The casual observer tends to believe that once the baseball season is over, when the summer fades into the cold air, ballplayers have it easy. "They just relax and goof off," guessed one fan at a college regional this past spring. In all actuality, however, there's just as much work to be done during the winter months than while the schedule is being played, and the same goes for amateur players -- at least the ones that want to be great.
"If they want to get better, they'll put in hours and hours working on their game, hitting the weights, staying well conditioned," said one club's East Coast Scouting Supervisor. "The next time I see the player after five or six months, I don't want to recognize him right away."
High school kids play all spring, some starting as early as February, and generally compete well into the summer, ending with showcases during their sophomore and junior seasons. Some even find fall leagues to keep them sharp, but they all flock to the gym, the cage or the mound in some capacity.
In conversations with a half-dozen prospects from the classes of 2012 and 2013, each of them shared some off-season workout secrets, but to a man asked to remain anonymous. "I just don't want someone else out there knowing how I go about it," said a right-hander pitcher on the west coast.
That same pitcher: "I take some time off when school starts; I don't play football anymore, so I just make sure I don't break anything for awhile. I run, I lift a little bit, but mostly I try not to overdo it."
This approach is typical amongst those polled, but the vacation doesn't last long. "I like to hit the gym pretty hard after Thanksgiving," said a catcher who also pitches some. "I don't throw much until after the New Year, but I hit in the cage once a week."
Another right-hander pitcher, who touches 93 mph with his fastball, said he throws long toss once or twice a week once November rolls around and never goes more than a week or so without at least playing catch. He doesn't amp up the fastball until the season nears, however.
"I like to save my bullets," he said. "My dad and I worked with my coaches from school on a good program for me and we went through it last year, so since it worked we're sticking with it this time, too. I throw off a mound here and there, but I stay in shape by playing basketball and our (basketball) coach likes to run and play hard-nosed defense."
When asked if there was anything special or out of the ordinary they like to do regularly or some odd regimen they might follow, one outfield prospect from the great state of Texas said "when football season is over, I just play video games and try not to eat too much junk. I do have to get back to it pretty hard after the holidays, you know, after all the food."
He then added that he goes "about a month or two" without swinging a bat at all. "I think it's good to give yourself a little break."
Twenty years ago, none of the above was common. "When I'd ask what a specific player was doing to stay in shape during the offseason," explained one scouting director who spent 17 years as an area scout, "the answer was always 'I don't know … nothing.' Now there is a lot of running, weightlifting and throwing by the pitchers and catchers. Times have changed."
The typical big leaguer takes some time off, too, often getting out of the country or heading back home to spend time with family. Baseball is never far from their minds, however. Two Decembers ago I spoke with Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Travis Snider, a former first-round pick that chose pro ball over college, and his end of that conversation took place from a training complex. Now he's operating his own center for baseball training and instruction, the Rage Cage, near his home town in Everett, Washington. Baseball has become a year-round sport.
"It's what I have to be about," Snider said. "I have to get better at everything and there's only one way to do that."
"You have to be serious about the game of you want to make it," said an agent of several prospects in the past three drafts. "Whether it's a high school kid or one of my guys in the minors or majors, it's what you do between games and between seasons that makes you what you are on the field."
One Texas prep pitcher said via e-mail that "I was told that if I want to be a first-round guy, I need to work like a first-round pick. I guess first-round guys work every day because that is what I'm doing right now. I have not taken a single day off yet and I don't plan to. I haven't thrown a lot, but I've put on 10 pounds since the Area Code Games."
Clearly times have changed. Baseball is a business, a career, a lifestyle. Gaining an edge in December and January can show up on the field during the spring and ultimately in the number of zeroes in the signing bonus come June. "It also shows my college coach what I am about," the Texas prepster added. "I don't want to go in and sit my first year there and this is how I make sure that doesn't happen."
One American League GM and former scouting director, when told of how vigorous the off-season regimens are for 16 and 17-year-old kids, said "that makes me feel lazy, but it's the world we live in nowadays. That's what it's all become."
Jason A. Churchill covers scouting, player development and the MLB Draft for ESPN Insider, as well as Prospect Insider where he's the founder and executive editor. He's served in similar roles for numerous publications since 2003, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. You can find Jason's ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here.