New workout facility has O's ahead of the curve
Organization's overhaul of strength-and-conditioning program embraced by players
SARASOTA, Fla. -- The red shoes are a dead giveaway, the slow spread around an Orioles clubhouse proudly dominated with so much orange and black that you almost have to do a double take seeing them pop up in so many lockers this spring.
What they are, Adidas AdiPower Olympic weightlifting shoes, is less important than what they represent to an organization that has overhauled just about every facet of its operations in the last few years, including the addition of a strength-and-conditioning program unparalleled -- and almost entirely foreign -- throughout baseball.
"When you see a guy wearing those shoes, you know he's bought in," said Paul Cater, one of four strength-and-conditioning coaches -- overseen by vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson -- who is working with the Orioles in Major League Spring Training. "It's a shift in culture, from what I understand. Every single person we've talked to said they've never had a better strength-and-conditioning program than this."
Gone are the days of bicep curls and running pole to pole, replaced by a state-of-the-art facility with mobility and yoga sessions, Olympic lifts, long jumps and handstands. Speed and power is king at Orioles camp, and on this particular spring afternoon, Jason Hammel is doing shoulder exercises with a band, outfielder Chris Dickerson is outside being timed in a 40-yard dash with speed traps set up -- which he refers to as his "NFL Combine Day" -- and Nick Markakis is doing cleans.
The workouts are efficient -- none of the trio spends longer than 20 minutes on that given area -- they are detailed -- logged in daily folders that will go into each player's binder -- and they are always overseen in small groups, often one-on-one. In Markakis' case, Anderson will record the lifts to critique and add it to a library he already has of the right fielder, whose personal weight room -- along with several other players -- Anderson helped set up this winter.
Welcome to the newly revamped strength-and-conditioning program in Baltimore, where the long-beleaguered franchise is fresh off its first playoff appearance in 15 years and finally ahead of the curve.
"Imagine if the training were today, running full speed, headed toward a wall, diving into the air, catching an object, tumbling on your shoulder, rolling into it, getting up and throwing an object as hard as you can in the other direction. That would be crazy training, right?" said Anderson, who worked with pitchers Wei-Yin Chen, Miguel Gonzalez and Zach Britton, along with Triple-A Norfolk strength coach Ryo Naito, in California this winter. "That's what you are asking them to do in a game. So you have to prepare them to meet the demands of the game.
"It's hard to get people who want to teach [Olympic lifts]. It's hard to get people who know how to teach it. I'm not trying to criticize anyone's system, I'm just worried about this one. To me, this is very standard science, standard procedure, but still unusual in baseball. Speed and power."
In the second spring since the overhaul of the team's new complex in Sarasota was fully completed, the Orioles' players aren't buying in to the organization's new strength-and-conditioning program so much as they are embracing what former player/current broadcaster Mike Bordick opines is "a total culture change." With last year's roster nearly intact, the players are familiar with the new system, proficient with the form, and eager to push each other and add explosive power without organizational restraints.
"A lot of people, in talking to guys from other teams, maybe had more of a conservative approach to lifting, especially during the season," said outfielder Nate McLouth, who is with his third organization in Baltimore. "Here, if you want to get after it, you can get after it. I've never lifted as heavy as I did last year during the season, and my legs have never felt as good. It's kind of on an individual basis, how you feel.
"It's fun. Guys are in there enjoying themselves, but you still get your work in. I made that comment right after I got here, how much I liked the strength-and-conditioning program."
Added first baseman Chris Davis: "In Texas, there were maybe four or five guys always in the weight room. Here, there are like 20. One of the reasons I finished as strong as I did last year was the workouts. I came in with some [past] knee issues and was able to run around in the outfield and not have knee problems or anything like that."
Davis also stopped bringing his lunch to the ballpark this spring, with the team's cafeteria getting a nutritional overhaul by ownership. The two elements, fitness and good eating habits, have always gone hand in hand. And as Anderson frequently points out, what the Orioles have implemented is nothing new or cutting edge. If anything, it is a throwback to Eastern European and Russian weightlifting techniques, details gleaned from hours of watching Olympic weightlifting videos and decathlons, taught and applied by a group that -- in addition to Anderson, Naito and Cater -- includes head strength-and-conditioning coach Joe Hogarty, biomechanics pitching specialist Ryan Crotin and pitching rehab coordinator Chris Correnti.
"I would never have foreseen where we are and where we've been in four years," said Hogarty, named the Major League strength-and-conditioning coach in 2010, of a program that through 2009 was using an outdoor tent to house the organization's spring weight room. "Never once did I have a glimmer [of an idea] that we'd have guys being this dynamic in their approach to training, being as compliant as they are. It's not just face value; they're like, 'Let's get after it. I want to get in a workout.'
"Strength and conditioning can be overlooked, taken for granted, a lot of things. Brady [in the front office] has put us back on the map. The athletes have responded to us, and we've responded to them. They want to train. They don't want to be treated like kids. We understand they are precious commodities, they are what drives this franchise. But on the flip side, their bodies, their nervous systems are heightened when we can tap into that. So it's refreshing."
And revitalizing. Just ask those around for the Fort Lauderdale days, when part of the players parking lot was used for the weight-room tent. Inside the complex was a small room with a few cardio machines and some general exercise equipment, but if you wanted to do lifting of any sort, you had to have been pretty darn motivated to get out there in the humid-air trapping tent with the deafening noise of planes landing in the shared space nearby.
"It was pretty much on your own," Markakis said of the program, which unsurprisingly didn't have any folders or video component to chart and track what was being done. "Guys still worked out, it's just now it's more of a want. Being in there, being around that atmosphere as opposed to getting up and making yourself do it."
"It's ridiculous how far it's come," added Brian Matusz. "Just how the guys are. The camaraderie. After we are done on the field, everybody is in there working out together, pushing each other. It's got that fun atmosphere, where it's not, 'Oh, we have to go work out today.' It's, 'All right, guys, here we go, this is fun.'"
But as much as the new facility fosters a group atmosphere, the Orioles' program is highly individualized, based on injury history and athletic capacity, and incredibly varied within each specific player's program. Closer Jim Johnson won't do the same workout as fellow pitcher Jake Arrieta. Davis likes to throw heavy weight around and will be permitted to lift more than, say, shortstop J.J. Hardy. Matusz -- who credits Anderson with helping him get back on track and regain strength after a down 2011 season -- likes to do a lot of cleans to generate power. Top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who already had made a name for himself in high school for freakish strength, showed up for a workout one day last spring and was told it was his turn to put Anderson through a workout to see if he could pick up anything new from Bundy.
No Orioles player is told he has to do Olympic lifts, although they are certainly encouraged to if they have the capability, and very rarely do the workouts include a one-rep maximum weight.
"Making athletes better, physically faster, stronger, more powerful, the other benefit -- injury prevention -- comes from those facets," said Crotin, who was brought in as a consultant last spring and flew down on his own dime to check in on Davis this winter. "That's something that's really lost in strength and conditioning with athletes, in a sense. That attitude. Because you are taking each year and under-training them. We don't do that.
"People make comments here or there because of their lack of knowledge, they have a generalized fear of what lifting does and think we're just these muscle-bound monkeys. I have a Ph.D, Paul has a master's, Brady pretty much has his Ph.D. We study what to do and are very, very detail-oriented. Joe has a [physical] therapy background, so it's a nice mix. And everybody knows what they need to do to make this run better. That's the best part. We have a lot of different specialties under one roof."
It's a system that only works if everyone is on the same page, with Anderson and the rest of the strength-and-conditioning staff in frequent contact with the athletic trainers and the on-field staff. Manager Buck Showalter, who is incredibly detail-oriented, has sat down with every guy Anderson has brought in, and executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette -- along with Orioles ownership -- has fully endorsed the new approach.
"The organization is putting more emphasis on strength and conditioning to help the players perform at a high level," said Duquette, who acknowledged it's still a work in progress at some of the lower Minor League levels. "It's really preventive, a lot of it, and some of it is performance enhancement."
In lieu of any major offseason acquisitions, the Orioles -- competing in the stacked American League East -- aren't in a position to overlook anyone and are trying to maximize what they already have. For the second spring, the pitchers will undergo biomechanical lab testing this week, and it's no coincidence that players like Gonzalez, Chen, Britton and top position prospect Jonathan Schoop -- who flew out to California for a week after the Arizona Fall League -- were introduced to the new program this winter.
"We struggled for a long time, and now we have an athletic program," said Anderson, whose role has grown the last few years from helping individual players to becoming a rare front-office fixture who spends his days in the weight room.
"You can't really underestimate the difference of a $100 million difference in payroll, you have to make the athletes within your own system better. You have to do everything you can to get every advantage you can."
Even if that advantage comes in a different color.