Offseason training in Arizona helps Kemp, others
Matt Kemp was runner-up for NL MVP and signed one of the richest contracts in baseball history a year after he posted a career-worst batting average and was called out by his general manager.
Not his batting stance. Not his swing.
The biggest difference for Kemp was offseason preparation. The Los Angeles Dodgers' All-Star center fielder spent last winter training at Zone Athletic Performance in Scottsdale, Ariz., a gym owned by Philadelphia Eagles guard Evan Mathis.
The results were quite impressive.
Kemp came close to winning the first Triple Crown since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. He led the league with 39 homers and 126 RBIs, while finishing third in batting average at .324 and stealing 40 bases. Kemp was second to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun in MVP voting, even though he had better numbers. The Brewers won the NL Central while the Dodgers were out of contention much of the season, giving Braun the nod.
Kemp credits the trainers at Zone for his dramatic turnaround after a tumultuous season in 2010. He batted just .249, drew the ire of Dodgers GM Ned Colletti and made more headlines for dating Rihanna than for his performance. At Zone, Kemp learned a new exercise routine and diet regimen that he now follows religiously.
"Working out here definitely got me in the best shape of my life," Kemp said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I was lighter than I've ever been, stronger, faster. They teach you how to eat right and they definitely know what they are talking about when it comes to weight training."
The bankrupt Dodgers are banking on the 27-year-old superstar to build on his success. In mid-November, Kemp signed a $160 million, eight-year contract that matched the seventh-highest deal in the majors. He was right back in the gym, working hard to ensure he's in excellent shape when the Dodgers open spring training next week.
"A guy like Matt Kemp is the epitome of hard work, dedication, and commitment," Mathis said. "He always shows up to his workouts ready to improve and is constantly making sure he's on top of his diet. The most important part of all is that he remembers his formula for success. Even after signing a massive contract, he still shows the same drive that he did when he was trying to prove himself.
"He's the definition of a winner."
Kemp stays on top of his training during the season, helping him endure the rigors of a grueling 162-game schedule. He's missed only 11 games in four seasons since becoming a full-time starter.
"The two years I've been working out here at the Zone have been great," Kemp said. "These guys really know what they're doing. It's a great place. I recommend it to anybody who wants to get their body in great shape."
That kind of endorsement would make any gym owner happy. But the man in charge at Zone isn't your average business executive. Mathis opened the club in December 2010 after six so-so seasons in the NFL. He wasn't looking to start a new career, though this gave him options in case things didn't work out on the gridiron.
"I've always been a gym-rat type, always had a passion for the fitness and the performance industries," Mathis said. "Tying that into understanding the importance of offseason training for a professional athlete, I thought there was nothing I could do better with my spare time in the offseason."
Turned out to be a wise investment -- for both of his careers.
Before he opened Zone, Mathis was a journeyman player who made just 22 starts in six seasons with three different teams. He joined the Eagles last July amid a flurry of high-profile moves that reduced his acquisition to a simple line in the transaction column.
But this wasn't the same guy who spent most of his Sundays watching from the sideline. The new-and-improved Mathis earned a starting job in training camp and moved into the lineup at left guard just days before the team's first game. Mathis followed up with his best season and the 30-year-old blocker should cash in when he becomes a free agent next month.
"Why did I have such a good season? Numerous reasons," Mathis said. "But the one I point out would be my nonstop training at Zone during the lockout."
It's difficult to measure an offensive lineman's performance in numbers because most stats highlight skill positions. ProFootballFocus.com, a website that grades players on every snap, ranks Mathis No. 1 among guards. They base it on categories such as pass blocking, run blocking, penalties, sacks allowed (0), quarterback hits (3) and quarterback pressures (12).
Mathis also credits Eagles offensive line coach Howard Mudd for his success. Mudd prefers athletic, intelligent linemen over the bigger, bulky guys. Mathis certainly fit that mold, especially after hard-core training for 28 straight weeks at his gym last year.
"Howard was able to teach me a lot of things I didn't know about the game," Mathis said. "He completely changed the way I play. Going into my seventh year, I was still raw. I was always hungry to improve. The wealth of knowledge that Howard has to offer really helped me to step my game up. He gets the best out of his players."
The same applies to Garrett Shinoskie, the director of athletic performance at Zone. Mathis weighed 308 pounds and had 21.8 percent body fat when he began working out with Shinoskie. After just eight weeks, Mathis was down to 286 pounds and had cut his body fat nearly in half to 11.2 percent.
The remarkable transformation is chronicled in a two-minute video on the home page of the gym's website. The pictures featuring Mathis starting out with a flabby belly and finishing with six-pack abs are so astonishing that it would seem they are photoshopped.
"That saved my career," Mathis said. "My trainers are great. The world will soon know."
Several other professional athletes exercise at Zone, including Beanie Wells and Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals and Dee Gordon of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wells also had a breakout season last year. He ran for 1,047 yards and 10 touchdowns despite having to play most of the season with a sore left knee. Wilson made his fourth straight trip to the Pro Bowl. Gordon batted .304 in 56 games as a rookie, earning the starting shortstop job.
"You have a short time as a professional athlete," Mathis said. "You might as well make the most of it instead of taking a long vacation every offseason."
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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