There are a great many factors that go into developing a good baseball player. Mechanics, awareness, timing, approach, form, patience – all important things. And to be a good hitter or pitcher, you need just about all of those.
What you also need is a good strength program.
At Mississippi State, it’s Brian Neal who is in charge of making sure every player has the physical build, strength and stamina to use the tools and techniques they are given. As MSU’s strength and conditioning coach, it’s his job to make sure the Bulldogs are prepared, and it’s a job he doesn’t just take pride in, but enjoys fully.
If you get him talking about what goes into developing a good baseball player in the weight room, he’ll say himself that he can talk for hours on the subject and not grow weary. We don’t have enough time for that here, but his philosophy can be boiled down to a pretty straightforward approach. When asked how to develop good hitters, he broke it down as such:
“It’s going to come from the ground up, from the inside out, and from back to front,” he said. “What does that mean?”
Good question, I was just about to ask. Go on.
“Well, obviously, from the ground up: we want to develop lower body strength and lower body power,” he said. “From the inside out, we want to work from the core outwards. From the back to the front, I always say, ‘I want you guys to look better walking away from me than you do walking to me.’ So, as you’re walking away, big calves, big hamstrings, big butt, strong lower back, broad shoulders, big triceps. Your backside should be more developed than you front side.”
The same approach, he said, applies to pitchers, as well, where power coming out of the hand starts from the ground. Developing those areas is something he works with players on throughout the offseason. Even during the season, the Player Development crew is the group of redshirting players who continue to work out with Neal as the season goes along.
If you see “Flex Friday” on social media, that’s their weekly workout of the upper body. It came from what used to be Sleeveless Saturday and was followed briefly by Flannel Friday, in which the participating weightlifters wore flannel shirts to the gym. For Neal, it’s just another way to get guys excited about developing their bodies.
That excitement, it turns out, has carried over to the roster as a whole, aided greatly by the presence of new head coach Andy Cannizaro, whose arms are each as big as a fully-grown toddler and whose bench press prowess is enough to intimidate even the strongest of strong men.
Certainly, the process can’t be done in just one year, but looking at a pair of sluggers who made significant improvements at the plate this year provides good insight into just how important this last offseason was for MSU. Below are some of the 2016 and 2017 numbers for juniors Ryan Gridley and Brent Rooker. The 2016 numbers, of course, include the full length of their postseason run, while each has player has time left to build on their 2017 numbers. Even still, the differences are impressive.
2016: Eight doubles, two home runs, zero triples, .345 slugging percentage
2017: 12 doubles, six home runs, one triple, .461 slugging percentage
2016: 15 doubles, eleven home runs, two triples, .578 slugging percentage
2017: 29 doubles, 21 home runs, three triples, .843 slugging percentage
From one year to the next, their numbers have nearly doubled across the board for them both, and tripled in at least one case for Gridley.
For Neal, it’s no surprise.
“They’re unbelievable leaders, unbelievable workers. For those guys to be All-SEC at their positions, it’s no accident. I tell them all the time, it’s like they did it on purpose. They’re that good,” he said. “They’re shutting out the lights at night in the Palmeiro Center, working extra after practice and workouts … It’s easy with guys like that because they’re so focused on the end result and being the best possible baseball player they can be.”
It would be easy for the casual observer to think that such improvements came simply from getting stronger and making some changes at the plate. However, Neal says, that’s not necessarily the case. Using Rooker as the example, he explained what the offseason entailed.
As plenty recall, Rooker neared double-digits last year in big hits that were either robbed at the fence or just short of leaving the ballpark. He didn’t have far to go to get the big numbers he’s had in 2017, and when Rooker got back after the summer, it wasn’t even strength that Neal focused on with him to get those extra few feet.
After all, the multi-poistional player was something of a physical freak already. He can squat 500 pounds, he has a 36-inch vertical and he can reportedly run the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. The physical tools were there. Neal just needed to help him hone them.
“He was already strong enough,” Neal said. “So what we wanted to focus on with him was more velocity-based training. We wanted him to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster rate … He’s always swinging a 34-inch bat. That’s going to be constant. So, how can we get him to swing that faster? Adding more strength to him probably isn’t going to help that. But being able to move that 34-inch bat faster through the zone will increase power. We want to be able to move a little bit lighter weight at a faster speed.
“If we got him to a 550-pound squatter, is that going to make him better? Probably not. But if he can move, say, 400 pounds, faster this year than he could last year, and his absolute strength is the same, then we’ve gotten better. We’ve produced more force and produced more power – produced a faster bat through the zone.
“Some of the guys are younger and they need more strength. But with him, because he’s such a freak, he doesn’t necessarily need that. At this point in his career, we’ve got strength, now we need to apply that and be able to move that strength faster.”
The results stand well enough on their own, and the countless awards and honors for Rooker and Gridley and other members of the team speak to the success of both the individuals and the club. And with MSU just starting Regional play this weekend, there is plenty of time left to accomplish even greater feats.
So yes, there’s a lot that goes into becoming a great baseball player, and having an equally great strength coach is a big part of it.