Sarasota, Fla. — Barrel the ball and hit a home run; anything on the outfield grass counts. Miss-hit it in any of the myriad ways a baseball swing can break down, and the flailing ball mimics a battery-operated pet toy, spinning in place.
Batting practice typically devolves into a Home Run Derby anyways. With soft, weighted plyo-balls typically used during a pitcher’s stretch lobbed in, swinging for the fences had a whole new meaning Thursday afternoon at the Orioles’ minor league camp at Twin Lakes Park.
The game represented something larger for the organization as a whole. The fresh minor league hitting coaches hired this offseason by new farm director Matt Blood have carte blanche to tap their diverse backgrounds and create a collaborative, challenging environment to build major league caliber hitters.
“It’s a blank canvas here, and everybody is pulling in the same direction,” said Ryan Fuller, who was hired from a central Connecticut high school to be the hitting coach at Low-A Delmarva. “Everybody wants to be challenged more, more random practice, and just creating an environment that gets the best out of the players versus being a really good 5 o’clock player. Can we create those 7 o’clock guys? Jungle tigers, we call them. They want to be challenged, and they’re going to go out there and earn everything they can get.”
Their work so far has been with a few dozen position players at an early camp, with the rest of the team’s minor leaguers due in Sarasota on Sunday. They’ll find a group of hitting coaches delivering exactly what Blood sought when he took this job in September.
“Just their passion for getting players better, their enthusiasm and their ideas, and the collaboration with each other but also with the players has been very well-received, I think, across the camp, and it’s just fun to watch them work,” Blood said. “It’s fun to see the players engage and buy in.”
‘Organically growing our hitting department’
With extra coaches at each level and turnover from the 2019 minor league staffs, the hitting coaches aren’t the only difference on the farm. But they’re a significant one.
Fuller, who played at UConn, taught English and coached high school while working at a hitting facility before joining the Orioles. Short-A Aberdeen hitting coach Anthony Villa was a player-coach in the Texas Rangers organization in 2019, and GCL Orioles hitting coach Patrick Jones played at Xavier before coaching high school and teaching hitting in Ohio.
Those three have been at camp for several weeks, with High-A Frederick hitting coach Tom Eller — hired in 2019 from Harford Community College to bring a modern bent to Short-A Aberdeen — recently joining.
At Double-A Bowie, Tim Gibbons was hired from Be Elite Sports Training academy in Chicago, though he and Triple-A Norfolk hitting coach Sean Berry have both been at major league camp mostly.
Blood wanted coaches with diverse backgrounds and mindsets “that were humble and have a desire to learn and a desire to collaborate,” he said.
Not creating a hierarchy by hiring a hitting coordinator means Blood sees that play out daily.
He saw at a November retreat in Baltimore that the group had no ego and just wanted to help players get better. They had a three-day January training with OnBaseU, a leading baseball coaching trainer, to get everyone speaking the same language.
That bled into the minicamp with players, where they introduced new methods to the players. Through it all, they got to know each other, realizing each has a strength that the others can absorb and benefit from.
“These guys have thrived in that environment,” Blood said. “They’ve all participated, they’ve all had respect for each other’s ideas. There’s definitely times of discussion and argument, but it’s a humble argument and it’s productive, and at the end of the day they come out of their sessions with really cool plans.”
“One of the words that they’ve used is organically, organically growing our hitting department,” Eller said. “I think that takes a lot of stress off of us. If we try something and it doesn’t work, OK, then we’ll just scratch that off the board. We’re not doing that anymore. That’s what I think is pretty cool, because you might run into something that really works. We might be ahead of somebody else because we have the freedom to kind of do what we need to do.”
‘Empowered to be creative’
None of this is to say that there’s no plan behind it, with Blood stressing the experience level of the coaches at other ranks and a baseline of objectives that each teacher will be charged with helping players hit.
“They are empowered to be creative and they are empowered to be innovative and go where those things go, but it’s not reckless and it’s not going to endanger anyone,” Blood said. “It’s more just our culture in general is one of not being afraid to fail. …
“We’re not dogmatic about many things. We want to train to what we know is important, and we want to accomplish those KPIs [key performance indicators], and every player is different. Every player needs something different. We don’t have necessarily one thing that everyone has to do.”
What they want the players to do is clear. Modern hitting philosophies eschew the idea of shortening up swings to gear towards contact or hitting the other way, emphasizing driving the ball in the air. They’ll focus on approach, with the hope that an organization that hasn’t been able to figure out how to produce high walk rates in the minor leagues can change that.
Another overriding philosophy seems to be involving players in creating their own plans.
“We want them to be the athletes, the studs they’ve been their whole lives,” Fuller said. “Just rewiring their brains to say, when you swing, you swing to do damage, not just to punch it out into play. Just totally rewiring that mindset has been fun.”
Brett Cumberland, a catcher who spent most of last year at Double-A Bowie, can see a stark difference in how things are this year.
“it’s been so great to work with all the coaching staff and everything, and for me to finally be able to talk to another hitting coach and be open and honest with him, and have him give me feedback,” he said. “Just to hear what they have to say has been pretty incredible, where in years past, I feel like it hasn’t been so much up to the player as it is up to the coaches or organization. Now, I feel like we can collaborate and work together, and they’re very open about that. I think it’s huge.”
Come Sunday, every Orioles minor leaguer will experience what Cumberland and the early camp prospects have. On arrival, there’s a physical assessment with the strength and conditioning team to assess what works well for them and where their deficiencies are. There’s also kinetic sequencing testing in the K-Vests made by K-Motion, a motion-sensing company the Orioles partnered with this offseason.
The hitting coaches get that information so they aren’t asking a player to do something he physically can’t, and create a plan to attack deficiencies.
Every day, there’s a meeting to explain the drill work that’s on tap for the hitters so they know what’s in store. They might also take some time to talk about something like selectivity at the plate.
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And when they do pick up a bat, the goal is to challenge them with high velocities or extreme angles where the ball is coming in. Fuller called it “creating problems for them to solve and seeing which ones give them the most trouble, and then targeting those.”
After the plyo-ball hitting, they did angled batting practice, in which two pitchers threw from either side, training their swings to take the proper path to the ball. First, though, was a game that seemed as fun as it was frustrating.
The plyo-balls are filled with sand and have soft coatings, so anything but the most true contact would spin like a frisbee in the air and turn into a dud. If a player’s barrel wasn’t on the ball, it wouldn’t travel. If he barreled it, but his hands were out in front of his body, it showed a connection problem that sapped swing power.
Hitters boasted about their previous scores before the round, and coaches gathered after the sessions were through to talk about their top performers.
All this is before games begin, save for a few intrasquads this week for the early arrivals. Once they do, all the Orioles’ minor league hitters will have Blast motion sensors on their bats again to collect swing and movement data. Perhaps the K-Vests will be used for in-game data at some point as well.
They view the fact that the coaches are adept at not only collecting but analyzing and communicating that data as a bonus not only for helping individual players, but driving development of new theories or philosophies based on what that data shows.
“Our job is to continue to develop players as well as we can, and if we can find something in data or in technology or in motion analysis or in pitch-recognition, or whatever, that will help us develop players better, we should be doing that,” Blood said.