Robertson using Pilates to get in shape

Robertson using Pilates to get in shape

DETROIT -- Nate Robertson is walking in temperatures around 10 degrees Tuesday as he leaves the comfort of his car for Calihan Hall on the campus of the University of Detroit Mercy. His mind, meanwhile, is all the way down in the warmer climates of Florida. It's the power of positive thinking.

And at this point, he's very positive about the way he has prepared for Spring Training.

He has never really been jealous of those players who live and train in Florida. The Kansas native has always considered himself a winter guy, and prided himself on being the only Tiger who lives in the area year-round. This is the first winter, he admits, that has gotten to him. Weather-wise, it's the toughest winter he can remember since moving to Michigan in 2003.

Baseball-wise, it's also the most important winter Robertson has faced since coming to Detroit. It's not simply about working hard; he's always done that. This year was about working smart.

Robertson ended 2008 facing questions about his shape as much as his pitching form. The Tigers' diagnosis was that his flexibility was gone, and it wasn't allowing him to pitch the same as years past. He was a strong pitcher, but stocky, and he couldn't afford to be. As team doctors also discovered, he also had a bone spur in his left hip that was throwing off his motion.

Immediately after season's end, Robertson was stretching out that big frame in a Pilates class. He didn't want to wait and stew. He jumped into his offseason workout program from there. Three weeks before pitchers and catchers report, it's almost done, and he can feel the difference.

"I feel that flexibility. I really do," Robertson said. "I think it's worked out real good so far. Everything feels more loose."

On this particular day, he's feeling good, weather aside. He has Pilates three times a week with an instructor. In between, he's here on campus, doing more traditional work under the watch of Nick Wilson, a strength and conditioning coach at the university who used to work with the Toledo Mud Hens.

Tigers strength and conditioning coach Javair Gillett, who designed Robertson's program and set him up with Wilson, is also here on this day. He has been traveling to check on players all winter, including Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera in Venezuela, but he's in town this week ahead of team physicals and the Tigers' winter caravan.

Together, Robertson and Gillett go through the whole program -- stretching, jumping, agility drills and resistance work in the workout area. Robertson gets to put country music on the radio, but Gillett and Wilson get to supply the chatter.

The workouts are specific. Picking up a weight ball while balancing on one leg strengthens his back. Other exercises focus on strengthening his push-off leg for his delivery, or the other leg for getting down and fielding ground balls. Most of the exercises are focused on his lower body and core, where the power for the pitches is generated, with some targeting his shoulder. By workout's end, his calves are barking.

"You figure you're pushing off that back leg [a hundred] times in a game," Wilson said. "That's really the focus."

Having Wilson around, Robertson said, has made a big difference. He trained for several years with Dennie Taft, the Tigers' well-respected former strength and conditioning coach who stayed in the area for a few years afterward until last winter. Robertson worked out the same program at a gym near his home, sometimes with fellow big league pitcher Charlie Haeger, other times by himself.

"It didn't work out as well," Robertson said.

As Wilson pointed out, having somebody around who knows his strengths and weaknesses helps.

"We push him pretty good," Wilson said. "He's responded well."

On most days, Robertson would play catch on the arena floor. However, he has a bullpen session scheduled, so he has to find a pitching mound. Thus, having worked up a good sweat, Robertson heads back into the cold and drives to Comerica Park to meet bullpen coach Jeff Jones.

He warms up in the Tigers clubhouse, virtually empty except for the clubhouse personnel doing preparations for Spring Training, then gets another cold blast as he walks down the tunnel towards the dugout.

Even if Robertson wanted to throw outside, the half-foot of snow on the field wouldn't allow it. So he veers into the batting cages, one of which includes a mound, and fires away. The echo from the pop of Jones' mitt alternates with the crack of Brandon Inge's bat as he takes some swings nearby. He's supposed to throw at 70 percent strength under new pitching coach Rick Knapp's program, so he has to gauge himself.

It's here, as Robertson throws his 50 pitches, where Robertson really feels the impact of the Pilates. He first noticed his hip bothering him in 2005, he admitted, but not as often as it did last year. It would catch in his delivery and not allow him to get around the same way. As Knapp explained, his pitches would drift, and his slider was moving more side-to-side than downward.

"If you strengthen everything around that [hip] socket," Robertson said, "it wouldn't catch."

That's how his delivery now feels. And as he packs up to head home to his wife and son, he's feeling pretty good about it. He doesn't want to say he feels in the best shape of his career, because he felt good going into the last few seasons. This year, he feels good about the specific issues he had to address.

"It almost felt [before] like you're too bulky," Robertson said. "You don't feel that free and easy movement, and I feel that [now]."

Being at the park reminds Robertson how soon the season will creep up. He's counting the days until he and his family leave this weather for Lakeland, but that's not the only reason. Considering the way last season ended for him, it can't get here soon enough.

"It's been good this year," Robertson said. "It actually went pretty fast. That's good."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.