Player Development Drove Central Florida to NJCAA Title

Image credit: Courtesy NJCAA

There’s an easy route to take as one reaches middle age and beyond.

As the world changes, and it’s always changing, you can take the easy route. You can shake your head and begrudge how your generation had things all figured out, and now the next generations have shown up to screw it all up.

In baseball you see this all the time. Our grandparents saw it. Every past generation of players and coaches is filled with those who can explain how the new wave of players have it too easy, focus on the wrong things and are playing the game the wrong way. If only someone would listen to them, everything would be so much better.

This is not a new development. Enjoy one-time manager William Joyce writing in the 1916 Spalding Baseball Guide about baseball in the 1910s compared to baseball in the 1890s. Yes, baseball in the era of Ty Cobb was soft compared to the real baseball of the 1890s.

“Base Ball today is not what it should be. The players do not try to learn all the fine points of the game as in the days of old, but simply try to get by … The boys go out to the plate, take a slam at the ball, pray that they’ll get a hit and just let it go at that. They are not fighting as in the days of old …

“In my days, the players went into the clubhouse after a losing game with murder in their hearts. They would have thrown any guy out on his neck if they had even suspected him of intentions of singing. In my days, the man who was responsible for having lost a game was told in a man’s way by a lot of men what a rotten ball player he really was. It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today. It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it too.”

It’s easy and comforting. Your generation did it right. These current idiots, well, what do they know?

There’s a tougher, less comfortable, but ultimately much more rewarding path that one can choose to take. Instead of playing it safe and deciding that you have nothing left to learn, you can take that accumulated wisdom gathered over the past few decades, and marry it with new innovations and new ideas and continue to develop and grow.

JC of Central Florida head coach Marty Smith reached that fork in the road a little less than a decade ago. The Patriots were consistently among the better junior college teams in Florida, and Smith’s clubs had won a pair of Florida state titles. He was a successful coach with a solid team.

But the middle-aged Smith had a suspicion that the Patriots and himself could be something more. It would just involve tearing up much of what Smith had long known and being willing to adapt and learn.

“We were spinning our wheels for a long time,” Smith said. “I had to realize there’s new stuff out there that works.”

So Smith and his assistant coaches essentially started over. They stopped doing a lot of what they had always done. For years Smith had made sure that the team’s bunt defenses, rundowns and pitcher fielding practice (PFPs) had been given plenty of focus to ensure the team was well-drilled on the fundamentals by devoting practice time multiple times a week to drilling these fundamentals.

Pitchers ran poles. Hitters used batting practice to gain confidence to take into games. The team was first and the individual players’ improvement was developed through working as a team. After all, what is a better sign of a well-run team than a perfectly run rundown or bunt defense?

In 2016-2018, Smith took that approach, crumpled it up and threw it in a wastebasket. Why spend an hour or more a week of limited practice time practicing plays that happened just a few times every year? Instead, that time was devoted to letting the players work on player development.

Smith’s new approach would be that if Central Florida worked on helping each player get better at the most important aspects of the game by focusing on extensive work on hitting and pitching drills and strength and weight training, the individual players would be more likely to fulfill their goals of getting to Division I programs or getting drafted.

“Coaches who poo-poo player development. Player development is not just practice,” Smith said. “It’s over and above what the team does. If we do that, it will help us attract players and we’ll get those players better.”

But most importantly, practices were reworked dramatically. Those PFPs, cutoff drills and rundowns? They became something touched on briefly, occasionally. Batting practice was revamped and lengthened. Instead of seeing a pitcher throwing 70 mph who was trying to find the bat in BP, hitters had to step in against pitching machines that were designed to throw harder and nastier pitches than what the hitters would face in games.

“We challenge the heck out of them. Our BPs aren’t fun for kids in fall,” Smith said. “They’re humbled and frustrated, but if you get over that where the machine is knocking the bat out of my hands, you begin to understand that it makes in-game hitting much easier, you can make it a little easier for yourself in competition.”

“It’s a slow progression, but they have to really show us they want to get after it. They can really put on strength and make weight gains. As a hitter you get challenged more and slowly start to see that (development). Stay in that weight lifting mode and tough BP mode. In January they come back as a really good player who can see how these hard things pay off. The ball starts jumping out of the yard more. You’re not trying to hit them out, but they are carrying farther.”

Pitchers throw focused bullpens, all of which are tracked by every modern type of device that Central Florida can afford to bring in. Rapsodos, high-speed cameras, MOTUS sleeves. All of the data was recorded and shown to the players so they could see and understand their own development.

“Long days of switching the pitching machine on every pitch to work on ball-strike and swing decisions—those aren’t fun, that’s 15 seconds between pitches,” Smith said. “Having them make decisions on every pitch. It’s no fun. It’s a long day. It’s hot in September and October in Florida. But it’s getting players better.”

Like most junior colleges, resources are tight. Smith’s assistant coaches are not highly paid. But they know they are at a program where they’ll develop quickly.

“I have had great coordinators and coaches,” Smith said. “I was lucky enough to have them and barely smart enough to listen to them.”

He’s had a lot of them because Central Florida is now known as an incubator for talented young coaches. Ever since Zach Bove and Smith’s son Ryan left to take jobs in pro baseball, Smith has adopted a short-term approach in his coaching hires. He hangs around the Driveline booth and other progressive training experts at the ABCA coaches convention.

“They are at the right talks and on the same page as I am. They know what we do. It’s gotten easier over the years,” Smith said. “Without much budget we’re getting dudes who trust what we do and trust me that we’ll allow them to coach.”

So how has it worked? What did focusing on the individual players instead of team drills do for the team itself?

When I talked to Smith on June 4, he was on the bus back from Grand Junction, Colo. and the NJCAA Division I College World Series. The team was buoyant, and there was an extra passenger occupying a seat on the trip back to Florida—a national championship trophy.

This year, Central Florida went 56-7 with one of the most ferocious lineups Juco baseball has seen. The Patriots averaged 10.3 runs scored per game while allowing 5.1 runs per game. After losing their first game of the NJCAA Division I World Series to Weatherford (Texas) JC, Central Florida scored 12, 19, 14 and 13 runs on its way to a national title. 

Juan Correa hit 22 home runs while hitting .374/.455/.753. John Marant hit .434/.553/.758 with 15 home runs. Edwin Toribio hit 20 home runs. Six different Patriots were in double digits in home runs and the team slugged .588 as a team.

Smith says the team isn’t really any different in how it fields bunts and handles pitchers covering first, even with less work spent on that in practice. But the hitters and pitchers are 

Because of that, Smith expects that he’ll likely lose hitting coach Jason Rose to a pro team.

“I’ll lose him. I hope I’ll lose him,” Smith said. “We’ll get someone else young to step in but he deserves to be in the pro game considering what he’s done for us.”
A decade ago, the loss of a coach with Rose’s skills would have been a discouraging development for the Patriots’ program.

Not now. Once you’ve turned the corner on accepting that baseball is a game you’ll never fully figure out, the process of adding young talent to the program has a different feel. There’s a next coach to hire to help the program find a new level.

It may have taken a big leap to completely change his coaching approach nearly a decade ago, but now that’s he’s done it, Smith wholeheartedly recommends taking that jump. Central Florida’s national champions, and he’s a better coach.

“It just feels like we aren’t wasting time and we are getting kids better,” Smith said. “It’s absolutely a blast now.”


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