Even Tech-Savvy College Coaches Have To Work Hard To Keep Up

Image credit: Robert Woodard (Photo by J.J. Cooper)

When Charlotte hired Robert Woodard as head coach last July, they knew they were getting a tech-savvy coach.

When he was asked to explain his prospective plans for the 49ers in his job interview, Woodard laid out his plan for a data-driven approach. It’s something he’d helped do as an assistant coach at North Carolina as the Tar Heels become one of the most analytically-inclined teams in college baseball.

The Charlotte administration was sold. Woodard was hired. And from his first day, he and his new staff set about to answer the question: how quickly can a mid-major program go from an old school approach to a data-heavy approach?

As is being seen at college programs all around the country, the answer is very quickly. Analytics have gone from being barely seen in college baseball to being pervasive in just a few years. What was cutting edge in 2016 is normal now. And programs around the country have gotten up to speed very quickly. Even a coach like Woodard, who has made his name in part by being at the front-end of the college analytics revolution, has a lot of work to do to get up to speed with a new program in 2020.

“I think there was a time maybe five years ago where you could have a coaching staff that had more information or smarter information and you could play a certain way or pitch a certain way to where you would have a significant edge,” Woodard said. “Now there are so many good coaches out there that have so much information. There’s so many companies who are slicing and dicing the data a thousand different ways.

“This is moving really fast. I feel like five years ago if you were shifting you could improve your defensive efficiency against teams that were not necessarily at that level yet. In 2017,  I think our shift stood out. In 2018, they stood out way less and then by last year it was like you’re not really gaining much of an edge because it was so common.”

Shifts are now normal. Most college teams have detailed scouting reports on their opponents. And tech that was unknown just a few years ago is now commonplace.

Walk into the 49ers indoor facility and Driveline Baseball plyo-balls (durable balls in a variety of weights both heavier and lighter than normal baseballs), Jaeger tubing and Axe bats for underload and overload training are all readily apparent. There are Rapsodo systems for the hitters and pitchers, allowing them to see data from their pitches or swings on mobile TVs set up next to the cages.

The 49ers new BATS video system (which syncs together video from multiple cameras positioned around the stadium) is scheduled to be ready for Opening Day. A pair of high speed cameras (one to sync with the Rapsodo system for hitters and pitchers training and one to take on the road for recruiting) is also on their way.

The P3 Sports Science team was on site the weekend before Opening Day to do individual assessments of each player on the team. They team is at Charlotte every couple of months, seeing how each player is progressing and then tweaking the individualized training programs. Similarly, Blast bat sensors help the Charlotte coaches to tailor swing programs to improve bat speed, strength or control, depending on what each player needs.

The administration approved a significant amount of funding to allow Woodard and his staff to add tech, but it was not a blank check. 

So Woodard and his staff prioritized. The idea was to create a foundation in 2020 where the vast majority of money spent would help each player’s ability to train. Measuring in-game performance and the scouting data that can come from that will wait.

Charlotte does not have a Trackman doppler radar, which provides a bounty of in-game information. That will come next year. While North Carolina had a flock of students providing the manpower for an analytics team when Woodard was there, Charlotte will be looking to fill out its analytics team more next year. The 49ers are getting a lot of analytical support from Dr. Benny Rodriguez, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering.

So all the tech purchased so far has been acquired with the primary focus of helping the 2020 team perform better.

“The training area is the one where you set and build the foundation there. That’s got to be step one,” Woodard said. “We want to do everything in our power from the player development side so every player that shows up here on campus, whatever their ceiling is we are helping them get there as fast as possible.

“For us we we’re trying to prioritize training because we think that training comes before playing so you know. If we’re not if we’re not tracking and measuring and improving how our guys are training I think we’re skipping a very important step to performance.”

For a new staff, maximizing the potential of the current roster has a variety of benefits. It’s focused on the players who are there—with a few exceptions, the ingredients of a new coaching staff’s first team are set before they ever arrive. So getting the returning players to new levels of performance is key to a successful first year.

It’s also useful for future recruiting. Having examples of players making significant improvements because of a team’s individualized training programs helps attract future players.

After an offseason of training, the 49ers have collected a lot of data. But with a new season beginning, a more important data point will start to be logged.

“Whatever our win-loss record is this year, that tells us just how much further do we have to go?” Woodard said.

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