There’s a reason why big-league pitchers are putting up record numbers. Today’s pro hurlers are workout fanatics, beasts in the gym during the off-season, so they can throw heat all summer. Here’s how two of the best young arms in baseball train for the mound.
The role of the closing pitcher is one of the most demanding in Major League Baseball. It takes a live arm and a cool head to overpower hitters when the game is on the line.
In terms of physical make-up, today’s large-framed closing pitchers are some of the most imposing figures in the game.
Size is not a limiting factor for Craig Kimbrel, the 5’11”, 205-pound closer for the Atlanta Braves. Kimbrel earned National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 after setting a Major League rookie record with 46 saves.
Despite his compact build, Kimbrel runs his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s on a consistent basis.
What he lacks in size, Kimbrel more than makes up for with impeccable mechanics, featuring a compact delivery in which his arms and hands remain close to his body, limiting movement throughout his wind-up and making it easier to coordinate the moving parts of his delivery.
Says Kimbrel of his mechanics, “I think with pitching, there’s no right way to do it, but there are wrong ways to do it. The wrong ways are the ways that are going to get you hurt.”
The same can be said for a pitcher’s workout program. Kimbrel admits that he wasn’t exactly on point for training the right way in high school, college and even in the minor leagues. He says, “I was used to going into the weight room and throwing up some heavy dumbbells and loading a bunch of weight on the squat machine.”
(Check out Kimbrel's full off-season workout)
That’s all changed, and the results of Kimbrel’s new way of training are obvious, not just in the velocity on his fastball, but also in the number of appearances he’s made since taking over the Braves’ closer role. He pitched 77 innings in 2011, most among closing pitchers, and he’s continued to stockpile innings in 2012.
Kimbrel’s big-league workouts still include some power work—“just to keep him satisfied,” says strength and speed coach Dallas Terrell, who trained Kimbrel this past off-season at D1-Hunstville. However, Terrell’s top priority was to address his client’s strength imbalances. Terrell says, “The type of injuries he is susceptible to come from one side of his body being stronger than the other.”
Strength imbalances are almost an inevitable byproduct of being a pitcher, quarterback, tennis player or any overhead-sport athlete. However, such imbalances only get worse, according to Terrell, “when they go hog-wild in the gym on one particular area while excluding other areas of the body.”
For example, the Back Squat is a staple lift for athletes in all sports. For pitchers, it’s a prime lift for developing the power needed to increase velocity. Yet even the Squat neglects some muscles of the lower body, and it’s not the most functional lift for a pitcher. Which is why Kimbrel performs single-leg and lateral stabilizing exercises like the Bulgarian Split Squat and Lateral Lunge. They replicate a pitcher’s delivery more closely than the Back Squat.
What has helped Kimbrel increase the velocity of his pitches is performing exercises that build strength through a full range of motion in his upper body. They allow him to maintain maximum strength from the start of his windup to the highest point of his delivery, and through the lowest point of his release.
Kimbrel has learned the value of training properly to meet the demands he faces as a closing pitcher. “There’s always something you can do to make yourself better,” he says. “As long as you have that mentality, you’re going to go a long way.”
Toronto Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero clutches the ball, awaiting the signal. He takes a deep breath, focuses in and takes a step back with his right foot while simultaneously drawing his hands up above and behind his head.
Only this time, the step back is much further than his windup. And it’s not a baseball he’s gripping. It’s a 10-pound medicine ball.
Two days before he reports for spring training, the East Los Angeles native is performing a series of med ball warm-up exercises—like the Med Ball Reverse Lunge to Overhead Reach described above—before he faces the heart of the order in his final off-season workout at Athletes’ Performance-LA.
Romero’s off-season training is comprehensive, to say the least. He leads off his workout with shoulder prehab exercises, followed by the med ball warm-up series and then several mobility drills, which incorporate shuffling, marching and skipping patterns.
Romero makes quick work of the warm-up movements and the med ball throw series, then moves on to the strength phase of his workout. Upper-body and core are the focus for the day. The full workout is as complete as Romero’s pitch repertoire, but the left-handed ace breaks it down to a simple, three-part formula: lower-body strength + core strength + a healthy throwing arm = ultimate preparedness for a pitcher. “You put those three together and you’re on your way to becoming a successful pitcher, no matter what level you’re at,” he says.
Of course, there’s more to it than simply performing exercises that strengthen key muscle groups. Chang Lee, baseball performance specialist at Athletes’ Performance-LA, says, “The main focus is linking Ricky correctly so his pitching mechanics will be more efficient, so with the long season of 162 games, he can sustain and maintain the strength that he has.”
Think of it as programming with exercises and movement patterns that simulate the mechanics of Romero’s windup, delivery and release.
The benefits are two-fold. Not only is Romero developing full-body strength and power to help him endure the lengthy season, but most of the exercises reinforce proper pitching mechanics, teaching him how to produce power in the different stages of his windup and delivery.
One such exercise is the Med Ball Split-Stance Rotational Throw, which, according to Lee, teaches Romero to “use his leg and hip to transfer energy through his oblique and into his arm.” Learning how to transfer energy from his legs and through his core has helped Romero improve not just his velocity but also his control—as evidenced by the following chart, covering 2009 to 2011.
Furthermore, the added speed of his pitches, especially his two-seam fastball, gave Romero the opportunity to experiment with and add other pitches to his repertoire. In 2011, the lefty added a cut-fastball, which he uses to bust up right-handed hitters.
On his role as the ace of the Blue Jays staff, Romero says, “You’re looked upon as the guy to get it going. You set the tone for your team.” So what set the tone for Romero’s exceptional performance? His workouts.
Sets/Reps: 3-4x8-10 each leg
Coaching Points: Keep chest up and front knee behind toes // Push into ground with heel of foot// Drive back knee toward ground when lowering into Squat
Terrell: Sometimes he’ll perform the Bulgarian Split Squat while holding one dumbbell to his side to create an unbalanced situation. Other times he’ll hold the weight in front of his body, which forces him to push down into the ground.
Sets/Reps: 3-4x8-10 each leg
Coaching Points: Start with two legs and progress to single-leg variation // Keep foot, hips and shoulders aligned
Terrell: He goes right into an exercise that works the glutes and hamstring to get a dynamic, multi-joint motion followed by a single-joint motion.
Sets/Reps: 3-4x8-10 each leg
Coaching Points: Slowly lower into lunge // Drive off plant foot to explode up
Terrell: This exercise doesn’t do much for his strong side, but it helps with injury prevention on his weaker side. The type of injuries he’s going to run into come from one side of his body being stronger than the other side.
Sets/Reps: 3x10 each side
Coaching Points: Initiate movement from ground up // Drive from hip to throw ball to wall // Perform in controlled manner
Lee: The rotational work is done through the hip, not the oblique. So we teach him to keep the shoulder, hip and ankle in line to start, and to think about pushing through the leg and hip to drive and rotate.
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each side
Coaching Points: Start with half-kneeling variation and progress to single-leg balance on Airex pad // Keep ankle, knee and hips aligned // Maintain balance
Lee: This exercise focuses on static stability. If Ricky cannot stabilize his body, it doesn’t matter how strong he is, he will not be able to use the power that he has.
Sets/Reps: 2x10 each leg
Coaching Points: Start with hands on ground and progress to holding dumbbells // Keep core and shoulders engaged to stabilize body
Lee: There is a lot of rotary instability involved with pitching mechanics. This exercise helps Ricky stabilize his body in order to maximize his ability.
Sets/Reps: 2x6-8 each arm
Coaching Points: Stabilize through core // Do not arch back during press // Use light dumbbells
Lee: Ricky competes at an overhead angle, so he needs to train at an overhead angle. The reason he does the curl-to-press is to minimize the loading on his shoulders.