Mar 17, 2016An Offseason with Overman
This story, written by Brendan Flynn, originally appeared at SoonerSports.com
Baseball is a grind. In a calendar year, it takes its toll on the body and the mind. The game asks a lot of those seeking to reach the highest level. For a big league player, it requires a six-week commitment to spring training beginning as early as February, a 162-game regular season schedule and for the fortunate another month into the crisp and satisfying air of playoff baseball in October.
There are few days off during the season, which provides little opportunity for recovery or conditioning to come back from or avoid injury. Those that make it from the first pitch of spring training to the final out in October have survived the grind by putting in the work in those in between months known as the offseason.In 2015, 38 University of Oklahoma baseball alums played professional baseball with four appearing in the major leagues. As many of them return to camp for another round of spring training and await assignment for the beginning of the 2016 season, several are armed with the confidence in another offseason of preparation spent back home in Norman.
Over the past few years, Sooner baseball players have been returning to campus in greater numbers to work on their offseason conditioning. A variety of recent Major League Baseball players, top draft picks and promising minor leaguers can be found training at Oklahoma’s athletics facilities nearly every day.
“Everybody is a little different,” stated OU baseball strength and conditioning coach Tim Overman. “A lot of times, our kids get drafted as juniors or before they’re done with school so a lot of them come back to finish their education. It’s been real easy over the last seven or eight years; they’ve come back to the weight room. It’s kind of developed over that time period to be a little bit more structured and specific to each one of their goals to help them achieve their dream of playing in the big leagues.”
Jon Gray, the third overall pick in 2013, debuted for the Colorado Rockies in 2015. Burch Smith, who pitched just one season for Oklahoma, arrived in the majors with the San Diego Padres in 2013. Gray and Smith are two of the most recent Sooners to breakthrough with a big league club and did so in part with offseason training that began with a return to Norman.
“I express it to all our players before they leave that I’m here to help them,” Overman said of the Sooners that have moved on to the pros. “There’s a handful of guys that I’ll send workouts to. Joe Dunigan comes to mind. He came back and trained for a year or two and then wherever he was at the end of the year, he’d e-mail me and say, ‘coach, can I get a workout?’. It’s just one of those things, that guys understand that we’re here to help them.”
This season, Overman oversaw a group that consisted of a World Series champion, newly selected member of a big league club’s 40-man roster and a recent fourth round draft pick in daily training workouts. For five days a week, Overman pushed the group through drills and exercises consisting of lifting, running, throwing and even some aquatic workouts just to name a few.
All three had successful seasons in professional baseball in 2015 and head towards a new season striving for more. Lorenzo Cain, center fielder for the Kansas City Royals, has been working out with Overman in Norman for the past four offseasons. Damien Magnifico, a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers system, has been by his side training each of the last three. This season, they were joined by Anthony Hermelyn, a 2015 fourth round pick of the Houston Astros.
There is a big jump to be made from the collegiate to professional level. Adjusting to a season that operates on a different calendar or focusing solely on the game, rather than time divided between classes and baseball, can be a challenge. However, it’s equally important to stay disciplined and not let the importance of conditioning slip through the cracks.
“You start a whole lot later as a professional player,” Hermelyn acknowledged. “It’s kind of a discipline thing too. In college, you might have a coach breathing down your neck and you’re forced to get in the weight room as a team activity. As far as professional goes, you’re kind of on your own to get your work in. That’s probably the biggest difference. Taking the time and being disciplined enough to get it done on your own.
“There’s really a mindset instilled that working out was a big part of your game. I learned that here at OU. I’ve definitely taken that into professional baseball. Whether I’m, during the season, taking care of my body or in the offseason coming here and lifting with Tim. Lifting is part of my life now and I’m thankful I got that from OU.”
Equally as important as the offseason training and conditioning is the time between that final out of the season and that first workout back on campus. The recovery stage from the grind of the season is necessary to development. No player exemplifies that more than Cain. A 2004 draft pick at 18 years old out of junior college, Cain had limited baseball experience when he hit the field as a professional. To make up for it, he played a lot of baseball over the next few seasons in the Brewers minor league system.
“Lorenzo was a unique situation,” commented Overman. Most baseball coaches, through the grind of the minor league system, they think that they can fix a lot of baseball problems with playing more baseball. It’s nothing against the organization or against Lorenzo, he just never had any time away from baseball to get coached.”
Cain reached Triple-A by 2008, his fourth season in the minors, but injuries set him back and he finished 2009 having played at three levels, peaking at Double-A, and was sent for a second stint to play in the Arizona Fall League.
“You can’t do it in season; you’ve got to do it in the offseason. He was one of those guys they sent down to play the fall league or winter ball because he was inexperienced as a baseball player so they wanted him to play more baseball. That compounded his issues.”
After debuting for the Brewers in 2010 and moving on to the Royals in a trade for Zach Greinke, Cain was soon given the opportunity to finally take the required time in the offseason to focus on recovering from the previous year and preparing for the next. Having married former OU gymnast Jenny Baker, the two would spend their offseason around Norman and Cain was soon connected with Overman through Royals’ strength coach and trainer Nick Kenney.
“Everybody knew that Lorenzo was, what we consider, a long-strider,” recalled Overman. “We all agreed on the issue. He never had that amount of time, structured, to get it fixed. One of the biggest things he improved was dedicating that whole offseason to fixing the cause of the problem.”
“I’m allowing someone to train me. I’m allowing my body to work in different ways,” Cain said of the different approach he took when coming to OU. “He has done everything possible to change my running form and help me strengthen certain areas that I was weak in; that I’ve always injured. He’s been a huge part of that. Just allowing me to be here, workout with him and show me the way to become a better player and make my body as strong as possible each and every year is something that’s really helped me throughout each season.”
It has certainly shown for Cain, who has survived the grind each of the last two seasons as the Royals have played in back-to-back World Series. Also benefiting from Cain’s experience at the highest level of the game are his workout mates Magnifico and Hermelyn.
“I’ve been with Lorenzo the past three years,” said Magnifico. “To me, he’s just a friend. It’s great he’s in the big leagues. I get to pick his brain. He’s helped me with my game. I learn what hitters think and he learns what I’m thinking.”
“My first impression was, he’s just a real humble guy,” continued Hermelyn. “You don’t get to know that side of a person as far as seeing them on TV. You don’t get an idea of what they’re like. I think he’s a great guy and always willing to push you. He’s a real humble guy and great person.”
Cain also recognizes the unique opportunity each of them are in on a daily basis to prepare for another season of professional baseball.
“I was at their level in the minor leagues. I understand where they’re coming from,” said Cain. “They’re hard workers. They come out here each and every day. We push each other to get better and I think that’s what you need.”
Collectively, the group goes relatively unnoticed throughout its daily workouts. Mornings are typically spent working out at the Everest or Mosier indoor facilities or in some cases at the campus pool. While the workouts vary from day-to-day or vary for hitters and pitchers, the goal remains the same. To improve each and every day and reach that next level in the sport.
“You need guys that are going to join you and you all have the same set goal to get to the big leagues,” Cain continued. “That’s why we come here each and every day. We don’t miss days. The main goal is to push each other and just become the best we can.”
Magnifico is coming off his best professional season. As the closer for the Brewers Double-A Biloxi Shuckers he posted 20 saves and a career-best 1.17 earned run average. That production earned him a spot on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster and protected him from last December’s Rule 5 Draft.
Magnifico also put together a strong campaign in the Arizona Fall League to earn his roster spot. With an outside chance at breaking camp with the big league club, he has already made two relief appearances for the Brewers in the first week of games in the Cactus League.
“During the season, when you lift and work out, it’s really to maintain,” stated Magnifico. “You’re not trying to go too heavy or work too hard. When you go out there, you’ve still got to perform. You can’t be tired or get hurt. Here, you want to get stronger. You’re getting better for the season so you can last throughout the season without injury.”
For Hermelyn, his professional career is just beginning. A three-year starter at OU, his bat came to life down the stretch of his junior season. He was assigned by the Astros to Single-A Short Season where he played for the Tri-City ValleyCats of the New York-Penn League. The adjustment from college to the pros was evident as Hermelyn, a former Cape League All-Star, played in 57 games after starting all 61 games for the Sooners from February to May. He managed to hit .241, but slugged just .293 after slugging .453 for OU.
The drive to get better is there for Hermelyn and he finds motivation through those he’s surrounded by during the offseason as he prepares for his first professional spring training.
“I definitely have confidence in Tim. I trust him,” Hermelyn said of his college strength coach. “Everything that he does with you is something that you’re used to and you’re comfortable with. For me, it was a no-brainer coming back here and working out with Tim.
“Damien has got experience at the minor league level and he’s always there if you want to ask him a question. Lorenzo Cain is here. That’s a great guy to pick his brain. He has played in the big leagues now for a couple years and had success. Along with physically getting better you can mentally find things that help your game.”
Overman has been involved with Oklahoma baseball for 15 years and has trained hundreds of ball players. Some of the best talents and some of the hardest workers have reached the major leagues. It’s a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences that have returned to campus over the years to further improve in a pursuit to reach the bigs.
“That’s one of the unique things about this process,” commented Overman. “You get a wide variety of people that have been in it. The younger guys look up to the older guys. Not just because they might be a big leaguer, but they have a connection. They play at the same ballparks, have the same managers, know all these little things and know all the same people. The conversation just flows. At the same time, the young guys learn a lot from the older guys; what the grind is like.”
Time for recovery has passed. Morning workouts for five days a week have been completed. Teams have reported to camp. Games at spring training complexes covering Florida and Arizona have begun. The first pitch has already been thrown, balls have left the yard, runners crossed the plate. All the offseason preparation has led to this; an opportunity to showcase the skills and strength required making it out of camp and continuing to climb the organization’s ladder. With spring training back, the grind isn’t set to start again. It never stopped.