The following is a roundtable in which three distinguished strength and conditioning coaches with a combined total of more than 30 years of coaching experience at the Major League level discuss their thoughts on improving performance through testing and player evaluation.
In all sports, athletes are judged by how they perform in game situations, but the evaluations don’t stop when the games end. Most athletes spend more time in training than they do in competition, and training time usually includes some form of testing. For strength coaches, some of the goals of testing include: 1) assess athletes’ progress; 2) improve planning for the next phase of training; 3) motivate athletes to continue training; and 4) evaluate program effectiveness.
While the ultimate gauge of success is on-field performance, strength and conditioning coaches are tasked with helping players become stronger, faster and more athletic, and testing is the best way to gauge their success. We asked three experienced MLB strength and conditioning coaches (see “The Panel” below) to share their ideas on testing. Their thoughts reveal a variety of approaches, but all have one common goal – helping their athletes improve both on and off the playing field.
How often do you test and why?
Rick Slate: We test to enhance player Development. Players are tested during spring training in order to gather baseline entry metrics. Body weight is measured every two weeks, body composition is determined once per month and grip strength is measured during spring training, mid-season and post season. FMS is measured during spring training and post-season. We use simple, repeatable and sustainable metrics. The majority of our young players are still developing on all fronts – skill, physical and mental. We use test results to educate our players, outline simple metrics and begin teaching the fundamental components of our long term athletic development model. We measure only what players can implement into their progression, plan and program.
Paul Fournier: We test a full gamete of tests in spring training, as soon as possible upon arrival to camp. We retest certain tests throughout the season, every 2 weeks and 4 weeks depending on the tests. We repeat our spring training tests, except the running tests, in Florida Instructional League and at the end of our strength and conditioning camps during the off season.
We test for several reasons. 1) We want our players to be accustomed to being tested and evaluated. Baseball has trended towards an exercise science base philosophy in the past couple years, due to asset value and days lost due to injury. 2) We test to validate our strength and conditioning program. If we see players going backwards as a whole, we re-evaluate our strength and conditioning program and its goals. 3) We test to help evaluate player compliance, especially during the off-season. We use this to help assign personal accountability to each player. The testing program also helps assists in our conversations with players on the “why” of why we do what we do in the weight room and on the field. 4) We use testing during spring training as a red flag system with our strength coaches. The testing program allows the strength coaches to focus on specific player needs, such with squat patterns or hinging. We DO NOT use it as a predictor for injury. We combine test results with the medical assessments gathered by the athletic training staff collects, to “paint a picture” of a player’s strengths, weaknesses and needs.
We believe that testing should reflect the philosophy and goals of our program and the sport itself. For example, if you believe that VO2 max is not important for your organization or sport, don’t test aerobic capacity. I don’t feel predicting performance in baseball through testing is accurate or reliable. Baseball requires high skill. It’s purely neurological, at least in my opinion. Factors such as athleticism and power can play a role, but you can either hit in the big leagues, or throw strikes in the big leagues, or not. With that in mind, we don’t do “performance testing”, we do “testing”.
Jose Vazquez: We use an 8-item battery of tests that have been shown to be reliable and valid predictors of on-field performance1, 2. Each player is tested on the entire battery within the first few days of reporting to spring training and some items, e.g., weight, body composition and grip strength are repeated at periodic intervals throughout the season. Initial test results are used to establish baseline standards for each player. Player results are compared to position-specific standards that have been established over the past seven years to help determine specific needs. They are also compared to their own previous scores to determine progress and compliance.
Individual player profiles are color-coded into “red light – green light” values to help coaches quickly identify the specific strengths and weaknesses of each player. A player, who scores average or above average for a specific item, e.g., grip strength, will have his score colored green. Those that are more than 10% below average will receive a red score and those that are less than 10% below average will receive a yellow or caution score. Color coding results provides a visual aid to help both the coach and player identify areas that require more work.
Spring training testing is designed to establish baseline values. In-season testing is conducted to determine progress, daily testing is used to determine readiness for training and end of the season testing is used to determine progress and evaluate program effectiveness.
What specific tests do you use and why?
Rick Slate: We test in spring training to establish baselines for body weight, body composition, height, grip strength, standing long jump, vertical jump, 10-yard start from a baseball stance and with spikes. We also conduct FMS testing and use Y-balance testing for selected groups of players. Objective numbers are used as entry data points. Subjective information is used to help determine conditioning and running progressions for both position players and pitchers. Because research and previous experience indicates that it takes 30 plus days to get into baseball shape, a coach must have reliable and valid references with which to make evaluations of conditioning status.
Paul Fournier: We test for height, weight, body composition, grip strength average and index related to body weight, single-leg bridge, overhead wall squat, ankle dorsiflexion, broad jump for length and index related to body weight, lateral hop, vertical jump for height and power, T-drill (position players), line drill (position players) and 6 double pole test (pitchers). We also administer a variety of questionnaires concerning personal health and well-being and OmegaWave for starting pitching throughout organization and those at high risk. We have two trial groups being evaluated using Athos and WHOOP measures.
Because we believe in tri-planer movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse), we want to test that. Unfortunately, if you look at my list there is no transverse plane test. There are some tests such as a rotational medicine ball toss for distance and rotation on a Keiser functional trainer that can be performed but they have not worked for us in the past. We have been working with a company utilizing a medicine ball with a built-in accelerometer to determine power and measure distance. Also, with such an increase in rotational work in spring training as well as the few weeks leading up, there may be some risk associated with a test looking at distance, but this is just my opinion.
Some of our tests are designed to determine restrictions in movement, while others are designed to evaluate recovery. We proactively schedule unloading weeks during the season but some of our re-testing may encourage us to make adjustments to the timing of those weeks.
Jose Vazquez. Testing is divided into anthropometric and physiological variables. Anthropometric variables include height, weight and body composition. Physiological variables include bi-lateral grip strength, vertical jump, pro-agility, 10-yard sprint and 300-yard shuttle run.
Height, weight and body composition measures are used to help determine year-to-year changes. Comparisons between individual yearly values help determine individual growth and progress. Comparisons between position-specific values help compare individual players to group norms.
As previously mentioned, the results of several of the physiological tests have been shown to be related to on-field performance. Research on over 1,000 players from Rookie ball to MLB players representing five different professional organizations, e.g., has shown a positive relationship between stolen bases and 10-yard sprint time, between pro agility scores and UZR 150, etc. As such, these results can be used to help assess a player’s readiness to adapt to some of the essential on-field requirements of the game.
We also video and perform a Dartfish analysis of each player during both 10-yard sprints and pro agility runs. Video analysis enables us to determine speed, first-step quickness, stride length, stride rate, leg cycling and acceleration. It also allows us to identify inefficient movement patterns, starting and stopping procedures, take-off angles, energy leaks and movement patterns associated with injury risk.
How do you use test results to help your athletes get better?
Rick Slate: An essential starting point is to compare individual and team scores to industry standards. Using test results, we outline personalized, measurable, simple, and portable training programs that players are responsible for understanding and accepting ownership. The goal is to create independent athletes that understand their personal goals, the training program and the process required for them to maximize in-season training opportunities and lay the fundamental ground work for off-season training.
Paul Fournier: We compare players to other players in the same position group and rank results. It makes it fun for the players and adds a little more motivation for the players to give effort. We will look at each player compared to the average in each position group on our platform and we value that somewhat. But, what we really look at are trends. We graph our results and look for positive trends that could indicate compliance, work ethic, and /or program effectiveness. If there are deficits noted on testing such as below average overhead wall squat and ankle dorsiflexion then a strength coach will focus on mobility work with that player and red flag him from loaded squatting until those numbers change. That goes for all the tests. You can clearly see progress, or in some cases regression, of a player over his career by testing and retesting. There can be a lot of reasons for either progress or regression.
Jose Vazquez: Comparing individual scores to test standards helps coaches zero in on player needs. Results are used to identify what each player needs to improve in order to improve on-field performance. For example, a position player who scores above average on tests of strength but below average on tests of power should devote more time to improving power than strength. Adding strength to a player who is already strong is less likely to improve on-field performance than improving power for a player who has a power deficiency. Testing helps coaches identify each athlete’s strength and weaknesses and set corresponding goals for their next training cycle.
Positive test results can also be used to show players that their hard work is paying off and encourage them to take ownership of their training. When players see positive results, they appreciate that the training workouts are helping them become a better athlete and eventually a better player. Comparing players to others who play a similar position at both the minor and Major League level can also help illustrate how much they will need to improve in certain areas in order to be able to physically compete for a position.
How do you use test results to evaluate the effectiveness of your strength and conditioning program?
Rick Slate: Tracking seasonal progress on the field and in the strength training / conditioning component can provide insight into the effectiveness of the program. Comprehensive record keeping is essential for helping determine if pre- and post-test changes are the result of training or compliance. When players know that they are going to be tested and held accountable, compliance tends to improve. Effective testing programs are those in which the coaches review testing metrics in-season, not just during spring training or after the season and have a thorough understand of the game and its demands on the players. Effective coaches create a clear picture of the strengths and weaknesses of each player and use data to set personalized, obtainable off-season goals.
Paul Fournier: As noted earlier, looking at trends is key for us. If enough trends regress, we will need to make adjustments to our program. Questions that we ask when players regress include: Was recovery incomplete? Did work capacity diminish? Did we hinge enough? Were players who regressed resistant to the program? Did participants lack purpose when in the weight room or during drills? Did they buy into the program or did they lack consistently? Looking at trends is the easy part. Finding reasons why is another story.
Jose Vazquez: We compare the results from the current season to those from the previous years to see if players are improving. We also make comparisons across ages to see if the current 20 year olds, for example, compare to those of previous seasons. If major changes in results occur from year to year, discussions are held with coaches to determine if the differences are related to modifications in the program, overtraining or undertraining.
How do you modify your tests based on position or history of injury?
Rick Slate: Adjustments are made as needed for injured players. Modifications in the basic assessments can often be used to illustrate the weak link as to why the athlete was injured.
Paul Fournier: We don’t administer running tests for the position players in Major League spring training. The reason is because we run a lot during the first 10 days of camp and until games start. They run the bases after warm-up in the morning and then condition at end of day. Other adjustments are usually at the request of the athletic training staff. We often eliminate jumping tests for free agents that have a history of injury as well as veteran players within our own organization that may have degenerative joint disease or something similar. Regardless of position, all of the tests are the same, except for the running tests and the T-drill.
Jose Vazquez: Injured players and those with a history of injury are not tested in movements that involve the injured joint(s) or injured muscle group. Position players do not take the 300-yard shuttle.
How often do you change the tests you use?
Rick Slate: I like to commit 3-5 years of testing before making adjustments. This industry is notorious of running down the rabbit hole, looking for the next best thing. If a test is valid, supports the program, provides effective teaching and coaching points, use it. What was true in the 1990’s and 2000’s can still be true today. Constant change for the sake of change keeps you chasing the Rabbit.
I believe that next valid evaluation component in player development is finding a way to connect the scouting department grading and rating system with that used by the strength and conditioning program. This could be an effective way to link “Talent Identification”. Linking performance factors such as power, arm strength, etc., with conditioning information within the long term athletic development model could create a more effective and efficient approach to player evaluation and development.
Paul Fournier: We have changed our “core” test considerably over the years. We currently perform a single-leg bridge for time. I’m not 100% sold on it. Every year we take time to review what we did and determine what we may need to do differently, whether its frequency of testing or the specific tests themselves. We ask, are we getting what we want from the test or wasting our time and the players’ time?
Jose Vazquez: We have been using the same tests for several years because they are reliable, valid and have direct application to the game. Every year, we look for ways to improve our testing procedure. We will only consider making a modification if the modification has been shown to be more efficient, more reliable, more valid and has direct application to the game. We don’t change for the sake of change.
Rick Slate, RSCC is in his 25th year of work in professional baseball. He is completing his sixth year as Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Atlanta Braves. His first job in professional baseball was with the Florida Marlins. He joined the Marlins one year prior their inaugural season (1993) and spent ten years (1992-2001) as their Head Strength and Conditioning Coach. After leaving the Marlins, he spent eight seasons with the New York Mets as the Head Strength and Conditioning (2002-2010) Prior to entering professional baseball, Rick worked at the collegiate level for four years serving as an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Florida State (1988-1991) where his teams made it to the Sweet 16 in basketball, College World Series in baseball and Sugar and Fiesta Bowls in Football. Rick’s 1997 Marlins team won the World Series and two teams (2006 Mets and 2013 Braves) were NL East champions.
Paul Fournier, LATC, RSCC has been involved in professional baseball for 22 years starting with the Montreal Expos in 1995-1996 as minor league athletic trainer. He served as the rehabilitation and strength and conditioning coordinator for Expos from 1997-2001 before joining the Miami Marlins in 2002 as the Rehabilitation and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator where he was promoted to Major League Strength and Conditioning Director in 2003 and served in that capacity through 2011. He joined the Phillies as Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2012 and was promoted to Major League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2014.
Jose Vazquez, PT, RSCC is in his 12th season as the Texas Rangers Major League Strength and Conditioning Coach. He spent four seasons with the New York Mets serving first as the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator (2002-2004) and later as the Director of Rehabilitation (2005). He was recognized by his peers (Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Society) with the awarding of the 2014 MLB Strength Coach of the Year. During his tenure with Texas, the Rangers have made four playoff appearances (2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016) including back to back trips to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.