The pitcher comes set. Enacts his delivery. His offering sails wide of the plate. Just like the last one, he thinks. He checks over his shoulder, glancing at the scoreboard that displays the strike zone, the pitch speed, and the exit velocity of batted balls. Yup. Instant feedback and validation, right there, right as soon as the ball leaves his hand. To think, this is only practice — yet all this information is available so readily.
This is not a scene from Major League Baseball or one of its minor-league affiliates; nor is it from a movie or video game, though it could be, as easily as a well-turned 6-4-3 double play. Rather, this hypothetical comes from the University of Iowa’s recent intrasquad game, and serves as a reminder that the cutting-edge approaches used by the professionals are spreading sportwide.
The big data approach to baseball has gone to college.
“What you’re seeing is just technology playing a bigger role in baseball,” said Iowa’s first-year pitching coach Desi Druschel, who had spent the previous three years as the college’s director of baseball operations. Druschel was responsible for planning the travel and the meals — boring if necessary stuff like that — but his job had a bigger scope than secretary. He leveraged his head-coaching experience at smaller programs to serve in a quality assurance role — whether it was overseeing the instruction given to players, or identifying the gadgets they should buy.
The Hawkeyes have transitioned from a non-entity to one of the best programs in the Big Ten conference since head coach Rick Heller took over in 2013. Iowa has won 30-plus games in each of Heller’s four seasons, that after winning 30 in just two of the previous 14 years. Last spring, the Hawkeyes won their first conference tournament in school history, and in August they became the first American representative to win a medal in the World University Games.
“I do believe that some portion of our success can be attributed to the technology we have and how we implement it into our development,” Druschel said, crediting Heller for building the program in numerous ways. The University is a fan of Heller, too. Iowa has renovated its stadium — installing new Astroturf, a new scoreboard — and continues to splurge on amenities that used to seem beyond the scope of big-league teams, let alone college programs.
Hence Druschel being able to rattle off the names of a dozen different tools he’s either interested in or has already helped Iowa acquire — not to mention those he deployed to his advantage during his days overseeing the team at Mount Mercy College. There’s PitchGrader (a program that turns the Trackman data into something usable), Senaptec (helps with visual and sensorimotor skills), Zepp (bat sensors), and so on. There’s a lot out there. Finding what works best involves some first-hand trial and error, and some awareness of what others are using.
Make no mistake about it, Iowa isn’t alone in chasing the big-data rabbit. Dallas Baptist’s expert use of Trackman has been documented before. Wake Forest is said to be making analytical progress on both sides of the ball. Vanderbilt’s progressive reputation is such that it’s no surprise former pitching coach Derek Johnson has since worked for data-heavy pro squads like the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers. Then there’s the University of Missouri Tigers.
The Tigers share much in common with the Hawkeyes, from their black-and-yellow color schemes to their progressive mindsets. Both are proponents of new-school methodologies, like Trackman and the pitch-recognition system gameSense.
Tigers head coach Steve Bieser was introduced to Dr. Peter Fadde’s product during his tenure at Southeast Missouri State University by hitting coach Dillon Lawson. The pair had embraced a “Moneyball” mentality in other ways — using sabermetric measures like runs created and weighted on-base average to build lineups — and their investment in plate-approach paid off. Lawson was even hired away to serve as as minor-league hitting coach for the Houston Astros, who, for better or worse, might be the most analytical organization in all of sports.
The pair reunited prior to the 2017 season at Missouri, where they’re enjoying greater resources than they had at Southeast Missouri State — and, in Lawson’s case, greater buy-in than he experienced in the pros. “There’s fewer people at the college level to convince that the numbers have value,” he said. “Regardless of what organization you’re in and how data-driven they are, there’s still plenty of people who are within that organization who aren’t completely sold on it.”
The numbers’ value is evident in the Tigers’ results. Missouri won 36 games in its first year under Bieser and Lawson, the most for the program since 2008. Their offensive gains were impressive and widespread. Compared to 2016, the Tigers scored an additional run per game and upped their collective batting average (15 points), on-base percentage (17 points), and slugging percentage (46 points), according to data from The Baseball Cube.
“That’s what gets me going — trying to beat who should beat you every time.”
Missouri’s greatest advantage over the other teams pursuing the same information and training edge is an easy one to overlook: an analytics staff. “There aren’t many Division I programs that have Trackman, let alone have an analytical team who can make sense of Trackman on a deeper level besides spin rate and the basic stuff that Trackman reports”, Lawson said. “We’re able to get into it deeper and so it’s one thing that allows us to stand out.”
The Tigers have two individuals who make sense of the primordial data soup: Matt Kane and Gunnar Wilhelmy. Kane in particular is noteworthy, as he could be the first of the current Tigers to reach the big leagues. A sophomore triple-majoring in statistics, mathematics, and economics, Kane grew up obsessing over box scores. He was reading and mimicking Bill James by the time he reached high school. Predictably, he’s dreamed of working for a big-league team since realizing he wasn’t talented enough to play the sport at a high level.
Major-league employees have taken note of Kane’s precociousness, too. St. Louis Cardinals general manager Mike Girsch has been in touch, and he isn’t alone. “Sometimes I’ll tell [scouts] about some of the cool stuff that we’ve been able to create or recreate from other, major-league organizations,” Lawson said. “Two of them were like, ‘So when does Matt graduate?’ and like, ‘I need to make sure we put in a call before he signs with some other team.'”
Developing talent — on the field, in the dugout, and even in the front office — is a large part of what drives colleges to pursue these major-league solutions.
Development is key
There are no trade or free-agent markets in college baseball. Success boils down to how well teams can recruit players, and how well they can coach those recruits. Investing in new technology and data sources aids both of those efforts.
Druschel tweets images and videos of Iowa’s cool gadgetry all the time. It’s by design, since he understands the role social media plays in modern life. There’s no concern that recruits might be scared off. Nowadays, players grow up watching MLB Network, where they’ll see Statcast-inspired replays and leaderboards that track exit velocity and spin rate and all those other cool measures that they’ll see on Iowa’s scoreboard — all of which can help make them a better player, provided they’re open to coaching. “To me, it’s not necessarily analytics or data, it’s just people wanting to improve. That’s what the coaching profession is all about,” Druschel said. Lawson concurred, noting that the numbers can help them ID what to focus on.
Of course, college programs want to win games, too. Iowa doesn’t overhaul its stadium if the program was still in the pits, and Missouri doesn’t hire Bieser if he’d failed at Southeast Missouri State. In both cases, the coaching staffs are working from underneath relative to their competition. Iowa is stuck in a conference where money continues to flow due to a television deal and expansion, while Missouri has to deal with a number of SEC powerhouses. Each program’s best chances of winning involve finding ways to outwit and outsmart their opponents.
It’s no wonder, then, that Druschel finds inspiration in “Moneyball” and “Big Data Baseball,” books about winning baseball teams overcoming with smart management. “There’s people who don’t have all the resources that everyone else has, but they find a different way to do it,” he said. “They find a way to be more efficient. They find a way to look at situations different than they have in the past to beat people who have more, but who have gotten stuck in one way of doing things. That’s what gets me going — trying to beat who should beat you every time.”
Not everyone channels the underdog spirit though. Some desire to be the big dog.
“We want to be at the forefront of analytics and training and evaluating and we want to do it better than anybody else,” Lawson said. “If we make it public then there’s extra motivation.”