally long professional season is not a good idea. Most professional athletes struggle to maintain weight over the competitive season and most of the weight loss comes in the form of lean muscle. Less muscle over the course of a season logically equates to less power and strength while also serving to make the athlete more susceptible to injury.

On that note Hamilton, strained his left calf during a base running drill the fist week of spring training, and will be out of action for a minimum of two weeks. Weight training can be a very effective tool in boosting strength and size but it must be kept in perspective that Hamilton is an athlete first and foremost, not a bodybuilder. Bulking up excessively over an off-season can lead to an athlete that is a little stiffer and not as mobile.

It seems Hamilton suffers from a case of extremes and demonstrates that a little knowledge (juicing will help you lose weight and lifting heavy to bulk up) can lead to big problems. Juicing and weight training can be pieces of a larger preparation puzzle but in Hamilton’s case they likely took up a disproportionate amount of his game plan.

Meanwhile, new Tiger second baseman Ian Kinsler tailored his offseason work to his new home the spacious Comerica Park. He showed up for Spring Training weighing about 10 or 15 pounds less than he ever has when reporting to Spring Training. He doesn't have to worry about losing weight in the Texas heat this summer, and he wanted to regain his speed in order to take advantage of Comerica Park's spacious outfield. Kinsler spent extra time working on his leads on the base paths and stealing bases. (2)

Speed changes everything and size doesn’t matter

Also new to Detroit is manager Brad Ausmus, who came into spring training with an aggressive base running plan, and the players are buying into it.

“I’m trying to change the frame of mind,” he said. “So far, I’ve been very happy with how it’s gone.”

When asked, for instance, if a change of mentality is more important than results, Ausmus said “oh, yeah. We told them from day one that we want them to force the defense to make plays.

“Not only do we need to find out, but they need to find out what they can do. We knew going in we’d be using an aggressive style in spring training, but not faulting someone for getting thrown out.

“We want them to take chances now in the hope it creates an overall mentality of base running for the team. But it’ll get refined as players realize what they can and can’t do.”

Aggressive base running is more of what Ausmus believes in as a manager than a flaw he saw in the team he inherited.

“It would be the same even if we hadn’t traded for Ian Kinsler and signed Rajai Davis,” he said of the new speedsters.

It would be the same because all the players, fast or not, are being allowed the same freedom.

“Right now, they all have the green light,” said Ausmus. “That will change.

“But some of these guys might end up surprising themselves how often they can take extra base.” (3)

“It’s exciting,” Davis said.

“It dominates,” Torii Hunter said.

“It’s what this game is about,” Kinsler said.

Sure, runners won’t always make it. But last year they didn’t always try.

For a little historical perspective in 1915 Fritz Maisel lead the American league in stolen base percentage (51/63, 81%) while Ty Cobb lead the league in total stolen bases (96) but his percentage was much lower at 72%. The lesson, Cobb is a baseball legend while this will be the first and last time you ever read anything about Fritz Maisel. Playing it safe will never allow young athletes to reach their true potential. Mistakes are good because it means you are one step closer to figuring out how to become more successful.

This is an important concept for young athletes and coaches to focus on during the developmental years. I think kids are coached to be so risk averse and to avoid mistakes rather than to use their speed and athleticism to make things happen. Sports should be fun for kids and we should emphasize to them the importance of testing their limits without fear of repercussion, such as being yelled at or even benched. That is what the developmental years are for, to find out just what kind of athlete you can become. Winning should never take center stage in the development of young athletes!

Speed and athleticism provide young athletes with opportunities they may otherwise not get. Consider the case of Billy Burns a minor league outfielder with the Oakland Athletics. Burns was 967th pick in the 2011 draft but has a legitimate shot at earning a job in the Major League despite his size (5’9) because of his speed that has been described by Oakland manager Bob Melvin as; "It's a jailbreak with him all the time. Very few guys I've seen are at top speed within two steps like that. We knew he was fast, but not like this." Also of note Burns was a two-sport star (football, baseball) at his Georgia high school. (4)

Detroit Tiger 2013 Minor League Player of the Year Devon Travis also measures in at 5’9 but has impressed the organization with his work ethic and athleticism. In spite of his non-prototypical build Travis has established himself as a player to watch in the organization. Speed, athleticism, and work will trump size more often than not.

Injury Prevention

Back to the aforementioned Josh Hamilton who underwent surgery for a sports hernia in November 2011 and, as he said, "When you have surgeries, things turn off."

"You start compensating, you start doing [different] things," Hamilton added. "The great thing about professional athletes is they're great compensators. They're the best in the world. So they get out there and try to perform. So this offseason, one of the things I've done is work with a functional movement coach, and getting things turned back on." (1)

Similarly, Detroit Tiger ace pitcher Justin Verlander also developed an injury that may have been the result of compensation. Verlander suggested his inconsistent performance in 2013, might have been related to the core muscle injury that required surgery to repair two months ago.

"What we're thinking is, the adjustments I'm making, the way I was throwing last year, might have had something to do with an injury being there without me knowing," Verlander said, "and that might have been why I had to change my mechanics a little bit. …

"We think it was a very slow kind of injury, and that's why there was never a pop or anything. I was losing strength through my core, and that was what I think -- what we think -- was my body trying to adjust to that and being able to pitch through it."

One difference Verlander said he noted was a tilt in his shoulders. Instead of having everything parallel, he was firing from a lower angle. He's now trying to bring that back to a level. (5)

Young athletes are also great compensators because of their youth and less wear and tear from decades of overuse and abuse. For this reason injury prevention is key to nip these compensations before they blow up into something potentially serious. A good off-field conditioning program can provide the defense young athletes need to stay pain free while also running efficiently on all cylinders.


Another valuable lesson for young athletes is to devote some time not only to skill development but also growing as a leader.

Tiger manager Brad Ausmus raved about Tiger star Miguel Cabrera’s character and personality: “When the best player on the team is playing the game the right way, it’s hard for the 10th-best player on the team not to play the game the right way. So it makes it easier on the coaching staff.”

Cabrera technically didn’t have to be in camp early like every other position player, but he checked in before the mandatory start date. But Cabrera was really early — he made his first appearance in camp more than a week ahead of schedule.

“MVP, Triple Crown, and he shows up a week early,” Ausmus said. “That’s what I was talking about. When you have guys like that. ... You can tell Miggy enjoys being around the clubhouse. He enjoys playing the game. He’s always smiling and laughing.”

Players had to be dressed by 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Ausmus said he saw Cabrera at the park before 8 and “he already had a sweat on him.”(6)

Commitment and dedication are the essential elements of athletic development and the best athletes in their sport inordinately possess this trait more so than any other factor such as size, strength, or sport specific skills.

MLB introduces technology that will track speed and athleticism

There is a fine line that separates the best athletes in sport from their relatively “ordinary” counterparts. Check out this video and the cool technology Major League Baseball has introduced that do an outstanding job of tracking athletic speed. Just for reference Reed Johnson is a veteran journeyman, an “average” professional player while Jason Heyward is a young athletic future star. Check out how why athletic speed is a real game changer:


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