By Cole Parkinson
As the months begin to bring colder weather, the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball Jets have parked in the hangar.
The winter months bring plenty of development and training for the team and despite cold weather, there’s still plenty of baseball happening in downtown Vauxhall.
First up will see Jets players hit the weights and try to put on some muscle.
“Basically bigger, stronger, faster and the physical training will take priority, especially of the next two to three weeks — it will all be physical training. Then we’ll start to focus on some individual baseball development after that. Right now, our priority is getting stronger, making sure we’re healthy and then build from there,” explained Les McTavish, head coach for the Jets. “We’ve got two great strength coaches — Jeff Krushell oversees our program and Alex Sirard with EVO Athletics out of Lethbridge is full-time with us in the winter. We’ve got two great guys leading the charge on the physical side of things.”
With players from Grades 10-12, there are all sorts of different body sizes within the locker room. One thing the coaching staff wants to see over the winter months is a commitment to get bigger and stronger. While baseball skill is high with this year’s group, there’s still plenty to grow on from the physical side of things.
“Basically, with the group we have right now, physically they are a physically immature group in terms of size and strength, but they have lots of baseball tools and ability. So, the biggest thing is to just get stronger. It’s not always about putting on weight, it’s about getting stronger and when you’re 15, 16, 17 years of age, it’s pretty standard across the board. This year across the board, I think we’d weigh a little bit less, be a little bit less physical than we have the last few years. They do a really good job with our strength and conditioning — it’s individualized and depending on your position, age, and where you are developmentally, you work your way through it. We’re pretty excited to get going,” stated McTavish.
After the first few weeks of physical training, the team and coaches will start transitioning into baseball development which means a heavier focus on individual skills. The coaching staff was incredibly pleased with the pitching staff in the fall season and over the winter, the hope is to build on their stamina and velocity.
“On the pitching side, you’ll look on the mechanical side. You’ll start to look at that. As a group, we throw more strikes than we have in a lot of years, but we do need to see some velocity increase, so there will be a couple of things we’ll look at to increase that. It goes hand in hand with strength and conditioning, and getting bigger and stronger. That would be our focus on the pitching side — build off what they have,” explained McTavish. “There are two ways to think about it — yes, you throw harder, but you don’t continue to throw strikes, so it’s null and void. We’re really happy with our strike-throwing ability with this group, so we’re hoping a little bit of a velocity uptick will take them to the next level.”
Another big focus will be keeping their arms healthy throughout the winter. The pitchers have already started their throwing programs and that will continue well into 2022 before the weather warms and they hit the diamond again.
“Our focus in the winter for our group has always been — we do a 12-week progression program and we work our way through the mechanical side in November and in December we start throwing the first week and we have 12 weeks to get ready to perform in games. That takes us somewhere into early March and then you build pitch counts from there. So, that is our focus,” added McTavish.
While the pitchers look to develop velocity, VAB hitters will also be looking at developing better pitch recognition and working on their timing. With great equipment at their disposal to better condition their players for hard-throwing pitchers they’ll see in the spring, Jets hitters will be able to work on their approach when they get to the plate during game situations.
“On the hitting side, we like the group. Jim (Kotkas) and Joel (Blake) kind of handle the hitters and they’re pretty happy with it. Again, strength will be key, but probably as much as anything with the group we have right now, is they’ll have some mechanical things they’ll work on through the month of November and into December,” continued McTavish. “Then it will be really getting into velocity training and we have a machine that cranks it up pretty good. So you’re facing 90-95 mile an hour fastballs and then adding in sliders and all the others. I know Jim and Joel are pretty excited because we never got a great opportunity to do a lot of that over last winter. Two winters ago we did before the shutdown, but last winter we didn’t get a great opportunity because it was in and out of indoor facilities.”
“It’s a good group and they want to get after it. Everybody appreciates spending time on development right now, more than ever. After a year of shut down, open up, shut down, open up, I know I appreciate having consistency and work. I think the kids will flourish from that.”
Rest and recovery will also be managed for both hitters and pitchers throughout the winter months. McTavish explains the relationship between coaches, therapists, and players is crucial to identify when guys need rest.
“And recovery — each player will be individual based. Some players, as you get bigger and stronger, you might get sore in spots. You have to listen to your body and it’s a two-way street. Our therapist, Greg Morrison, is a part of that and he treats athletes every Wednesday,” stated McTavish. “Then you have the strength and conditioning side and then you have the baseball component. You have to have an open door and a good verbal dialogue between the coaches and player because ultimately you are trying to figure out how to be as good as you possibly can next April, May, June, July, and August — not be great in December.”
While the physical side will definitely be a focus, the mental side of baseball can be a grind for players. While it’s hard to create game situations during practice, the Jets do their best to prepare players for big moments the game could bring in the spring.
“There’s a lot of kids that yeah, they might throw super hard indoors on a mound, but we need you to be good when it matters outside and the bases are loaded, the runners are in motion, there’s a crowd, and scouts are watching. That’s all things we try to slowly pick away at in the winter and I think this group is ready to work on,” said McTavish.
And with that, staying on top of mental health can be a challenge but it’s a crucial facet of everyday life.
“I think it is certainly underdeveloped by all of us — it’s so hard to measure the mental side. If you get stronger and you can lift more weights, it’s easier to measure that. The mental component, we try hard to work at and it’s the coaching staff — we have Josh Hoetmer who works with our players and we have Josh Burgmann, who is a pro with the Chicago Cubs, that helps with our players,” explained McTavish. “I think the first part of the mental side is for players to recognize they need a bit of help or there are things they can improve on the mental side, and I think we all can.”
While it can be a hard thing to see and measure, the Jets also try to create an environment that is fun while also challenging.
“We have some fun with it. We’ve thrown bullpens over the years where there’s banging cans, music cranked, and guys screaming in their ear while they’re trying to throw strikes,” said McTavish. “You can never simulate a live game, but you have to be creative and if anything, in Canada we try to make something out of nothing in the winter. As you can see in the World Series, mental toughness is key.”