SYOSSET, N.Y. -- New York Yankees pitcher Carsten Sabathia is most of the way through his 17th offseason, and each one of them has been different. There have been some when he tried to lose weight and some when he tried to maintain it. There have been others, like last offseason following surgery to remove damaged cartilage and a Baker's cyst from his right knee, that focused solely on rehabbing an injury.
But this offseason, despite minor hiccups in 2017 with that balky knee and a tweaked left hamstring, Sabathia has felt great. His workouts are focused on building the strength that will keep his body healthy throughout '18. But the thing that has been the most different this offseason is Sabathia's diet. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder has gone vegan.
You read that correctly. The big left-hander is a vegan. More specifically, a raw vegan. At 37 years old, Sabathia has learned the most important thing for performance and recovery is eating right. So as he rolls into Athletic Movement Protocol on Long Island in Syosset, N.Y. for his regular Saturday morning workout, he's already talking about the breakfast he'll have later at the vegan cafe up the street. But first, Sabathia will get down to business with trainer TJ Lopez, who has been guiding his offseason workouts six days a week since 2010.
For the Sabathias, Saturday workouts are a family affair. While dad trains with Lopez, son Carsten, who at 14 years old is already catching up to his father in height, will participate in a conditioning program on the other side of the gym. Carter, 7, also tags along.
Sabathia likes to say he's built more like an offensive lineman than a baseball player, but Lopez likens him more to a basketball player. But no matter the comparison, one thing is clear: Sabathia is a big man, and he has to train like one.
"Being that he's so tall and has such long legs, we do things a little bit differently to make sure we are not putting stress on his lower back or his shoulders," Lopez said. "We will limit the range of motion on certain movements because he's so tall. We will raise the weight off the ground during certain exercises -- like the deadlift -- just to make sure everything is in good alignment. We won't progress an exercise if it doesn't look really good. It's all about being safe and at the same time being effective."
Sabathia, for his part, has simple goals for this offseason.
"I want to stay the same weight," he said, "but I want to be a lot stronger."
To that end, today's workout will culminate with a moderately heavy set of deadlifts, so Lopez has designed the workout, which I have to opportunity to participate in alongside Sabathia, to build up to that final movement. During a proper deadlift, the hips hinge from flexion into extension, so each preceding exercise will enforce proper hip activation with proper spinal alignment and core stability to prepare Sabathia for the heavier deadlift.
We begin with a few stretches to get the hips, hamstrings and thoracic spine moving properly, but Lopez is careful not to stretch Sabathia too much. For a big man, he is extraordinarily flexible, especially in his shoulders and hips. While most pitchers spend a lot of time preserving the mobility of the shoulder, Sabathia actually does the opposite.
"We to try and keep my arm as tight as possible, because my arm is so loose," Sabathia said. "That's a blessing. It's something I was born with, and I've been able to have no arm injuries through my career just because of that."
While Sabathia's inherent looseness is one reason for his overall arm health, too much flexibility can cause stability issues. To address that, Lopez focuses more on stability exercises with Sabathia so he is able to control different ranges of motion. Today, those stability exercises include plank holds, hip thrusts, band exercises for the upper back and the antirotational Pallof press, a staple movement for pitchers and hitters.
Medicine ball slams are done with a band around the knees to enforce the proper tracking of the knees over the toes and to activate the hips for the deadlift. A dumbbell farmers carry enforces good posture and core activation. A light kettlebell deadlift grooves the movement pattern that will be used for the deadlift.
Then, we move into the bigger lifts. Sabathia does deadlifts with a hex bar, which is a hexagonal shaped barbell that a lifter stands inside of and holds with a neutral grip as opposed to a traditional straight bar that is held with an overhand grip in front of the legs. The hex bar keeps the body in a more neutral position and is more of a natural, athletic movement than a regular deadlift. Weight is moderate to ensure Sabathia's form stays pristine; he is using a manageable 240 pounds for his four sets of 10, which are coupled with a TRX row for upper-body stability.
"The deadlift, for a pitcher, works on stability of the hips, from the ground up," Lopez said. "We want to see that CC's knees are in a good position, that he creates some tension in his hips and that his knees are not collapsing in. On the mound, when he's planting on that front leg, we want to make sure he's in proper alignment. The foot hits the ground, knee above the foot, and right above that, the hip. You don't want that knee to collapse in. The way CC throws, he puts a lot of force and torsion on that front knee, so we work to stabilize that."
The final triplet of accessory exercises includes a single-leg deadlift to a row on the cable machine, a one-arm dumbbell press and stability ball rollouts. Baseball players land on one leg and throw with one arm, so it is important to train unilaterally.
We finish the workout with two conditioning sets of battle ropes, rotational medicine ball slams and intervals on the fan bike.
While Sabathia sticks strictly to his six-day-per-week program in the offseason, he will make modifications once the season starts. Like most pitchers, Sabathia uses his every-fifth-day pitching schedule to dictate his workout routine. He does his biggest workout of the cycle, which includes both weights and cardio, the day after he pitches. Day 2 is for interval and sprint work, along with a bullpen session. Day 3 is for low-impact activities like swimming, and Day 4 is a total day off.
"During the season, it's more about maintaining," Sabathia said. "I don't get to lift as much, so when I do get a chance, I have to max it out and do everything I can. But Day 4, that's my favorite day. I do nothing but play catch."
As much as Sabathia looks forward to those off days, he's looking forward to the 2018 season more.
"I'm happy we got Giancarlo [Stanton]," Sabathia said. "I'm looking forward to seeing [Aaron] Judge repeat. I'm looking forward to seeing [Gary] Sanchez, to having [Greg] Bird for a full season. It's going to be a lot of fun."
And if you're wondering, Sabathia does plan to stay vegan, with the possible exception of a rack of ribs on his first road trip to Kansas City. He hopes the new diet will help him keep up with the kids.
"This is a young team and it keeps me young," Sabathia said. "I know if I can stay healthy and stay on the field, I can put up the numbers and good things will happen."