Over the past few years, Driveline Baseball has gone from a small training facility in Seattle to one of the most significant pitching (and now hitting) labs in baseball. Driveline trains a variety of major league, minor league, college and high school players, while also consulting with various college and pro teams.
From day one, Driveline has embraced technology to allow it to study and refine its teaching techniques. That's why it made sense for Baseball America to reach out to Driveline for our technology issue. Managing editor J.J. Cooper talked to Driveline founder Kyle Boddy about where tech has taken the game over the past decade—and where it will take it in the next 10 years.
BA:: Where did the idea of Driveline come from?
Kyle Boddy: I was a terrible baseball player growing up. I had no baseball background to speak of. I studied economics in college and computer science a little bit. My interest in baseball came from a cliché. I was coaching little league and I wanted to have a better way to coach kids.
I read a lot of medical journals. I read everything written from the pitching gurus and realized no one was really taking a scientific method to baseball. At the time, the Stalker (radar gun) was the only piece of advanced tech people were using.
The entire premise of Driveline to begin with was keeping pitchers healthy. That's the beginning of it and the underpinning of everything we do.
BA:: What can you do now that you couldn't do when you all got started because the technology didn't exist?
KB: The biggest thing is instant feedback from pieces of technology. It's the Motus Sleeve to be able to capture the basic biomechanics, so we can make changes on the fly. Or Rapsodo. It's such a great training tool. So many major league teams are using it in favor of Trackman in bullpens because it's so much faster.
Brandon McCarthy when he was here, he could say, "I want my changeup to do this: break down and to the right." We could say these are the parameters that make that happen . . . We can take that stuff written online and make it real for the player.
So they can say I am going to position my hand here and see if that works. Does that work? No. OK. It's the same stuff pitching coaches have done (forever), but with feedback that is more objective rather than a catcher saying, "OK, that was a good one."
In Brandon's case he wanted to refine his sinker. Being able to show him that data, it made (the adjustments) so much faster. He can make a change so quickly.
BA:: With the high-speed cameras, you can sometimes get really granular with it.
KB: That's just a huge thing. Peter Bayer signed for $7,500 (as a ninth-round pick from Cal Poly Pomona) with the Rays. He's in (low Class A) Bowling Green striking out a ton of guys. His spin rate is off the charts. It's almost 3,000 revolutions per minute. It's faster than anyone in the big leagues.
His fastball is only 90-94 mph, well now it's 92-96, which today is nothing, but his spin rate is unreal . . . It turns out that it's translated really well. For him it was about showing that finger pressure. He was cutting the ball. He had command issues in college. He could stay behind the ball a little better. He had a command flag coming into the draft. Now he's barely walking anyone in pro ball. In an alternate universe, he's working in an office somewhere. He's not in pro ball.
BA:: The harder you throw, generally you will have more RPMs, but why can someone like Bayer get extra RPMs on his fastball?
KB: That's the great unknown question. We know how to reduce spin rate. That's no different than throwing a changeup or sinker. Hold the ball deeper in the palm. We've been unsuccessful in figuring out how to increase spin rate. There's one easy way to do it, which is use Firm Grip or pine tar, but that's illegal. So we can't do that.
What actually makes it possible? That's such an interesting question. We have all this technology that can give you the angular velocities of the arm and how fast it moves, but despite that we don't yet know. That's a big question we are trying to answer this summer.
Phil Hughes recently talked about trying to increase the spin rate on his fastball. Lots of luck man. We've been trying to figure that out for a couple of years.
BA:: That's a holy grail question, isn't it?
KB: No question. We have a contract with a team. They are drafting players rounds 30-40 solely based on Trackman data they are finding from Perfect Game events where their spin rates are very good. Let's put them in a velocity program and see if we can make them useful. For them that kid is happy to be drafted. He's not going to even pitch in the (Rookie-level Arizona League) yet. He will go throw in this program. If it works out, great. If it doesn't, the team tries to learn something from it.
BA:: There's a relationship between spin rate and velocity, so could that be an early indicator of velocity to come?
KB: All the guys who throw 100 mph don't have high relative spin rates. So maybe it is a reverse indicator. A leading theory out there is you can generate plus-plus spin rate or plus-plus velocity (but not both). It's an interesting way to study it.
BA:: At the core of it, the question is how do you get velocity, isn't it?
KB: As a great example you have two relievers who throw 100 mph: Aroldis Chapman and Joe Kelly. Exact opposites in every regard. But (all 100 mph pitchers) have really good lower body power. They use the ground well and they rotate very fast. They turn their trunk very quick. How can we develop that in an individual? There are a lot of ways to throw 95. Maybe you are more of a linear pitcher than a rotational pitcher. That's the stuff that technology brings out. "This is what makes you really good. Here are the training methods that will help, rather than (saying) everyone needs to long toss. Everyone has to lift. Everyone has to throw weighted balls." That's not what we stand for.
BA:: What is the tech that doesn't exist that will help you do what you do?
KB: The Motus Sleeve is a great start, but a multi-sensor system you could wear that's non-intrusive that could tell you the biomechanics of the pitcher right when he throws it. Five seconds later it says, here's the internal rotation and the external rotation. Here's what it was on this pitch. Instant feedback. We'd pay almost anything for that. It would help not only us, but Major League Baseball. To collect full biomechanics data in game at competitive velocities, that would be a real game changer.
BA:: From the outside, I feel like hitting is five to 10 years behind pitching in the marriage of data and training. Am I off? Is it trying to catch up?
KB: If you has asked me last year I would have said it was 20 years behind, but it's changing fast. It's all happened in the last two to three years. You see hitters making these changes almost overnight. To see Ryan Zimmerman go from potential MVP candidate when he was breaking into the league, to injured and having issues, to being a pretty good role player, to now being one of the best hitters in the league—it's because he talks to guys like Justin Turner. It goes counter to what he's always been taught. Ryan Zimmerman has always hit the ball really hard, but his profile was such that he hit a lot of ground balls. In today's game with the defense being so good and the shifts being so prevalent it's not going to work. He makes changes and he hit 10 home runs (in April).
While hitting is anywhere from five to 15 years behind, I think it will catch up in the next two to three years.
BA:: With that, how does the technology allow Ryan Zimmerman to retool his swing?
KB: With StatCast, you can see a player's exit velocity and the launch angle of any batted ball for any (major leaguer). But that doesn't help. That's been my biggest complaint for the past 10 years. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs—that doesn't help the players. That's writing about what makes players good. Players care about how.
Websites don't have that info. What really helps is a hitting coach and something like HitTrax or a bat sensor that measures approach angle. For a college guy who is an OK hitter . . . (Mississippi State's) Brent Rooker is a great example. He's a guy who has been a decent hitter. Now he's focused on launch angle. I know his offseason coach. He told him, "This doesn't make any sense. You're killing the ball and you're a great athlete. You have to hit the ball in the air." It's about a guy using that technology and understanding it. It's about, "Try this. Try this swing pattern. Does that work? No? OK. That doesn't feel good." It's about doing that while monitoring it. Now Rooker is killing the Southeastern Conference. We're going to start seeing that with hitters.
BA:: It's easier for a hitter to make dramatic adjustments.
KB: Totally agree. It all has to do with the weight of what's being done. In baseball you are throwing a five ounce ball and the margin of error is so fine—that feel. Hitters never get the yips when they are hitting. It doesn't happen. Pitchers get the yips all the time. That's because it's such a fine instrument. With the bat, it weighs a lot. It's easier to make a drastic change on the hitting side without totally screwing yourself up. It's ripe for the picking. I think you will see an explosion over the next couple of years. The math of the game says that strikeouts don't matter that much as long as you are walking and hitting for power. That doesn't help the guy unless you can train him to do these things.
The game is so based around fastballs down in the zone. Unfortunately, the easiest way to counter that is exactly what hitters are doing, which is to have an uppercut swing. The game will adjust back, but it's harder to adjust for a pitcher. If you've been taught for 20 years to pound the bottom of the zone with a two-seam fastball, it's hard to make a change to throw four-seamers up in the zone. The hitters, I think, you'll see more and more hit bombs while the pitchers adjust.