There has been no better game since 1839. From parent to child, no game carries on traditions and stories the way baseball does. These traditions are part of what make the game magical.
Today, baseball is in a transition phase. From the rise of Sabermetrics and the era of Billy Beane’s Moneyball. To MLB commissioner Manfred wanting to change the rules to make the game more appealing to kids. Baseball has been slow to adopt new ways of doing things, tied to these traditions. We can see this with the way MLB has adopted instant replay. Even still there are arguments for and against it. Heck, we are still having arguments about DHs 40+ years later. What is driving today’s transition? Technology.
Nothing is as simple and perfect as a game with a bat and a ball. It can be wiffleball in the back yard, to little league to professional baseball. As little kids we dream of hitting that ball over the fence in the bottom of the 9th of the most important game.
The game has always involved some strategy, combined with statistics. As we can see with people obsessing over the box scores and personal statistics of players. MoneyBall‘s popularity rose as strategy changed based on looking at this data in new ways.
Today, we are seeing an all new level of technology invading the game. High resolution video and live broadcasting are available to all. Statcast, HitTrax, and personal swing analyzers such as Zepp 3D Swing Analyzer, Diamond Kinetics and Blast Motion baseball have provided mountains of swing data. On the pitching side we have portable and accurate radar guns like Pocket Radar, the Motus Sleeve and other protocols using things like weighted balls and Jaegar Bands. We also can’t ignore the power of Social Media and access to information on the internet.
This is leading to the next shift in strategy. As teams like the New York Yankees dumped their high priced veterans and focus on building a successful franchise based on youth. They are modeling based on the early innovative teams such as the Cubs, Astros and Royals. Expect to see many other teams follow the lead. This is going to change what happens with free agency, contracts, etc. But that is not the purpose of discussion of this blog. What we want to focus on is the development side. Technology is changing personal development styles, protocols and outcomes.
Pitchers are throwing harder, batters are certainly stronger than ever before. Makes me wonder if players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and even Barry Bonds would have had the same amazing accomplishments if they faced today’s pitching and pitching strategy (with all these specialist relievers). Would they all still be great, for sure! We just finished the Olympics, could you imagine if Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis had to race Usain Bolt. Carl Lewis best 100m was run in 9.86 s, Bolt’s 9.58 s. This is all due to advances in training, nutrition, running shoes, etc. What is happening is, we are getting the most sophisticated technology that was only available to the select few available to the masses. Just like paper and pencil are fine for writing we have evolved to doing it with computers. Just one great example of this in the baseball world is the work of Kyle Boddy from Driveline. See some of what they have done to training protocols for pitchers. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pitching development work by Alan Jaegar and Lantz Wheeler.
This beautiful game, with a long tradition is being coached by people who love our game but may be in denial about modern athletics and the impact of technology. So our Great American pastime is a little too stuck in tradition and we are being out developed by many international players succeeding at professional levels because those kids learned on their own and worked harder.
Rebel with a Cause
By now you have probably seen the interview with Josh Donaldson, last years MVP with Mark DeRosa on the MLB Network. He gives a detailed analysis of his swing patterns. But one line in the interview caused the baseball world shock and awe!
Josh has earned the right with his success to raise the flag and let people know that how to develop a hitter has changed. But, I think a lot of coaches are looking at his media worthy phrase of tell your coach “No!” as disrespectful.
Would it be disrespectful to say no to your coach if he calls for a bunt in a game and you want to swing away? Absolutely. There can only be one person guiding the strategy of the game. We believe, Josh is advising kids to take responsibility and accountability for their personal development. Personal development is just that personal. It is up to the player to be accountable for their own development, to put in the hard work and to focus on achieving their goals. Our job as parents is to support their goals. Should the player approach the coach in a respectful way, one on one and discuss his goals and advocate for themselves. Absolutely.
This gets personal
A few weeks ago, Sammy, my son who is 11 years old, tried out for a couple of teams (one 12u and one 11u). Both teams wanted him on their team. Sammy had to make a decision on what would be best for him. I helped him by presenting with some of the facts he may not have been aware of but ultimately I would support him either way. The 11U team, was a larger program, and significantly more expensive. But what Sammy picked up from the tryouts, was that they had one way to develop their players and were not open to new ways of thinking. While the 12U coach, is always interested in learning the latest methods, trying new things and then sharing it with the program.
I am proud that my son chose to work with the 12U coach who was open to this transitional world. As I feel that his long term development will benefit. Might Sammy have won more tournaments and trophies with the more elite program? Maybe but winning is not what it is all about at this age. Development is! His goals is to be the kid that throws the hardest and hits the furthest when he gets to high school. Oh and he has dream that take him beyond high school but we focus on one step at a time.
What does an accountable baseball player look like?
Sammy is always the first to arrive and the last to leave practice. He has conversations with his coach about hitting and pitching. I am proud of the respect he shows for his coaches on and off the field. Sammy has learned to advocate for his personal development. He is laser focused. At the program he chose, there is another coach at this program who is not open to learning about the latest developments in hitting. He was one of those coaches who won’t even watch the whole interview with Josh.
The other day, he is in the cages with his coach and this old school coach is sitting in the cage next to him. He starts making comments about his mechanics to Sammy’s current coach. Sammy just tunes him out and so did his coach. His coach respects what Sammy wants to accomplish. He has taken the time to understand the underlying principles behind it and helps him with appropriate adjustments on that path.
So why are so many coaches upset about the Josh Donaldson Hitting video?
I have had the opportunity to discuss this video with several coaches and I want to share with you the key takeaways. First let’s start with some common reactions to this video:
- How could he tell 10 year old kids to tell their coaches “No”, that is a terrible thing. I believe I addressed this above.
- You will find a bunch of coaches who will tell you “that’s good for him but it is not for everybody.” They want to differentiate between hitters who hit for average and hitters who hit for power and forget their are hitters who hit for both. They all agree that hitting line drives are the best thing and the data supports it.
- That is not what I was taught, that is not what Player X, Y or Z says to do. Many coaches share common swing cues when they teach but that is not what they actual do in games.
- Then you will find coaches who won’t even finish watching the video. It is so opposite of what they were taught that they are not open to processing this new information.
In baseball they always talk about old school versus new school. Some have not taken the time to study the different swing patterns. They may not understand the linear rotational style you see in high batting average contact hitters, or the rotational explosiveness you see in power hitters or the third type of swing you see in Elite hitters who hit for both average and power. There are coaches like John Mallee and Bobby Tewksbary leading the next frontier on swing development.
You certainly are having some of that going on here as well. People are latching on and commenting on Josh’s video so they can piggyback and get their 5 minutes of fame. They either use it to support or negate what they want to teach. It’s about them not the player.
There are definitely lessons we could take away that the top coaches and pros have in common.
As Trevor Stocking, Product Manager for Zepp Baseball shares:
Coaching/Teaching is and always will be about building trust with those you work with, finding the style that they learn best from and building their confidence. Any good coach or teacher does not limit the tools they are allowed to use to accomplish those 3 goals (unless illegal).
Hitting a moving baseball is impossible. Even worse, in a world of tee work, private lessons and video games, kids just do not learn how to hit a live pitch at a young age anymore. Worse, 95% don’t understand it is a process of failures and never get to the 10,000 reps required until it’s too late.
I love that technologies like Zepp, Trackman, and Hittrax have brought a new level of science to coaching, like we have seen in golf and even pitching prior. I believe they help players, coaches and parents improve their approaches and make adjustments faster. For coaches they bring new level of fun and focus to game and to practice. With that said, nothing will replace just letting my 5 year old hit in the backyard (using a Zepp Smart Bat) with his only goal being to hit the ball over the sidewalk as often as he can. He will figure it out. His body will figure it out. If the ball isn’t going where he wants, he will make an adjustment. If his hands hurt because he hit the ball in the wrong spot on the bat, he will make an adjustment. If he gets upset, I will encourage him with positive reinforcement but also ask if he wants to go shoot some hoops instead or kick the soccer ball around.
Most of the best players I have been around (Trout, Stanton, Altuve, Goldschmidt, Rizzo, Finch and others), when they were at a young age, learned from just doing or watching others and emulating. Did you know Josh Donaldson would hit every single day in his backyard left handed and right handed growing up? Did you know Giancarlo Stanton and his Dad had a bucket of balls in the back of their car so they could randomly stop at baseball fields for BP? Did you know you could ask any of these guys who they wanted their swing to be like as kids and they still can name their favorite pro and do their swing style on the spot? That’s what it is about.
These All Stars embrace failure and thrive on the challenges of the game, yet turn each challenge into their own fun competition. They picture success before every swing and dream about it when asleep. They have owned their swing and have been their own best coach since a young age. To achieve that ownership, some need to analyze (like Donaldson) while others are the doers/feelers (like Trout). Yet you will find a lot of common ground with the two groups if you just listen. They are willing to listen to new ways of teaching. Both are trying to make adjustments faster than their competition and building their own confidence to succeed. Both are just trying to find their own way to make their bodies and minds do what they need to do in order to drive the ball with authority consistently. The analyzers just need proof and to see it, while the doers/feel guys have to do just that.
To me, a lot of these discussions where you pit one style over the other should be above a good coach/mentor/teacher. That teacher should be confident in their own abilities because they are always learning, always willing to listen/try new things. They should know they will utilize any tool in their expanding toolkit to help educate that player to take personal ownership of their actions. That toolkit also includes having trusted mentors (John Mallee, Bobby Tewksbary) or information sources to go to when they need help (Play Ball Kid). Because at the end of the day, the best teachers will find what is best for that individual kid to succeed far beyond hitting the ball with authority.
Great coaches are like sponges, always open to learning new things. So if you are dealing with a coach who is not open to learning new ideas and trying new things, I would suggest finding a new coach. The baseball world is changing and adapting and your kids need to be on a similar development trajectory.
Don’t you want your kids to be accountable for their swing, games and career? Don’t you believe you both should have the ability to advocate on their behalf? You deserve to find a coach who values the traditions of the game but is willing to make adjustments based on the way baseball is evolving.