The evolution of player development in the game of baseball is one of the most fascinating facets in all of sports in my mind.
Now, mind you, I might be a slight bit bias.
At its very core, developing a prospect into a MLB regular or helping an MLB player optimize their toolset to the best of their ability is nothing more than a mathematical problem in need of a solution. Some mathematical problems are more complex than others, but that is the name of the game.
This being the golden age of player development, MLB teams and baseball development factories have more technology and resources at their disposal than at any other point. There is information on every batted ball, video of every pitch thrown, technology that tracks every minute detail of the game being played. This technology is widely available nowadays and it is taking over baseball for the better as these very resources do nothing more than supplemental our current level of knowledge and understanding of the game.
Pitching research and development will always be ahead of its rival, hitting, simply due to the fact that one – hitting – is a reactionary mechanism for the other – pitching. Pitching must continue to develop after which hitting must adapt and play catch up.
In today’s game, a popular trend in the realm of pitching development is pitch design.
Pitch design is exactly what you think it is. It is the process by which a pitcher can utilize data and high-speed video footage to recreate and revamp their entire arsenal. It is a scientific approach to developing new pitches, figuring out which pitches can work better off one another, and integrating quantitative data into improving the pitcher’s repertoire as a whole.
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If you could know objectively if you’re pitches were ‘good’, get feedback on if they were improving, and then use them to be better in games (or even from a recruiting standpoint)…why wouldn’t you? . You need to ask yourself. What is your barrier to getting better and are you being honest with yourself?
According to Driveline Baseball: “The most important tool we have in house is the Rapsodo. It provides instant feedback on the pitch’s velocity, spin rate, spin axis, and pitch break. This gives insight into what the pitch is actually doing, and by comparing to other MLB pitches, how it can be improved.”
The Rapsodo is an integral tool that helps drive the entire process by providing the pitcher with baseline data and the constant updates necessary as the pitcher attempts to identify the problem and continue to look for the solution. In order to determine the problem, a Rapsodo device is paired with high-speed video cameras that look to slow down the pitching motion and pick out why a slider isn’t getting the preferred spin rate, or why a certain curveball doesn’t play well off the fastball of its pitcher.
Is there an issue with the grip on the baseball? Does the pitcher think he’s doing one thing when slowed down footage suggests something completely different? Are slight mechanical flaws negatively impacting his fastball command?
Baseball is a game of inches where getting behind the baseball instead of staying ever-so-slightly to the side of it can be the differences between throwing a good breaking ball or heaving a crappy cutter that would be clobbered by any Major League hitter.
Currently the coordinator of pitching analysis for the San Francisco Giants, Matt Daniels spoke to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris about the concept and the intricacies of the art of pitch design as well as the work he’s done with New York Yankees reliever Adam Ottavino at Driveline.
“Pitch design is the least known thing out of all the player development stuff,” said Daniels. “There’s so much about the way balls move in space that we just don’t know. It’s not like we worked on anything complex and radical with Ottavino, it was just logical and simple. In no way do we have pitch design figured out. Just give him a pitch arsenal that makes more sense for what his strengths are.”
The concept of pitch design is as Daniels calls it – logical and simple. While there is still much more learning to be done on this front, between the knowledge and the resources we possess, pitchers are not only able to add to their pitch mix, but fully revitalize their careers as well, much like Ottavino has or Luke Jackson, the Atlanta Braves’ 27-year old closer.
When a pitcher enters a pitching lab, the analyzation process begins and everything is taken into account and gets magnified. From the arm slot, to the velocity, to the separation, and to the entire pitching repertoire itself. Once all of the requisite information is gathered, new pitches are built and developed based on the needs and the weaknesses of the pitchers.
“I don’t have anything that is slow and goes lateral,” Trevor Bauer said in a 2018 interview. “So I needed something that did that so I can split the plate multiple different ways and at multiple different speeds. And my changeup was a middle-speed pitch and it had a lot of run, but not a lot of depth. So, I wanted something that had more depth and went both ways, so that was the emphasis behind what I worked on. I felt that would give me three levels to go: 10 inches vertical on the fastball, zero on the slider and changeup and negative cut on the curveball, at three distinct speeds and with distinct movements arm-side and glove-side. So, to fill that hole on my arsenal, I needed something that had a lateral break. I needed a little bit more depth on the changeup.”
Bauer became one of the first pitchers to dive into the scientific side of pitching. Since his days of playing around with Edgertronic cameras and spending his offseasons training at Driveline, many pitchers have followed suit.
The game is getting smarter and so too are the players.
Pitch design is a data-driven concept that is being introduced all around baseball and has already become one of the most valuable tools utilized by pitchers. But at the end of the day, it’s just another example of what makes player development in the sport of baseball a true art form – a problem is identified and is in need of being solved.