Draft Q&A: Eric Cressey, Part II

Eric Cressey is the president and co-founder of Cressey Performance, a Boston-based performance training facility that specializes in baseball. Eric works with athletes at all levels, from the youth and amateur ranks to pro athletes, as more than 100 of his clients have played pro baseball. He received his master's degree in kinesiology with a concentration in exercise science at the University of Connecticut, the top-ranked kinesiology program in the country. Eric has published more than 500 articles and has a dedicated landing spot for baseball content on his site. He has a number of clients who are, potentially, high draft picks for this year.  This is Part II of the interview. Part I was posted on baseballamerica.com on Sunday.

As you mentioned earlier, you did not begin as a baseball-specific trainer. How long did it take for you to adapt to the standards of athleticism for baseball and recognize that the conventional measures for athleticism did not equate to baseball athleticism? Can you walk me through that learning process?

It is always a work in progress. I am a big believer in continuing to adjust long-term. One of the things that I joke about is that I only played baseball until eighth grade. I was a much better tennis player and that is why I had a bunch of shoulder injuries that led me to this industry in the first place. What I speak to our guys about is that by my nature, I am not a baseball guy. It is a blessing in disguise because it has forced me to do a lot more listening and ask a lot more questions. Probably just as important, I question the status quo. I look at things a little more logically as opposed to just accepting traditionalism. So when guys are running five miles after a start I ask them why to see if there is a logical rationale for it. I think outside the box a little bit and have probably not been skewed by some of the traditionalist beliefs. What it has really allowed me to do is manage everybody individually. To know what is right for Steve Cishek is not right for Tim Collins or Steve Delabar or Brandon Gomes. Everybody is a little bit unique.

Steve Delabar (Photo by Mike Janes).

Steve Delabar (Photo by Mike Janes).

Some scouts, particularly ones in warm weather states, believe that players who specialize in one sport at an early age or dedicate their attention solely to pitching tend to lose their athleticism. Is there anything to this notion? If so, what can be done to avoid players “losing their athlete”?

I agree 100 percent. Even beyond the loss of athleticism there are some legitimate structural changes that take places in kids’ bodies when they throw baseballs year-round. They lose a lot of passive stability, so that anterior shoulder capsule gets a little bit looser. Their UCL gets a little bit looser. Getting a ball out of their hands is important because it allows them to regain some of that passive stiffness that is very important. The other thing you look at is that it is very hard to gain rotator cuff and scapular stability while guys are still throwing. That is why the offseason is so valuable. Those three to four months with a ball out of their hands is an opportunity to make some headway with getting that strength in the right places. So that is part of it. It goes back to what you look at with younger kids, which is that it is all about exposing them to such a wide variety of movements so that they can’t get into their pattern overloads where they are doing the same thing over and over again. It is why guys who switch-hit get less than guys who swing just on one side. Your body creates variety. It is different than somebody who sits at a computer all day. They just want to stand up and be upright for once. I use that analogy a lot with our athletes. It is about finding whatever patterns you don't find the rest of the year.

Certainly you are not a professional talent evaluator but you are familiar with the process. How could the process become more intelligent and gain valuable pieces of information? The Area Code Games once included Nike Sparq testing, which measured rotational strength, verticals, 60-yard dash and short shuttle drill (or the 5-10-5). Certainly, as we mentioned, those measurements are not going to correlate strongly with pitchers but that could be useful information for position players and for athleticism. In reading articles about it and talking to evaluators I found people who have said it was useful but people weren't exactly sure how to use it. What information about a player’s athleticism would you want to know if you were a decision-maker?

If I am the one making the decision on who to draft, the athleticism component is super important, don't get me wrong, it is a tremendous component of the process. But the things that I think are overlooked during the scouting process are wear and tear on the arm, which is something that gets back-burnered. People don't really appreciate how much stress is on a kid’s arm. So you look at the example of all these pitchers who are blowing out elbows and everybody wants to know why. A lot of them are guys that maybe threw way too much in high school. Then over time they got more calcified on that UCL and eventually it just went when they got bigger and stronger and reached a higher level of performance that put more demands on their body. So I think that a lot of scouts simply do miss out on how much kids have been throwing. I have heard stories about kids that go out there on Opening Day and throw 130 pitches in 30-degree weather. It is unbelievable. That is something that guys need to pay more attention to. The other thing in the scouting process is that you could look at thing like valgus carrying angle. A scout would never think to look at what an elbow would look like when it extends all the way. Does it have a huge valgus carrying angle? We know that is a predictive factor for Tommy John surgery. There are a lot of things that people can miss out on throughout the evaluative process because they are just casual observers to exercise physiology. Training experience is another one. A kid who is throwing 95 who has never picked up a weight probably has more upside than a guy who is throwing 95 who has three years of strength and conditioning under his belt. Somebody who comes from the middle of nowhere in Iowa and doesn't have access to a pitching coach with video equipment is going to be less developed than a kid who has a pitching coach with fancy equipment. Training experience is a key element that is often overlooked where people usually just get lumped into big groups.

Baseball obviously does not have a combine and some of the things we have talked about could quickly be eradicated by having a combine. In a dream scenario, if you could design a baseball combine, what would you include from the physical tests and the other stability, mobility and flexibility tests like ankle mobility, T-spine, hip and all of those different things?

You look at a rotational medicine ball toss for distance and a timed 30-yard dash, those things that carry over really well. Obviously baseball skills are No. 1 but I don't know that you would ever get a chance to do some of those traditional flexibility and range of motion tests because there would be a little bit of a shell game with the advisors trying to hide things. I do think it is valuable stuff to look at. I would look heavily at vision. Who are the guys that are testing at 20/10? Guys who have 20/20 vision don't play in the big leagues because it is not good enough. It is one of those things that I think there are a lot of things we could look at that we don't look at. We look at things that don't always tell us the entire story.

Great point about vision. I read that the average major league hitter’s vision is 20/12, which is absolutely amazing.

Put it this way, I have heard that as well and my wife is an optometrist. I don't know if those numbers are exactly where they are in the measurements but it is probably very close if it isn't exact.

Your website talks about Cressey Performance’s experience with helping players come back from elbow and shoulder injuries. Injury prevention has been viewed as the next frontier for many years and has been a heavy topic of discussion at the Saber Analytics and Sloan Sports Conference over the last few weeks. There are constraints to the information available to prevent injuries. But, in a dream scenario, if you could have access to any information to help prevent pitcher injuries what would it be?

Here is my take on the whole thing—I don't think it is a lack of information. I don't believe that is the problem. I believe it is a lack of carrying out certain things. Case in point, there are a lot of teams that have the information but know that giving a guy anti-inflammatories and shooting him up with cortisone to send him back out there is going to make him more likely to blow out a UCL in the long term. It is the business aspect of it that influences that. We have to realize that baseball is a great game but also a terrible business sometimes. I think it more an issue of applicability. The information is there but a problem is that there is dramatic turnover in minor league training and strength and conditioning staffs. They don't compensate minor league strength coaches well enough to encourage them to be very good at what they do or to stick around long enough to create these long-term relationships with players and keep them where they need to be. So part of it is the system is very broken. Case in point is that you will see teams all the time eat a $1 million contract on a guy that doesn't perform in spring training who had a major league deal but then they will feed their minor leaguers pizza and chicken wings all year. Name one team that is investing in quality nutrition for their athletes and one that is providing manual therapy to their minor leaguers. There are still teams that don't have weight rooms in their stadiums. It is pretty astounding. They can talk all they want about not having the right information and that they are racking their brains trying to figure it out. There is plenty of information out there but there is no one who is acting on it. That is the big part of the success that we have had here, is that we have a very strong feeling that what we are doing is heading in the right direction. But we actually do it. Don't get me wrong, I love the sabermetrics push and it has changed the way we evaluate baseball players. But what is happening is that we aren't applying the information we have correctly to put people in the right positions.

Certainly any pitcher can be successful. But can you draw up the ideal pitcher with his height, weight, body composition and strength and flexibility?

Big leaguers come in all shapes and sizes but if I had to pick a prototype, I would say 6-foot-3 or 6-foot-4 lefthanded pitcher with long arms and legs and short torso. A middle of the road flexibility, not too tight or not too loose. And someone who has played a ton of different sports as a kid and one that has thrown just enough that they can get serious with pitching once those key teenage years roll around. Long fingers, too. That would be it in a nutshell.

Big hands and long fingers are very desirable traits. You mentioned ‘too loose’. I think that some people might be surprised by that. What are some of the dangers that you run into with somebody who is too loose?

Being very loose can being advantageous for pitchers and can allow them to contort their bodies into pretty crazy positions that we see in the freeze frame photos, but I always tell guys that it is better to be too tight than too loose. If you are very loose by nature you have less passive stability and that means that you need to be stronger for your body type. The problem is that you have more wiggle room when you have more resting stiffness to not get unstable, to not blow out UCLs, to not injure your shoulder. You don't want to be too tight or too loose. It is good to be in that middle of the road. It means that guys who are very loose need to spend more time training for stability and not stretching, whereas guys who are a lot tighter need to need to train for strength and stretch as well.

Certainly you cannot speak from experience because you were not in the industry this long ago, but how is the performance training field different now from 20 or 30 years ago? I would think that with the amazing depth of research and the ability to get so much more data to support training methods, that the industry has changed pretty substantially. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely, they are rewriting text books from when I was in college. One thing that you look at with the field is that back in the 1970s and until the late-’80s and early-’90s all of the research was devoted aerobic exercise. That was what we thought was the bees’ knees. Then we started to look at resistance training and started to understand what difference that could make in athletic performance, chronic diseases and injury rehabilitation. There was a big movement with research in the early 2000s that continues to this day. That is the cool thing about it because it is a very dynamic industry. You always have to stay on top of your research and what is happening. The additional add-on that we have seen is the research on throwing injuries and biomechanics with all of the great stuff that Dr. Glenn Fleisig and all of the great work that the guys at ASMI have been putting out. That adds a great element on the baseball-specific side. It is a very cool thing because your know where your industry might be very 10 years from now compared to where it is now. I know we evolve on a daily basis and try to stay ahead of the curve.

Because of all that new information that is out there on a daily basis, how has the current generation of amateur players changed? I would think they are much more informed and aware of the intricacies of training compared to previous generations. I would think that this has to be the most informed generation concerning training.

Absolutely, it is a great point because the kids are more educated than ever before, which is awesome and makes my job easier, because we can teach them on a certain level and teach them to be advocates for themselves. They can give us feedback on what works and what doesn't. The thing that has changed the most is the accessibility to information. Everything is just a click away. You can watch videos of a guy throwing all the way across the country and you can emulate his mechanics. It is pretty powerful in terms of development, just as much as it is in terms of just education.

Without getting into too many of the specifics, what is an arm care routine that you support, recognizing that there will be individual differences for pitchers?

It is going to be a little bit different for everybody. I think that it is important to modify things whether guys are starters or relievers and what point in the baseball season it is. Obviously you are going to push differently if you are in the College World Series versus the first week of the season. One of the considerations we have discussed is if a guy is loose or tight. If he is tight we need to work on range of motion, as well as keeping the stability where it needs to be. If he is loose we need to work on more stability work. Everything is a little bit different for everybody. What I would say is that we spend a lot of time doing things called rhythmic stabilization, a lot of conventional cuff work, a lot of resistance work. It is a pretty comprehensive arm care program, but at the same time you never want guys to lose sight of the fact that arm care is full-body care. You can make your rotator cuff as strong as you want, but if your lower half isn't strong and your core is weak, you are polishing the hub caps on a car with no engine.

One of the greatest aspects of baseball is the diversity of talent and body types. There is no better example that two of your clients, the 5-foot-7 Collins and the 6-foot-6 Steve Cisheck. What is the key to finding a regime that is the best for each individual and their respective physical composition?

I think a big part of it is taking a step back and emotionally separating you from the training you enjoy. That sounds like a mouthful but what that means is that kids basically like to do what they are good at. If you have a quick arm and like to throw the baseball, you throw the baseball a lot. A lot of times the best way for kids like that to improve is to take the ball out of their hand altogether and get stronger, more flexible or whatever it may be. We talk a lot about stepping back and looking at it from a broader perspective, getting an evaluation on the way you move and what your movement flaws are. So that you can shore them up so you don't get hurt. At the end of the day it is about staying healthy. If you can stay healthy long-term development-wise you are going to be in a much better spot. Those are things we talk a lot about with our athletes.

Steve Cishek (Photo by Tomasso DeRosa).

Steve Cishek (Photo by Tomasso DeRosa).

Everything begins for an athlete with assessment so that you can benchmark where he is to identify areas where he can improve. Can you walk me through an assessment for when a player enters your program?

We always start off by sitting down and going over a history of injuries. We will talk about their goals and how many innings they threw. We have to get an answer on those things to figure out where the athlete is. In many cases, we will get guys on referral from doctors or physical therapists. From there we will have them take off their shirt and we will go through various scapular screens as well as static postural assessments. We will do some strength testing, range of motion testing and functional strength tests like an overhead squat, pushup or overhead lunge walk. Then we will spend time watching video to see how they throw. A lot of the things we see in our evaluation may line up with how they move on the actual baseball field. From there, we get them training. I always tell our coaches and clients that every training session is a chance to reevaluate. We are always monitoring how they move and how they are progressing. That is how we attack it.

When baseball players first enter your program, what are typically the most underdeveloped and overdeveloped aspects of the body?

Like we have talked about, there are some guys that are so loose-jointed that is becomes a problem. Some guys have hyper-mobilized joints and are stretching themselves until the cows come home. That can become a problem. We see that there is a very big lack of core control. There are guys who may be powerful in their lower extremity but just don't translate the force effectively when they hit and when they throw. That is part of it. Hip mobility is certainly an issue. Having adequate control of your scapula is also something a lot of kids lack. There are a lot of kids who put all their eggs in the ‘well, I do my bands’ basket. But in reality that is the tip of the iceberg. Rotator cuff strength is not the only thing. So we try to council guys on that as well. I think that the one thing that we see the most that is the most disturbing is the kids who start to do things incorrectly and create a lot of bad habits, which makes them have to go and unlearn them later after they have been hurt or haven't progressed like they would have liked to. I would much rather have an untrained 13-year-old come here as an unopened book, as opposed to a 17-year-old who has been doing the ugly stuff in the football weight room in high school for the previous three years. The thing I always try to mention to our athletes is something that they were talking about on ESPN the other day about how players are getting hurt because they are strength training so much more. The problem is not that they are strength training; the problem is that they are strength training incorrectly and at the exclusion of other important qualities like mobility and tissue quality, things like that. It has its place as part of a comprehensive program, but it has to be implemented the right way with the right techniques.

That is along the same lines of the Lou Pinella comment that you identified in the C.C. Sabathia article.

It is the classic baseball overreaction and under reaction. It is one of those things that if one of your players burns his tongue on a cup of coffee you don't ban him from coffee do you? But if a player hurts himself doing an exercise by dropping a weight on his foot, an organization will ban the exercise. You just have to be cognizant of making sure that the pendulum does not swing too far in the other direction.

You wrote a very interesting piece on summer college baseball last year looking at different options and what is best for each individual player. Could you mention those and what might be the best situations for each type of player depending upon their individual situations?

It really depends on the guy. What we are seeing more and more is that summer baseball is not quite as developmental as it used to be. We are seeing that guys are getting their innings when they are school with an aggressive fall program. Most of these guys get time off for Thanksgiving and Christmas but then they are ready for go for the season. Maybe they throw 100 innings during the college season. But that doesn't account for the fact that they could have thrown another 60 innings in the fall without even knowing it. There a lot of guys that have very high innings total once June rolls around. The question you have to ask yourself, if my innings are already up is it a good thing for me to throw for the next two or three months? Or is it a situation where I need to get my rest and then I can get my work in during the fall? Obviously, if you throw 20 innings during the college season you need to go out and play summer ball and develop. But if you are a guy who racked up a lot of innings during the season you are really going on fumes by the end of the summer. You have a week or two to rebound before you go back for fall ball at school. We are seeing a lot of guys like that and a lot of guys that take a step back to use the summer to get stronger and healthier. Beede was a great example. He came after his freshman year at Vanderbilt, and they do a pretty aggressive throwing program. I think he threw more than 80 innings his freshman year, so he got plenty of volume. So when the summer rolled around he had a Cape invite but decided to take the summer off. Sure enough he put on 19 pounds that summer and felt great. He was 93-96 mph all fall. Sure enough, last year he was a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award and had a great year where his velocity was up. It set him up for a great situation where last summer he was able to play with Team USA. There is a time and place for it but you can’t throw all the time and be everything to everybody. Sometimes that means you need to make a tough decision and say that I am going to take the summer to get my body right and put myself in a good position.

Aaron Fitt, Baseball America’s college writer, recently wrote about a proposal to change the college season, pushing it back to accommodate the weather in many parts of the country.

I think it is very interesting because something needs to be done with the schedule. The issue is that guys get a week or two off here or there but there needs to be a two-month plus block of time to get a ball out of their hand, just like we see on the pro side of things. Minor league guys get done September 5 or 6, and some of those guys don't pick up a ball until January. Most of our guys probably get two and a half months off and start throwing around Thanksgiving, and that is on the early side. You just don't see that on the college side. One of the things I would like to do is get rid of fall ball but the NCAA has rules about when you can do what you want to do. I would much rather have guys take time off and then start their throwing programs when mid-to-late October rolls around so they can have some continuity leading into the season. Then some time off before it. it is a very difficult to find something for everybody and the weather plays into it. The dynamics of the college environment play into it as well.

I saw a video where you talked about overhead presses for pitchers. Could you please share your thoughts on the topic and the research that helped inform that stance?

We do a lot of overhead work with pitchers but it is not necessarily overhead pressing. We will spend time getting our arms up overhead doing during warmups. I am not convinced that overhead pressing is the best thing for overhead athletes. They have quite a bit of structural pathology in there already that we know about that may not make it appropriate for them to have what we would call limited upward rotation of their shoulder blades. Spending time at that extreme position under load can be a problem. Beyond it potentially being harmful I think it is something that the carryover to the sport may not be that great. So it is really not work the risk. it is something we don't use in our program but I know it is something other people do use in their programs. That is their call but we do include it.

Matt Blake is held in high regard by players and many scouts I have spoken with. When did you start working together?

Matt is an interesting story because he played at Holy Cross. We connected because I knew his college strength coach very well, so when Matt was done and looking out into the real world for something to do. We connected and it worked out well. He is an assistant coach for a high school nearby and got involved with the New England Ruffnecks travel program and started doing some associate scout work with the Yankees. He is a great fit and is our pitching coordinator at the facility, so he works with high school, college and pro guys. He has a profound influence on what we do. He does a lot of work with the RightView Pro software. It is powerful to put his video evaluation alongside my physical evaluation. It helps to show these kids what their limits factors are. For example, here is what your lack of anterior core control means in terms of you not getting to where you need to be on the mound. He is a good one and we are very fortunate to have him.

I have to ask about some of your jaw-dropping power lifting records. What are your personal bests in the bench, squat, etc.?

I officially retired from powerlifting back in 2007 and I lifted in the 165-pound class. I squatted 545, benched 402 and deadlifted 660. But my meathead days are over.

That wraps up all of my questions. Thank you very much for your time. This has been great and I have learned a ton.