Tech Has Transformed Hitting Coaching Faster Than Expected
DALLAS – Imagine you take a visit to the doctor. You haven’t felt well for a few days. You alternate between feeling like you’re going to freeze and moments where you’re sweating.
So you walk into the doctor’s office. She comes in, puts the back of her hand to your forehead and says “Yep, you’ve got a fever.”
Understandably, you’d be a little perplexed. After seeing many patients, a doctor may have a finely tuned ability to discern someone’s fever just by touch. But that still doesn’t come close to the ability of a thermometer to deliver a more precise measurement.
When it comes to hitting. Until very recently, hitting coaches had little option other than to try to measure hitters like they were measuring a fever with the back of their hand. Now everyone is adjusting to a world with thermometers.
Wandering around the American Baseball Coaches Association meetings last week, it was hard to miss just how quickly this revolution has occurred. Exit velocity went from being unheard of to being part of every hitting coaches' lexicon in the span of just a few years. The data revolution that revolutionized pitching over the course of two decades has revolutionized hitting instruction in a couple of years. It's still happening, but we've gone past the point of early adopters to the point where it's been adopted by the masses.
Yes, you don’t need Trackman, HitTrax, Rapsodo or Flight Scope to determine whether a player hits the ball hard or not. But those tools provide a level of precision that was impossible to measure before they arrived.
We’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again. Two generations ago, there were scouts who didn’t believe in radar guns. At the time, radar guns were a new technology. As these scouts (and other front office officials) saw it, they solved a non-existent problem.
They were lifelong baseball men with some of the best eyes in baseball. When they began scouting, radar guns didn’t exist. They knew how to judge a pitcher’s velocity with their eyes. As they saw it, there was no need to lug a new device to games (at the time it was a very heavy and finicky device) everyday to do something they already did naturally.
For a while there were teams who felt the same way. As they saw it, why should they spend money to buy radar guns when they could approximate how hard a pitcher threw by visual estimation?
This is in no way to denigrate scouting, but the scouts who decided they would never pick up a radar gun were making a big mistake (and soon were left by the wayside). They were failing to take advantage of a useful tool. They were measuring with the back of their hand when they had been handed a thermometer.
Nowadays, it’s impossible to fathom a scout who never reads a radar gun. There are scouts who can regularly predict the velocity of pitches within one mph without a radar gun, but they still bring their radar gun to every game. It’s a tool to provide precise, useful measurements.
And those measurements aren’t subjective, they are objective. The velocity of a pitcher in New Hampshire can easily be compared to that of a pitcher in California, something that was impossible to do in the pre-radar gun world.
But radar guns did more than that. Eventually, they helped in player development as well. Radar guns (and eventually, the pitch tracking technologies that followed) allowed players, coaches and teams to measure which training techniques help pitchers gain velocity and which ones don’t. Similarly, Trackman, Pitch F/X, Statcast, Flight Scope and other pitch tracking technologies have allowed pitchers and their coaches to use data to a level of detail that was impossible before.
Radar guns are one of the reasons that weighted ball workouts and long tossing became pervasive around baseball. Teams were able to quantify that pitchers threw harder after doing those training programs. Throwing harder makes pitchers more effective, so teams gravitated to training programs that help pitchers throw harder. The tool provided validation for a technique.
All those pieces of technology are tools. They don’t teach a pitcher to pitch and they don’t coach or scout. But they are useful tools for pitchers, coaches and scouts. Smart teams and smart pitchers have used the instant feedback of pitch data (and high-speed video) to shorten the development time it takes to refine or develop a pitch and to help evaluate players for the draft.
And that is one of the reasons why the quality of pitching in the major leagues has improved dramatically over the past 15 years.
As we wrote early last year, hitting is now going through a similar revolution. While radar guns began the pitching revolution decades ago, similar technology to measure hitters just hasn’t existed until recently. But now for the first time, there are the means to measure what hitters do swing by swing. Bat sensors and radar/photo sensors can quantify a hitter's bat speed, his swing path, how hard he hits the ball and how consistently he hits it hard. And as the hitter trains, it can also quickly show improvement or decline.
Naturally, there are skeptics. They often Tweet after any mention is made of exit velocity or launch angle to suggest that true coaches don’t need these tools. Much like the scout in 1980 who spurned a radar gun, they are wrong.
Hitting is much more complex than pitching, which is already complex enough. A pitcher can replicate everything he needs to in a game with a mound and a catcher. Hitters have to react to a pitcher throwing to them, so there’s not nearly as much that translates directly from practice to games.
But there is a lot that does translate. We know that hitting the ball harder is better than hitting the ball softly. Hitting the ball hard with a bat path that puts the ball into the air is the way to hit more home runs and have more extra base hits. Having a bat path that allows a hitter to generate hard contact more consistently is better than one that quickly passes through the hitting zone on a steep angle.
Much like two generations ago, much of what is being measured are things scouts and coaches regularly understood. Bat sensors can now quantify bat speed, but evaluators knew Gary Sheffield had the best bat speed of his generation even without the technology to fully quantify it.
The data now allows teams to understand their hitters in ways that were never possible before. It’s now possible for a team and its coaches and front office officials to know how hard a batter hits every ball in practice and in games. Similarly, it’s possible to see when a hitters exit velocities dip, which may be a sign of mechanical issues or an undetected injury.
The revolution has been developing for several years. Much like any technology there are early adopters who blaze a trail. Teams like the Dodgers who have consistently found ways to snag players off the scrap heap (i.e., Justin Turner, Chris Taylor and Max Muncy) and turn them into stars. Not coincidentally, the Dodgers are among the teams who rely heavily on measuring hitters with technology.
But we've gone far beyond early adopters at this point. Many college programs in 2019 have a more technologically-advanced hitting program than any team far beyond anything any team could have dreamed of having just a decade ago.
Nowadays, teams want coaches who are well versed in how to use the new technologies and the data they produce. It’s not because launch angle is a magic elixir—it’s because being versed in these new technologies allows smart coaches to coach better. They can see what’s working and what isn’t with a granularity that was never before possible. The best coaches will use these tools to refine, improve, adjust and begin the cycle over again. What used to take months now can be validated (or thrown out) in just a few weeks as the ability to precisely measure allows much quicker feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
But beyond that, front offices now have a tool to measure how effective their coaches are. Judging a hitting coach on the success of his hitters has long been a hard to quantify–even over the course of a full season normalized statistics can be incredibly noisy. Now it can be quantified by how hard his hitters hit and how much quality contact they make, pitch by pitch and swing by swing.
Hitters are going to get better and better, much like technology has helped pitchers improve. But it also means that coaching hitters is becoming much more scrutinized. There will be coaches who adapt and adopt and others who don’t. For some, it’s going to be scary.
But once this technology exists, it can’t be ignored. Much like thermometers and radar guns, hitting tech isn’t going anywhere. The revolution will be accurately measured.