Fire Everyone! - The Trainers

This is the fourth installment in a 12-part series.

The Indians are four days from finishing a second straight season of no significant injuries to a starting pitcher. In the age of multimillion dollar salaries and exploding offenses, it is a significant achievement. Pitching coach Carl Willis immediately turned and knocked on his wooden locker. He then credited the pitchers for buying into what the training staff has preached, and also credited head trainer Lonnie Soloff and strength coach Tim Maxey for being proactive.

Priestle, Scott. "Starting pitchers free of major injuries."
Akron Beacon-Journal, 28 September 2006.

Ah, to be young.

Three years later, do we still believe that the Indians medical staff is all that and a bag of bosu balls? How do we account for that stretch of seeming medical invincibility in the mid-aughts, in light of more recent, less encouraging developments? Was it an unusually young team that slid off the back of the treadmill of time? Have the team's strength and conditioning methods changed for the worse? Or was it merely a run of preternatural good luck, and now the injuries have returned, like Fate in the Final Destination movies, to finish that which was left undone?

Objective analysis of these questions is just this side of impossible. Professional athletes, by definition, can generate physical forces at the extremes of human capability, but few are blessed with the durability to withstand those forces indefinitely. Baseball players, especially, must subject themselves to a brutally long season, and the stress of the sport is borne disproportionately by their dominant-side joints. Add to that the average MLB player's miserable diet, hard-partying lifestyle, and hectic travel schedule, and you have to wonder if the Indians' preference for "high-character" guys is little more than a pretense for choosing players who are, at a minimum, not of a disposition to wreck themselves.

Mind you, baseball is somewhat famously mired in the Dark Ages of fitness. It's a game decided by explosive movements and a short series of 90-foot sprints, but slow bodybuilding-style weightlifting and plodding long-distance runs are still common training protocols. I once was talking to a friend-of-a-friend who had pitched through high-A ball with the Braves before he bowed out with a bad shoulder. "What was your training regimen like?" I asked. He scoffed -- really, he scoffed. "I went back and trained with my college coach in the off-seasons," he said. "You gotta remember, it's such a long season, and the team invests so much in you. Most guys lift like idiots, and what the team wants more than anything is for you not to get hurt."

So contrast that against this anecdotal report of Tim Maxey's spring workouts, from the Cincinnati St. Xaiver High S&C coach's blog:

The Indians place a great emphasis on the physical development of every athlete that signs with the organization ... a priority that every staff member takes very seriously, which begins with the General Manager and filters all the way down towards the Latin American Academies .... All athletes work hard and with discipline during the training and conditioning sessions. They are well-supervised and every workout card is checked off [at the end of the] workout session. There is very little standing around.

Coach Alvarez goes on to describe an unremarkable workout plan. Basic, compound-movement, balanced lifts, some straight-forward sprinting, and a little corrective work at the end of the day. I've read a Maxey quote before to the effect that, "Hey, I don't care how good these guys look with their shirts off," and that's thoroughly in line with enlightened fitness thought as it relates to training athletes in-season.

A digression: American corporations operate under the protection of something called the "business judgment rule," which says, in essence, that the directors and officers do not incur liability to stockholders for business decisions gone awry as long as the decisions were reasonably well-informed and made with independent judgment. The easy version of the BJR is, if you do the right footwork, it doesn't matter how lousy the dance turns out.

Here's what (I think) I can say about the Indians' training staff: Their methods would pass muster under the business judgment rule. (If you're looking for a joke about that one time the Indians publicly sold shares of the club, you'll have to make it yourself.) Soloff and Maxey and their co-workers are competent, credentialed, and by all accounts hard-working individuals with the respect of their peers. They're doing the right footwork. My question for you: Is competence enough? If you say "no," you start an interesting conversation.

There's a lot of crazy stuff going on at the edge of the fitness universe. Two examples that spring to mind: nervous system optimization — check out Z-Health or Feldenkrais — and Active Release Techniques, a sort of targeted massage to cure mobility issues. We're not talking about Operation: Treadstone here, by the way — I'm not proposing anything at all which could compromise the athletes' health. Nor am I endorsing these particular systems — I don't know enough to do that. But I do wonder ... we've got Keith Woolner bringing new-wave mathematics to our statistical analysis. Do we have a mad genius physical therapist studying experimental training techniques? Should we?

I remember a 2006 GQ article that brought up visual perception training for binocularity, back before MLB players started doing that on their handheld Nintendos during bus rides. The scientist behind the system was getting amazing results with a system of ocular testing and training. Then there's a quote [pdf] from none other than John Farrell:

I think [the scientist has] had a tremendous impact on individual players, but the empirical evidence is limited. There isn't a large database that says this person went through these drills and this is where he ended up.

My reaction: So what? Isn't that exactly the sort of chance this organization should be taking? By the time there's a database of empirical evidence, the sun has set on the opportunity to create a competitive advantage. Yes, Farrell's answer demonstrates competence. Is competence enough? (Side note: Still want this guy for manager?)

Even if you're not on-board with this idea of looking for competitive advantage in fitness, I think it must be asked how often Soloff and Maxey have misfired in their more traditional responsibilities, and whether you care how defensible their methods are in light of the results.

To use the most inflammatory example: A slimmed-down Hafner will be "more mobile," hey? Then, on whose watch did he get so big in the first place? What, was he sneaking protein shakes, like a high schooler smoking behind the band trailer? Or how about Jensen Lewis' evaporating velocity act in 2008, passed off as Stomp "leaving something in the tank"? At what point, if not at the start of the season, should we have expected him to be in condition to bring his A-game? June? September? Or, famously, what about Jhonny's deteriorating vision? This guy's defense looked good enough that he beat out Brandon Phillips, and suddenly he starts giving the "olé bulls***" to routine grounders ... and nothing happens until the off-season? I know there's a recovery time for LASIK, but it only takes an afternoon to fit a guy for a pair of RecSpecs. Whose job was it to identify the problems and to get these guys into fighting shape? Who answered for the failure?

For that matter, if I see one common thread in the patented .400-ball Wedge Aprils other than Wedge himself, it's the off-seasons and spring trainings which preceded them. Occam's Razor alone makes me wonder if the problem is at least partly physical -- that our guys just aren't strong enough. You might answer, yeah, but they improve as the season goes on, under the trainers' closer watch. I don't see that as a particularly strong defense. Whose job is it to monitor these guys in the off-season?

Take, for example, Michael Aubrey, who moseyed into Winter Haven a few years ago announcing that he'd spent the off-season doing yoga with his wife. Like most of you, I'm sure, I remember thinking, hmm, that might work. Retroactively, I'm incredulous. Some types of flexibility are good; others, bad. It can be a delicate distinction, by which I mean, not the kind that should be made by some chump in stretch pants making $7 per hour at the Shreveport YMCA. That's doubly true when the body in question is a notably fragile, multi-million-dollar asset. Who, if anyone, signed off on that?

Jrmiller_medium
Not necessarily good for baseball.
via www.jrmillerfitness.com

And I haven't even started on the veritable parade of young Indians pitchers whose skill-levels seem to start falling on the day their contracts get purchased. Willis calls his training staff "proactive." I guess we're supposed to believe that, if a guy who has devoted most of his life to throwing baseballs inexplicably collapses in the bigs, it's a mental thing, or a mechanical thing, or a long-standing injury thing, or an "adjustment" thing. It's certainly not a strength, conditioning, or mobility issue, because the Indians are proactive about that, you see.

Once more: Every single decision made by the Indians' training staff with respect to these players might be perfectly defensible exercise of sound business judgment. But I contend that there are degrees of defensibility. It's possible to make a decision defensibly and, at the same time, to choose poorly.

I took the Progressive Field guided tour last weekend. You don't get to see the weight room anymore, but as we passed the door to it, the tour guide said that the Indians' training facilities are quite possibly the finest of any professional athletic team's in the country. It made me shake my head a little. Maybe, for all the higher a priority physical conditioning is in this organization, for all the discipline and the supervision and the workout-card checking-off and the not-standing-around, they're just not working hard enough. Or smart enough. Or, hey, maybe they're working too hard. Like I said, it's tough to tell, behind all that competence. And I really do believe they're competent.

Is competence enough?

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