The future of Player Development and how to improve it
My inspiration for working in baseball has always been to improve the game for the future. Although I have not participated as a player since I was nine years old, I have always been a huge fan of the game. I started my baseball journey by joining my college’s division 1 baseball team as a student manager. Knowing nothing about how analytics affected player development, I quickly learned there is a lot of room to grow in the game at all levels. I’ll be writing my main ideas for designing the perfect player development system for an organization. Some of these ideas may only apply to pro or college teams, but most of these ideas can be widely used across all levels. My ultimate dream is to run a player development program for either a college or pro team. These are a collection of my ideas over the years on what I would do starting day one to improve the player development system.
The ultimate goal of a player development system is to take full advantage of a player’s natural talents and make them into the best player they can be, therefore improving your club’s likelihood of success. For the most part, a player’s minor league’ wins and losses do not matter that much for MLB teams. What matters most is the development of the players in the system to one day help your major league club win.
Let’s start with the minor league system; in today’s game, technology is being used at every level to help players better understand their strengths and weaknesses. The problem I have heard and witnessed myself is twofold — The players do not know how to translate this information into their own personal success. Many coaches do not completely understand how various technologies like Rapsodo, Blast, K-Vest, etc., work to help their players. For this reason, one of the first things I would do is invest a significant amount of money in training everyone in the organization on how to use this technology. The coaches would better understand how to use the data to get the most out of their players. My vision for these programs would look something like the following. On the first day of spring training, everyone in the organization (players, coaches, front office) would be briefed on the organization's development goals and the methods and techniques that would be used to attain such goals. As part of that briefing, I would include a detailed description of how data on each player will be collected and evaluated and what responsibilities are for each member of the organization concerning such data collection and evaluation. Starting on the first day of workouts, everything involving a player will be tracked. This will include the pitchers’ first pitch in a bullpen to the first swings hitters take. This tracking is not to judge a player on everything he does but to allow players to see meaningful progress in a game and practice. The goal of all of this tracking is to see and measure a player’s progression on all fronts. For example, a player may only be able to squat 225 pounds on his first day back, but by May, he can do 315 pounds. In turn, we may also see his exit velocity numbers start to go up. By comparing these two different sets of data, we can make meaningful connections to all of a player’s activities seamlessly.
One of my most significant accomplishments for my college’s team was building a player development website for the players and coaching staff. This website enabled my team’s players and coaches to access the information gathered from their bullpen sessions, intrasquad, and other workouts. One of the goals of this project was to allow players and coaches to see the data in an easy to read format that the coaches could track a player's progression with ease. I would design a system similar to this for the organization. Each player and coach would have an account that could be loaded as an app on his phone, and after each practice, the server would load the new information captured into the website. This way, if one of our pitchers threw a bullpen that day, he easily and instantly sees all of his metrics (which would include his slow-motion windup video), compares them to the previous metrics as well as to measure his progress towards attaining the goals that were set at the beginning of the season. I would also include a coach’s feature to put his thoughts on the session, so a player knows what his coach wants him to work on.
Once the season gets going, each level of the organization will meet with its players with a battle plan of what they want to see their players do this season. For instance, say at the Single-A level, we have a hitter who has a bad habit of chasing fastballs up in the zone. We would instruct this player and give him the resources to work on that and improve his game. Some of these things may include Virtual Reality training, personal work with a hitting instructor, etc. After each game, a player will instantly be sent a report based on trackman data on how he did in that game. This report would include things like where you the player would swing in the zone and what pitches he would see in each zone, how well he played his position in the field, and most importantly, how many times he chased a fastball up in the zone. In his report, this player may see that he only swung at one pitch that was up in the zone and, for the most part, was patient and got a pitch to hit in his hot zone. Even if he popped out on that pitch, I would still want to reward that player for improving as he is now playing to his strengths, not his weaknesses. Often, we get too caught up in the results and can easily miss ways to communicate to our players that they are improving in ways that the batting average metric alone does not reveal.
For pitchers, this would work similarly. We would do a baseline assessment during the first weeks of a pitcher’s bullpen sessions (Driveline Baseball). This would involve a pitcher merely throwing all of his different pitches close to, if not at max level. We would take slow-motion video from behind the pitcher and regular video from the side to see the windup. We would also document all the picture’s cue’s and grips into a log, so we know for each pitch how the player is throwing it and what he is thinking during that pitch. After a few sessions, the pitching coach and the PD staff would meet and go over each pitcher’s results at that level. They would then devise a plan for that pitcher to maximize his pitching strengths and minimize his weaknesses. After each outing, a pitcher would get a report similar to the hitter’s report on how he did to improve himself that day. Let’s say, for example, that we wanted to see a pitcher utilize his slider more against left-handed hitters, especially in pitchers counts, to get more swings and misses from a hitter. If that pitcher encountered that situation 3 times and 2 out of 3 times, he threw a slider. Our report would show an improvement in development as he is now trusting what we believe to be his best pitch in that situation.
You might have noticed that no mention thus far has been made of “game results.” As one of many measurable factors, we would consider that, as I stated earlier, in the minor leagues, winning or losing, for the most part, is irrelevant to the big-league club. As a GM, I would want as many good players as possible in my system to improve my big-league team, whether that would be through eventually calling them up or trading them for proven talent. When you manage a farm system, you’re trying to produce the most viable assets. Some of these players can help you win by being on the team that makes a run for the World Series, and others can be used to acquire players that will help you win that title.
In summary, my player development system’s goal is to have the most open communication system possible among players and coaches and agents and scouts and to collect, measure and present as much information as possible about a player’s performance on the field. I’ve often heard from minor and major leaguers that they feel alone in their development process and have missed opportunities to have their talent metrics collected and measured in a meaningful way. Thus, I think it's paramount clubs invest heavily into measures like this to significantly improve their farm system, which will enhance the overall success of their team over the long run.