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Hitting, Speed and Strength Training with Jimmy Rollins

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Fresh off scoring the Philadelphia Phillies’ Minor League Player of the Year award, an 18-year old baseball player is handed an official scouting report from his own organization. The words on the page seem to make no sense to the kid, who’s been dreaming of playing Major League baseball since he was eight years old; who was rewarded with five swings for shagging hundreds of balls during his mother’s softball practices; and who watched Rickey Henderson religiously to learn the art of base theft.

One line in the report stuck out, and he kept reading it over and over: “Jimmy Rollins has reached his peak in this game. He will not play at the next level.”

While some players, after being judged this way, would’ve called it a day and hung up their cleats, the young J-Roll used it as his motivation to take over the game of baseball. In fact, the explosive shortstop was far from done. “I was 18 years old; I had a lot of baseball left in me,” Jimmy says. “I had a lot of growing up and learning to do, [so] I wasn’t mad at them for making those reports, but it forced me to look at myself and step up.”

Jimmy’s new source of motivation coincided with a changing of the guard in Philly, setting up a historic course. “Fortunately, we brought in a whole new regime and started from scratch,” Jimmy recalls. “Lee Elliott, a really good man, brought me into his office and read me those reports. He tore them up and threw them in the garbage can right in front of me. He told me to prove those reports wrong. Two years later, I was in the Big Leagues.”

Jimmy did more than just make it to the Show. Since 1998, when that report was handed down, Jimmy has racked up a handful of All-Star appearances as one of the best defensive shortstops and all around hitters in the game. His most impressive feat, however, came last season in the form of the National League MVP. “I don’t really know what criteria it takes to be an MVP in any sport,” Jimmy says. “When I started hearing my name mentioned, I was like, ‘Are these dudes for real?’ I asked myself, ‘What am I doing that’s so special?’ I felt like I had so much more I could do. I could be a better hitter, a better runner and a better fielder.”

During his MVP campaign, J-Roll made history as the fourth player ever to hit 20 homeruns, 20 triples, 20 doubles and steal 20 bases in the same season. Throw in his .296 batting average and you have an obscene amount of offensive output from the 5’8” gamebreaker. The all-around nature of Jimmy’s game indicates a special ability that goes beyond the physical; he has an intricate knowledge of the game, which he got from his mother. “She was a thinker when she played softball,” Jimmy says. “She was thinking two to three plays ahead, so when the situation arose, she knew how to react. My game strategy came from her.”

Polishing Jimmy’s mom-instilled strategizing skills and taking them to another level was his father’s doing. “We used to go to Oakland A’s games,” Jimmy says. “I was just there to watch my favorite players and smell the sweet tobacco. Then one day, my father says to me, ‘Tell me what’s going on in the game.’ I told him I just wanted to watch. He told me, ‘No, you study the game.’ It took me three or four times watching to figure out what he wanted me to do, [but] then I understood what baseball was— why he didn’t pitch to the guy or why he hit the cut-off man, while I’m up there screaming for him to throw out the runner at home.”

Jimmy combines his knowledge of the game with his athleticism and surprising power to create a near perfect package. He is always stumped when he’s asked how someone his size—5’8”, 175 pounds—hits 30 homeruns. “I don’t know how I have power, but I’ve always surprised people,” he says. “I guess it just comes from when I was younger and my father used to say, ‘Be strong.’ I just look for what I can do to the best of my abilities. For example, I know this: I’m going to be short, I’m going to be fast, and I’m going to be strong. I’m never going to hit the ball as far or as majestic as Ryan Howard or Barry Bonds. But if the wall is 330 feet away, and I hit it 332 feet, I get the same result. If the bases are loaded, it’s a grand slam.”

His shots might lack the wow factor of a Ryan Howard slam, but Jimmy has always satisfied the fans with his upbeat attitude and Bay Area swagger, two quickly evolving J-Roll trademarks. “Some athletes forget how blessed we are to be able to do this,” he says with a smile. “We have great health, and we are doing something we love. When I’m in a rut, I take a step back onto the grass and look into the stands and see all the people who came to watch us play baseball. I was once that kid in the stands wanting to play. They want to see me run, see me hit and see me entertain. They didn’t pay money to see me be a robot and head directly to the dugout. I signed up for this. Nobody made me play baseball.”

The Philly faithful were definitely entertained last year during the Phillies’ epic end-of-the-season playoff clinch and Jimmy’s 20-20-20-20 MVP explosion, which he capped with a triple in his last at bat of the season—in true J-Roll style. And while he knows that Philly fans and baseball pundits tend to overhype awards and place undue pressure on repeating, Jimmy doesn’t care. “No one can put more pressure or expect more out of me than myself,” he says. “I want to go out there and gain the respect of my peers. I want them to know I was great defensively, I was a pain on the base paths and I could hit with power. I go out to be the best. The awards can come later.”

With the NL MVP still sinking in and the new season upon him, Jimmy must look forward and find a way to improve on history. Maybe he should turn to what he calls the best piece of advice he ever received. “It was 1996—my senior year in high school—when the Seattle Mariners were thinking about taking me in the second round,” he says. “I went up to Seattle and got to meet Ken Griffey Jr. Grif pulled me aside and told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. They’re drafting you for a reason. Along the way, you’re going to have a lot of guys trying to change you, tell you what to do and what your best assets are. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to answer the bell.’”

Keep doing what you’re doing, Jimmy.

Control Your Body, Control the Game
Twice a week throughout last off-season, Jimmy handed himself over to Aaron Sistrunk, strength and conditioning coach at Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. In an effort to make the ’07 NL MVP even more valuable, the two men meet at CHA’s sister school, Springside, which has amazing field house facilities.

“With any athlete, I [look for] flaws and figure out how I can make them better,” Sistrunk says, “When I first saw Jimmy, I knew I could get him a little bit stronger and a little bit faster to steal more bases. His first three to five steps are amazing, but we’ve gotten him even faster and a lot stronger. The big thing is his stamina. When we first started, he felt like he was going to throw up. Now he’s able to get it done and even crack jokes along the way.”

As Jimmy tells it, Sistrunk’s training keys are core stability, body control and the ever-painful contrast method. “It’s all about core and body control,” Jimmy says. “He loves working contrast so that I’m able to call upon my muscles late in the game. I’m going to need that muscle to steal a bag in the ninth inning to win the game—or in the 14th inning, or when it’s real hot in the summer and my body wants to give up.”

Sistrunk’s contrast method is the reason these training sessions are so grueling. “Contrast means giving him resistance, then taking it away and making him do the same exercise so he can go faster,” Sistrunk says. “It’s not just a physical thing; it’s also a mental thing.”

Basically, Sistrunk kicks Jimmy’s butt, then makes him run when his legs are burning.

Jimmy knows that to build on last season’s impressive performance, he needs to take his fitness to an even higher level. “I’m looking to reach that peak where my body is in the best shape it can ever be,” he says. “You see guys playing football or basketball or baseball, and you look at them and think, ‘Man that dude works out hard,’ or ‘He is really put together.’ I want people to look at me and be like, ‘Damn, Jimmy’s looking good and must be working out. He must be serious and dedicated to his sport.’”

The price for that sort of respect is evident on this day. After an intense dynamic warm-up and quick partner stretch routine, Jimmy is physically and mentally prepared to attack what Sistrunk has planned for him. Already dripping with sweat, he looks at Sistrunk and asks, “You gonna kill me again today?” Sistrunk answers with only a smile and walks back out to the center of the gym floor.

Speed, Agility and Power

Speed Lunges
• Step forward with right leg and lower into lunge position until left knee is just off ground. Pause two counts
• Without changing hip or shoulder level, quickly step forward with left leg and assume lunge position with right knee just off ground. Pause for two counts
• Repeat over specified distance
• Immediately turn around and sprint back to start line
Reps/Distance: 4×30 yards
Coaching points: Maintain your base of support // Don’t let your knee go past your big toe // Keep your abs tight and your body under control.
Sistrunk: If Jimmy can lift 500 pounds, that’s great. But I’m more concerned with control of your body on the field, so it doesn’t always matter how much you can lift.
Rollins: These burn! You want to cheat by popping up because it hurts so much. But you know if you pop up, you’re only cheating yourself. That’s where the focus and the dedication to your sport come in. You have to draw on your body to get these things done.

Falling Starts
• Stand with feet hip-width apart and arms at sides
• Without bending at waist, lean forward as far as possible without tipping over
• Explode into sprint by stepping forward with left foot
• Perform next rep with right leg first
Reps/Distance: 4×30 yards
Sistrunk: This is a way to get his legs back from the Speed Lunges and improve his body control. We want to make sure he doesn’t elevate once he gets his legs underneath him. We want very efficient movement.

Resisted Starts
• Assume athletic stance with partner providing band resistance from behind
• Explode into sprint and drive arms and legs with proper start technique for specified distance
• Immediately free self from band, turn around and sprint back to start line
Reps/Distances: 4×20 yards
Sistrunk: This is all contrast. It’s giving resistance, and then taking it away so the athlete builds his hamstrings and glutes and learns to accelerate. Keep your nose over your toes, head above shoulders and back straight. We want a fluid movement with elbows at 90 degrees and hands going from hip pocket to eye socket.
Rollins: Getting pulled is the fun part; it gets your adrenaline going because you want to beat whatever is pulling you back. Running back is the hard part. I fell probably three times when I first started doing these.

Resisted Shuffle
• Assume athletic stance with partner providing band resistance from left
• Shuffle right for specified distance while partner provides steady and continuous resistance
• Alternate direction each rep
Reps/Distance: 4 x20 yards
Sistrunk: One of the weakest areas on a man is his hip region, and this helps [work] that. It improves lateral movement and also teaches him to keep his base of support and center of gravity low. Initiate the movement with your inside hip.

Overhead Med Ball Throws
• Assume athletic stance and hold med ball in front
• Lower into squat and explode through hips, knees and ankles to throw med ball as high as possible and slightly back
• Jog to med ball, pick it up and repeat
Sets/Reps: 4×10
Sistrunk: Use your hips to fire the ball up; it’s not an arm movement. This exercise doesn’t look that tough, but it gets very difficult. If you learn how to use your hips properly with good body control, that will help you in any sport, whether you’re swinging a bat or changing directions.
Rollins: This is my favorite—maybe it’s an athlete thing. When you think of power , you just think , “I want to be strong and show how strong I am.”

Ground Balls on Speed Ladder with Med Ball
• Begin with left foot in first box of ladder and right foot outside to the right. Hold med ball in front
• Lower into ground ball fielding position, gently touching med ball to ground
• Quickly shuffle feet so right foot lands in second box and left foot lands outside and to the left
• Immediately lower into ground ball fielding position, gently touching med ball to ground
• Repeat continuously for length of ladder
• Perform backwards down length of ladder
Reps: 3 (down and back is one rep)
Sistrunk: When he has to move like this on the field without the med ball, it will be a lot easier. This works body control and improves lateral movement—being able to come at full speed, then stop on that outside foot.

Strength

Dumbbell Squat Press
• Assume stance slightly wider than shoulder width, holding dumbbells at shoulder level with palms facing you
• Lower into squat until top of thighs are parallel to floor
• Drive up out of squat position and press dumbbells overhead while rotating palms away from you
• Return to start position and repeat
Sets/Reps: 4×10
Coaching points: Load the hips and fire through // Keep your knees behind your big toes // Keep the press motion tight, like you’re punching toward the ceiling
Sistrunk: The “Arnold” Press works the shoulder girdle and traps. Jimmy has gone up to 50- or 60-pound dumbbells with this.

Kettlebell Swings
• Assume athletic stance with slight knee bend, holding kettlebell in front
• Rotate right and bring kettlebell outside and just below right hip
• Explosively rotate back to center, swinging kettlebell forward and overhead
• Immediately bring kettlebell down and left to outside of left hip
• Repeat back and forth in continuous, controlled fashion
Sets/Reps: 4×20 (10 each way)
Variation: If kettlebells are not available, perform with 8- to 10-pound med ball
Sistrunk: Use very light weight with these. It’s great for the hips and transverse abdominals, which help with that explosion needed to hit the ball.

Inverted Row on Straps
• Hold handles at end of straps attached to pull-up bar
• Lean back until arms are straight and body is at 45-degree angle
• Keeping body completely straight, pull yourself up by driving elbows back and rotating palms to face each other at top position
• Lower body with control and rotate palms so they face ground at start position
• Repeat for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 4×15-20
Sistrunk: This strengthens the mid-back, shoulders, core and hand grip, which is great for baseball players. Squeeze your scapulas when you pull, and lower your body with control.
Rollins: If you don’t have strong hands, you can’t hit a baseball with any power. You’ll get the bat knocked out of your hands, as they say.

Superman Push-Ups on Straps
• Assume push-up position on straps attached to pull-up bar
• Perform push-ups in a controlled manner for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 4×10-15
Sistrunk: When Jimmy first did these, he was shaking. He’s a lot stronger now, but you can still tell he’s really working. This is for shoulder stability, chest and triceps; it’s a core workout, too. If it’s too difficult, just hold the top position. You’ll feel your abs working.

Back Extensions
• Assume position on Back Extension machine
• Lower upper body until waist is bent 90 degrees
• Fire glutes to raise upper body until it’s in line with lower body
• Lower with control; repeat
Sets/Reps: 4×12-15
Sistrunk: Everyone does crunches, but they need to work their back to balance things out. This helps posture and prevents injury from the constant rotating baseball players do. Before the body moves, tighten your glutes—then bring your body up.

Side Lunge with Overhead Press
• Assume athletic stance and hold dumbbells at shoulder level with palms facing you
• Press dumbbells overhead while rotating palms away from you
• Lower dumbbells to start position, step right and lower into side lunge position with knee behind toes
• Drive back into start position
• Perform Overhead Press
• Repeat movement to left side
Sets/Reps: 4×20 (10 each way)
Sistrunk: This improves groin strength, which helps prevent pulls from lateral movements. Keep your knee behind your toes and drive through your heel. Your butt can go below knee level, but you must be under control. Everything should be in line from your wrist down when you press.

Cable Rotations with Physioball
• Assume athletic position with physioball against sternum and cable system to right
• Hold rope attachment with left hand on left side of physioball. Place open right hand over cable on right side of ball
• Keeping ball tight to chest, explosively rotate left and pivot on right foot, like you are swinging a bat
• Pause and return to start position with control. Repeat for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 3×12 each side
Sistrunk: This is as close to hitting a ball as we can get. Let your core do the work; don’t let your outside tricep kick out to help you. The physioball keeps pressure off your shoulders and keeps you honest with good form.
Rollins: It’s just like hitting, because you’re standing and have to turn. Take that 50 pounds I was doing it with, then take that to a three-pound bat. How much stronger are you going to feel?

Sprinter Crunches
• Lie on back with knees slightly bent and feet on floor
• Perform crunch and bring right knee to chest
• Hold position and pump arms in sprinting fashion three times
• Lower and perform motion with left leg. Repeat in alternating fashion
Sets/Reps: 3×20-25
Sistrunk: Your abs stay engaged the whole time; keep them nice and tight. Don’t just plop back down on the ground. This helps with form running and body control. This exercise can be performed with a medicine ball when the athlete has mastered this level.

Hamstring Curl Variations
• Perform set of hamstring curls with both legs in controlled fashion
• Perform next set in single-leg fashion with lighter weight
• Perform next set by alternating legs each rep
• Perform final set as: 10 reps with both legs, then 10 reps alternating legs
Sets/Reps: 4×10-15
Sistrunk: I do this because so many athletes are quad dominant from everything else they do. We need to balance them out. I believe in shocking the system by doing different things and giving it different demands. Most important is preventing hamstring pulls.

Perfect Swings
Three times a week, Jimmy meets up with Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson at the Hit Doctor in Washington Township, N.J. These sessions have transformed Jimmy into a lumber-wielding, switch-hitting student of the game. “I’ve known Jimmy since 1998,” Thompson says. “Since then, he’s really grown as a hitter, and he knows himself. He has learned how to play the game and how to prepare himself to play. He’ll come back after an at-bat and I won’t even have to say anything. He’ll know he was too anxious or [that he] dipped his shoulder. He makes great in-game adjustments, even from pitch to pitch.”

Jimmy is looking to improve on last season’s historic 20-20-20-20 offensive output, and he has to be perfect to do it. “Hitting is the most flawed thing you’ll do in any sport,” Jimmy says. “If you fail 70 percent of the time, you’re considered great. But when I’m in the cage—a controlled environment—I have to be perfect. I might have to hit six line drives to get three hits, because three might get caught.”

Through a carefully constructed progression, Thompson gets Jimmy focused on the key elements of the perfect swing, then builds him up to full-on perfect cuts.

MVP Hitting Progression

Kneeling Single-Arm Soft Toss
• Near plate, kneel on front knee and extend back leg so that foot is at back of batter’s box
• Using front arm only, hold bat by back shoulder
• Partner will toss ball; hit ball by swinging with front arm in chopping motion
Thompson: We’re trying to develop the proper path to the ball. Your front hand is your guide, and your top hand helps snap and explode through the ball—almost like having an axe in your hand and [swinging] to chop a tree. The movement is just from your elbow to your hand. Being on one knee helps you stay back on the ball and keep a good bat angle. Don’t raise your elbow; you’ll create a different path to the ball.
Reps: 30-40 swings each side of the plate

Standing Single-Arm Soft Toss
• Assume batting stance at plate, holding bat with both hands
• As partner tosses ball, swing with front arm only in chopping motion to hit ball
Thompson: This is the next step of the progression. We have Jimmy stand up and hold the bat with two hands to give him the feeling of hitting.
Reps: 30-40 swings each side of the plate

Front Toss
• Assume batting stance at plate
• As partner tosses balls underhand from behind L-screen 20 feet away, take controlled swings with proper path to ball
Thompson: I can throw more strikes to him this way. He’s just working on trying to get his swing again and get his hands ready. This is a controlled environment, so he can make sure to stay back, keep his balance and just let his hands flow through the ball.
Reps: 50 swings each side of the plate

Live BP
• Assume batting stance at plate
• As partner pitches overhand from behind L-screen 45 feet away, take swings with proper path to ball
Thompson: He’s looking to drive the ball and hit line drives all over the field. This brings [together] all the elements we’ve been working on. Just try to get a nice path and let your hands drive the ball. [Jimmy] told me he had a great season last year because he learned to catch the baseball with the bat right in front of him, not try to kill or lift it. That’s what you are working [toward].
Rollins: Power is generated by bat speed. If you have a short, compact swing and your hands are close to your body, that’s when you’re strongest. If you hold the bat way out and have someone tap it, the bat will move. If you do the same thing with your hands in close, the bat won’t move because you’re stronger there. I have long arms for how short I am, so I scoot up on the plate to bring the ball closer to me.
Reps/Duration: 3-4 rounds for a total of 15 minutes.

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