Detroit – For better or worse, I am a product of my age and background. No getting around it. My perspective on baseball is shaded (clouded?) in fading old-school hues, like a sepia-toned photo. As much as I try to embrace the new analytics and technology – and out of necessity I have way more than I thought I could or would – most of it still makes my head hurt.
I listened to Matthew Boyd talk about how he improved his curve ball after one of his spring starts and he went on a 10-minute dissertation about spin axis and spin rates that left me dizzy.
So, imagine my trepidation as I waited with three other reporters in the lobby of the administration building at TigerTown back in February, to talk with Dan Hubbs. Hubbs is the former head baseball coach at USC whom the Tigers hired as their newly-created director of pitching development and strategy.
Here is his job description: To establish organization-wide protocol with an emphasis on leveraging data and technology to aid growth and performance.
Do what now?
The Tigers, unlike myself, have fully immersed themselves into the age of analytics and technology – albeit after a relatively late start. While the baseball team was losing a ton of games on the field the last three years, the front office has been modernizing and fortifying the infrastructure, pouring money and manpower into player development, scouting and analytics.
“Progress in the only benchmark that matters,” CEO and chairman Christopher Ilitch said during his visit to TigerTown last month. “The scouting level is where it starts, trading for prospects and then quickly turning to finding talent through the amateur draft.
“We are only as good as our scouts and we’ve invested heavily in beefing up our scouting department and staff. We’ve invested in our analytics capabilities and performance science – all of that is important in setting the foundation.”
The next phase, Ilitch said, was seeing the prospects develop into Major League contributors and stars.
“And it feels like we could be on the cusp of that,” he said.
That’s where Hubbs enters the picture.
He is an analytics/performance science guy – part troubleshooter, part overseer. But, as I discovered through our 25-minute talk, he’s rooted in old-school ethics.
“I feel like the last few years the college game and the pro game have started to morph together,” Hubbs said. “Before it was two diametrically opposite games and the knock of college was they were always trying to reinvent the wheel.
“Now it’s like pro ball is becoming that. Now it’s more progressive, more about what can we do to make every single player better. That appealed to me.”
'What can I do to help?'
Hubbs, 49, wasn’t immediately sure how or if he would be accepted. He’d been a pitching coach and a head coach at the collegiate level for 20 years. His closest connection to the pro game was talking to scouts and general managers about his players before the amateur draft every year. That’s how he maintained a relationship with Tigers assistant general manager David Chadd – a relationship that dates to 1991 when Chadd was his hitting coach in the collegiate summer league in Alaska.
But Hubbs is apparently an expert at walking on egg shells because by all accounts, he’s been welcomed with open arms, even by guys whose lawn he might be tramping on – like minor-league pitching coordinator A.J. Sager, any of the minor-league pitching coaches or even Tigers pitching coach Rick Anderson.
In the first 15 days of spring training, he ate dinner with Sager 10 times. He flew to Arizona to meet with Anderson right after he took the job.
“I just asked, ‘What can I do to help you?’” Hubbs said. “Whether it’s analytics or some of the numbers, whatever. We talk every morning. He just said, ‘If you see something, tell me.’ And that’s the way it has to be.
“I think one of the big reasons I’m here is to help the pitching coaches continue to do what they’re doing. They’ve done a great job, especially when you look at the development of some of these young kids.”
Hubbs has been using Edgertronic cameras and Rapsodo machines a lot longer than the Tigers have and he’s well-versed in how to apply it to pitch-shaping, pitch-plans and also pitcher safety. This knowledge was borne out of necessity back when he was trying to recruit players to Cal-Berkeley and then to USC.
“You better embrace it or you weren’t going to get the kid,” he said. “You have to have an answer for how you’re going to help him develop in three years. Because if you are asking a kid to turn down $800,000 to a million dollars to come to your school, you have to have a plan in place for how you’re going to make them better.”
Hubbs also went through early stages of certification at Driveline Academy in Seattle, where Boyd still trains.
“They brand themselves very well, and it’s velo, velo, velo,” Hubbs said. “But that’s not all they are about. They are about arm care, volume economy, training economy, where are you spending your energy on a given day.
“It’s about recovery during the season and routine. They’ve created a culture where guys are getting better up there but you still have to put it in play. It’s one thing to do it in a vacuum, but it’s another to take it on the field.”
'It's still about feel'
This is the line Hubbs walks. The technology and data can help pitchers better define and refine their pitch repertoire, help them decide what pitches work in what sequences. It can help them put together their routines – in season and out of season.
But, as he said, they don’t show spin rates on the Jumbotron.
“There’s a time to train and a time to compete,” he said. “We have to differentiate the two. On the mound, I don’t want to see a guy worrying about his mechanics and spin rate. He needs to just let her rip.”
This, to me, was reassuring. I’ve heard the horror stories about teams hiring straight analytics guys as pitching coaches (Twins' Wes Johnson, Yankees' Matt Blake and Cubs' Tommy Hottovy). There needs to be a blend.
“If you are only data-driven, then I don’t think you are good enough,” Hubbs said. “You need those interpersonal skills as a pitching coach to get what you want out of the player. You have to have those relationships and develop that trust.”
It’s fascinating to listen to Hubbs talk about developing pitchers from scratch. Almost like breaking in a young colt. Teach him to stand, then walk, then gallop. First, identify whether he’s a two-seam fastball guy (pitching down in the zone) or a four-seam guy (up in the zone). Then get the command down. Then figure out which secondary pitches will pair off the fastball. Then work on shaping the breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Then fine-tune the sequencing and pitch-plans.
“It’s just about getting guys to understand what their ball really does and how their pitches pair off each other,” he said. “It’s going to enhance their ability.”
He is doing studies on pitchers’ weight distribution, back leg to front leg, trying to determine the impact it might have on velocity. He’s using the data from the pressure plates in the hitting cages to study hitters’ balance points. He’s got tools to help a pitcher get more depth in his slider, to help differentiate it from a cutter. Same for helping pitchers get more sink or bite on a curve ball.
He’s developing a data base showing still photos and videos of the grips and deliveries of every pitcher in the organization. He’s put pitchers through 20-pitch bullpen sessions that lasted 30 minutes – using video to help them design and shape their pitches.
Creative and proactive stuff, really.
But it’s not like he’s running a laboratory and spitting out pitcher clones.
“It can’t be that way,” he said. “Guys need to have the freedom to be who they are. There’s going to be some guys who can pitch up in the zone because their ball dictates that. There’s going to be guys who pitch down in the zone with sink because that’s who they are.
“It’s our job to identify who these guys are.”
The technology and data are just tools.
“We can tell a lot of this stuff with our eyes, but the data validates what our eyes are telling us a lot of the time,” he said. “But it’s still about letting your athleticism come through. It’s still about feel. With the Edgertronic cameras and Rapsodo machines, they can give you an idea of what you want your ball to do.
“But you still have to go out and do it and not over-analyze your mechanics, over-analyze your data points. It can go too far one way and it can go too far the other. In this day and age, there has to be a really good blend to get where you want to be.”
The data may make an old goat's head swim, but the methodology is sound.
“The goal is to get to the point where you know how to throw the pitches you want to throw,” Hubbs said. “You know why it was bad and why it was good, and that’s where the feel comes in.
"That’s how we want to use the data. Not to overpower guys with information and just pitch by the numbers.”