Coaching Confidential: Which Program Has The Best Player Development Facilities?
Baseball America this spring surveyed 90 head coaches on a wide-ranging list of topics to get the pulse of the profession. Over the next several weeks, we’ll post the results of that survey.
The last decade saw an incredible explosion of facilities development around college baseball. Mississippi State built the new Dudy Noble Field for an eye-popping $68 million, the most expensive college baseball stadium outside of Omaha, and Florida and Oklahoma State will next spring open new palatial stadiums of their own.
The building boom extends beyond the traditional powers, however. Programs from across the country and sport’s hierarchy from Boston College to Jacksonville State to Purdue to Washington opened new stadiums, and seemingly every program took on a major facilities project.
After all that concrete was poured, steel laid and turf installed, which program has the best player development facilities? We put that question to our panel of coaches.
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Arkansas received the most votes in the survey, appearing on 18 coaches’ ballots. Vanderbilt closely followed with 14 votes, while Mississippi State ranked third with nine. Wake Forest was the highest-ranked school from outside the SEC, earning seven votes.
The ranking itself is likely a lagging indicator in some respects, as it typically takes some time for coaches to see and evaluate new facility developments. And, of course, this poll is merely a snapshot in time, as the next blockbuster new facility is always just around the corner.
Arkansas finishing first in the poll probably comes as no surprise to fans who have long enjoyed visiting Baum-Walker Stadium. The stadium has been among the sport’s best since it opened in 1996 and topped Baseball America’s last ballpark rankings in 2018.
But the intention of this poll was to look beyond the parts of the stadiums that fans see and what gets shown on TV. In those respects, Arkansas continues to get high marks.
Arkansas in 2014 opened its Fowler Family Baseball & Track Training Center, which provides the Razorbacks with a premium indoor facility. It has a full turf infield, four batting cages that drop down outside of the infield and additional team areas. While it does double duty with track, the facility is primarily used by the baseball team.
“The indoor that they have is sick,” one coach said. “For a place that has some weather issues in the preseason, they have an amazing indoor that’s primarily baseball only. That helps attract a cage rat type of player.”
The combination of Baum-Walker Stadium and the indoor facility alone was enough to make Arkansas the pick for some coaches. But others also are looking ahead to what the Razorbacks are building now. The Hunt Family Baseball Development Center is under construction just past the right field fence at Baum-Walker Stadium and will house a locker room, meeting room, strength and conditioning center, pitching and development lab and a batting tunnel.
The new facility will connect to the Razorbacks’ dugout via a tunnel and connect to the concourse, giving fans a new premium seating area during games. The development center will cost $27 million.
There’s no doubt that Arkansas will have all the team spaces it could hope for once the new facility opens next summer. But what those spaces are filled with is also important and the Razorbacks are one of the most forward-thinking programs in terms of technology and analysis, and their developmental spaces reflect that.
“They’ve always been on the up and up,” another coach said. “It started a little bit with (former pitching coach) Wes Johnson and the importance of analytics. I think they’ve done a really good job of matching your traditional what you need in a baseball facility with technology.”
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Vanderbilt has long been on the cutting edge in terms of technology and facilities. Former pitching coach Derek Johnson, who now holds the same job with the Reds, converted an old batting cage into the Commodores’ famed pitching lab. The area has been continually beefed up over the years, adding the latest technology in pitching development.
Vanderbilt has applied similar concepts throughout their facilities and two years ago opened an expanded developmental area within Hawkins Field complete with a new locker room, an expanded weight room, a classroom and offices.
“If you look at it as a player, they’re committed to developing,” one coach said. “They had a pitching lab before pretty much anybody else. They had a players’ weight room before pretty much anybody else.
“Their facility screams their history to me. When you walk in and you’re a part of it, you have a reminder of where you’re at, what the standard is and also a reminder of how well taken care of you are from a personal, student and developmental standpoint. It checks every box from a holistic standpoint.”
The SEC’s facility advantages are clear. Not only did the conference account for five of the top-six vote getters, multiple coaches didn’t name a top facility and instead mentioned the conference’s edge in the area.
Outside the conference where “It just means more,” Wake Forest received the most votes. The Demon Deacons last year opened the Hurd Player Development Center with their own pitching lab as the main attraction. The pitching lab is part of a partnership with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, which brought in a team doctor and a director of the pitching lab. The lab provides biomechanical analysis that helps Wake stay on the cutting edge.
Twenty-one schools received at least one vote and 11 were named on multiple ballots. Every school that received multiple votes is a member of a major baseball conference. That isn’t surprising, given the economic realities of building and maintaining premium facilities.
Whether the building boom continues into the next decade remains to be seen. In the immediate term, it seems unlikely that many programs will be breaking new ground soon as the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic hits athletic departments and boosters in the bank account. But for the last decade, at least, the boom has been felt throughout college baseball.
“Any Power Five school, plus many mid-majors,” one coach replied to the question. “It’s an arms race out there.”