Marlins focused on trying to keep players at full strength
Ask any team its expectation entering a season and discover it hinges on one overlapping theme: health.
Atlanta has already lost two members of its rotation to Tommy John surgery. Arizona’s Patrick Corbin will also miss games in 2014. Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias’ shins led the Tigers to trade for 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez.
"As we’ve seen, stuff like that happens every year," Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. "I think that’s the key is trying to keep guys healthy and feeling good. There’s certainly things you can’t control. Sometimes it happens."
Last season, Miami found itself down two starting pitchers the weekend before Opening Day. Right-handers Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez both landed on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation.
Eovaldi had never sustained that injury before in his career. His muscles were suddenly tight, which forced him to stop throwing. The 24-year-old had to rebuild the strength he had developed during spring training and didn’t make his 2013 debut until June 18.
"You can’t be worried about getting hurt," Eovaldi said. "If you feel good, you feel good. You’re not expecting an injury to come. It’s like pitching. You’re not worried about a guy hitting you. You’re trying to get a guy out."
THERE’S NO OFFSEASON
In order to minimize the possibility of injury, the medical staff, front office and coaches get together to chart out a plan for each player on the 40-man roster.
Most people don’t think of baseball as a physically demanding sport. It’s a power sport. Almost everything they do is max effort whether it’s running, swinging, throwing.
Ty Hill, Marlins strength and conditioning coach
Head athletic trainer Sean Cunningham will sit down with the player and give him a template of what the club is looking for heading into the offseason.
Each plan is specialized for the player based on factors such as prior injuries, age, position, weight and weaknesses.
"We spend the offseason keeping tabs and touching base with them to make sure they’re doing the things they need to be doing," Cunningham said. "Address any issues they may have and prepare for the next spring training."
After playing 150 games in his first full big-league season in 2011, slugger Giancarlo Stanton entered 2014 having made just 239 appearances since then.
Various injuries to his thigh, knee and abdomen have kept him off the field. So Stanton prepared differently this offseason, focusing on a daily regimen instead of bunching them up and taking days off.
Stanton worked out five days a week, switching up a routine that included runs on the beach as well as time at the gym and track.
Anything to simulate the daily grind of a 162-game season when rest is crucial to health.
"Most people don’t think of baseball as a physically demanding sport," said Ty Hill, Marlins strength and conditioning coach. "It obviously is because of how many days we ask our guys to perform and the lack of recovery that’s built into the schedule. It’s a power sport. Almost everything they do is max effort whether it’s running, swinging, throwing."
Hill trains players who stay in Miami over the offseason. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria came by Marlins Park five days a week from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. to work on throwing, conditioning, agility and strength.
Since Major League Baseball implemented a strong PED policy, players have searched for an edge, and the best way is through preparation.
"I think the biggest change has just been the acceptance of strength and conditioning overall in the game," said Hill, who has held the position for 17 years. "When I first started, it was around — there were strength coaches. You had some guys that didn’t like to do what we asked them to do, but now most guys buy in. They realize the need to do more to help take care of themselves."
Once spring training rolls around, communication becomes even more important.
Along with Cunningham, athletic trainer Mike Kozak and assistant athletic trainer Dustin Luepker know the schedule before first day of spring.
It usually follows a pattern such as this: One day may be allotted for a bullpen, then an off day, then live batting practice, another off day and a simulation game. There are six weeks to prepare for Opening Day.
Cunningham noticed that Miami, a younger team without guaranteed deals, came in ready to compete for jobs. That air of competition created an environment where players arrived to camp in good shape.
But levels of trust and communication must be established. Sometimes when a guy is in contention for a position, he may hold back on saying he’s not 100 percent because he worries it will be perceived as an excuse.
That’s when the training staff and physical therapist Ron Yacoub, who helps guys on the DL work back to health while the team is on the road during the season, truly develop rapport with the players.
"If we’re able to identify people who may be a little behind and may not be fully prepared to see hitters in five days we’ll identify that ahead of time and tweak their schedule so it doesn’t seem like they’re behind but they’re adequately prepared for what they’re doing," Cunningham said.
"The bottom line is the games start a week after we get here and they’ve got to be ready to play. A lot of time trying to make sure we communicate and eliminate surprises and give guys opportunities to be prepared and successful."
THE DAILY GRIND
During the season, Stanton goes through an extensive warm-up routine — from lunges to push-ups — that activates all his muscles through various body weight exercises.
This preparation goes a long way to ensure whatever demands of the game can be met and handled.
Any adjustments can vary on factors such as weather and setting.
"Make sure I’m just ready to run around and body’s warmed up," Stanton said. "You have to play in all different climates. Ours is controlled, so you have to monitor that. The beginning of the year we’ll go from ours to Washington to Philly. You’ve got to do something a little different but stay in your own self."
The organization does all it can to facilitate its players being healthy and prepared. That includes educating guys on the importance of nutrition, hydration and flexibility.
At the start of camp, Cunningham reinforced what guys should eat to prevent injuries from happening. Options for food consist of carbohydrates to fish to fruit and vegetable choices.
A pitcher, for example, should not take the mound without having eaten in 12 hours.
"Hydration is one of the most important things," Eovaldi said. "We stretch a lot — foam roll, all that stuff. For a starter I would almost feel like we shouldn’t get hurt because we only throw once every five days and in between those we are preparing our bodies for that one start. It’s just unfortunate when it does happen and you do get hurt."
Maintaining weight is also crucial because dramatic changes affect the stresses on the body as well as muscle efficiency.
Since the players are grown men, weight shouldn’t be fluctuating by 10 to 15 pounds. There are weigh-ins once a week during spring training and twice a month after that to keep tabs on guys.
Hill, who can be seen stretching the players on the field before games, also leads the morning workouts. It’s a balance of getting a feel for one’s body and its limits.
"That’s the game. You try to adjust, learn, their bodies are constantly changing and adjusting approach," Hill said. "They learn new things about themselves, we learn new things about them. As athletic trainers and strength coaches we learn new things that we think may help the players help them recover, train better and smarter. We’re here to help them perform and be ready for the next day."
Cunningham also communicates with other teams’ staffs, particularly during December meetings, to get an idea of how colleagues approach situations. Players will also come to him with trends they have noticed over the offseason.
Of late, common injuries concern the obliques and throwing elbows/shoulders. What has yet to be decided is whether they are occurring more frequently or medical staffs have become better at identifying them.
Trainers may discuss how they handled a problem from an experience standpoint to help others. When a liner hit Reds lefty Aroldis Chapman in the face, it tested the club’s emergency procedure.
There are many variables that can test a team’s philosophy, and it starts with the individual. As Cunningham said, "We can’t have blinders on."
"In some point in time, it may be asked of me how come we’re having all these type of injuries or that type," Cunningham said. "That’s not an unusual comment or inquiry to get from the front office, and it’s a matter of just making sure everything is kept in perspective. The reality is injuries happen.
"You definitely don’t want to see guys get hurt, but a lot of it is constantly evaluating your own injury. The line between injury prevention and sport performance is very fine, and it’s ever-evolving, so you’re constantly intrinsically looking at it and critiquing and analyzing to make sure you’re doing everything you can for the guys."
Whether it is stretching out starters, throwing relievers back-to-back days or getting position players 45 to 50 at-bats during spring, certain things need to happen for guys to be ready.
Events will happen that can’t be avoided or predicted, such as an eighth-inning pitch by Scott McGregor that fractured Ed Lucas’ left hand during the March 27 Grapefruit League game.
Second-guessing is a natural reaction when players’ jobs and livelihoods are on the line.
"Things pop up and a lot of it is if it pops up early you can give them a little bit of rest early for the purpose of catching them up," Cunningham said. "The bottom line is with these guys their ability to perform their best is contingent on being healthy."