Thames uses offseason to reset workout style

Thames uses offseason to reset workout style

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There are lots of ballplayers that spend most of their careers trying to bulk up, but Eric Thames spent most this past offseason trying to keep his overall muscle mass in check.

Toronto's left fielder is obsessed with working out, but it didn't take very long for him to realize that when it comes to playing baseball, there can be serious side effects for getting too big.

Thames reflected on that after his rookie season in the Major Leagues came to an end, and he modified his fitness routine in an effort to better combat the everyday rigours of the Major Leagues.

"From doing some research on pitchers and their mechanics, and hitting, I felt like the biggest thing that killed me was my chest," Thames said. "I didn't do chest at all in the offseason, no pushups or anything, just because I felt like when my chest was tight I couldn't throw.

"I couldn't get as much range of motion, and when I hit, I couldn't get my front elbow down. So I took out all chest workouts, and the only back exercise I do is pullups, but no rows -- it's baseball, I'm not a bodybuilder."

Thames' desire to lift heavy weights has been a tough temptation to resist. If he wasn't playing baseball, Thames said he'd likely be trying to get into the business of World Wrestling Entertainment, because he could bulk up as much as he wanted without any repercussions.

Baseball is another matter entirely, and workout programs need to be finely tuned to the physical activities that take place on the field. When the muscles become too big, the body becomes tight, which could lead to serious injuries. That was one problem Thames had when he played for Pepperdine University and had his final season cut short after rupturing his quad trying to beat out a throw to first base.

At the time, Thames was projected to go as high as the second round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, but his stock dropped and he fell into the seventh round. He learned from that experience and has been making yearly adjustments ever since.

The work continued this offseason when Thames turned to a book called "Stretching Scientifically," which is designed for elite-level martial artists. Thames had done yoga in the past but found that in order to properly train, he required at least an hour and a half a day -- something that just isn't realistic during a baseball season, when there is limited time to work out.

The high-intensity yoga solved that problem by using it in combination with weight training to maximize his time in the gym.

"It was a matter of the way my body type is," Thames said. "I really can't lift as hard as I want to, I can't train as hard as I want to, because I'll get bigger and bigger, and that's not baseball functional. Yoga really started becoming effective when I just realized that I'm kind of hurting my speed [by lifting], because tight muscles don't move as fast.

"The yoga was just a random thought one day, like, 'Hey, I'll try it.' I've tried everything already and I'm still getting hurt. That's how yoga came up, and it paid off. Now I'm doing even finer stuff to tune it so I can have a full season of being at my top performance."

The knock on Thames earlier in his career was that he wasn't a strong enough defensive outfielder to play every day in the Majors. That was something he set out to change in 2011, and the improvements were noticeable as the natural right fielder learned how to get better reads in left.

Thames feels he can take another step forward this season thanks to improved speed due to improved strength and mobility generating from his hamstring muscles.

The biggest difference, though, likely can be found in his arm -- now that he has better range of motion. It's still early in Spring Training, but Thames appears to be having a much easier time making strong throws back into the infield from the corner and the gap in left field.

"[Triple-A hitting coach] Chad Mottola said my throw looks 10 times better than it did last year and the year before, and that they're really happy with my progress so far," Thames said. "That was a goal for the offseason, and I feel like I achieved that, so it's just a matter of keeping it going throughout the year to help this team win."

In order to do that, Thames will first have to make the team, and he's in a heated competition for the starting job in left with Travis Snider. Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos seemed to indicate early in camp that Thames has the advantage by suggesting that Thames' 2011 season -- in which he finished the year as the starter -- would have to count for something this spring.

Last season, Thames made his debut and proceeded to hit .262 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs in 363 at-bats. The extended audition made him feel more comfortable entering camp and also made him realize what it takes to succeed at the next level.

"I feel great, because for the most part players get to have a September callup and they're there for a month, and then the whole offseason they can revamp their swing or make adjustments," Thames said. "But for me, I was just thrown right in there to see what I could do, sink or swim.

"I honestly feel like I did a great job having been put in that situation, and this offseason I went over some stuff and changed some things in my swing, and I think it will help with the sinking pitches and putting backspin on the ball."

If there was one complaint about Thames' production in 2011, it could be found from the overall results in September. The 25-year-old managed to hit just .211 with eight extra-base hits in 26 games. Pitchers made changes to the way they approached Thames, but there's also lots that can be done internally to make the appropriate adjustment.

"I felt like in September -- I know my average dropped off a lot -- but I was tired," Thames admitted. "It was my first full season, usually I'm done by September 6 instead of October, so I was just grinding through it.

"This year, my focus is on diet, because I felt like I ate a lot of bad food towards the end of the year, a lot of big steaks, and it just wears you down. Now, diet's important so I can have that longevity so I can be able to play for a full year and handle that. Pitching-wise it changed, too. They went up, and when I laid off that high pitch they went down. It's like a cat and mouse game."

Gregor Chisholm is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, North of the Border, and follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.