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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

TEACHING AND DEVELOPING THE DEVIL RAY WAY

The following article comes the SI Vault and is written by Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, and David Price.  It is an outstanding article and you need to find the time to read it all -- especially if you are a baseball coach or fan of baseball.  It's a tremendous article for those that work with pitchers.

The thing that impressed me is the mental approach that the Devil Ways take to every phase of the game.  It is a very lengthy article but here are a few of excerpts that connected with me.  In the first one it is the use of the word "students" and the detail of statistics they have to push their points home to the young pitchers:

Opposite the clubhouse is a low-slung, flat-roofed building, one side of which is covered in a montage of buzzwords such as STRENGTH and TEAMWORK. This is the Rays' meeting room, their equivalent of a lecture hall. While the major league pitchers are playing office-chair soccer, the minor league pitchers and catchers are getting their daily 9 a.m. tutorial. Yesterday the topic was the importance of holding runners and delivering pitches to the plate in a timely manner. The goal for every pitcher is to let no more than 1.3 seconds elapse between the start of his delivery to the ball's hitting the catcher's mitt.

Today's lecture might well be titled, The Importance of the Changeup. The minor leaguers are told that last year Tampa Bay had the lowest ERA (3.19) in the American League in 22 years. No staff in baseball was close to being as good. The Rays also held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in the AL since it adopted the designated hitter 40 years ago, and struck out more batters (1,383) than any team in the league's 112-year history.

The changeup, the students are told, is the key to such success. Last year, according to Fangraphs.com, the Rays threw a greater percentage of changeups (18.4) than any team in baseball. (San Diego was next, at 15.5%.) And they did it with the second-best average fastball velocity (92.9 mph, two ticks below the 93.1 average of the Nationals).

The lecture lasts about 30 minutes. When it ends, the pitchers walk onto a practice field in brilliant golden sunshine under a morning sky of robin's-egg blue—hues that have been prominent in the Rays' color scheme since 2008, when they ditched the Devil Rays nickname and began one of the most astounding and efficient runs of success in the free-agent era. Tampa Bay has won an average of 91.6 games during the last five seasons, lower than only the Yankees and the Phillies.

In this excerpt, it is the specialization of the teaching and the concentration of a specific area to help their pitchers find success:

Two weeks earlier the major league pitchers gathered in the bullpen on this field. They sat on the ground to listen to pitching coach Jim Hickey teach. It would be the first of three lectures Hickey gives annually to promulgate "our core philosophies" on pitching. The subject of the first one, Hickey would say later, is "the most important" of all.

Hickey spoke about getting ahead of hitters. It may sound pro forma, but boilerplate has no place in baseball's Silicon Valley. Let the rest of baseball regard the first pitch as the most crucial in getting ahead of hitters. The Rays use the first three pitches to define getting ahead, with the third often the most important. There are 11 possible counts in an at bat. The Rays believe no pitch changes the course of that at bat more than the 1-and-1 delivery. "It's almost a 200-point swing in on-base percentage with one ball and two strikes as opposed to two balls and one strike," Hickey told the pitchers. "Get ahead, and everybody becomes David Price," the team's 2012 Cy Young Award winner. Last year Rays pitchers allowed a .204 OBP after 1-and-2 counts, as opposed to a .363 OBP after 2-and-1 counts.

Again, I'm a big believer in that the "mental is to the physical as 4 is to 1" and here again we see how the Rays feel about the mental side of baseball.:

The Rays work the head as much as the body. The holistic approach is guided by manager Joe Maddon, author of the "thought of the day." "The first thing most coaches want to do is change something physical," Maddon says. "Why? Because it's easier than working the mental side. The mental mechanics take more work but provide better results."

I love the "process-oriented" approach to slowly developing their young pitchers as explained in this excerpt:

Tampa Bay likes every pitcher to touch every minor league level and has a strong preference for leaving pitchers with one team throughout a season. Moore, Cobb, Hellickson, Shields, Davis and Jake McGee (now a Rays reliever) all made between 90 and 138 starts in the minors and threw at least 490 innings.

"Part of that [approach] is that we are competitive now," Friedman says. "We rely on young players more than most teams, so we try to get them to the point where the learning curve when they get to the big leagues is short. They can help us win games sooner rather than later."

Again, a reference to teaching with "campuslike environment" and the word "culture":

The truth is that the Rays do as much as any club to remove luck from developing pitchers. The campuslike environment of their training camp, the pitchers "willing" pitches to their spots, the analytics and the swivel-chair soccer games—it all defines the culture of the Rays' way.