Two-time reigning MLB hits champion Whit Merrifield and his Kansas City Royals teammates were two weeks away from playing meaningful regular-season games. They had a full offseason of rest, recovery and reconditioning their bodies followed by a month of spring training.
In the aftermath of MLB suspending spring training games and eventually shutting down all camps and putting the season in an indefinite holding pattern as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, players continue to train for the day baseball returns — whenever that happens.
Of course, training looks different in the period of stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, gyms closed and people restricted from gathering in groups of more than 10.
"It's called prison-yard workouts," Merrifield quipped in a phone interview with The Star last week. "You act like you're an inmate. You go out in the yard and do push-ups. You find something to pull on. You find heavy stuff to move around. And you do what you can. Like I said, these are times like we've never seen before. You've got to do what you've got to do to stay in shape and do the best you can. That's all you can do."
Merrifield certainly understands the value of keeping his body conditioned. In an all-star season last year, Merrifield played in all 162 games while playing multiple positions in the field.
He also knows there's a difference between remaining in shape and staying ready to play, the latter being the part that makes this hiatus of undetermined length difficult to navigate.
"Baseball, I've always felt, is impossible to replicate," Merrifield said. "It's impossible to get ready for a game without playing in a game. So all I'm trying to do is keep my body in shape, take the amount of swings I would take in a spring training day, throw, run, keep my legs and arm in shape. But there's no way to replicate.
"I don't care if you face live pitching or take live batting practice, there's no reps like a game rep. You can't do anything in that sense to stay game ready. It's just going to have to be when we get back to that little modified spring training we're talking about having. That's how you get back to being sharp."
Merrifield described himself as "fortunate" to have some pretty nice weather in North Carolina that has allowed him to get outside and run and use nearby baseball facilities. He's been working out by himself.
He estimated it would only take 15-20 at-bats to feel like he was back in the swing of things, though he added, "If the season were to start tomorrow, I feel pretty confident that I'd be — maybe not a sharp as I could be — but pretty confident about going out and being a good player."
Science and circumstance
The task of designing ways for the Royals players to remain physically ready to play largely falls to the strength and conditioning and performance science staffs, including senior director of performance science Austin Driggers, director of performance science/player development John Wagle, major league strength and conditioning coach Ryan Stoneberg and assistant strength and conditioning coach/Latin American coordinator Luis Perez.
They all waded into uncharted waters together when MLB abruptly suspended spring training camps.
Step one, according to Wagle, was simply the strength and conditioning staff finding out what each individual player in the organization had access to.
"In terms of their training, we are still targeting relevant physical qualities through their training," said Wagle, who has a PhD in sport physiology and performance. "Obviously, it has to be relatively-creative in what that program looks like around each individual circumstance.
"Our principles are around injury risk reduction and physical development, those are unchanged. We simply have a unique application given the situation. So that initial information-gathering piece was an important step for us to be able to maintain our principles and be able to still apply them."
While catering to each individual players' circumstances seems daunting, Wagle contends the staff typically aims for a great deal of individualization in training players.
Of course, there are some inherent differences between pitchers and position players. In general, position players will have more of an emphasis on sprinting and change of direction. Meanwhile, conditioning remains the emphasis with pitchers.
Royals players have been given workouts based largely around exercises such as squat jumps, sprinting, push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal exercises.
Wagle said he'd seen examples from the college sports world, such as filling up laundry-detergent jugs to use as dumbbells. He didn't completely rule out that Royals players could turn to similar methods if needed.
The staff also pointed Royals players towards small pieces of equipment like resistance bands and medicine balls that they could obtain.
The overall goals remain establishing and maintaining physical qualities such as strength, power and speed, needed in order to perform as well as developing the resiliency to progressively endure higher workloads.
While not having a target date for when baseball will return makes planning tricky, the sports performance staff usually takes a big-picture approach anyway.
"It does present some challenges from a workload progression standpoint, but player development is a long-term process," Wagle said. "Though there are certainly season demands that we have to prepare the athletes for, we're ultimately trying to progress their development towards being a championship caliber player for our major league team. That's always the goal."
Wagle lauded the spirit of collaboration in the organization, from general manager Dayton Moore through assistant general managers J.J. Picollo, Scott Sharp, Rene Francisco and all the various departments, as well as a shared enthusiasm for problem-solving.
"At the end of the day, the important thing is that they are remaining active and continuing to prepare as an athlete," Wagle said. "... Sprinting can happen anywhere. Conditioning, some of our pitchers go outside and run. Obviously, we encourage them to be as isolated as possible when they do that. The running piece is a big area for us that doesn't require any equipment at all."
Despite the circumstances, Moore said he's confident that the level of competitiveness and desire among the players will prevail. He expects players will continue to hit, throw, keep their legs in shape and do yoga exercises and whatever else is necessary to stay ready.
"I'm not concerned a whole lot about the shutdown," Moore said. "One, you don't want to disadvantage yourself mentally by worrying about it. You can't control it. Two, you better stay in shape because when we do play, we're going to ramp this thing up pretty quick."