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‘Rise the tide’: How the Orioles’ new minor league hitting program built a foundation for development in unique year

What was meant to be a 2020 season in which the Orioles’ new minor league hitting program paid immediate dividends the way the pitching program had the previous year never materialized.

Fortunately for the Orioles, the dynamic group of instructors was nimble enough to implement its plan virtually and on the fly — and at the very least came out of 2020 with leaders who were bought into their methods on the field.

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The alternate training site at Bowie was filled with many success stories who came up and helped the major league team, but in top prospects Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, the camp was an opportunity to get an immersive experience in the data-driven, challenging and personal program the new hitting staff was implementing.

Their success there set the tone for the rest of the year, and the team’s newly named coordinators in Ryan Fuller (full season) and Anthony Villa (short-season) believe what was established over Zoom calls and limited in-person work can blossom into a productive and prolific hitting program.

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“Having those two just tremendous kids come in, really embrace the adoption of new practice techniques and leaning into a challenge, that was huge,” said Villa, who was hired last offseason and will be a hitting coach with one of the Gulf Coast League Orioles teams, “because then when they showed up for instructional league, those guys led the charge in presenting to 30 more players, ‘Hey, this is what it means to be an Orioles hitter. This is how we go about practicing and challenging ourselves, and this is how we’re going to rise the tide.’ You can’t give those two guys enough credit.”

When director of player development Matt Blood was hired at the end of the 2019 season, he inherited an ascendant pitching program under Chris Holt but had to bring in many new hitting coaches to modernize the operation. The group — which also includes Tim Gibbons, Tom Eller, Patrick Jones, Branden Becker, Matt Packer, Christian Frias and Josh Bunselmeyer — came from nontraditional backgrounds but shared a mindset of prioritizing hitting the ball hard in the air and not taking a cookie-cutter approach.

“There’s a big pillar on top, and that’s just really doing damage,” said Fuller, who will be the hitting coach at Double-A Bowie this year. “When you swing the bat, we’re trying to hit it hard on a line.

“How that works for each individual player is going to be different. Their player plans are totally individualized, but really, we always talk about keeping the main thing the main thing: we’re trying to do damage at the plate. How some guys execute that could be different, but at the end of the day, we want that on-field performance to really speak to our ability to drive the baseball and make things happen.”

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Catcher Adley Rutschman waits on deck for his turn in the batting cage at the Ed Smith Stadium complex Feb. 19, 2020.
Catcher Adley Rutschman waits on deck for his turn in the batting cage at the Ed Smith Stadium complex Feb. 19, 2020. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Orioles prospects got a glimpse of the new methods during the early 2020 spring training camp for priority prospects that began in mid-February, but the full group of minor leaguers was only in Florida briefly before spring training was shut down.

Player development, at that point, went virtual. The Orioles did everything from hold group instruction to book clubs and 150-person family dinners on Zoom, with mental skills work also part of the spring and summer curriculum. A handful of prospects not on the major league roster got a chance to work with the new hitting coaches at Bowie, who also sent Ryan Mountcastle, DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins to the big leagues after time there and watched them flourish.

They got hands-on with 31 position players at the instructional camp held in October, with those players taking their cues from Rutschman and Henderson. Even with limited game action at the camp, the coaches used data to back up what they were asking the players to do.

“Really, just illustrating, here are the numbers, here’s what it looks like when you hit the ball this hard in this range,” Fuller said. “It’s pretty cut and dry when you look at it from that angle, but the guys, they absolutely love it, coming in and feeling like this is offense, we’re going to be offensive with our approach. …

“With instructs, these guys came in, really embraced it, and we had a terrific month of October. Those guys who were at instructs, hopefully, will come into spring training and show these guys, this is how the Orioles take care of business. This is how the hitting department works, and those guys who weren’t lucky enough to be a part of instructs will come in and just say, ‘OK, this is what these guys were doing and it seems to be working, let’s hop on board.’”

Those who were at the instructional camp were sent home with their Blast Motion sensors, which give swing speed and angle information from a bat-knob reader, to provide that information. Some have access to HitTrax or Rapsodo units that can provide real-time exit velocity, launch angle and spin data. Others have bought the overload and underload bats that the coaching staff used with them for their own personal training. And some have set-ups as simple as a parent or old coach throwing them batting practice, or simple tee work.

Once the coaches got a sense of what the player had at his disposal, each player got a hitting plan in December to help them address their key developmental focus with what they have available to them.

“However we can best get guys to challenge themselves is really the conversation that’s taking place,” Villa said.

Added Fuller: “We encourage guys to see a ball moving as much as possible, standing in for the pitchers who are at home, getting live at-bats off of them and utilizing pitching machines as much as possible. The more game-like we can make our training time, the more we think it’s going to transfer over to the game.”

The last year has created even more variables in player plans and approaches than ever before. With space limited at the Bowie site and in Sarasota, Florida, some will be 18 months removed from their most recent meaningful baseball by the time minor league camp starts. For those, Fuller and the coaches have stressed that they have a chance to be a completely different player and open eyes that way.

Those who were at the camps are constantly pinging their hitting coach in between their bi-weekly check-ins to relay the improvements in their swing data and results, Fuller and Villa said. The gains those players are showing in their swing and contact data are manifold, they said, but they know the proof of the progress will only be solidified when real games begin again.

The players are excited for that time to come, and because of what it will mean for development and instruction, so are the coaches.

“Coach to player, it comes from an avenue of if you look at how much progress you’ve been making and we haven’t even gotten to train together all that much,” Villa said. “And coach to coach, being able to say look at these new initiatives that we’re creating and this … new system that we’re building, and we’ve been able to do this without being together in person. Just imagine the possibilities of what we’re going to be able to accomplish when we’re all in the same room being able to put forth this work in person.”

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SPRING TRAINING

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Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:

Feb. 10: Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 21: Position players report

Feb. 27: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves

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