Offseason of change: Utley working year-round
Not taking a break after the season has helped second baseman to stay healthy
Phillies second baseman Chase Utley has a home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When he vacations there, he works out in a local gym.
A few winters ago, when Utley's knee problems were at their worst, he began seeing San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame wide receiver Lance Alworth, who is in his early 70s, doing squats and pushups and working out harder than most of the young bucks in the gym.
Alworth was there every day, like clockwork. Utley and Alworth became friendly.
"He's in really great shape, so I asked him, 'Do you work out every day?'" Utley recalled. "And he said, 'I work out every single day, because if I don't, I can't move the next day.'"
Alworth's words may have saved Utley's career.
If you're a Phillies fan, you love Utley. You love the hustle; the selfless way he dives all over the infield; the quick, efficient swing; the speed with which he rounds the bases.
But if you're a Phillies fan, you've also been pretty frustrated with the amount of time you've had to spend not watching this uber-talented player on the diamond. Utley has been on the disabled list with a plethora of injuries in recent years, most often related to those balky knees.
Rest assured, though, that no one was more frustrated than Utley.
The five-time All-Star, now 35, has suffered from cartilage issues, tendinitis, the dreaded, scary-sounding chondromalacia patellae, which is a softening of the underside of the kneecap.
"The pain had always been there," Utley said. "But when I was younger, I was able to cover it up."
But Utley got to a point where just walking became unbearable, and doing things like squatting or turning a double play became impossible.
The issues would begin with Spring Training, after Utley had spent his offseason the way nearly every ballplayer spends his offseason. Following the final games in September or October, Utley would take nearly an entire month off to let his body recover from the long and grueling season. Then, he would gradually begin working out and progressing to baseball-related activities in time to report to camp in Clearwater, Fla., in February.
"That's just how everyone does it," Utley said. "A long season ends, you're tired, you're spent, you need to let your body recover. Everyone said, 'Get some rest for a month or so, then start up again.' So that's what I did. It worked for a while. And then, one offseason, it didn't."
In 2011, Utley's knees began hurting the moment he took the field in Spring Training. That season, he was on the disabled list from the end of March until the end of May.
Prior to 2012, Utley tried treating his knees as if he'd had surgery on them both, beginning from square one with a rehab protocol designed to rebuild strength and flexibility. Still, in Spring Training, Utley's knees immediately began acting up, and he was on the DL again, this time from early April until the end of June.
"I was having issues with everything, not just working out," he said. "I was having trouble walking and going down stairs. Even a simple bodyweight squat would bother me. I would come into Spring Training and ramp up, and my right knee would slowly go down hill, and I would have to shut it down."
|"I was having issues with everything, not just working out. I was having trouble walking and going down stairs."|
|-- Chase Utley|
Little did Utley know that not shutting it down would be the key.
After his chance meeting with Alworth, Utley decided to totally revamp his training regimen. Following the 2012 season, he bailed on his week-long vacation to Europe with his family.
"I decided I was going to continue to do the things I was doing during the season, starting the day after the season ended," he said. "I decided to keep doing baseball activities year round, and that's the biggest change I've made. There is no stopping anymore."
Utley lives in San Francisco, and he connected with the coaches at the University of San Francisco. He began training in the gym at USF every morning, then fielding ground balls and hitting every afternoon.
"You get into a routine during the season where you're playing every day, so your body is used to being active daily, especially after playing for 10 years or so," Utley said. "When I shut it down, I was having trouble. Continuing with the baseball stuff keeps me moving in the same way I do during the season, so there's no shock when I get to Spring Training."
Utley's new plan worked. In 2013, he played in 131 games -- his highest number since '09 -- and made just one stop on the 15-day DL (for a strained oblique muscle in his rib cage). Utley's knees were fine, though he also violated yet another widely accepted rule of baseball training by hitting the weight room every day.
"Last year was the first year I lifted weights every single day during the season," Utley said. "A lower body activity and an upper body activity every single day, no matter if I'm at home or on the road."
This past offseason, Utley stuck to the same plan.
"Every day, I go to the gym in the morning," he said. "Then, in the afternoon, I stretch and warm up again, take ground balls for 15-30 minutes, then hit for 20 or 30 minutes."
Utley also devotes much more time to stretching, mobility work and massage than he did in his younger years. This helps to keep the muscles surrounding his knees working properly.
Utley's routine allowed him to hit the ground running -- literally -- at Spring Training this year. Despite have just a .188 batting average, he has been hitting the ball hard and playing without any reservations.
"It's been a long process," Utley said. "But I'm really happy with how things are going now."
That should make the Phillies and their fans happy, too.