There is a famous John Kruk story that became the title line for a 1994 book by the former Phillies player and current ESPN baseball analyst. The Kruker tells it like this, “There’s a story, a funny story, about me sitting in a restaurant. I’m eating this big meal and maybe having a couple of beers and smoking a cigarette. A woman comes by the table. She recognizes me and she’s shocked because it seems like I should be in training or something. She’s getting all over me, saying that a professional athlete should take better care of himself. I lean back and I say to her, ‘I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a baseball player.’”
That was then, and this is now. And now, if you want to be a baseball player, you’d better be an athlete too. Gone are the days when unique skills, eye-hand coordination, or whatever talent could sufficiently carry a person to a big league career. Without doubt, those unique abilities are necessary requisites to, for example, recognize and hit a rising 95-mph fastball. But minus a strong fitness component, those skills will now only take a player so far.
Who is the most valuable person in the Orioles’ organization? The first thought is to consider the great players – Chris Davis for his homers, Matt Wieters for his defense and influence on more than half of all plays in the game, or Adam Jones for his consistent play in both halves of an inning. Or you might think more widely and say that it is Buck Showalter who orchestrates all that happens in the game, or say that it has to be Dan Duquette who secures the talent to make it all possible.
Right now, my vote is going to Brady Anderson for what he is accomplishing away from the field in terms of fitness, nutrition, and all that goes into making a baseball player more than just a baseball player … in fact, an athlete.
Think for a moment about the players in spring training who are getting some of the most attention for their play and their skills improvements. There is Zach Britton throwing 97 mph with the return of his killer sinker. Jonathan Schoop has Orioles Nation screaming to put him on second base NOW. Nick Markakis looks like a new person with a new body under the old head. The same with Henry Urrutia. And think back to the “arrival” of Chris Tillman and his 25-10 record since his call-up at the second half of the 2012 season.
What is the common denominator behind these stories and a list of others we could additionally cite? It is Brady Anderson and the conditioning program that he has installed as a normal part of the new culture of the Baltimore Orioles organization. Some of the Orioles players have found quick success with this technique, whereas for others it is taking a bit longer to see the reward. But the payoff for more than a few is undeniable.
You never hear Chris Tillman talk about his pitching metamorphosis without some credit being given to working with Brady Anderson. Zach Britton spent the offseason with Anderson in Southern California for the second consecutive year, and along with a healthy arm for the first time since 2011, the results look very promising. And Schoop was introduced to the program in the fall of 2012, after the Arizona Fall League concluded that year.
Anderson has gone from a former player who helped some individual Orioles along the way with some fitness techniques, to now being an executive in the organization who manages such as a strength-and-conditioning component of all that is done. Along with the great new Sarasota facility of varied practice fields is also the best of equipment for “the world according to Brady” to be accomplished. Previously for the spring season – and I’m not making this up – the exercise and weight equipment was housed in a tent!
Though it will not likely be rare for long, this culture of weight training and exercise science is far ahead of the game in MLB. In an article from a year ago by the Baltimore Orioles MLB writer Brittany Ghiroli, she related the comments of players coming to the Orioles from other franchises and reflecting upon their comparative experiences.
Nate McLouth at that time said, “A lot of people, in talking to guys from other teams, maybe had more of a conservative approach to lifting, especially during the season. Here, if you want to get after it, you can get after it. I’ve never lifted as heavy as I did last year during the season, and my legs have never felt as good.”
And hear this from Chris Davis – and remember that this is BEFORE he hit the 53 homers, “In Texas, there were maybe four or five guys always in the weight room. Here, there are like 20. One of the reasons I finished as strong as I did last year was the workouts. I came in with some [past] knee issues and was able to run around in the outfield and not have knee problems or anything like that.”
So, is it possible that the Baltimore Orioles having 20 more homers in 2013 than anyone else was simply the good fortune of just happening to have an unusual number of long-ball hitters on the roster at the same time? Or could it be also related to this sort of conditioning program and fitness culture?
Some players, no matter how much they lift, are not going to be home run hitters. But others with the strength and ability to hit long fly balls could have their conditioning raised that fractional amount that helps some of those “long and loud outs” to fly just over the fence instead of into the outfielder’s glove. And that is what many of Davis’ homers are – long fly balls that make it over the fence, rather than screaming line-drives that are perfectly squared and hit precisely on the nose.
Much is also written about the great clubhouse atmosphere that the Orioles have – that “band of brothers” culture of togetherness. I guarantee this is much accomplished, in part, through hours together in the weight room. I know this happens in the world of sports. I saw it in my final two years of high school coaching recently completed (distance runners) where my running guys bought into this and became best friends – and champions – together from hours of weight-and-strength-conditioning training beyond the hours of simply running. My own son from that group is now majoring in exercise science in college.
Brian Matusz said of this fellowship component, “Just how the guys are – the camaraderie – after we are done on the field, everybody is in there working out together, pushing each other. It’s got that fun atmosphere, where it’s not, ‘Oh, we have to go work out today.’ It’s, ‘All right, guys, here we go, this is fun.’”
And it is not just in Sarasota, or Baltimore, or Southern California with Brady. Anderson has helped a number of the players, including Nick Markakis, set up their own personal weight rooms with necessary equipment, etc.
So, even though Chris Davis broke Anderson’s single season Orioles home run record, Brady can rightly take some pleasure in having had a part in seeing it happen.