Inside the Toronto Blue Jays high performance department
Written by Simon Austin — May 12, 2017
CLIVE BREWER has arrived at the Toronto Blue Jays via Widnes rugby league and Manchester United. He gave TGG an exclusive insight into their high performance department:
HOW DID THE MOVE COME ABOUT?
Clive Brewer: "After leaving Widnes, I did about a year’s consultancy - with a couple of Premier League clubs, including Manchester United, and some stuff in the States with an Australian company. It was nice for a year, but I wanted to be part of a story again. I got three offers – one from a Premier League club, one from a company over here and one from the Blue Jays. This was the one that promised to take me out of my comfort zone the most."
WHY DID A BASEBALL TEAM CHOOSE SOMEONE WITH NO EXPERIENCE OF BASEBALL?
"I knew nothing about baseball, but a lot of the guys I work with here know nothing other than baseball, so it’s a nice mix. I work in a high performance department, which is new in the States, we are trying to break ground. We are trying to bring everyone in on a collective discussion about the athlete - using numbers, monitoring, science. The strength and conditioning coaches I work with at the Blue Jays are among the best I’ve encountered, but they weren’t always part of the bigger picture before. Getting them working in collaboration with athletic trainers and physios hasn’t always been the norm over here, whereas I’d suggest it is in the UK.
The rest of the world has asked ‘how did the UK go from one gold at the Atlanta Olympics to being second in the medal table within 20 years?’
Our competitive advantage was in how we looked after our athletes, in sports medicine, science and strength and conditioning. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in advancing all three of those. America has taken a different view of innovation in performance in the past because of their volume and turnover of athletes. That's changing now.
Saying all that, I might have 20 years’ experience, but over here I have zero. Baseball has been around for 120 years, it’s the oldest professional sport in the States. The challenge is how do you make a difference and sustain your competitive advantage?"
Clive Brewer joined the Blue Jays in February 2016 as the Assistant Director of High Performance. He is a fellow of the UK Strength & Conditioning Association, a chartered sports scientist with the UK Science Council and is accredited by UKSCA, NSCA & BASES. He has consulted with Manchester United, Liverpool Ladies, Scotland National rugby league and is the human performance consultant for USA Football.
He was head of strength and conditioning coach with Widnes Vikings Rugby League for three years. His third book, “Developing athletic movement skills” is published by Human Kinetics.
WHAT DOES YOUR JOB INVOLVE?
"My role is about integrating nutrition, psychology, data, strength and conditioning, and sports medicine. I don’t have to be an expert in any one of those areas, I just have to know enough about each one to support the experts.
In a nutshell, our aim is to have our best players available as often as we can and optimally prepared for each performance. We have an orchestra of individuals and our job is to enable them to flourish.
Our director of high performance, Angus Mugford, was brought in to manage the culture and environment and set a climate for change.
I could use a hurdler as an example. A physiologist would tell you the athlete needs to run faster between the hurdles. A biomechanist would tell you they need to push off harder. A psychologist will tell you they need to visualise their centre of mass going lower over the hurdle. Change any one of those variables and it messes up the others. We try and get all these experts together and say ‘what does the athlete need?’ It may sound simple – it isn’t – but this integrated approach has not been the norm in the States. Unless you can throw money at everything and always buy the best players, this is the only way you can stay ahead of the game."
WHO IS IN YOUR PERFORMANCE TEAM?
"We have teams of strength and conditioning coaches, athletic trainers, physios, three psychologists, two nutritionists and a network of consultant doctors and surgeons. I would say that’s pretty similar to a big Premier League side."
WHAT’S YOUR SCHEDULE BEEN LIKE TODAY?
"I opened with medical meetings at 6.30am, then I had a phone call with my boss, who is in Michigan with one of our feeder teams, a rehab session with a player where we looked at his running mechanics, calls to four scouts to talk about players for the draft. Later on I’ve got four hours’ data to go through from last night’s game, looking at how much time players spent on their feet last night, last week, and how this compares to what they have done in the last four weeks. This will be communicated to the coaches."
AND FOR THE NEXT FEW DAYS?
"I’m usually based here in Dunedin, Florida, at our Bobby Mattick Training Center. On Sunday, I go to Atlanta to test some players we might want to draft. In the evening I’ll fly to Montreal, where we are spending some time with Cirque du Soleil to see what they do and hopefully share some ideas.
Then I go to the Major League team in Toronto for four days to do some hands-on work with them and have draft preparation meetings. After that it’s onto Michigan, to spend some time with one of our affiliates in Lancing and a conference at the US Olympic Centre. At any one time I could be in the States, Canada or the Dominican Republic, where we have an academy for Latin America players."
TELL US MORE ABOUT THOSE DRAFT PREPARATIONS
"As I say, we’re doing that now. It involves going over scouting reports, fitness tests, medical information. Our first-round drafts are signed for 5 to 6 million dollars. If you’re paying that for a 21-year-old kid, you want to know as much as you can about them, so in three or four years’ time they can become the face of your franchise. The analytics is a massive part of what we do and our guys are really, really good at it. That’s been a massive help to me, having mathematical geniuses providing this expertise. Our drafted players will come in in June and spend a training camp with us, becoming full-time pros in our short-season teams before returning for their first full season in spring training the following March. Altogether we have 200 players in our system."
WHAT IS THE BIGGEST DIFFERENCE TO WORKING AT SAY, MANCHESTER UNITED?
"Logistics really. At Manchester United, the players go into Carrington every day. They may have three games a week, but in between they’re at Carrington. They live at home. At the Blue Jays we don’t have that.
Our upcoming schedule is four days in Toronto, three days in New York, three days in Tampa, three days back in Toronto with Cleveland, Seattle and Atlanta at home, before Atlanta and Baltimore away.
In season we have 162 games in 180 days, with half the time on the road. In the close season, the players go home - but home may be Vegas, Georgia, Florida. They’re all over the place.
If Tony Strudwick wants to communicate with Jose Mourinho, he walks down the corridor. If I want to communicate with a Major League coach, I have to find out where he is, what time zone he’s in and phone him. It’s vastly different model.
If Manchester United have an injury to a first team player and want to call up a reserve, the reserve will be based at Carrington. It’s a fairly easy change. Our reserve players are based in New York where their professional franchise is. The logistics are vastly different."
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH ALL THAT TRAVEL?
"Our team recently did a trip where we finished in Toronto at 2pm, flew 4,000 miles to LA where there was a three-hour time difference, then went down to St Louis, which was another six hours of flying. We have to have superb logistics to ensure that this takes as minimal a toll as possible. We call ahead to our charter airline service to make sure the players are getting the same nutritious, fresh foods they would at home. We minimise waiting around. We plan ahead to find out about the visiting gyms and the conditions we’ll be training in and prepare accordingly.
In Toronto we have a home gym, but on the road we are at mercy of what the host club wants to provide us with. Every stadium has to have a visiting weights room, but they can vary from very good to only meeting minimal requirements. Everyone takes batting practice on the Major League fields in the afternoon before a game. We may be doing it indoors, or in Texas in 110 degrees. That’s another variable."
IS SLEEP A BIG FACTOR?
"Sleep is the biggest recovery agent any player can have. We have links with one of the world’s leading sleep experts, Dr Cheri Mah at the University of San Francisco, and she works with us to put together routines with the players. It’s a very important piece of the puzzle.
We’re looking at how players can prepare their hotel rooms, getting it completely individualised. Some of our major league guys are on 17, 18 million dollars a year – so they are pretty valuable resources. We work with them to create their own sleep environment at home as well. When they’re on the road they’ll take their pillows with them. With the amount of travel we do there’s no way we can transport the mattresses, even though we would like to."
HOW DO BASEBALL PLAYERS COMPARE TO FOOTBALLERS IN TERMS OF ATHLETICISM?
"Let’s start with the art of hitting a baseball, which is absolutely phenomenal. There is someone standing 60 feet and six inches away on a mound throwing a ball at you and you have less than 0.8 seconds to decide where it’s going and then hit it. The average fast ball in major league last year was 92.7mph. Allowing for release points from the hand, this means the hitter has 0.393 seconds to process.
Anyone who can hit a fast ball is doing a phenomenal job. You almost have to start the swing before the ball has left the pitcher’s hand. That is a real athletic achievement. We also push a lot of explosive sprinting skills here. We won the divisional series last year with a guy managing to sprint into home and dive to get ahead of a thrown ball.
There are awesome examples of athleticism in a sport not necessarily associated with athleticism. A couple of weeks ago Chris Coghlan scored a run by doing a somersault over a catcher. Our fielder Kevin Pillar has his own highlights reel. And doing that amongst the sheer grind of 162 games in 180 days – and that’s before the play offs. That’s impressive.
Baseball doesn’t require guys to run 11km a game like soccer. So the physiology is very different but the underpinning athletic qualities are very similar."
HOW DOES YOUR CONDITIONING WORK COMPARE TO A FOOTBALL TEAM'S?
"There are things we do here that I wish we’d had access to in the UK. There are definitely things soccer could learn from a baseball conditioning programme.
The variation in exercise to achieve the same output is much greater here, probably because we are dealing with a bigger volume of players of games. This means you can apply different exercises to individuals in an effective way.
If you have six exercises you’re limited, but if you have 18 you can address the individual variation much more. We do this using kettle bells, dumbbells, multi-directional movements with weights. The physio we brought in has also been really outstanding. She has taught the strength and conditioning coaches how to better assess the preparation of the players in a systematic, structured way. There’s a common language between our medical and conditioning departments, which is huge."
WHAT’S YOUR HOME GYM LIKE?
"We’ve changed the gym at the rehab centre three times and completely revamped the one at our major league stadium. It was mainly about creating a better use of space. We’ve got a turf sled track through the middle of the facility that we didn’t have before. We do a lot of heavy sled resistance work and have turf areas inside and outside now. We also have space for more movement work, as well as different multi-purpose racks."
HAVE YOUR INJURY RATES IMPROVED?
"One of the things we’re working on is producing baseline data to monitor injuries.
In the UK four or five years ago we were the profession that said players couldn’t train because they had to recover more. I don’t think that’s it. Our job is to make players available as often as the coach needs them. We work with the coach to work out when’s the best time to schedule in rest for each player and get ahead of problems before they occur. That’s something we did when we introduced GPS monitoring with rugby league seven years ago.
Tim Gabbett has done a fantastic job of communicating the importance of the obvious with his acute-chronic training ratio. It’s what a lot of people have been doing for a long time, but he’s packaged and evidenced it really well, so a lot of people are now buying into it who previously wouldn’t have."
ARE THE PLAYERS GOOD AT GOING THROUGH DATA?
"In the States, the players do spend an awful lot of time with the analysts. It’s something that’s been drilled into them and it’s a cultural thing. It’s something the American Football players spend a lot of time doing – probably too much time – going through game tapes, learning plays and moves."
SHOULD FOOTBALL BE MORE OPEN TO OUTSIDE IDEAS?
"I’m not saying anywhere is any better than anywhere else. Everyone can learn from someone else. Football is the foremost professional sport in the UK, so it’s had the longest history of doing things the same way. Because of the nature of the sport, to be a coach you have to have first been a professional player, so the knowledge tends to become recycled a fair bit.
Football people tend to stick with football people. I think it’s getting a lot better and there are a lot of really good guys in the field who are willing to look outside and see where things can be done differently. Baseball has been the same in the States. When you’re in the daily grind in a pro club it can be difficult to get a chance to see things outside your world."