(Photo via the Iowa Baseball Twitter account, seen here)
The turn of the last century marked a significant change in the way baseball is analyzed. Upon its 2003 publishing, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball revolutionized the way small-market clubs could leverage data, instead of relying on traditional player development and scouting methods to field a competitive team in a sport with no salary cap.
Fast-forward ten years, and the full scale “Sabermetric Revolution” of baseball has become not simply a suggestion or a hypothetical, but a requirement. In 2011, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros cleaned house in their front offices and hired data-driven general managers to revamp those teams. Another few years later, and the Cubs and Astros broke long historical droughts with World Series titles. Small market clubs from the A’s, to even the New York Yankees now employ analytics departments that use advanced technical systems, among other things, to collect data, which has become the lifeblood of understanding and thriving as a baseball team in the 21st century.
In the last few seasons, this data-driven approach has trickled down to the college game. Many college programs now employ advanced tools and ample use of video to develop and coach players, have their own analytics (staffed by student managers or development personnel) and coaches that encourage deployment of data and advanced systems. This description applies to the Iowa Hawkeye baseball program.
Though Iowa is led by fifth year head coach Rick Heller, it is first year pitching coach Desi Druschel, who leads the analytic charge for the Big Ten program in Iowa City. Druschel, who spent three years as Iowa’s director of baseball operations, credits his interest in analytics to Lewis’ Moneyball, similar interests to other baseball training specialists and a shared small school background with Heller to finally apply these interests to a program.
“I’ve always been inspired by finding more efficient ways of doing things,” Druschel said. Before Iowa, Druschel spent time coaching at The Franciscan University and Mount St. Clare College. Heller himself coached at Indiana State and Upper Iowa University. “Once we both got to Iowa, we were at a place where we could afford some of these things.”
According to Druschel, an Iowa baseball donor provided funding to the program with a caveat – that the money go to helping the program’s training, player health and development. Druschel and Heller settled on TrackMan as the right tool to purchase with the windfall. TrackMan is system created by a Danish company with the same name that uses Doppler technology to track pitch speeds, horizontal and vertical locations and pitch spin rates, among other data points. If you’re familiar with baseball analytic solutions, TrackMan probably rings a bell as a leading system used by major league clubs.
“[The TrackMan system] helps us understand exactly what a pitcher is doing,” said Druschel. “It’s a dynamic, efficient progress tool that helps with training. When video is limited, TrackMan fills in the gaps and we get all of that data minutes after a game or scrimmage.” Druschel mentioned a few specific instances of how the data pulled from TrackMan has helped pitchers make quick adjustments and identify potential health issues on the mound.
In a recent example, an unnamed Iowa pitcher was intending to throw two different breaking pitches, but ended up throwing a slurvy breaking ball. “TrackMan showed us that [the slurve] was essentially one ineffective pitch,” Druschel said. From there, Druschel’s team was able to pull out the data and help the pitcher ditch the slurve and focus on developing two pitches (a true slider and a 12-6 curve). Druschel also highlighted pitcher arm slot as a valuable data point from TrackMan that can identify when a pitcher starts to get fatigued on the mound.
In another example, Druschel’s team used TrackMan and Pitch Grader, a system that outputs a 3-D visualization of a particular pitch’s flight path to correct a pitcher’s two-seam fastball location. “Track Man and Pitch Grader showed us that this pitcher was trying to throw the two-seamer low and away to a right-handed hitter, when his optimal location for a swing and miss is low and inside,” Druschel said. “Pitch Grader really helps us develop pitches and show guys how to use particular pitches.”
Even though Iowa is ahead of the curve helping their pitchers (Pitch Grader’s website prominently features Iowa’s logo among a few other teams as “Top D1 Programs who use Pitch Grader”), Druschel admitted that the program is still learning how to efficiently use the data. “2017 was our first year using TrackMan, and I feel like we’re much farther along with comparing data from last year,” Druschel said. “It’s just a matter of getting your hands dirty with analysis and trying to make sense of what the data is.” Druschel mentioned working with a team of student managers and even some of the staff to access and apply the data. “Some of the pitchers who are really interested have passwords to Pitch Grader to mess around with the data themselves.”
Even as the baseball industry has gone through a technological revolution that has transformed the game, Druschel still understands and emphasizes the importance of coaching, communication and understanding when players may not warm up to a new way of doing things. “Some pitchers on the team don’t see spin rate, spin axis as something up their alley,” Druschel said. “My job is to relay that information and communicate what it means. The art of coaching isn’t forcing something on a player, but utilizing [data] in a different way on certain players.”
It’s been a promising start to the 2018 season for the Hawkeyes and their pitching staff. Iowa carries a 6-1 team record into a weekend series with University of Alabama-Birmingham, highlighted by a 3.17 team ERA and a 0.75 ERA from Friday night starter Nick Allgeyer. For a team without much historical success, the Hawkeye baseball program has rattled off some impressive seasons recently, a culture change credited to Heller.
“Coach Heller has breathed life into the program,” Druschel said. The Hawkeyes won 41 games and appeared in an NCAA Regional for the first time in 25 years in 2015, and appeared in another regional after a 38 win campaign in 2017, and look to have a good chance of competing in the Big Ten this season. “It’s remarkable what he’s done with a culture-based approach on development, improvement and caring for players,” Druschel said. “The technology piece has been beneficial, but the core [of the program] is what Heller brings every day.”