Like swings, offseason workouts evolve with time

By Evan Drellich / 12/20/12 10:00 AM ET

BOSTON -- Red Sox catcher Ryan Lavarnway hit 34 home runs between Triple-A and the Majors in 2011. He hit 10 between the two levels last season.
Lavarnway's not one to make excuses, and he hasn't. But he has said that the workload of catching a full year -- he went past 100 games behind the dish for the first time last season -- probably took a physical toll.
He believes this offseason that he knows how to combat that natural fatigue, and that goes back to lessons he learned from his conditioning a winter ago.
"That was my main goal going into last year, to catch 100 games," Lavarnway said. "And I would do things differently this year going in. I lightened the load on my workouts, on my lower-body workouts because of the load my legs were taking in the games. And I felt that my legs, the strength of my legs suffers then, so I want to continue to lift heavy legs. ... I'm talking a lot to [Red Sox pitching coach] Juan Nieves about what A.J. Pierzynski does, cause he catches a lot of games and he lifts every single day. I think I'm going to have more of that approach going into this next year and hopefully stay stronger."
Lavarnway focused more on his upper-body workouts last year, and that helped his throwing arm stay strong. But he lightened the load on his lower body in preparation for the grueling season, and that might not have been ideal.
"But going into this next year, now that I know my body can handle it," Lavarnway said. "I want to stay stronger."
Professional baseball players, even amateur players, don't just walk into offseason workouts with the same routine year to year. Like swing and pitching mechanics, the exercises are almost always fluid through a career.
Eric Cressey, a trainer who works outside of Boston in Hudson, Mass., said a 41-year-old Curt Schilling told him that "he had the same throwing program for years and years and years." There's probably a portion of veterans in the game who are in a similar boat: you hit a point 8, 10, 15 years into a career where you know exactly what you need to be ready, and there's not much need to change.
But players like Schilling are the exception. Particularly for younger players, the workouts, just like everything else, are constantly shifting. What a player does in the offseason, like in Lavarnway's case, can have a significant impact on the following year.
An injury is an obvious situation that can alter a program. Any time someone's hurt, that's going to create a differential.
"I kind of rely on Eric's knowledge in order to get me ready for the season," said Tim Collins, the Royals closer who's a fitness fanatic and works out with Cressey. "He'll ask me questions: how I feel, what's bothering me. He knows that I've had hip problems in the past. We work together, try to strengthen where I'm weak. I think it's evolving year to year. ... I don't think I've ever had the same program."
The reality, then, is that the success of a routine isn't dictated solely by the level of effort and time spent at the gym. Certainly, a player who takes it easier than he should will show up to Spring Training out of shape or overweight. To some degree, that happens every year, somewhere. But assuming that most players work out very, very hard -- they have to in today's game -- what then becomes important is not how much time is spent, but how that time is spent and its quality.
Finding the right trainers to work with is part of the challenge. Lavarnway's ended up in Colorado, where he lives now, at a gym called Viking Power Fitness. He works with trainer Oyvind Gulbrandsen.
"He's awesome," Lavarnway said. "Sounds a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he's training me. He's great, he's got a great energy about him ... he's got the baseball structure of the workout and then he kicks my butt on top of that."
But Lavarnway didn't just walk in and say "This is my guy." He did some comparison shopping.
"Last year when we decided we were going to move to Denver, I took some trial workouts with guys," Lavarnway said. "I loved the energy that he has, and the way he goes about his business is very professional and very intense."
Lavarnway's workout includes slamming sledge hammers at an altitude of up to 9,000 feet.
Injury prevention has become huge business for everyone: players, teams, and independent trainers. Because of that, there's a ton of research put into how players can better prepare themselves. New information is coming out all the time. What was best a year ago has undoubtedly changed, to some extent.
"There's so much salary wasted in guys that are on the disabled list," Cressey said. "So it definitely gives us a lot more incentive to go out and do that research. It's everything from the mechanical side of things, looking at throwing programs, looking at the actual strength and conditioning things. Also, we've had time to look at what's going on from an injury standpoint, to look at these longitudinal studies, to say, "Alright, the kids who are having surgery when they're 22, what are they doing in their teenage years?"
Cressey referred to the current generation of ballplayers coming up -- which would include guys like Lavarnway, who's 25 -- as "the overused generation."
"They don't get that time off at the younger ages," Cressey said. "These issues become part of adolescent development, they get older, they throw harder, they get a more rigorous schedule. And all of a sudden the UCL goes."
Injuries aside, more subtle matters have an effect. Take the World Baseball Classic. If a player participates, he's missing some of Spring Training. That means getting ready earlier.
A similar situation arises with instructional camps, the Arizona Fall League and winter leagues. If your season ends later than it did in past years, you have to do something different. If the alterations you make turn out to be less than ideal, often, that'll show itself in the regular season.
What if a player gets married, relocates and has kids? That can restyle everything, too.
"You realize you don't just train players, you train families," Cressey said. "But you adjust to it."
Baseball's always been the game of adjustments, but that truism doesn't apply to only games and game preparation.
When someone loses their swing, they typically don't scrap everything they previously learned about hitting. Maybe there was some brilliant advice given to a guy years ago in the Minors, from a hitting coach he's long been out of touch with, and he remembers it.
It's the same with workouts.
Forget players who have been in more than one organization. In just a few years of Minor League ball with one franchise, the number of trainers a players can encounter is large. The trainer in short-season ball is not the same as Double-A, and so on.
"There are other guys that are exposed to the methodologies, they borrow bits and pieces from the different people they've encountered over the years," Cressey said. "You have to remember, a lot of these guys have been in multiple organizations where there's a ton of turnover in the staffs. Maybe they met a Minor League athletic trainer in 2007 that they liked and they borrowed something from that they carried forward. I'd say that the overall majority of guys, there is a considerable amount of fluctuation from year to year."
The level of design that goes into winter programs will never be fully seen because it's all done behind the scenes, away from the stadiums. Because of that, how complicated it is to find the right routine, and how often those routines evolve because of injuries, new developments and scheduling is rarely appreciated.
Changing up some lifts could be just as important as changing a two-seam grip. That's why players can use the same platitudes about workouts like they do in-game mechanics.
"It's constantly evolving, like a hitter," Collins said. "Constantly making adjustments."