BRADENTON, Fla. – See Austin Meadows anywhere around the Pirates’ facilities during Spring Training, there will be a gallon jug of water by his side at all times. Meadows’ new best friend — whom I failed to catch a name for — is essential to the outfielder’s goals of staying on the field for a complete season.
“I crush it,” Meadows said about the 1 1/2 gallons of water he is dedicated to drinking each day. “With my history of injuries, usually related to hydration, I just have to stay on top of it now. That’s my goal for this season.”
That injury history includes two hamstring injuries — one in 2014 which put him out for half of the season and the other in the middle of 2016 causing him to miss a month of action (opposite legs). He also missed the end of last season with an oblique injury. Of course, not to his fault, Meadows missed time at the beginning of last year with the orbital bone fracture; however, the other injuries can all have ties back to hydration.
According to The American Journal of Sports Medicine, hamstring injuries for professional baseball players averaged 24 days missed for those in the majors and 27 days missed for those in the minors. In their findings which were published in 2014, 268 players reported hamstring injuries during the 2011 season with approx. 25% of those players missing more than a month of action. (Not surprisingly, running to first base was the top activity that caused an injury.)*
“Hamstring injuries rank in the top three of injuries that affect time lost in Major League Baseball, but these injuries are often considered preventable,” says Christopher S. Ahmad, MD, sports medicine orthopedic specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.**
Sure, any injury is bad for a professional athlete; however, hamstring injuries rank as one of the most reoccurring types, with one out of every five athletes either relapsing or repeating the injury. The re-injury risk can jump to an agonizing 31%, according to the study.
With that all said and with Meadows’ history, it was important for him to do anything he possibly could to help prevent any future injuries down the road. Even oblique strains, which can keep a player out for six weeks or more, are believed to have a direct correlation with your body’s hydration levels. With any muscle, if it is hot or if you cannot keep your body hydrated, muscles fail to fire at the proper rate, and you become more injury prone.
“You never want to be dehydrated,” Meadows said. “I sweat a ton. I’m just trying to focus on crushing that [water jug] everyday. I got to clean it every now and then, but I’m doing good so far with my goal. I’ll hopefully keep it up for the rest of the year.”
According to the University of Connecticut Musculoskeletal Institute, “a loss of only two percent body weight through sweating has been documented to adversely effect sports performance”. Their studies also show that dehydration can be the cause of fatigue and injury concerns.
Meadows’ hope is that a slight change in his ability to remain hydrated through the season will directly correlate to a healthy, strong season of baseball. But not just his new water companion to thank, Meadows incorporated some new routines into his offseason regimen. On top of weight lifting four times a week, he did yoga at a tiny studio back home twice a week after picking it up in Bradenton during rehab last fall.
It was his first experience doing yoga, and he fell in love with it.
“I’m just trying to do certain movements that maintain my body and my health even through the offseason,” he said. “It’s hard, but it is worth it in the end.”
Not only the focus on flexibility, Meadows looks noticeable stronger this spring. He said that he wanted to lose body fat over the winter, so a lot of running was a part of the plan, which he regularly did on the treadmill. He started with two or three miles early in the offseason just to get his body into shape, then he moved to high intensity interval training.
All of that helped him lose body fat, increase muscle mass, and — as he put it — “expose that muscle from underneath”, putting him at an elite performance level. It’s all about maintaining his physical fitness now that he is in Bradenton.
“I’m really just trying to maintain strength right now,” Meadows said. “In the offseason, you’re going at it four days a week, really just building strength there. Now, I’m just trying to stay consistent and keep my weight the same. Two or three days a week lifting. Cardio on the field. Trying to take care of myself and maintain.”
Last season, the Pirates played it safe with Meadows’ second hamstring injury, taking plenty of time for him to recover before getting back into competition. Now with Meadows’ new water and workout routine, the hope is that he will remain healthy for a full season — eliminating the “injury prone” tag. I can assure you that — through conversations with him and honestly seeing the changes in his physique this spring — he is doing everything within his proper means to prepare for a full, healthy season.
“It’s simply a pretty swing.”
Clint Hurdle recapped to the media something that we all already knew, but it really can’t be said enough how smooth and simple a swing Austin Meadows has. And as Tim Williams wrote in early January, “Meadows is about as safe of a prospect as you can get in terms of making the adjustment to the majors.”
Some will point to Meadows’ .214/.297/.460 line after his promotion to Indianapolis as reason for him not being completely ready for upper level pitching; however, he was never really able to stay on the field for a prolonged period of time through the second half of 2016. Meadows said that the lack of consistency on the field last year played a role in his struggles at the plate.
“The main thing is obviously health — the healthier you are, the more consistent you can be, especially at the plate,” he said.
The focus this offseason was to strengthen his legs and lower half; otherwise, he hasn’t really done much other than little tweaks here and there. He is hoping that the increased flexibility from yoga will also translate to more production at the plate.
“The yoga really loosened me up,” he sad. “The looser you are, the more flexibility your body feels. I’m big on my hips — the looser your hips are, the better you can get into your swing.”
While in major league camp, Meadows hit .326 with a .978 OPS in 43 plate appearances. He took full advantage of the extra playing time he received from the Pirates’ starting outfield squad being away at the World Baseball Classic. That also included playing time at both corner positions, something he was excited about getting exposure to.
“It’s been good to get that playing time,” Meadows said. “Facing good pitching or number ones, it’s pretty cool to be able to face that competition. Getting used to the way the ball slices or turns at the corners was extremely helpful, as well.”
His hitting against left-handed pitching this spring has also been impressive, going 5-for-14 with both of his Spring Training home runs against lefties. His splits have always been fairly even against left-handed pitching; however, the majority of his home run power comes against righties. Only six of his career 30 home runs have gone over the wall against left-handed pitchers.
Meadows’ first home run of the spring came against Braves (former Cardinal) left-hander and starter Jaime Garcia — a drive over the left field wall. His second came on Saturday against the Tigers’ lefty Kyle Ryan, who has made 78 major league appearances for Detroit over the past three years. It was a much more typical blast over the right-center wall.
He laughed when I pointed out that his homer against Jaime Garcia was his first (not including MiLB Spring Training games) opposite field home run since 2013 in Jamestown. Although that was fun for him, his focus still remains on driving the gaps.
“Every now and then, you’ll catch one out front middle away and are fortunately for it to go out,” he said about the opposite field blast. “Really, I’m just trying to focus on driving the gaps and being aggressive in the count. I just want to go out there and be aggressive every at-bat.”
With Meadows, it is only a matter of time until you see him at PNC Park in a Pirates’ uniform. It is doubtful that it would be early in 2017, as he could still really benefit from more of that upper-level pitching, but that isn’t to say that he could handle himself against major league pitchers right away. He still only has 318 at-bats between Double and Triple-A, which is 986 at-bats less than Andrew McCutchen (1,304 at-bats) had between four different years in Altoona and Indianapolis. Time in Indianapolis will do nothing but help the Pirates’ number one prospect. Even still, his ceiling is extremely high, and the possibilities are almost endless for Meadows.