Saying Thanks to Friends and Mentors

December 30, 2015

I’ve always enjoyed reading those articles that start popping up this time of year, generally titled, like, “Things I learned in (insert year)”, or something of that nature. So this year, I figured I’d give my own take on it. In light of my recent Indians announcement, this seemed like a good time to show appreciation for those who helped me get here.

I don’t think there’s any question, that my opportunity to work with a progressive organization, like Cleveland, is a direct result of the people I’ve surrounded myself with. I’ve always felt it was important to find friends and mentors who both complement my skill set while simultaneously pushing me to continue developing. This group of people has certainly done that.

  1. Eric Cressey, Pete Dupuis and the Cressey Sports Performance Family
  2. Kirk Fredericks – 1st Ballot Hall of Fame High School Coach in Massachusetts
  3. Matt Hyde – New York Yankees Northeast Area Scout
  4. Steve August – New England Ruffnecks Program Director
  5. Carroll and Terry Blake – Rock-Solid Parents

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, as there will be plenty of people I’ll be leaving out here. But, this group of people has been the foundation of my development as a coaching professional, and I’d like to give back a morsel of what they’ve given me. So, we’ll start with the CSP crew.

Eric Cressey, Pete Dupuis and the Cressey Sports Performance family

CSP Staff

It’s safe to say that Eric, Pete and the entire CSP family have been the backbone of my professional existence. Without these people, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today. CSP has been, and continues to be, a pioneer in the realm of performance enhancement for the baseball community. Its unique blend of culture and individualized programming for the baseball athlete was ahead of its time, and continues to help usher in a new era of athletic development for the baseball market. It has been a tremendous honor to lead the pitching side of the equation from 2009 to the present.

I’ll always look back on my decision to move my pitching business into the Cressey Sports Performance facility as literally the smartest thing I could have done for my career and my own personal growth. It allowed me to learn every day in an environment that was rooted in anatomy and kinesiology and not just baseball jargon.

Instead of dealing with other baseball coaches, I was exposed to strength coaches, physical therapists, athletic trainers and orthopedic surgeons, who all had a different lens through which they viewed the plight of pitching. By immersing myself in a different culture, I was forced to learn a new language that got to the heart of movement and allowed me to answer deeper questions about the pitching delivery itself.

All the mechanics information that I had digested before was simply surface knowledge. I knew if I wanted to separate myself in a market with people that had much more experience than I did, I needed to have a more thorough answer for what “high-level” mechanics looked like and how to teach them. By getting to the fundamentals of movement and working back through the intricacies of the pitching delivery, I’ve been able to build a stronger working knowledge of the human body and its capabilities.

As we’ve seen over the last decade, baseball is entering a unique period of performance, where we’re pushing the limits of the human body, and athletes are going down at an alarming rate. In my opinion, the ability to break down the silos of communication between player development, scouting and the medical realms will be where the next “Moneyball” lies.

With that in mind, I would highly recommend any baseball professional find alliances and build relationships with people outside of the immediate baseball industry. After a certain point, that’s where your continued development is going to come from.

The relationships I developed and the information I gained in the CSP culture allowed me to grow at an expedited rate, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. This is a relationship I’ll maintain as long as I’m in the business of developing people, because I know CSP will continue to be at the cutting edge of human development.

 

Kirk Fredericks – 1st Ballot Hall of Fame High School Coach in Massachusetts

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Somehow back in February of 2009, I had the incredible fortune of meeting Eric Cressey and Kirk Fredericks in about a two-week span.

Upon meeting Eric, he made an introduction to Kirk, who was the Head Coach of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and was in need of a pitching coach to help him that spring. Without realizing what I was getting myself into, I quit my full-time salaried sales position to become a volunteer pitching coach at a public high school in Massachusetts. To this day, it is probably the most rewarding decision I’ve ever made.

By leaving the security of a “normal job” behind, I was unknowingly entering into a master’s class in coaching that would evolve over the 7 years we got to coach together in the high school setting. Kirk is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, “team-building technician” in Massachusetts. His three state championships and 14-year record of 269-68 speaks for itself. If I had to characterize what was at the heart of this successful run for the LS program, it started and ended with cold-blooded execution of the fundamentals. Other than the 2011 state championship team, we generally didn’t overpower the opposition with more talent.

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We just played with a steady heartbeat and a level head more consistently than our opponents did over that time. We focused on throwing quality strikes, catching the ball at a high rate, and moving runners around the bases in an aggressively efficient manner. We never worried about who was on the other team, what the score was or what our record was. It didn’t matter if it was the first inning in March or the last inning in June. These teams were constantly striving to get better at executing the basics each and every day. This was a tribute to Kirk’s unyielding pursuit of a fundamentally sound team in every phase of the game. He asked a lot of the kids and they responded because they grew to care about doing things the right way as much as he did. Ultimately, our best teams ended up policing themselves and held each other accountable.

What it led me to understand was that it doesn’t necessarily take an enormous amount of skill to develop a good baseball team. What it takes is an incredible amount of group discipline to execute the fundamentals day in and day out. The effort each athlete has to put in on an every day basis to hold up their end of the bargain is something not many groups are able to maintain. The level of consistency with which Coach Fredericks’ teams played over that 14-year span is a remarkable testament to his dedication to teaching these principles.

Over the years, I have grown a profound appreciation in looking at the great coaches, whether it be John Wooden, Bill Belichick, or Bo Schembechler, and come to realize that their recipes for success generally boil down to similar principles. Focus on the process, own the fundamentals and take care of the team first. “Success” will generally follow if you adhere to that recipe.

I was fortunate enough to see it employed first hand in a high school setting, and for that I’ll be forever appreciative of the opportunity to start my coaching career with Coach Fredericks at Lincoln-Subdury.

Matt Hyde, New York Yankees Northeast Area Scout

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Matt Hyde is simply one of the most genuine people in the baseball industry and I’ve been lucky to have him as a mentor over the last 6 years. The numerous discussions we’ve had regarding scouting and developing the whole person, not just the baseball player, will always be at the core of my evaluation process.

When it comes down to it, evaluating the athlete’s tools is the “easy” part of the scouting profession. This part you can see and quantify. The problem is that this game is incredibly challenging and can push people to the brink of despair. Its a long road to the top that involves dealing with a lot of mental anguish. If there isn’t a resilient character with a consistent work ethic and a willingness to receive instruction, it becomes that much more challenging to continue to persevere at the highest levels when talent evens out.

With that in mind, the ability to engage with the human that underlies the “athlete” and learn what they’re about in the dugout and the clubhouse is one of the greatest skills a talent evaluator can have. Very rarely does a player fail because the tools you quantified let him down, it’s more likely that the character traits underlying the tools eroded in the long run. Making sure you understand the people you’re choosing to include in your organization becomes essential in building a resilient culture.

As long as I’m in this game, I’ll value the ability to build healthy relationships with coaches, players, parents, and teachers as an integral part of the evaluation process, because that’s where the story of a player’s developmental path is really being told.

Steve August, Program Director of the New England Ruffnecks

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Following the Spring of 2009, Kirk brought me along with him to coach with the New England Ruffnecks, a select Travel Baseball organization that has one team at each age group from 13-18 and draws players from all over New England. Its there where I met Steve August.

The two things that I’ll take away from my time with the Ruffnecks will be the loyalty shown throughout the program and the focus on the individual’s development within the context of the team. I’ve always admired Mr. August’s ability to push back against the modern showcase culture and instead focus on the long-term development of players in this context. Trying to instill team principles to help build the character of these athletes while they pursue their dream of college baseball is not an easy task in this day and age.

Most organizations have multiple teams at every level, trying to acquire critical mass for monetary reasons, and some are trying to get as many “hired-guns” as they can for individual tournaments. There’s nothing wrong with this, if that’s your business model, but it has never fit the mission of the Ruffnecks.  Right or wrong, Steve has never relented on that promise to the kids. For better or worse, he has turned away many talented players, who weren’t a good fit for the team culture that they were trying to create. While that may have hurt the Ruffnecks “National Ranking” in the short term, it only helped to solidify the identity of the program in the long run.

As a result, there’s always been a resounding theme around the program that the college coaches seemed to enjoy watching Ruffnecks’ teams play. The common refrain for these coaches, who watch hundreds of showcase teams show up and play lethargically, was that it was refreshing to see a group of players play with energy for each other in these environments.

This is something that I’ve grown to appreciate about the program. Each and every team will have unique qualities to it, but there will always be a sense of shared experience for anyone who has been a part of the Ruffnecks program, knowing that these individuals are willing to put the team first.

With the addition of the New England Baseball Complex as the New England Ruffnecks’ home, it would be easy to let the program get watered down and open it up to the masses. But, if there’s one thing I know about Steve, and his commitment to his vision, its that his loyalty to the team and the people associated with the program will always come first in any decision made about the program’s future.

 

Carroll and Terry Blake – Rock-Solid Parents

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Last, but certainly not least, would be the people who have been with me from the beginning. And, let’s face it – my parents let me decide to major in Psychology and Philosophy at a private Jesuit college with no definitive career plan or return on investment in sight

On top of that, with my choice to quit a salaried sales position in 2009 during the Great Recession to start a pitching instruction business, you may wonder if they just flat out didn’t care about my financial well being, haha…

All kidding aside, without their unwavering support of any decision I’ve ever made, I certainly wouldn’t be the person that I am today. And, without sounding cliché, if they weren’t there to encourage me to align my passion with my skill sets over the years, who knows where I’d be. The thing that I respect the most about them is that they have allowed me the freedom to develop my own vision and trust my instincts in forging a career path.

With my dad’s mechanical engineering background and my mother’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life, I was lucky to draw from both of their skill sets over the years. Whether it’s analyzing mechanics, understanding systems of movement or tending to the human egos involved in this game, I can see qualities from each of them resonate through my coaching skill set. I couldn’t be more thankful for the upbringing these two people provided me.

But, let’s be honest, if they didn’t recognize their son was a prodigy after I was named Athlete of the Year in ’93, then I’m not sure what they were looking for…194449_4960010913171_1244316244_o

So here we are, 2400 words in, and I feel bad that on the one hand it took me this long to convey some of the lessons these people have shared with me. On the other hand, I feel bad that we’re not even scratching the surface on what they’ve given me in friendship and guidance over the years, but you should get the point.

You’ve probably also noticed along the way, there’s a lot of recurring themes in this mixture of people, and I think thats by design. If I leave you with anything it’s this: Be open-minded to how information from different domains can help you in your chosen field, work hard to do the basic things really well, and make sure to take care of the people around you.

Here’s to a prosperous 2016, and I’m certainly looking forward to catching up with everyone who’s heading down to Nashville for the ABCA Convention next week. Hope everyone enjoys their New Year’s Celebration in the meantime!


Big Changes Ahead for 2016

December 22, 2015

Now that the contract has been signed and the ink has dried, I’m honored to be able to announce that I’m going to be joining the Cleveland Indians Organization for the 2016 season. I’ll be taking on a player development role as a Pitching Coordinator helping to oversee their Minor League system of development.

This decision certainly didn’t come without a tremendous amount of deliberation over the last few months. As anyone who’s been around Cressey Sports Performance can attest to, it’s a pretty special environment, so it was going to take a unique opportunity for me to reduce my role in Hudson as the CSP Pitching Coordinator. This situation certainly qualified as unique, as it allows me to step in as a strong contributor to one of the most progressive MLB organizations that places a heavy emphasis on player development and pitching.

With that said, I’m sure a lot of you are wondering what this means for my current MB Pitching clients. Well, for this offseason, I will still be in the facility every day until I leave for Spring Training on February 15th. Looking beyond that, we are in the final stages of bringing a like-minded pitching coach on board, who is familiar with our system, to help ease the transition. The plan is for him to be here before I leave to familiarize himself with the athletes and their developmental plans. From there, he’ll be able to continue their offseason development until all the athletes return to their respective teams in March. Once the details are finalized, I’ll make a follow up announcement to formally introduce him.

Let me assure you, though, there’s only one person that Eric, Pete and myself collectively agreed upon as our first choice for this position. Having been a part of our environment as a full-time athlete and part-time coach for the last 5 years, he understands our system as well as anyone. He combines a strong educational background with an impressive list of baseball accomplishments, having played at nearly every major developmental level from USA Baseball to AAA with multiple organizations. Needless to say, he’ll be comfortable implementing our system in an ongoing basis.

Going forward, I will remain in the Boston area and continue to maintain a presence at Cressey Sports Performance. My in-season priorities will be with the Indians, but I will be available to continue in an advisory role for all of my athletes going through the recruiting process. I will have responsibilities that extend to October on the professional side, but after that I will resume giving instruction in the fall/winter offseason for athletes.

I know there’s going to be a lot of questions about the transition period, so I’ll be sure to communicate with everyone in person about my ongoing role and their options moving forward.

To that end, there are a lot of people I have to thank, who have allowed me to continue to grow into this role I’m about to take on with the Indians. I owe them each a lengthier thank you and that will be the topic of a subsequent post. In the meantime, I hope everyone enjoys their Holiday Season, and I look forward to sharing more updates over the next couple weeks, as its shaping up to be an exciting 2016!


Pitch-A-Palooza Brain Dump

December 9, 2015

For those of you who are unaware, this past weekend was the 3rd edition of Lantz Wheeler’s Baseball ThinkTank seminar called “Pitch-A-Palooza”. This annual event is held in Nashville and has included some of the world’s best baseball coaches/instructors/theorists, etc. and this year was certainly no different.

I might even go as far as to say that this was the best collection of baseball development minds over a 3-day span that I’ve been a part of in my short career. As much as “Pitch-A-Palooza” was the title, this was a master’s class in player development that really was the physical embodiment of “The Baseball ThinkTank”.
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The range of backgrounds and the depth of knowledge in the room, whether they were presenting or simply in attendance, was really impressive. This group ranged the entire spectrum of professions that are now coming together to help develop the next generation of baseball player. To give you an idea of who was there to present:

Eric CresseyOwner of Cressey Sports Performance – World-renowned human performance coach, who specializes in working with baseball players from the Big Leagues to the Little Leagues.

Paul NymanOwner of SetPro – One of original Godfather’s of modern-day pitching mechanics, whose work has greatly influenced most of the well-known pitching coaches in the industry in one way or another, and happens to be an engineer by trade.

Alan JaegerOwner of Jaeger Sports – Mental Performance coach and Arm-Care Specialist, who has been one of the biggest proponents of long-toss and the mental game even before it was cool to talk about that stuff.

Kyle BoddyOwner of Driveline Baseball – Modern-day renaissance throwing cyborg, who should probably be building rocket ships, but chooses human ballistics instead.

Wes JohnsonMississippi State Pitching Coach, formerly of Dallas Baptist – An incredibly detailed and forward thinking technician, using Biomechanics, Trackman, and every gadget available to him to build power arms.

Derek JohnsonMilwaukee Brewers Pitching Coach – former Chicago Cubs Pitching Coordinator, and not to long ago was mentoring David Price and Sonny Gray among many others as the Vanderbilt Pitching Coach.

Dr. Allen SillsVanderbilt Neurosurgeon – He’s a neurosurgeon, enough said…But, seriously, if you’re not actively questioning how you’re aiding your athletes’ ability to feel and sense their actions, this guy’s your man.

Roger WilliamsLouisville Pitching Coach – Develops some of the best arms year after year including multiple 100mph arms in the Burdi Brothers.

Bobby TewksbaryOwner of AB Athletic Development – Forward-thinking professional hitting consultant to AL MVP Josh Donaldson among many other professional hitters.

Butch ThompsonAuburn Head Coach, formerly MSU Pitching Coach – Year after year producing professional pitchers, who win in the SEC from every angle imaginable.

This is just a partial list, but I think you get the picture. And, I certainly don’t mean any disrespect to the other presenters I left off, who were fantastic in their own right, but for the sake of discussing what was going on, I’m going to keep moving here…

Aside from the speakers themselves, the attendees ranged from MLB Pitching Coordinators and Coaches to Major Division 1 Pitching Coaches, and some of the best private pitching/hitting instructors throughout the country. As much as I enjoyed the presentations, I think the real value for me was in the level of openness and candor from everyone in the casual conversations that were taking place throughout the weekend. It seemed like everyone was there to share their ideas for the greater good of the group. This was aided by the hands-on sessions that put the theory to practice and allowed guys to dig in and see how they’re actually working with real pitchers and not just discussing it on the internet.

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The dynamic nature of the event seemed to be driven by this willingness of “business competitors” and conference rivals to give away trade secrets in this open environment. I think the entire baseball community is realizing that this whole development thing works a lot better when we’re all sharing ideas and pushing each other. Based on the conversations I heard throughout the weekend, we’re certainly taking positive steps on that front.

That being said, when you put a Neurosurgeon, Engineer, Strength Coach, Big League Pitching Coach, Throwing Cyborg, and Mental Performance Coach in an open field house, and let it rip for 3 days, you can imagine the depth and range of the discussions that took place.

Eric and Bobby in crowd

It would be hard to sum up all of the highlights in this short recap, but here are four random points that resonated for me throughout the weekend. I’ll do my best to circle back and dive deeper on some of these topics in subsequent blogs:

  •  Scapular mechanics are huge for pitchers. Not just where the scapula lies at rest, but how it functions throughout its range of movement and in conjunction with the humeral head. A lot of people are missing the boat by not educating their athletes on how to incorporate their scapular movement in the context of their strength work, arm-care program or throwing motion. It’s a huge cog in the kinetic chain for a throwing athlete and appreciating this would solve a lot of your shoulder and elbow riddles.

Scapular position

  • High-Level deliveries start with a strong lower-half. I know this isn’t rocket science, but the role of the lower-half in the throwing motion was discussed in depth by multiple speakers. We were shown a lot of creative ways to use “The Core Velocity Belt” to help aid the athlete’s awareness of the lower half, and I really think it’s beginning to get the focus it deserves. While the back-leg certainly holds a critical piece of the puzzle in the delivery, not many people coach it effectively. Learning to integrate a proper hip hinge on that back hip to aid control of the pelvis through the stride phase is essential. Beyond that, if you’re not actively coaching your athletes to understand the importance of a strong front leg into and through landing, you’re missing the boat, because creating ground reaction forces at landing is essential to drive the rest of the kinetic chain.

Wes Demo belt

  • This goes without saying, but needs to be said – There’s no one right way to develop pitchers. Do you like using video? Good, use it. Do you like using weighted balls? Good, use them. Do you like long toss? Good, use it. How about strength training? Absolutely. There are so many tools out there this day and age to help your athletes become better throwers, and in the end, your throwers become better pitchers. Get outside of your comfort zone and try new things. The key here though will always be listening to your athlete and understanding that they’re all going to move and learn differently. Ultimately, they are the one throwing the baseball, so they need to understand what helps them be successful on a day-to-day basis. You can either get in the way of that with a rigid approach or help facilitate the learning by being open-minded and allowing them to pursue an approach that works for THEM.

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  • Understanding how all the pieces fit together is essential for long-term development. If you want to use all of these tools to create a high-level throwing machine, you still have to realize that this is a human you’re working with, and adding more stressors requires a more comprehensive recovery plan. You can’t just keep adding more, there needs to be a balance to how you add volume and intensity on all fronts, whether its throwing, prehab/rehab, strength training, etc… This takes communication between multiple parties including the strength coach, physical therapist/ATC and pitching coach/hitting coach if you want to keep your athlete heading in the right direction. If your recovery plan doesn’t match the degree of stimulus that’s being introduced to the athlete, then your athlete is going to have a hard time making continued progress, or more importantly, staying healthy over the long haul.

Now, with all of that in my head as I was flying home from Nashville, I was thinking that our job really boils down to simply being part of the feedback loop for the athlete to help them calibrate their sensory systems. We’re there as a sounding board for them to ask questions, to think and feel their way through more efficient movement patterns and help them build a resilient throwing/hitting system.

In my mind, we should always be working to help them identify where their greatest windows of adaptation currently are and how we can help push them forward in their development. To that extent, I generally ask myself 5 macro questions when considering a pitcher’s development:

1) Do they need to throw harder?

2) Repeat their delivery more consistently?

3) Create better shape/more depth on their pitches?

4) Need to recover more efficiently?

5) How does their mind respond to stress and how does it impact their performance?

All of these are important pieces of the puzzle if they want to keep advancing. Any one of these things can derail development if it goes unattended. It becomes our job to make sure the athlete is aware of their strengths/weaknesses and help them shape an efficient plan of attack that keeps their strengths their strengths and reduces their limiting factors in the long run.

In the end, that certainly wasn’t an exhaustive list of things that were discussed, and it was quite random at that. At the very least, it should help paint the picture that there was a lot of great player development discussion going on and you’d be wise to consider attending next year. It certainly got me fired up for baseball season, and then I realized it’s still only December….

 

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