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Mariners dispensing with loaded barbells

2/26/2010

From Arizona, Geoff Baker reports on the Mariners' new training methods, which are overseen by a Dr. Marcus Elliott and essentially throw out old-school weightlifting ...

Instead, the team will focus on strengthening the movements used in baseball -- things like the ability to generate force through a player's hip rotation. The team now has players doing specific workouts designed to increase lower body strength and make that translate into an ability to hit a baseball and react more explosively to balls hit in their direction.

"If you're going to build athletes, you have to do athletic things with them," said Elliott ...

The team isn't forcing big league players to completely abandon their prior fitness regimens if they really don't want to. They instead are working the new system in slowly at a base level to introduce players to it.

Most are said to have been receptive. Then again, with fewer weights around, it's going to be tough for guys to come in and start benching 300 pounds. There just aren't that many weights left. Smaller ones, yes.

Minor leaguers don't have a choice. The team is making this system mandatory at every minor league level of the organization. Trainers are being taught the system and weight rooms adapted at the various minor league sites.

I believe this falls under the heading of, "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?"

For a long, long time, baseball people thought that if you trained with weights you would become "musclebound" and wouldn't be able to hit and run and throw, etc. Some players paid no attention; a century ago, Honus Wagner was known to lift weights. For the most part, though, workout regimens mostly meant hunting in the winter and jogging in the spring.

The first "modern" player to become known for strength training was probably Brian Downing, who eventually looked like Superman (Christopher Reeve version) both above and below the neck. Obviously, he wasn't the last baseball player to hit the weights. As Frank Thomas would later observe, "You see guys hitting the weight room so much, you'd think they were football players. That's a big trend, and it works. Hitters are now strong enough to totally dominate baseball."

Granted, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx and Luke Easter and Mickey Mantle didn't need Nautilus machines to hit the ball a long ways. And it would be difficult to prove that hitters are better today purely because of weight training. Still, I think if you had a choice between strength training with weights and no strength training at all, you'd take the weights.

But that's a false choice. The first step was to acknowledge that strength training -- any real training at all -- is a good thing. The second step was to acknowledge that baseball isn't football, and that pitchers and shortstops aren't the same as catchers and first basemen. Once you've done that, things get a lot more complicated. And more expensive, too.

Think about it, though. When you've got a $100 million payroll, how much would you spend for just a small improvement in performance? A single marginal win costs more than $3 million on the open market; isn't effective organizational conditioning likely to add at least one additional win per season?

It's long been my contention that baseball teams are penny-wise and pound-foolish, willing to spend many millions on nondescript players but unwilling to shell out a few lousy shekels for the best coach or general manager or training equipment. My guess is that whatever the Mariners are spending, it'll be a bargain in the long run.