Driveline’s Expanding Relationship with Amateur Baseball

(Photo via Driveline Baseball’s Twitter, seen here)

Watch an MLB broadcast, and it’s almost impossible not to hear Driveline Baseball mentioned in some form. From heightened velocity to pitchers designing and unveiling a new pitch, Driveline’s impact at the professional level is far-reaching. Glance at Driveline’s media page, and you find features ranging from traditional news outlets like the New York Times and USA Today to baseball analytics sites like Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus. Absent from much of this coverage is discussion of Driveline’s large and expanding influence on amateur baseball. Given its high-profile success in aiding professional player development, it is unsurprising that aspiring professionals, some as young as 9 years old, have sought out Driveline tactics to hone their own skills. Following in these data-hungry players’ footsteps have been myriad college and high school baseball programs, chief among them the reigning national champions. With such wide variability in their clientele, Driveline is constantly adapting to each player’s needs. Their most recent innovation is a proprietary tracking software which allows coaches to test their own training programs in real time, enabling them to, in the words of Driveline CEO Mike Rathwell, “make more accurate decisions.”

Despite its reputation as a weighted ball lab, Driveline tailors every program to the individual player. For some players, of course, weighted ball training is recommended, but players come with varying needs and goals. For the youngest Driveline clients, for instance, it’s often a matter of simply getting in shape. “The nice thing about working with younger players…is you can get a lot of bang for your buck with just general exercise,” noted Rathwell. “The approach we take with nine and ten-year olds is ‘let’s get them a lot of hitting reps, let’s teach them the basics of arm care, let’s teach them the basic of a strengthening program, body weight stuff, general strength and conditioning stuff.’”

At higher levels, the competition gets stiffer as the sport selects for the best athletes, so player development tactics become more nuanced. “On the pro player side, comparing extremes, pro players already have a lot of [strength] or they’re just significantly better athletes,” Rathwell said. “We can’t just put a guy who’s had a 5.50 [ERA] in pro ball on a deadlifting program and expect him to automatically have a 2.00, whereas you might be able to accomplish that with an amateur player.” When dealing with players already near the peak of their physical abilities, player development necessarily becomes focused on specific goals, like Adam Ottavino’s offseason creation of a reverse-engineered cutter.

Driveline’s techniques can perhaps best be visualized as a spectrum, with general exercise on one end and small mechanical alterations (things like Ottavino’s changed grip on his cutter) on the other. Generally, the more advanced the player, the more they gravitate from general strength work to nuanced skill training. One can find most high school and college players somewhere in the middle. “Usually, high school and college players don’t have enough baseball experience to know exactly what they need to get better at,” Rathwell said. “Most high school and college players are like ‘I want to play at the next level, what do I do?’ And that’s where the assessment process comes in and we’re like ‘you need to get a lot more physical,’ because professional players are very physical, whether that’s just natural or something they’ve worked at. It’s a higher caliber of athlete, and they’re going to need to compete with those guys.”

Each program involves a continuous feedback loop with the player. Using a hypothetical amateur player, Rathwell described Driveline’s evaluation method. “We were writing a program because we wanted to increase your general strength, has your general strength increased? Yes or no? Ok, it has. Where are you at now?” After a few weeks, depending on each player’s progress, the program changes. “Ok, you still need more general strengthening, let’s write a program for that. Or, ‘ok, you’re actually sufficient at these points but your arm action is terrible or you still can’t drive the ball to the opposite field, so let’s write programming that’s more focused on that.’”

For most amateur players, the Driveline experience begins general and becomes specialized depending on the player’s progress. It is uncommon for players to enter the program with a specific goal in mind, but it’s not unheard of. “We have had a handful of players who have come to us and been like ‘I specifically need a command program, I’m a junior in college, this is exactly what I intend my career path to be, I want these things specifically,’ and we can accommodate that,” Rathwell said. “Our role shifts to ‘how can we do that in the most efficient way possible?’”

That level of self-awareness, though, is rare among amateur players. Often, the lowest-hanging fruit in player development is quantifying areas for improvement that the players themselves did not know needed fixing. For some players, struggles can be attributed less to base strength deficiencies than to a misunderstanding of their own profile. That’s where Driveline’s technology comes in, particularly useful for pitchers. “OK, you have sufficient velocity to get outs, but you don’t (get outs), why is that?” Rathwell envisions a Division II pitcher with a mid-90’s fastball – the type of player who, on the surface, should dominate lower-level competition. “When we put you on a Rapsodo, we can tell that your fastball is very bad, but you say you throw it all the time, so let’s not do that and gear you towards something that’s a little bit more effective.”

Rapsodo, a device which tracks pitches in three dimensions and spits out data (velocity, spin rate, movement) for each pitch, is a favorite at the Driveline laboratories. At amateur levels, where pitch tracking data is far less prevalent than in the professional ranks, a pitcher is often working with an incomplete picture of his repertoire, relying instead on feel and observations from coaches and teammates. Those observations can be misleading. Take again Rathwell’s hypothetical DII pitcher. His velocity is above-average, yet his fastball is being hit around by low-level competition. Rapsodo data can explain the discrepancy between the pitcher’s arm strength and his results. If the tracking technology reveals that the pitch has average spin and little movement, that could explain how its results wind up subpar despite impressive radar gun readings. There’s a good chance that that pitcher has relied on his fastball his entire life, convinced it was an out pitch because of the impressive velocity. Counteracting that assumption could inspire him to alter his approach, to lean more heavily on another pitch in his arsenal that the data suggest is more effective than either the player or his coaches would otherwise have given it credit for.

If data can help players improve upon subpar results, can they be applied preemptively to help players find immediate success? “I think that’s absolutely the next frontier,” Rathwell opined. “Take Perfect Game data and match them up with your own stuff that your recruiting coordinator shot, and now you have a built-in library of video of high school kids. A team can use us to consult on guys that they’re bringing in and [we can] start writing player development programs before the kid even signs…. As you start to build that out, three years down the road, you can see how your guys that you are targeting and signed performed against everybody else’s, and you can see if you’re good or bad at recruiting.”

Implicit within that vision is that programs and coaches recognize Driveline’s value in player development. That has not always been the case. Initially, it was the players themselves taking the initiative. “Back in 2013, people were still debating if weighted balls worked,” Rathwell remembered. Now, though, the story has begun to change. Driveline’s target market is evolving alongside its reputation in the game.

“From 2014-2016, we were really shifting towards being able to build out some resources to help teams as well, and now it’s both [players and teams],” Rathwell said. “Now, we want to be able to serve individual athletes- there are very dedicated players in very remote locations who do not have very good access to coaching, and we want to be able to help those guys. But at the same time, we want to be able to help teams as well, and so a lot of our work has shifted towards coach education, getting solid programs, setting up testing protocols.”

Driveline’s newest program, Traq, unveiled June 15, is the culmination of those efforts to market directly to coaches and programs. A program that allows coaches to follow a player’s measurables over the long-term, it simplifies data collection and allows coaches to monitor their players’ progress. “It’s a completely open piece of software for teams to train their players however they want,” Rathwell said. “It comes with some Driveline programming for pitching, hitting and strength, but you can do whatever you want. If you believe that weighted towel drills are the best thing to do, you can have weighted towel drills. If you want to track your exit speed for hitters, you want to input data from Rapsodo or HitTrax (a system that tracks a hitter’s exit velocities and launch angles), that’s all going to be available, and you can see it over time.”

The benefits for coaches of such detail are apparent. Coaches can use the “test, frame, retest” model that Driveline preaches, and the results are almost immediate. “I think the huge value is in being able to see ‘this is where an 18-year-old college freshman was day one of walking in on campus….and then we wrote strength programming for him, I put him through a hitting program, and here’s his progression over the next two years,” Rathwell noted. “I think it’s a really powerful thing for coaches to see because you can see when guys are trending good or bad.” Such data could inform a coach’s traditional managerial decisions- continue to play the hitter whose exit velocities have been trending upwards, even if their surface results have not, for instance. More important, though, is enabling a coach to self-evaluate. If a large sample of players collectively improve, it’s likely the coach’s training program has something to do with it. If players’ measurables stagnate or regress, maybe the program needs to be modified or abandoned altogether.

In some ways, Traq’s usefulness is akin to that of showing Rapsodo data to a pitcher to convince him to alter his pitch mix. Rather than relying solely on feel and observation to gauge whether their player development program is working, a coach can see each player’s movements almost instantaneously. In the past, a coach may not have been able to determine whether their training methods affected their players until games are being played. Development time would be lost, and on-field results would suffer. Implement Traq, and subtle but real developments can be seen within a matter of days.

That feedback loop also holds value to the players themselves, albeit a bit more nebulously. Rathwell hopes that Traq can reinforce players’ convictions in their training by quantifying and spotlighting every gain they make. One coach with whom CBBSN spoke opined that that is true of Driveline programs generally. Jake Hoover, who coaches baseball at Roncalli Catholic High School in Omaha noted that implementing a Driveline-aided weighted ball program has been a resounding success. “[Our players] seem to really enjoy it, and it has helped build some confidence and competitive fire,” Hoover said via email last December. “I think the kids learn to throw with intent and they learn to compete. Since we’ve started doing it, along with our weightlifting program, we have seen some kids make 4-8 mph jumps in an offseason of training.” Just as importantly, Hoover lauded Driveline’s recovery program, attributing partial credit for Roncalli’s pitching staff’s strong health in recent seasons to their Driveline-inspired recovery program. While Traq had yet to be unveiled at the time, Hoover noted that the progress his players had made was apparent to the naked eye.

Coaches like Hoover have bought into and reaped rewards from Driveline practices over the past few years, but Traq gives them a new level of control. Now, forward-thinking coaches can run their own player development efforts- testing, evaluating, and retesting their players to gauge their training programs’ efficacy. Most amateur players have room to improve simply by training efficiently, as Hoover’s pitchers did by adding significant velocity after implementing a weighted ball training program. Driveline’s newest software gives players and programs a chance to double down on those gains, to conquer the “next frontier” in player development by combining coaches’ and coordinators’ subjective evaluations with an objective system to track each player’s development in real time. The days of desperate players having to subvert their coaches to look to Driveline for help are largely gone. Driveline’s value in player development is almost universally accepted. Many amateur programs are  adopting advanced training methods, and Driveline’s newest software allows those programs and coaches more freedom than ever to make them their own.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: