LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On their way down to Disney’s fabulous Swan and Dolphin Resort for the winter meetings, a large contingent of Toronto Blue Jays staff made a pit stop in Music City, USA, for a weekend at Pitch-A-Palooza, which is not just one of many amateur-baseball coaching clinics. In fact, it might just be the best amateur-baseball coaching clinic, and one that has caught the eye of several major-league organizations over the last few years.
General manager Ross Atkins attended the clinic, along with vice-president of baseball operations Ben Cherington, assistant GM Joe Sheehan, director of player development Gil Kim, pitching co-ordinator Jeff Ware, pitching coach Pete Walker, bullpen coach Dane Johnson, senior pitching advisor Rick Langford and special assistants Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill.
Pitch-A-Palooza is a conference at which “a lot of the better pitching experts in the amateur game talk about what’s the latest in pitching,” explained Atkins. “We attended all the presentations and then we would pull out and have discussions about what we liked, what we didn’t like. We’re always talking about the whole player and when you’re talking about a delivery you want to talk about biomechanics and the strength and conditioning aspect.”
There are presentations about “the latest in weighted balls and long-toss and using advanced information, using analytics, using Trackman (radar technology).” Atkins added, “There are tools – Motus (wearable arm-tracking and biomechanical technology) and the force-plate technology that’s prevalent in the amateur game and not as prevalent in the professional game.”
Force-plate technology, Atkins explained, looks at “how (one is) maximizing (one’s) lower half in order to get the most power out of that release point. The research is probably a bit light there, but there’s a lot to be learned from it and you definitely want to be in on the ground floor and learn with it.”
It was a massive group of Blue Jays, and it also included two men who work well below the surface of the big-league club – minor-league rehab co-ordinator Pat Chase and Jeremy Trach, who has served as strength and conditioning coach for both the Dunedin Blue Jays and Vancouver Canadians (and someone to keep an eye on for a big-league job with the Blue Jays’ dismissal of Chris Joyner earlier this off-season).
Chase and Trach got invites along with all the front-office and pitching minds in order to lend perspective from their areas of expertise. During the conference, the Blue Jays contingent would gather to discuss the presentations they’d attended, to see how the information they’d learned could be best used to tweak how the organization develops pitching. Chase lent his expertise in arm care and health, Trach took care of the physical therapy aspect.
“A pitching philosophy can’t be ‘Jeff Ware’s pitching philosophy,’” said Atkins. “It has to be organizational so that if Jeff Ware and Pete Walker and Ross Atkins aren’t here, our pitching philosophy continues to grow and has a great foundation.”
In order to accomplish that goal, the Blue Jays don’t mind looking to the amateur ranks for help.
“Some amateur programs have more resources than professional teams because of the way we’re constructed,” said Atkins. “(And while) it runs counter to the culture of professional baseball to learn from the amateur world, that’s something that we don’t personally believe in. We’re trying to do everything we can to learn from anyone.”
Pitch-A-Palooza, which is held just outside Nashville, Tenn., in Franklin, is the brainchild of Baseball Think Tank’s Lantz Wheeler. The Cleveland Indians, under Mark Shapiro and Atkins, were the first major-league team to attend the event. Last weekend’s clinic had approximately 20 big-league clubs in attendance. It’s referred to as “a master class in player development” that is attended by over 100 high school and college baseball coaches and offers a “contrast of ideas, philosophies and teachings where traditional thoughts on instruction and player development are questioned and challenged.”