Strength is good, but flexibility is key to successful fielding

Baseball players at Fresno State get to know E.J. Jackson during the course of a season.

That's because the strength and conditioning coach gets them for 90 minutes, three times a week -- which is separate from the time they spend with head coach Mike Batesole.

Lateral movement, change of direction and weight room training are components that Jackson zeroes in on. These are exercises that can directly affect fielding abilities for the Bulldogs.

Don't think big. Good defensive players in baseball shouldn't hit the weight room with the goal of getting huge. Bulk will slow a player's lateral movement, key to being a good fielder.

"When we warm up, we work on stretches for hip mobility and hamstrings and we always do lateral hops and A skips," Jackson said.

They also regularly spend time on the L Drill and the Pro Shuttle Run -- drills commonly used by strength and conditioning coaches in a variety of sports.

The L Drill, with three cones set up in an L formation, tests agility, flexibility, change of direction and body control.

The Pro Shuttle, which tests side-to-side movement and typically spans 10 yards and three cones, tests explosion, body control and change of direction.

"What we're doing is working on balance and reaction time," said Jackson, a 2002 Fresno State graduate. "When we do lateral drills, we compete. I try to make it fun. If you lose, then you have to do some extra pushups."

A critical part of the Pro Shuttle is judging a player's ability to change direction with some explosiveness.

"A lot of guys with their plant foot -- they sink down and we need to work on those muscles to explode up off that foot," Jackson said.

Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, who has both played and coached in professional baseball for 24 years, knows lateral speed is the key, because it allows you to be in the right position.

"It all comes back to being square to the ball and being square to where you're throwing to," he said.

Being square, he says, allows a fielder to make plays and there are a lot of mechanics involved in that.

"If you're square, the main thing is catching everything in front of you," he said. "Errors come because his glove is back instead of out in front of him. If he's aggressive and his hands are in front, he's going to catch balls. You need your glove on the ground of course, but the hands have to be in front."

Lateral movement aside, Jackson and Montoyo both agree on the importance of the weight room -- when used the right way.

"I get some guys who just want to get huge," Jackson said. "But, they lose a lot of flexibility. I take their weight (that they're lifting) down and increase their reps. We almost never do bench press (for baseball)."

In the Fresno State weight room, Jackson uses a Physio ball as a tool to help athletes work on balance and flexibility while lifting.

They use the ball while doing single-leg squats (one leg on the ball). He also has them do lateral movement with weights, standard squats and bench press, which is done with dumbbells (instead of a standard bench press).

"I get some people who want to work out three times a day. I tell them to do more stretching," he said.

Montoyo knows the dangers of the wrong kind of weight room activity.

"When you're in high school, you want to get big so you can show off, but big doesn't work in baseball," he said. "There's a fine line, but that's where the coaches and the strength coordinator come into play.

"We used to bench in the old times, but I don't see people doing that. You get too tight. You want to be loose when you're swinging the bat and when you're throwing the ball. If your chest gets too big, it just gets in the way."

Oklahoma baseball coach Sunny Golloway also preaches flexibility to his players.

In fact, he's got a few of his infielders in Pilates specifically to work on flexibility.

"The weight room can be a negative because you've got to be flexible," he said. "It's strength with flexibility. Barry Bonds had tremendous flexibility. He added strength to his flexibility and that's what made him special."