Blue Jays Farm Report: Prospects using data to improve more than ever

Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Nate Pearson. (Cliff Welch/Getty Images)

TORONTO – Kevin Smith headed to Dallas over the winter to work out with Matt Young at the facility run by the single-A Dunedin hitting coach. It was there the well-regarded Toronto Blue Jays shortstop prospect was introduced to Rapsodo, a high-tech camera and radar monitor that can track things like exit velocity and spin rate off the bat, tools especially useful for gauging the quality of contact when hitting indoors.

The 22-year-old from Troy, N.Y., has long embraced available technology, making a habit of watching video to break down his swing as a way to ensure sure his body is in all the right places when he’s at the plate. He was curious about the type of feedback the Rapsodo unit may offer, and was instantly taken by the info it provided.

“I know with a lot of the new technology everyone’s like, ‘Oh God, these organizations are getting away from the feel of the game, and hitting is all about feel and not about data, you can’t do data to drive hitting.’ I don’t think that’s the case,” says Smith. “I think what the best are doing is they are using the data to manipulate your feels. ‘What did you feel on that one? OK, that wasn’t good.’ And then, ‘Oh, wow, that was your best swing. What did you feel on that one? Feel that more. Keep feeling that.’

“Putting two and two together is the road that everyone’s going down.”

For Blue Jays prospects like Smith, now up with the double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats as the minor-league season opened Thursday, data from Rapsodo, Trackman and Edgertronic cameras are increasingly becoming a part of the development experience.

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In filling out their affiliate staffs, the Blue Jays sought to augment their older-school coaches with some analytically-adept newcomers, hiring the likes of Demetre Kokoris to serve as pitching coach at short-season A Vancouver, Lansing hitting coach Logan Bone and rookie level assistant pitching coach Cory Popham to bring new perspectives into the organization.

Kokoris has ties to the Driveline Baseball facility in Seattle, a leader in the data-driven training realm, which counts fire-balling pitching prospect Nate Pearson among its followers.

Pearson was first introduced to Driveline’s arm-care program by his pitching coach at Central Florida, Zach Bove, who was recently hired by the Minnesota Twins. Visiting Driveline for the first time this winter, the right-hander underwent a full biometric assessment to see if there were any inefficiencies in his delivery that could be identified and improved upon.

Kokaris, Gil Kim, the Blue Jays director of player development, Dunedin pitching coach Jim Czajkowski and minor-league strength and conditioning co-ordinator Steve Rassel came along to watch and learn.

“They set up a plan for me going forward,” Pearson, who’s at single-A Dunedin, says of the Driveline staff. “I was deficient when I was moving down the mound in my hip to shoulder separation. My hips weren’t coming through as efficient as they should so I can increase that by doing more mobility (work) in the weight room, or really focusing on it when I’m throwing my weighted balls.”

Pearson brought a belief in technology with him from his college days into pro ball. His work with Bove helped him consistently build his velocity – he topped out at 104 m.p.h. in the Arizona Fall League last year – and seeking to take control of his career, he made sure to explore all available tools and avenues.

“The game’s going that way and so you either get on the boat or get left behind,” Pearson explains. “I wanted to learn as much as I could, pick and choose what I wanted to incorporate into my routine.”

Shortstop/third baseman Jordan Groshans, the 19-year-old selected 12th overall last year, is still acclimating to all the available tools after making the jump to pro ball out of Magnolia High School in Texas. Feedback there came from coaches using their eyes, picking out what they can see.

With access to Rapsodo data and video, “you can teach yourself in a way, scout yourself, see what you’re doing,” he says. “Everything we do we have video and we have meetings about it. That’s most helpful thing for me, all the video and everything.”

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Most helpful in that regard for Groshans, who opens at low-A Lansing, have been the 30-minute defensive school sessions the Blue Jays ran during spring training on the minor-league side. They started out in big clusters before breaking off into groups of 2-3 players along with a couple of position coaches.

“We get videos of each other and basically they ask us, ‘Hey, this is your video from yesterday taking ground balls, what did you do wrong, what did you do right, what can you get better at?’ Stuff like that,” says Groshans. “You take notes, use that and move forward.”

At six-foot-three, 205 pounds after putting on 18 pounds of muscle over the winter, Groshans has used video of his defensive work to adapt his positioning. At his size, using his legs to get low to the ground, as opposed to bending at the waist, is critical and video has been helpful “because when I’m out there, I think, hey I’m getting low, but then I see myself on video and I know I can get lower.”

“The big thing here is pre-pitch set up, getting yourself ready for your first step movement,” he adds. “I watch Nolan Arenado a lot, just because he’s like me, he’s a bigger guy, has to be low, just watching how he goes about his routine, his pre-pitch and everything, is great.”

Great is a word often used to describe Smith’s progress last year, where he tore things up at Lansing before earning a promotion to Dunedin, where he continued to perform. This year the Blue Jays challenged him right out of the gate with the assignment to New Hampshire, and his expanded use of technology should serve him well.

While he still uses video “to make sure that what I’m feeling is what I’m actually doing,” Smith likes “the real-time feedback” Rapsodo offers.

“You can see your timing, if you’re early or if you’re not. That stuff is cool if you’re trying to make adjustments right there,” he continues. “I like to know how the ball is coming off my bat. Not so much chasing 150 m.p.h. exit velo, but with Rapsodo, you can see spin rate on how the ball’s hit, so you can tell if you’re hitting it flush, if you’re cutting them, if you’re slicing them. Stuff like that tells you if your swing plays or not, especially when you do it off machines instead of live pitching. That’s where it’s heading, where you get more game-like reads.”

A look at some notable assignments in the Blue Jays farm system:

Triple-A Buffalo Bisons

Pitchers: SP Sean Reid-Foley; SP Jacob Waguespack; SP Jordan Romano; RP Jason Adam; RP Danny Barnes

Position Players: SS Bo Bichette; 2B Cavan Biggio; C Reese McGuire; OF Anthony Alford

Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats

Pitchers: SP Patrick Murphy; SP Hector Perez; SP Yennsy Diaz; RP Jackson McClelland

Position Players: SS Kevin Smith; 1B Chad Spangenberger; OF Forrest Wall; INF Santiago Espinal

Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays

Pitchers: SP Nate Pearson; SP Maximo Castillo

Position Players; C Riley Adams; SS Logan Warmoth; 1B Christian Williams; 2B Samad Taylor; OF Chavez Young; OF Cal Stevenson; OF Ryan Noda

Low-A Lansing Lugnuts

Pitchers: SP Josh Winckowski; SP Joey Murray; RP Cobi Johnson; RP Will McAffer

Position Players: C Hagen Danner; C Alejandro Kirk; SS Jordan Groshans; OF Reggie Pruitt

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