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Thursday, February 16, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
Mariners' Michael Saunders, Steve Delabar try different offseason approaches
By Geoff Baker
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — The growing sophistication of modern training techniques means more major-leaguers are embarking on offseason regimens quite different from what their teams might have envisioned.
Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders and relief pitcher Steve Delabar both went through daily routines back home that would be considered somewhat radical departures from the norm. Saunders constrained his body with rubber workout bands while in the batting cage to tighten up his swing, while Delabar continued with a newfangled shoulder-strengthening routine that helped revive his all-but-dead career a year ago.
Mariners coaches say there are two keys for players planning to go their own route with programs designed by others: keep team staffers in the loop and don't stray too far from the end goals envisioned by everyone.
"The bottom line is to have the player improve, period," Mariners hitting coach Chris Chambliss said Wednesday after watching Saunders take batting practice. "You want him to be better. You want him to be the best he can be. We want those answers to come from wherever. But whatever those answers are, we want to know so we can reinforce those good things."
Saunders moved to a new home in Denver this offseason and began training 15 minutes away with hitting instructor Mike Bard, a former minor-leaguer and the brother of onetime Mariners catcher Josh Bard. They studied video of top sluggers like Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday and decided Saunders needed to have a tighter, more compact swing like they do.
To achieve this, Saunders had a rubber exercise band wrapped around his knees and a second one running from under his left armpit to around the outside of his right shoulder. He'd wear them into batting cages and would swing at pitches while constrained.
"The idea was to create some tension on myself," Saunders said. "What I'm trying to do is stay compact and keep a short swing."
He also began using a 60-ounce bat during the early rounds of batting practice. It's twice as heavy as the one he'd employ in games, but the added weight forces him to use his lower body to drive the ball instead of just his arms, hands and wrists.
Saunders said he'd felt "completely lost" last season when sent by the Mariners to Class AAA in June with a sub-.200 batting average.
"No one wants to perform like I did," he said, adding that he tried four or five different batting stances his first week after the demotion. "And I was struggling with some things off the field. I just felt like a little kid. I didn't know what to do."
Josh Bard was in AAA at the time as well and suggested contacting his brother over the winter. Saunders said he let Chambliss know the pair would be working on things and filled him in on his progress before camp began.
Saunders feels the program helped make basic changes to his plate approach that Chambliss had looked for last season and says he's excited to try them this spring. Chambliss insists he's merely in "watch mode" with Saunders for now and will see whether his training improves things.
Delabar went from being a substitute high-school teacher with a blown-out arm to a major-leaguer within months last year after using a new program — dubbed "Velocity" — at a facility in his Kentucky hometown owned by friend Joe Newton. Delabar was coaching high-school baseball at the time and wanted to try the program — meant to build strength in pitchers' shoulders — before letting his players use it.
One byproduct of the strengthening program is that it increases throwing velocity. Delabar's velocity quickly crept up beyond 90 mph on flat ground, which led to a minor-league deal with the Mariners and a major-league debut in September.
So, when the season ended, Delabar had no doubts about continuing the program. It involves numerous throwing sessions at varying distances with both heavier and lighter balls to overload and underload the shoulder with resistance.
"They call it 'Velocity' because if they called it a shoulder strengthening regimen it wouldn't be as catchy or attract as many people," Delabar said. "But it's really just something you'd want to do anyway in the offseason if you're a pitcher. Make your arm as strong as it can be and then allow that to last you for the season."
Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said the regimen is somewhat different from what the team's custom-designed workouts would entail.
"But when you see what he did last year, he'd be crazy not to do it again," Willis said.
Willis agreed that the most important thing was that Delabar let him know what his routine involved and kept him updated. That way, he said, there are no surprises.
Chambliss can't understand why many organizations frown at players using instructors and trainers not employed by the team. Many times, he said, a parent will have coached the player since childhood.
"I was with the Reds when Ken Griffey Jr. was there," Chambliss said. "And Ken Griffey Sr. would come in and work with him on things even though he wasn't officially with the organization. What are you going to do? Tell them, 'No, you can't?' "
Chambliss said it's better to try to understand what is working for the player and incorporate it into what the team wants to achieve. The only time he'd step in, he added, is if the outside work clearly isn't helping.
"I'm not here to be the guru with all the answers," Chambliss said. "I'm here to see what works best for these guys and help them figure out how to be the best they can be."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @gbakermariners
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