Drayer: Mariners aim to get ahead of the curve with pitching technology
Two years ago in spring training, we were just beginning to learn about some of the new processes that would be a part of a Mariners organization run by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
New manager Scott Servais told us for weeks that spring training would look different, and that is indeed what we saw. Schedules were different, meetings were different and there was a new focus on analytics and technology in the clubhouse and meeting rooms. There was a different look, feel and sound to spring training from years past, something I thought then-third base coach Manny Acta summed up well when he said that they had to adjust to coach the “modern player.”
Acta was referring to a player who uses his resources. In the past, almost everything to help a ballplayer get better was confined to within the organization. Now many players have personal coaches, nutritionists, and workout and performance facilities that employ technologies that until recently were foreign to some organizations. In a sport where change has traditionally come at a glacial pace, the speed of this shift has been more akin to that of a bullet train.
The reaction by some organizations, Mariners included, has been to jump on board. In addition to hiring Dr. Lorena Martin to head up the new high performance department, Dipoto and Servais looked to the outside to see what they could bring inside, visiting some of the performance centers players work out at this offseason. They also made a change on the pitching side by hiring Jim Brower, who is well versed in pitcher analytics, as an assistant coach.
“My job is to kind of be that conduit,” explained Brower, who previously served as minor league pitching coordinator for the Cubs and a minor league pitching coach in the Royals organization. “The information comes to me and I am able to dispense it to the players and the coaches.”
The information includes everything from reports that come daily from the analytics department to scouting reports to the immediate feedback they get from Trackman and Rapsodo devices they use in the bullpens. The utilization of these machines, which measure and map just about every aspect of a pitch from arm angle to spin rate, is an area the team and Brower believes can better benefit the players.
“The data has been used more from an evaluation standpoint, not much from a player development standpoint. I think that is where the game is shifting,” he said. “Those numbers are great for evaluation in player acquisition but what I was able to do when I started in Double-A as a pitching coach with the Royals was to start to use that information for actually developing players and how is it coachable. That’s the big question. A lot of people have information, but it’s what you are doing with it or how you are applying it.”
If you were to watch a bullpen session in Peoria with multiple Mariners pitchers throwing in the main bullpen, you would have seen the Trackman unit mounted on the wall. You also would have seen coaches watching every pitch, occasionally giving feedback. You might have even seen a player turning to a coach who had an iPad in hand. That player was getting immediate feedback on what exactly his pitches were doing according to the data. You didn’t see it often, but it was available. Some players want the information immediately, others want a little time to find their deliveries and release points before going back and seeing what the numbers say.
It’s information Brower, a self-proclaimed journeyman, wished he had available in his 17-year career. He didn’t discover it, however, until he was a pitching coach at the Double-A level with the Royals. He was given the data for his pitchers, but not much else.
“Four years ago I was one of the only guys in the minor leagues using the portable Trackman,” he said. “It went from just me and figuring it out, and I had no help at Double-A, then I went to the Cubs and it was full-court press on trying to get the information. You couldn’t always get it out because the coaches needed to understand it. That was just 2 years ago.”
How the information is used varies from player to player. Early in spring training, James Paxton wanted to get a feel for his delivery before checking in with the data on release points to see what adjustments needed to be made.
“It can help you adjust more quickly than just kind of searching for something,” he said.
Mike Leake goes on feel and prefers to stay away unless there is something he needs to “take a peek at.” For him, it is not about pinpointing anything with his release point.
“I am looking to be consistent in an area,” Leake said. “I don’t want to be too mechanical because then it can almost get in the way of being an athlete per se. But I am looking for something in a very small clump.”
“The younger guys seem to have a better grasp and understanding than the older guys,” said pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. “They just want to read a barrel and let their eyeballs tell them what they are going to do and that’s okay. It’s a balance.”
It is a balance, but nobody (not even Felix Hernandez, who barely studies video), is completely exempt from using the information. This spring Stottlemyre used the numbers and videos to give Felix a different look at his changeup and the vertical break on his curveball to show him areas he could go with those pitches that he was staying away from. Felix wasn’t seeing from the mound what the hitters were seeing, yet Stottlemyre was able to give him that “view” thanks to the technology.
As Stottlemyre mentioned, many of the younger players are much quicker to go to the data. Dan Altavilla, who struggled with command last season, credits the technology for helping him get off to a good start this spring simplifying his delivery.
“We were looking at what the numbers were, comparing a high leg kick and just a slide step,” Altavilla said. “We figured out the slide step had better numbers, higher spin rate, better velocity and natural arm slot. It just kind of gave me more confidence to not worry about the leg kick and just kind of get down the mound and get after it with better direction.”
“It’s nothing more than a tool. That’s what I try to tell people,” said Brower. “When you say numbers or analytics people get pushed away. The wall comes up because ‘I don’t want to deal with it.’ So you go at it as another tool, kind of like video. Trust what you see, go look at video to see if it substantiates it. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, it’s not a negative – it’s another process, another layer. This is just another layer of that.”
A layer that is not going anywhere, and the Mariners aren’t wasting any time in better utilizing it. In doing so, they look to stay ahead of the curve.
“It’s everything right now because the one who is able to use the information the best is going to have the competitive advantage,” said Brower. “That’s why me coming here, was it quick? Yeah, I was in Double-A three years ago. It was because of the information, and who has the information, and who can do something with it. Just three to four years and everything has changed.”