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Dodgers Use Instructional League To Innovate

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John Shoemaker (left) chats with Burt Hooton at fall Instructional League in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

GLENDALE, Ariz.—From extreme infield shifts to the launch-angle revolution to the second wild card to the advent of The Opener, plenty of things have changed throughout baseball over the course of the last few years.

With all that in mind, every lineup in every game has been nine players long. Sometimes the pitcher hits. Sometimes there’s a DH. Sometimes both of those things happen, but the length of the lineup is always constant: Nine players bat in every game in every league.

Unless you come see the Dodgers play during one of their 12 instructional league games. For the fourth straight year, the Dodgers are running their games a little differently. On Thursday against the A’s, for example, their lineup was just seven players, many of whom didn’t take a position in the field.

On the flip side, several players were limited to defense only and never took a turn at bat. The strategy is the brainchild of field coordinator Clayton McCullough, whose aim is to help each player get the most out of their three weeks at Camelback Ranch.

“I think we were trying to find a bit of a balance. This time of year, what do we feel like were the most important things we wanted to accomplish with the group of players we had here,” McCullough said. “I don’t think we always have the luxury of time. During the year, it’s tough to dive in on some one-on-one instruction and skill development with guys trying to compete. This is a time of year when you want guys to compete but you worry a little bit less about the wins and losses.”

As a further example of that philosophy, the scoreboard in left field was turned off for Thursday’s game.

Obviously, every player has different areas that need improvement. Some could stand to tighten up their glovework, others need to strengthen their offensive game, while others need to work on their baserunning.

The process used to determine each player’s optimal area for improvement is multi-pronged. Analysis is collected from coaches, player-development staff members, the analytics department and the players themselves to identify a target and set a plan in motion.

“Your championship season that you play over the course of the year, no matter what league you’re in, that’s going to let us know what someone’s strengths and weaknesses might be, and then we get a report back also from the ballplayer about what he feels his strengths and weaknesses are,” said John Shoemaker, who this past season managed low Class A Great Lakes. “It’s a collaboration of what we think and what they think.”

When the players’ evaluation of themselves doesn’t match with what the coaches think or what the data show, a teaching moment is born. This is when the leadership groups can introduce new ideas into a player’s mind about ways he can look at his own game.

“Some players are able to make a self-evaluation that’s accurate, ‘I need to work on hitting fastballs,’ or ‘I’m not good at going back on fly balls,’” Shoemaker said. “Sometimes a player might not be able to see it as clearly. You might think you’re doing well on balls to your left or your right, but you’re really not. They don’t get to tell us what they want to do, but they give us some information on what they maybe need to work on and then we can put it all in the package.”

One recent beneficiary of this program is top prospect Gavin Lux, who went from a .693 OPS in 2017 in the Midwest League to a .913 mark across high Class A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa in 2018. Lux, who ranks as BA’s No. 79 prospect, hit 15 home runs this season after entering the year with just seven career homers.

Entering the 2017 instructional league, Lux needed to get stronger. He’d nearly doubled his workload from his first season as a pro, so he didn’t need to come to Arizona to get more at-bats or more innings in the field.

Instead, he needed to find a way to withstand another season just like it in 2018. To do so, he had to make sure his body was in the best condition possible once Opening Day rolled around in April.

Getting ready for a big 2018 started immediately following the 2017 season.

“It was, let’s start focusing on your body, educate you on nutrition, educate you on the importance of rest,” McCullough explained. “Gavin would have an hour a day dedicated to baseball—most of the focus was on his hitting, improving his bat path and putting himself in a better position to handle all parts of the strike zone.

“Gavin was out here every day at 9 a.m. hitting on this field with Omar Estevez, and Gavin started to connect some of the dots. It was, ‘It wasn’t the type of season I wanted to have in 2017, but now I know what led to some of the results.’”

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Beyond the unorthodox games, the Dodgers have found other ways to instruct their players outside of traditional settings. In particular, there are skills-based contests that tap into an athlete’s natural sense of competition to help them improve in small ways.

Some players try to hit balls to certain targets (this teaches barrel control), while others compete for points by making strong, accurate throws or getting grounders out of their glove as quickly and as cleanly as possible.

The Dodgers also like to take the teaching completely away from the field by having their players and coaches make presentations to their peers on a variety of topics. One of McCullough’s favorites was centered around the way big companies like Pixar run their businesses.

“Successful cultures and successful businesses, there are some commonalities in the way they treat their employees and how they foster creativity,” he said. “We want our guys this year … to be OK with letting their guard down some. You’re only going to take steps forward when you’re having to get knocked down.

“You’ll only grow as a person, player and as a human by opening yourself up and realizing that you probably have to get outside of what’s comfortable to you and fail before you can take some steps forward.”

For four years, the Dodgers have been tinkering with their instructional league to maximize each player’s experience. Now, it’s starting to pay off.

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