Fort Myers, Fla. – Jose Berrios pitched on Sunday. Early Monday morning, he walked alone to left field in an empty Hammond Stadium and endured a workout that looked like a form of punishment.
He sprinted forward and backward, seeming to meditate between sets, then wrapped his body in blue bands. Looking like he had been entrapped by a large, colorful spider web, he practiced his pitching motion, then a few moves that looked more suited to ballet than baseball.
You kept waiting for him to execute the Crane Kick from “Karate Kid.”
This winter, Berrios, the best young pitcher in the Twins rotation, pushed cars to strengthen his legs. He’s always been built like a boxer; now he looks like he’s smuggling grapefruits under his jersey. Whether that makes him the best pitcher he can be remains to be determined.
“I feel great,” Berrios said. “Wonderful. I feel stronger.”
He’ll start Friday against Tampa Bay, five days after saying his goal for the 2018 season is to contend for the Cy Young Award.
“Right now I feel I’m moving better on the mound, I feel all of my body going forward, together. That way I don’t put too much strain on my arm. Nice and easy.”
The question is not whether Berrios will do all he can to succeed but whether, in baseball, maximum effort yields maximum results.
Marty Cordova won the Rookie of the Year award in 1995 and drove in 111 runs in 1996. I visited him the next winter and went through his boxing workouts with him. He lifted weights several times a day, focusing on different muscle groups. He could have entered a bodybuilding contest.
Perhaps working out on a concrete floor at a boxing gym was unwise. Cordova developed a sore heel. In 1997, the budding star played in just 103 games and batted .246. He would never again drive in 70 runs in a season.
Modern athletes can be too dedicated. Instead of letting their bodies rest, many of them risk muscle fatigue and repetitive stress injuries with intense offseason workouts.
The Hall of Fame is filled with players who kept it simple, or hibernated during the winter. Bert Blyleven believed in running, and more running. So did Dennis Eckersley. Kirby Puckett never worked out during the winter until 1996.
Nolan Ryan lived on an exercise bike. Paul Molitor worked out but concentrated, during the winter, on leg strength and flexibility, not adding bulk.
The Twins have rightfully worried about the conditioning and weight of a handful of players in recent years, including Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes, Kennys Vargas and Miguel Sano. With Berrios, they worry he’ll pull a hammy pushing a Hyundai.
“I love the kid,” Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey said. “His work habits and work ethic are off the charts. I will say, there are times I see that and want to say that as a young kid, maybe you should work smarter, not harder.
“The challenge with young players is they think that the routine they have right now that they’ve been doing that got them here and it can’t change at all or they’ll go sideways. It’s superstition, or the way their body feels.
“I think you have to be more attentive to explaining why a player can change his routine and not screw up his performance. He may be able to enhance his performance by being a little more thoughtful about that work.”
For most of the game’s history, baseball conditioning was so rudimentary that players felt obliged to look for third-party training. The Twins won two World Series without a dedicated weight room in the Metrodome.
Third-party trainers tend to create remarkably well-conditioned athletes but don’t always create better, or healthier, baseball players.
“I want to play, have a long career, so I have to prepare myself,” Berrios said.
That’s not his only goal. “I have too many,” he said with a smile. “I want to help the team make the playoffs again. For me, I want to win 20 games and make the All-Star Game. If I can accomplish those two things, I think I can be up for the Cy Young Award.”
Achieving those goals will have more to do with him controlling his fastball than pushing a Ford.