By Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith in Dunedin, Fla.
By Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith in Dunedin, Fla.
Young baseball players are seeking instructional info from a wide variety of sources, and MLB is being forced to catch up. So, coaches who speak the language of analytics are more in demand than ever.

In a 20th-floor suite overlooking the Las Vegas strip, Kyle Boddy, the founder and spiritual force behind Driveline Baseball, is Tasmanian-Devilling his way through a baseball Winter Meetings party that’s become way more crowded than expected. In between conversations, which he enters and exits with a frenetic gusto, he instructs an associate to go out and buy more beer, as a sink stocked with Coors Lights can’t be refilled fast enough. Guests jostling for space in the expansive common area eventually spill into the adjacent bedroom, lounging around the suitcases strewn about.

The night’s main attraction is the collection of highly educated, forward-thinking guests who are pulling new realms of baseball research from the fringes into the mainstream. Rather than talking about where free-agent superstars Bryce Harper or Manny Machado would end up, the hot topics ranged from optimal positioning for ball-tracking camera arrays to new methods of assessing biometric pressures on an athlete’s body.

For Boddy, there’s some satisfaction in the number of people who want in to the suite. During the 2014 Winter Meetings in San Diego, he stood in the hotel lobby trying to hustle audiences with teams. It went so poorly, he decided to skip the next three industry swap-fests. This time, his calendar filled so quickly he was actually forced to turn some teams down. “I toiled for 12, 13 years on something nobody cared about. People didn’t give a shit. And by the time they did give a shit, I happened to be the guy who put in the most work,” Boddy, 35, says of the sudden surge in interest. “Some say, ‘Oh, I would have loved to buy you.’ Motherf—er, I was in the lobby in San Diego the whole time, begging for interviews.”

In Las Vegas, Boddy’s transition from an outsider pleading for consideration to a cutting-edge insider overwhelmed by demand is symbolic of the rapidly evolving ways teams want to coach players, and what players themselves are seeking from their coaches. This changing landscape was best demonstrated by the types of managerial and coaching-staff hires made across the game this off-season, with forward thinkers like Rocco Baldelli, David Bell and Charlie Montoyo pushing out long-established veterans like Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and John Gibbons. Wes Johnson from the University of Arkansas became the first college coach to jump directly from the NCAA to a major-league bench in decades when the Minnesota Twins named him pitching coach. Several other coaches out of the college ranks or with ties to Driveline were hired to work on the minor-league side, developing the next generation of players.

The only way to describe the shift is seismic, akin to the way new thought processes and data transformed how Major League Baseball front offices operated at the turn of the century. Never before has the traditionally cemented-in-its-ways sport been as open to innovation as it is today, with clubs desperate to catch up to the amateur world it has long lagged behind. Along the way so-called gurus like Boddy, who adapted to the opportunities created by data faster than most, have been empowered to zealously attempt to convert non-believers on the coaching end of things. The motivation? “The same one I think academics can really appreciate,” says Boddy, “you just get super angry at the status quo.”

Like a lot of his staff, Boddy, far left, didn't play at a high level before becoming a sought-after coaching resource.

The beginnings of this disruption in baseball trace back to data’s initial penetration of the sport, captured brilliantly by Michael Lewis in 2003’s Moneyball. In seeking skills that were undervalued in the market, the Oakland Athletics he immortalized vastly outperformed their payroll, winning with players discarded or underappreciated by others. At the time, radical ideas such as prioritizing on-base percentage over batting average and ignoring empty counting stats like pitcher wins split the game into old-school and new-school camps.

But while the baseball world focused on — and eventually universally accepted — its teachings for player evaluation, Boddy drew a far different lesson from the work of A’s general manager Billy Beane. “He famously rescued (Scott) Hatteberg, Erubiel Durazo — these are great stories. That’s sorting players and finding them and that’s great,” said Boddy, then an avid baseball fan studying economics and computer science at Wallace Baldwin College in Berea, Ohio, for a degree he didn’t complete. “But how many could have been developed? Could Eric Sogard have been better? Could Jeremy Hermida have been better? Chris Snelling with the Mariners? He was constantly hurt. Why? Adam Miller with the Indians, he constantly had tendon tears in his middle finger when he threw 100 miles an hour and that was still fast. Kyle Zimmer. Royals fans everywhere are like, ‘What could have been?’”

Boddy began thinking back to his own experience rehabbing from injuries as a kid — get the same printout with the same plan as everyone else, regardless of body type, and do the same non-specific exercises — and decided there had to be a better way. Degree or not, the economist in him decided to begin researching the treatment of pitching injuries in medical journals and concluded “there was no science behind the implementation.” So he dove into it, starting a blog entitled “Driveline Mechanics” in 2008, which initially was based on the work of others. Over time, he incorporated actual testing, cycling and biomechanical data into his work. That work eventually grew into Driveline Baseball, his Seattle facility boasting clients like Cleveland Indians fireballer Trevor Bauer and Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Nate Pearson, among many, many others.

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Today, the first thing Boddy does when welcoming new clients to Driveline is evaluate them physically. The end goal remains the same: hit home runs, strike hitters out, win games. But on the way to batting average and ERA there’s exit velocity and spin rate. On the way to those, even more granular questions must be answered. “What is their biomechanical efficiency? What are the forces? What are the loads?” Boddy says. “Get a map of the body the best we can.”

This information provides the baseline against which all progress is measured. Coaches then work with analysts to understand the player’s strengths and identify potential weaknesses. Together the player and coach form a plan of attack, then reconvene later to re-test and determine what’s working and what’s not. This way, the response has substance when a player asks for help. The way Boddy sees it, you lose all credibility by presenting players with platitudes in place of data. “I don’t believe in motivational speeches. I don’t believe in any of that shit,” he says. “What I believe in is telling kids the truth and giving them a real plan. Then when kids get better, other kids see that and it’s this giant feedback loop.”

Another pioneer in the field, Hunter Bledsoe wanted precisely those types of answers when his five-year minor-league career was coming to an end in 2003, but at that point the technology just wasn’t there. In the years that followed, as Hunter and his brother Dustin built up the Bledsoe Agency, they heard from many others who similarly wanted detailed information about their game. “The players drove the change because they were pushing for more,” Hunter says. Then, echoing Boddy, he adds “The status quo was no longer acceptable.”

Rather than simply offering assistance on contracts, branding and finances, the Bledsoes decided the best way to help players was to provide them with the tools to maximize the impact of off-season training. They invested in a development facility at their Nashville-based firm in 2011, equipping it with Rapsodo units, wearable tech from KVest and Blast Motion, Edgertronic cameras and Boditrak force mats. The investment was considerable, but it has provided some clarity players wouldn’t have otherwise had. “Where in the business space can we add the most value? It’s development,” says Bledsoe. “If someone posts an .800 OPS compared to .700, or if someone throws 97 instead of 92, that’s drastically different as far as their earnings. So it would be a good use of capital and — more importantly, the reason we got in the business in the first place — it would be the best way to help players.”

Combined with instruction from Hunter and other staff, that information has helped many players, including Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak. The payoff can be big, but the risk is just as considerable. The combination of coaching and technology has to work. As Bledsoe says, “If I make players worse, we’ll have a huge exodus of clients.”

If there’s been an exodus — either with the Bledsoe’s agency or Driveline — it’s only been because their staff is now in demand in pro baseball.

Whether or not you agree that biometric data is the solution to baseball coaching ills, there’s no debating that players are seeking answers in new ways. Late one night last summer, for example, Walker Buehler opened Instagram. The 24-year-old right-hander was in the midst of a breakout season in which he’d place third in National League Rookie of the Year voting. Any objective observer would say he was living up to his potential as a first-round pick. Still, Buehler wasn’t satisfied. He found Boddy’s Instagram account and sent him a DM.

The message didn’t come as a surprise to Boddy, who had first met Buehler three years earlier. At the time, Buehler was a Vanderbilt student about to be selected 24th overall in the 2015 draft and Boddy was still relatively unknown despite his extensive research on pitching. While their first meeting was confrontational — a “massive argument” about Boddy’s book, Hacking the Kinetic Chain — they developed mutual respect in the intervening years. The theme of their conversations was always the same: pitching.

This time was no exception. Boddy called when he saw Buehler’s message and found the Los Angeles Dodgers rookie clearly frustrated he wasn’t generating as many strikeouts as Boddy’s most famous pupil, Trevor Bauer. “I throw harder than Bauer, I have nastier shit than Bauer, I throw more strikes than Bauer,” Boddy remembers Buehler saying. “Yet I turn on the TV and he’s punching out 14 guys and I punch out eight. Why?”

Versions of this question have always echoed throughout the clubhouses and buses of professional baseball. Whether the specifics were about hitting, baserunning or fielding, the underlying impulse has remained the same: How can I get better? Today’s players, too young to remember a pre-Moneyball world with much clarity, are demanding solutions rooted in data. Buehler was in grade school when the book was published; Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna Jr., the two players who placed ahead of him in Rookie of the Year balloting, were five and six, respectively. To them, advanced stats and biometric measurements are the standard. Some pros might not care for this information, but they’re all certainly aware of its existence.

“It’s my career — I’m passionate about it and I have no interest in being in the minor leagues my entire life,” says Cal Quantrill, a 23-year-old Stanford management science and engineering graduate who now ranks among the Padres’ top prospects. “If that means a couple of extra hours on the computer, reading articles, maybe I don’t know every other word, I don’t know, but at least I’m getting closer to understanding what they’re talking about on TV or FanGraphs.”

Adding to this familiarity with analytics, those who come up playing college baseball are exposed to these resources long before they’re even drafted. As they sought to build a competitive advantage, the baseball programs at Vanderbilt, Iowa, Wake Forest and Missouri did more than just pass other colleges. They also adopted new stats and technology long before many MLB teams. Exit velo? Force plate data? No problem, they’ve got you covered.

Until you enter pro ball, that is. As players filtered from college to the professional ranks in recent years, major-league executives realized their staffs weren’t equipped to answer many of the questions players cared about most. “All of a sudden players are asking, ‘What’s my spin rate?’ or ‘What did you think of my launch angle?’” says one big-league GM. “And if you can’t answer that it’s a problem.”

A problem for some, an opportunity for others. A few days after their first chat, Boddy called again. He had analyzed Buehler’s pitch data — how it moved and how hitters would see it — and determined that he needed a hard pitch with lateral break, like a cutter. “That’s the biggest hole in your game,” Boddy told him.

Buehler got to work and started messing around with different grips in search of a solution. By late summer, he had found the answer he’d been seeking. On Aug. 22, he held the Cardinals to just three hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out nine. From that start to the end of the 2018 season, he posted a 1.62 ERA.

By the time Buehler was mowing hitters down in the World Series, most teams around baseball were looking to cultivate the same kind of success stories. By now, though, they were mostly playing catch-up.

In the midst of a standout rookie season, Buehler looked to Boddy in search of advice.

With college teams seeking every technological and human resource available, it was really a matter of time before MLB teams realized they were missing out. Back in 2012, when the Cubs hired Derek Johnson from Vanderbilt to be their pitching coordinator, there was little precedent for the college-to-MLB jump. That’s partly because of a pay gap — 14 college head coaches now earn more than the lowest paid MLB manager, according to USA Today — and partly because pro coaching generally remained static even as analytics gained prominence in front offices. At the time Johnson was hired, professional playing and coaching experience were still staples of any coach’s resume.

Gradually, this started shifting. In essence, the job description of a big-league coach changed, so an entirely different pool of applicants rose to the top of the pile. Not surprisingly, this has had a transformative impact on coaches inside and outside of pro baseball.

For starters, professional teams rewarded the existing coaches who sought out innovation and applied it to the field. In Toronto, for example, the Blue Jays named Guillermo Martinez their major-league hitting coach this winter. As a 34-year-old whose pro career fizzled out in A-ball, he lacks the experience and pedigree traditionally required of major-league coaches. But Martinez, one of 16 new major-league hitting coaches hired this off-season, impressed the team with a results-oriented coaching style that challenged players to learn from failure. And if Toronto didn’t promote Martinez, another team was set to hire him as a big-league assistant.

“The current landscape of player development and helping players get better is really to be curious about every type of resource,” says Gil Kim, the Blue Jays’ director of player development. “That’s experience, knowledge [and] past playing ability. That’s also experience with data and technology, experience with integrating mental performance into development. So it’s really about trying to maximize the skillset and diversity of our entire development department.”

This off-season, as Kim hired coaches from non-traditional backgrounds for the Blue Jays’ minor-league system, many other executives were completing similar searches for rival teams. Along with the Jays, the Phillies, Giants and Brewers all hired former Driveline employees. And Caleb Cotham, a former big-league pitcher who spent 2018 as the Bledsoe agency’s co-director of development, was hired last month as the Reds’ assistant pitching coach. He had no formal coaching experience at the time of his hire.

“I love hitting homers in practice as much as anyone, but it’s not getting me any better at hitting.”

As staffs have changed, so has teams’ approach to player development. The spring-training facility of today is completely unrecognizable from the one players might have arrived at even a couple of years ago. Every morning in Dunedin, while Blue Jays position players stretch in preparation for batting practice, a video coordinator will lug a Rapsodo Hitting tool down the right-field line toward the batting cage. From its spot on the ground between the pitcher and batter, the device tracks exit velocity, launch angle and spin on the ball to determine the quality of contact. Video cameras affixed to the sides of the cage capture each swing from different angles to further track bat path and body movements.

Until recently, batting practice was far simpler. A coach would stand in front of an L-screen and throw 60 m.p.h. fastballs down the middle. Before long, many of those offerings would be deposited into the bleachers with everyone from the hulking DH to the backup shortstop contributing. For professional hitters, this was easy — maybe too easy. “How in the hell is that going to prepare you to hit a 90 m.p.h. slider?” asks one progressive-minded coach. “I love hitting homers in practice as much as anyone, but it’s not getting me any better at hitting.”

Instead of adhering to tradition, the new wave of coaches reimagined practice. Tee work, traditional BP and soft toss weren’t completely discarded, but coaches introduced more challenging drills alongside the old-school stuff. With more velocity and less predictability, they could replicate game conditions better and accelerate improvement.

All in all, the pace of change is dizzying. In the span of one off-season, hires and training tools that were once cutting edge have become commonplace. Whether teams are promoting from within or making outside hires, their priorities have shifted away from experience and toward innovation. Bottom line, if you’re not one of the 20-plus teams that met with Boddy in that Vegas hotel suite, you’re behind.

“It’s like a freight train,” says one agent.

“It’s changing,” one GM adds. “Drastically. And for the better.”

New strategies and technology have made MLB batting practice an epicentre of change.

Yet even as more players and coaches invest in this transformation, there are still reasons for caution. The concern for some in baseball is that teams risk overcompensating in their staffing hires, overvaluing data-fluency at the expense of the touch and feel experienced coaches provide. Often during periods of drastic change, those trying to catch up throw caution to the wind and dive aggressively into the transition, looking to advance the work accomplished by early adopters. But in turning away from the past to move into the future, there are elements of the way things had long been done that are still worth doing that will be lost. “The best staffs have balance,” says Pat Hentgen, the 1996 AL Cy Young Award winner who roves the Blue Jays farm system offering his wisdom to the team’s prospects. “You need guys with some street cred who have experience in the game. You also need guys who know the analytics and technology and how to use it. Really, I think everyone agrees on that now. It’s not all or nothing. You need both.”

Ultimately, the information can only go so far if a player isn’t able to understand and apply it to improve performance, which is why the human element can’t be emphasized enough. Being technically and mechanically sound is one thing for coaches, but humility and an ability to read the room are essential. Otherwise, to borrow the words of one American League executive, “the game kicks you in the balls again and again.”

Another factor is that players who reach the upper levels of the sport get there by having a powerful self-belief, and aren’t in a rush to make changes simply because some data suggests they should. Sometimes players will reject a coach simply based on his resume alone, refusing to take advice from someone who had a lesser career than them. Not every player is going to welcome a coach plucked out of college just because he can wade through the fancy stats.

“The data means shit if you can’t connect with the player,” says Boddy. “That [old school coach] has a skillset that shouldn’t be aged out of the game. I think it’s a real mistake to push old-school guys out. We have to go to them, we have to help re-train them because in there is a neural net. Is it flawed? Sure, but if you want to use advanced stats or whatever the hell model, that’s what the brain is. The guy that’s an old-school guy, who has a good way to connect to a player on an emotional side from having pitched in the big-leagues or whatever, using that as a motivator rather than a threat? It’s huge.”

The one certainty is that this disruption will take years to fully shake out before things settle. Whether the focus on analytics, biometrics and advanced tools works or not will depend on getting players to totally buy in. “Telling the truth and being right is the best way to get someone’s trust. Someone who is authentic is the new version of good marketing,” says Boddy. “[The coach who is] able to have that skill plus the other one [of working with data] is going to be the coach that makes a ton of money and can write his own ticket. He’ll be able to coach anywhere.”

Rick Langford, a former MLB starter and current senior pitching advisor in the Blue Jays’ system, is one of many who hopes to be that coach. In 1980, the right-hander threw 28 complete games in 33 starts, including a record 22 in a row. He logged 290 innings that year and regrets not finding an extra start or two to have cracked 300. Over and over, young players ask him how exactly he managed to pitch so much. He knows he’s “a little bit of a dinosaur” to the younger generation, but he hasn’t hesitated in adopting the new technological coaching tools. “I’ve talked with people and they go, ‘Well, you still need some of the old-school approach, some of the experience,’” says Langford. “[But] what I see with my eyes from 40 years of doing this, this other stuff is just proving what I see. So now I’m learning how to use that and bring that into my language, because the young players are all in on this.”

Then, in a nod to the needed balance between old and new, he adds: “They’re still humans, they’re still guys that have to practise. They have to have a certain approach. You have to have a certain feel of what’s going to happen in game and how to be competitive out there. So that’s what I do now.”

These days, he’s in good company, yet there are still those who believe the balance is off — that baseball is moving too far and too fast from a proven path. To those critics, Langford’s experience offers something no data-driven analysis could. Maybe they’ll be proven right. But that’s not going to stop Boddy and the next wave of other outsiders from trying to do the opposite.

Edited by Craig Battle
Designed by Sasha Barkans

Photo Credits

Kyle Boddy; Jeff Gross/Getty Images; THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette; Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images