On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
Ryan January, who was drafted in the eighth round by the Arizona Diamondbacks this year, is adamant that he’s not a bad apple. The 19-year-old catcher cut his baseball teeth in the prestigious East Cobb program, then ended up spending a year at San Jacinto Junior College after being bypassed in the 2015 draft. The experience left him shaking his head.
“There was speculation that I got dismissed from my prep school in Salisbury (Connecticut),” said January. ”I’ve since gone back and gotten a letter signed by the dean, saying that I left on my own in good standing. I was also able to straighten out any questions about my character with a good year at San Jacinto. I was able to show some scouts who I really am.”
Jason Groome, who the Red Sox drafted 12th overall this year, faced character questions as well. A transfer issue of his own — the New Jersey native spent time at IMG Academy in Florida — raised a few eyebrows. January isn’t buying it.
“I know Jason personally and he’s a great kid,” January told me. “I think sometimes scouts get too caught up in trying to know every single thing about you. In my case, there was really no need to dig that deep, because they were digging into nothing. There wasn’t anything there. It didn’t hurt Jason — he went in the first round — but it did hurt me. Scouts need to do their homework better.”
By and large, the scouting community doesn’t see it that way. I spoke to scouts from two organizations, and while they wouldn’t go into specifics, both confirmed the industry concerns. One team January going anywhere from the 7th to the 15th round out of high school based on talent alone. Speculation had Groome going first overall before industry scuttlebutt caused him to drop out of the top 10
Volume of Tommy John surgeries begs some questions
May 8, 2016 by Peter Gammons
When the news came that Garrett Richards needed Tommy John Surgery, the reality hit the Angels that they were in a place from which they may not be able to escape. Andrew Heaney was already on the disabled list, C.J. Wilson trying to come back from surgery, Tyler Skaggs trying to come back, Matt Shoemaker was still in the minor leagues, and what Mike Scioscia is left with is the soul of Jered Weaver, Hector Santiago, Nick Tropeano and Cory Rasmus.
This happens in a division where Oakland has already lost Jarrod Parker to a broken elbow and Chris Bassitt to Tommy Johns while awaiting the return of Henderson Alvarez. And the Rangers are monitoring the rehab starts of Yu Darvish and the Astros hope Lance McCullersreturns next weekend in Boston.
In a game in which 45 starters and 65 relievers had been disabled in the first month of the season.
“Injuries are one of the biggest factors in every pennant race in every season,” says Billy Beane. “Two major pitching injuries and even the best teams become completely different. It can happen to anyone.”
Even the Cubs. They may well be the best team in the game, a team one American League general manager predicts “will win 115 games.” This week they were without Jason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Kyle Schwarber, and swept the Pirates in Pittsburgh. But if all of a sudden Jake Arrieta went down, it would be a totally different team. Or Jon Lester. There is no replacing Arrieta, just as, to a less talented team, there is no way the Angels can replace Richards, considered a strong Cy Young contender in spring training.
Now, we’ve realized this for most of our lives. Ted Williams swore the best lefthanded pitcher he ever faced was Herb Score, whose career was cut short by a line drive. The 1984 Cubs won 96 games and were a game away from the world series; in 1985, Rick Sutcliffe,Dennis Eckersley, Steve Trout and most of the rotation was on the DL before June 1, and they finished 77-84. The 1986 Mets were 108-54 and won the world series, with Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda and Sid Fernandez starting 94 games; in 1987, each one of the four got hurt and they won 87 games.
But that was a while ago, before velocity and showcases became the sport’s proving ground. From 2002 to 2011, the volume of Tommy John Surgeries in the state of New York increased 193%, and this season we’ve already looked at the Dodgers disabling 13 players, the Rockies 11, the Reds 9, Tigers 8…
Then think about the cost of acquiring pitching. The Diamondbacks spent $200M on Zack Greinke and three top prospects on Miller. Then think about how much of the eventual problems come from the teenage and college development programs. In teenage pitchers, in what Mike Reinold calls “the velocity era of pitching development,” teenagers are judged on the showcase circuit by gun readings, not competitive victories. According to an ASMI study, pitching more than eight months increases the likelihood of injury five times, averaging more than 100 innings a year increases the likelihood of injury three times, averaging more than 80 pitches an outing increases the injury likelihood five times. And the velocity increases increase the likelihood of injury by 2.6 times.
Which begs the question: if owners don’t like the cost of injured pitchers and their replacements, why doesn’t MLB study the developmental process from the bottom up?
“Sometimes we rush the college relievers through because we don’t know how long the window of health will stay open,” says one general manager. “It’s something we live with.” Another manager says, “most teams will try to manage their starters to keep them around for years because of their cost. But look at some of the reliever usage, and you see that they use one reliever after another from the sixth inning on and worry about whether they’ll be around the next year when the season is over.” A study on MikeReinhold.com theorizes that the quest for velocity may increase the injury possibility, which is a little scary since two of the top high school pitchers that may go in the first 5-6 picks, Riley Pint out of Kansas and Jason Groome from New Jersey, already touch 100 MPH.
The development in elbow surgery and rehab has caused teams to be willing to spend first round. In 2014, Toronto took East Carolina’s Hoffman in the first round. Last summer, they were able to trade him for Troy Tulowitzki. The Nationals drafted Lucas Giolito and Erick Fedde with first round picks after TJ Surgery, and they may be Washington’s two best pitching prospects. When Houston drafted Brady Aiken with the first pick in the draft in 2014, he didn’t pass their physical, eventually had surgery and was taken in 2015 by Cleveland.
This year several teams felt Stanford’s Cal Quantrill was the best college pitcher in the country. He too ended up having a Tommy John, but knowing the toughness and ferocity of his father Paul, Cal likely will be a first round selection even though he has yet to pitch in a game.
What we don’t know is how long the new elbows will last. “Doctors told us that once a young pitcher gets TJ, he likely will require it again within seven years,” says one NL GM. “So if he gets the surgery at 20, just as he is entering his prime at 27 or 28 he may be entering another danger zone.”
People can criticize Scott Boras for his hands-on work with teams with his pitching clients coming off injuries, but the process coming off those injuries and surgeries is vital. Is part ofMatt Harvey’s struggle this season due to his 2015 work load, a season in which he pitched for seven months and threw 216 2/3 innings, the last 26 2/3 in high leverage games? He’s human. He will be fine. So will Jacob deGrom, also coming off a career high workload. They will be bringing Zack Wheeler back.
Boras often talks with considerable remorse the career of his client Steve Avery, a major part of the Braves’ boom in the early nineties who went way beyond 200 innings in his early twenties and lost his velocity by 26. Boras is working with the Marlins on the post TJ -load for Jose Fernandez, and Don Mattingly is closely monitoring the innings of his number two starter, Adam Conley, so that if the Marlins have a shot at a post-season birth in September, they don’t have to sit, a la Stephen Strasburg.
On the other hand, the Pirates have been exceptionally conservative with former number one pick Jameson Taillon, who had Tommy John in 2015, then when he was ready to open last season, he had season-ending hernia surgery. Taillon is pitching brilliantly in triple-A, but the Pirates won’t rush him, mixing the need for Taillon and Tyler Glasnow this season with their longterm health.
“Earlier this season, we had people saying and writing that we had clubhouse issues, that players didn’t want to play for us,” says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo. “Yes, we were picked by many to win last year and it didn’t happen. But for the first month of the season, we were without four of the first five hitters in our order. Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span were all hurt. We didn’t have our team together for most of the season.”
The best baseball book of this year is Jeff Passan’s “The Arm,” a book which, with the plague of injuries affecting pennant races and club profit margins, should be the textbook for moving an important issue in the sport forward.
Some of us want serious injury prevention because we love watching Clayton Kershaw, Arrieta, Price, Max Scherzer, Harvey and other extraordinary pitchers work. We care about them not as fantasy league tools, but as people.
Owners understandably care about their investments, and what can happened to a team with a $160M payroll if the best pitcher blows out and misses what could amount to two seasons.
I don’t know what the Angels would have been if Richards put up a Cy Young season, but I do not know what they will be without him either. Injuries change everything, and everyone in the business should be working together to see how pitchers are developed from the age of 12, and why so many break down as they enter their primes.
The Art of Catching
MAY 26 2016
PHOTOGRAPH BY RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES
RETIRED / NEW YORK YANKEES
Yogi Berra sat down right next to me on the bench. He had his pinstripes on, of course. It was a sunny day in Bradenton during spring training in ‘98. Not a cloud in the sky. We were between innings. This was always my favorite time of the year.
Yogi used to sit in the same spot and talk to the fans in the front row. He loved that. He was always trying to make people smile. They actually installed a big net right in front of his spot so he wouldn’t get hit with a foul ball while he was chatting with the fans.
So he sat down next to me, and we started watching one of the pitchers warm up. In Yogi’s day, they didn’t have all the advanced analytics that we have now. They didn’t even have computers. So I wanted to know how he scouted opposing pitchers. How did he prepare back then?
PHOTOGRAPH BY KATHY WILLENS/AP IMAGES
I said, “Yogi, how did you know what the guy wanted to throw?”
“Well,” he said, “I looked at what pitches he was throwing.”
I said, “… Yeah?”
But that was it. Yogi just kind of shrugged.
I said, “Yogi, what do you mean?”
“Well, when he’s warming up between innings, what’s he throwing?” Yogi said. “If he’s throwing curveballs and fastballs, those are his pitches. I eliminate everything else from my head. Why would I be thinking about his changeup? He’s telling me what he’s going to throw today.”
I thought about the thick book full of scouting reports we got before a series on a pitcher’s tendencies and sequences. I thought about how much information was going through my head when I stepped to the plate.
“Curveball, fastball,” Yogi said, smiling. “He’s tellin’ ya.”
That stuck with me for the rest of my career.
Yogi was telling me to keep it simple. Now the game is so dissected and there’s so much information available to you that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. This was especially true for me. See, I didn’t start out as a catcher. I was a second baseman for most of my life, and there were a lot of doubts when I was coming up in the minors. I was following in the footsteps of legends like Yogi and Thurman Munson. Was this kid from Puerto Rico really up to it?
PHOTOGRAPH BY DIAMOND IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
In ’95, after three years playing minor league ball, I knew I had to prove that I could be a big league catcher. The Yankees had even put me in a few trade deals that fell through. Then Scott Kamieniecki came down from New York on a rehab assignment, and my coach and mentor, Oscar Acosta, told me something that changed my life.
“You have to show this guy who you are,” he said. “Show him.”
“What I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people.”
Those words meant the world to me. I had an itch to prove myself, and Oscar brought it out even more.
So I caught Kamieniecki, and I did my best to show him that I could take command of the game and be a leader behind the plate. When he got reassigned back to the Yankees, he told Buck Showalter that they should think about bringing me up. Soon after that, I played my first game in pinstripes.
Still, I was pretty raw. For a few years I was up and down, just trying to figure out the position. Then, in 1998, I was working out in the tiny gym at Fenway Park that both teams shared when I saw this framed picture on the bulletin board. It was a quote from Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash during the 1979 season. (I have no idea why there was a quote from a Yankee hanging in the Red Sox’ gym.)
“I like hitting fourth and I like the good batting average. But what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many more aspects of the game.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY AP IMAGES
I loved the quote so much that I asked the personal trainer in Boston to make a copy for me, and I put it up in my locker at Yankee Stadium.
From that day on I started thinking about the position a little differently. As a catcher you are managing a game within the game, and it’s constantly changing. You have to keep adapting your plan over the course of nine innings. You have to be completely in sync with the guy on the mound. Not just about what pitches he throws best statistically, but also what’s working for him right now, and how he’s feeling.
When we started a new series, our pitching coach would give us a huge book filled with scouting reports on the opposition. The hardest thing was when you were facing a new guy who you had no history with. Let’s say we were playing the Astros and I had never seen Carlos Correa before. I would have no idea how to pitch him. So the homework would be really important. I’d go to the film and look at three or four of his at bats, maybe against Justin Verlander or another top guy, to see how they attacked Correa.
Then I’d look at the scouting report, and see how Correa likes the ball. I’d go to the pitching coach, and ask how he would pitch him. Then I’d talk it over with my pitcher. In fact, we would go down the entire lineup before a series — all nine guys — and ask, “How are we getting this guy out?”
But, you see, this is just the homework. There’s also the human element. When I got to the bullpen during warmups, I’d catch my pitcher for 20 minutes to feel out what was working for him that day. Maybe his cutter was sharp, but his changeup wasn’t working as well. This is where it got really interesting. A perfect example is Andy Pettite. From the first inning, Andy was always very good at pitching on the inside to righthanded hitters. His fastball, cutter and curveball I could always count on.
The last pitch Andy would get was his changeup. But I needed that changeup. That’s the pitch that we could get a ground ball on if we needed a double play. So we couldn’t just abandon it. We had to work it in slowly, in situations where Andy couldn’t get hurt.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES
Two outs, nobody on, 1-and-2 count? Sure, maybe we could get the guy to strike out with Andy’s curveball. But instead, I’d call for a changeup so Andy could get a feel for it. We might need it later.
Same thing with David Wells. I could never call a changeup before the fourth inning, because he was just too strong and he would throw it too hard. I needed him to be a little tired so he had a nice 10 mile-per-hour difference between his fastball and changeup.
In order to strike out the best hitters, you need to rely on your scouting to come up with a plan, and you also need to have a feel for the game as it goes along.
I’ll give you another example.
I know Mariano Rivera like he’s my brother. I would set up behind the plate, and I knew exactly where he wanted to throw the ball in every situation. It was that kind of relationship. I was reading his mind. Some of my favorite moments were catching Mariano when he went up against David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez.
Derek Jeter used to say he had Jedi powers.
Ortiz had a hole. It was a very small, little hole, right underneath his hands. If you missed down, he would hurt you. You had to keep it right underneath his hands because he wouldn’t swing higher, and he likes the ball down and in. Same thing with Manny. A strike in the middle of the plate? Manny Ramirez would crush you. Anything — curveballs, sinkers, sliders — it didn’t matter what you threw. If it was on the plate, he was deadly. So we had to come inside at his letters on the first pitch in order to back him off the plate a little bit, and then we would have some room to go down and away on him the next pitch.
Mariano, mentally, was above any pitcher I knew. You would go to the mound, and he would just say, “Let’s go.” He already knew what he was going to do, and he had the pinpoint control to do it. It was ridiculous. Derek Jeter used to say he had Jedi powers.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ELISE AMENDOLA/AP IMAGES
There’s only one guy in MLB who could consistently throw to Ortiz’s hole. Only Mariano could do it. But with every other pitcher, even Hall of Fame pitchers, you had to do something a little more difficult. You had to use the hitter’s instincts against him.
Mike Mussina was great at this. Mike is probably the smartest pitcher I’ve ever caught. The way he would attack Ortiz and Manny was a little different.
Let’s say the Sox had runners on second and third. Ortiz is at the plate with two outs. He’s gotta hit Mussina’s pitch. We know he wants to be the hero — it’s just his nature. There’s no one on first base. So we take that aggressiveness and use it against him. We almost throw him what he wants, except it’s a little outside, or a little in the dirt. We throw him some balls and see if he has the patience to take them.
With Ortiz and Manny, you could never pitch them the same way twice, because they would sit on pitches. Especially if you struck them out on that pitch and made them look bad. If you got them out on a hanging curveball the last inning, they would hunt for that pitch during the next at bat. They would set you up. So you had to play a cat-and-mouse game with them.
These battles against David and Manny were some of my favorite, because they weren’t just physical battles. They were psychological, too.
It’s the little things that make this game so interesting. And you don’t stop thinking about it when the game is over. I used to go to dinner with Derek Jeter after almost every game, and if we lost we would go over every little moment when the game might have turned.
We would ask, “Where did it go wrong? How could we have done it differently?”
If I didn’t go to dinner, I would be up all night overthinking things.
Did I make a mistake calling that curveball?
Should I have gone to the mound to calm my pitcher down in the seventh?
My brain would be going in circles if we didn’t talk it out and dissect the game over dinner.
In order to play this game a long time, you have to obsess over it, but you also have to be able to let things go.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES
I didn’t always know this stuff. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of learning to be an everyday catcher in Major League Baseball, especially over the grind of a 162-game season.
The only way I was going to learn was if my body was in the best possible shape.
There were days that I’d puke, that I didn’t want to be there, doing six 200-meter sprints under the blazing sun in Puerto Rico.
As a catcher, you’re not going to feel good every day. Some days you have to get to the park several hours before the game because you don’t feel 100%. Maybe you took a foul-tip off your thumb. Maybe you took one off the mask and you woke up with a sore neck. Well, not some days — pretty much the whole year. You just have to find a way to trick your body into playing. I had to do it because I needed to be there for my pitchers — for Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. It was my responsibility to be there.
If you look at my numbers, my best months were always toward the end. Everyone was tired, but I still felt good because I had put my body through intense workouts during the off-season. After the season ended in October, I wouldn’t work out for three weeks. I would just ride the bike and stretch, letting my body catch up and recover.
Once those three weeks were over, I would go through a brutal three-week period of lifting and sprinting on the track. Every three weeks I would switch up my workout and do something completely different. There were days that I’d puke, that I didn’t want to be there, doing six 200-meter sprints under the blazing sun in Puerto Rico.
I wouldn’t even start swinging a baseball bat again until about a month before spring training. Everything I did was to enable me to crouch behind home plate for nine innings and experience the greatest feeling in baseball — even better than hitting a home run:
Pop! You catch the last strike. You run to the mound to celebrate with your pitcher.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS VIA GETTY IMAGES
I’ll never forget May 17, 1998, when David Wells was working on a perfect game and I was behind home plate. Every sign I put down that day, he went right along with me. He probably shook me off four times at the most. I know David claims he was pitching with a big hangover that day, so maybe that had something to do with it. After the fifth inning, he didn’t miss my spot once. I’ve never seen anything like it.
As the game went on the crowd was getting really loud. I was nervous. Nobody was talking to me or David when we were in the dugout. I was like 0 for 4 that day because I was so locked into calling the game that I just couldn’t hit anything.
In the seventh, Paul Molitor came up to the plate with two outs. He always hit David pretty well. We fell behind in the count 3 and 1. We had been pitching Molitor the cutter inside all day. So I called something down and away and David threw a great strike. As Molitor put his foot down to stride when the pitch was coming in, I noticed his hips were open like he was expecting something inside. I could just feel it.
Full count. I put the sign down. Same pitch. Same location.
He wants it inside. Let’s throw it outside. Keep it simple.
David threw it, and I felt the glove pop. The crowd exploded. We got him.
The last batter in the ninth inning was Pat Mears. As he was coming to the plate, the announcer on TV actually said, “How nervous is Posada behind home plate? He’s the one making the calls.”
PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID SEELIG/THE PLAYERS' TRIBUNE
I was so nervous that when Mears popped up to right field, I threw off my mask and started running to the outfield like I was going to field the ball myself.
When Paul O’ Neill caught it, I turned around and the whole dugout was already mobbing David at the mound. When I ran back to him, he said, “Where the hell were you, man?”
There’s nothing like that feeling. Everything I did offensively was a plus, a bonus. The real reward was how I could influence the game defensively. Thurman was exactly right.
Thurman’s widow, Diana, was a big supporter of our team. About a year after I put her husband’s quote up in my locker, Diana found out about it and came up to me at Old-Timers’ Day. She said that for a long time it was too painful for her to watch baseball, but she started following the Yankees again because I reminded her so much of Thurman. Those were the best words anyone could say to me.
Thurman’s words had come full circle.
“… what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people.”
JORGE POSADA / CONTRIBUTOR
Once upon a time, second basemen and shortstops who could clear fences were the exception and not the rule. That’s no longer the case. With more than two months left to go in the season, 31 middle infielders have reached double figures in home runs. Eleven more have at least seven home runs.
Brad Miller is among them. In his first season with Tampa Bay, the former Mariner has already left the yard 15 times. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s getting more respect. According to the 26-year-old shortstop, “Pitchers are still coming right after me; they’re not trying to trick me.”
To some extent, that might help explain why a career-low walk rate (6.8%) accompanies Miller’s career-high home run total. But pitchers not pussy-footing around the plate against him isn’t the only reason. Free passes aren’t part of his plan.
“I’m going up there hoping to swing and hit something hard,” explained Miller. “One thing that’s always baffling to me is people saying, ‘Work your walks.’ You’re never looking for walks. They just come.”
So do home runs and respect. Again, the two don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“As a young player, I always thought it worked that way,” admitted Miller. “They’re going to challenge you until you do something about it, then once you’ve earned respect — once you’ve shown you can hit balls hard — they’re going to be a little more careful. I’ve been able to move some balls lately, but they’re still pretty much attacking me.”
The Guru: How Skills Coaches Are Changing Sports Forever
More and more pro athletes are turning to independent skills coaches for guidance and the results are starting to show
Jul 27, 2016
When the 2012 NHL lockout left hockey players scrambling for ice time, then-Vancouver Canuck Ryan Kesler made a phone call, as one does, to Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger, whose nearby house had a private rink big enough for 3-on-3 skating. The work stoppage also barred team coaches from working with players, so Kesler asked elite skills coach Ron Johnson—who holds a master’s degree in hockey biomechanics—to give him an evaluation.
After an hour of drills, Kesler asked Johnson for his honest opinion. Johnson replied, “You’re not explosive. You’re not a deceptive skater. You don’t have any agility. And your deceleration is poor. You’ve got good power and speed.”
On Johnson’s drive home, Kesler’s agent, Kurt Overhardt, called and said, “Now you’re in trouble.” But not for the expected reason. “He won’t work with anyone else,” the agent told Johnson.
“He gets you to think a different way about the game, about shooting, about skating,” Kesler said in a telephone interview. “Usually guys [say], ‘Skate as fast as you can, shoot as hard as you can,’ but with Ron, it’s different. It’s all about deception, getting a guy to think that he has you and then going the other way and creating that extra half-foot to a foot where you can get your shot off.
“He said there’s seven different ways to shoot a puck. I think I knew three of them.”
The increasing sophistication and professionalization of sports has led to the rise of personal skills gurus not only in hockey—where Johnson, known as the Shot Doc, counts Hall of Famer player Adam Oates as a peer—but also with quarterback instructors in football, hitting and throwing coaches in baseball, and basketball trainers like Idan Ravin, who has worked with the likes of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant.
These coaching consultants lurk outside the framework of the player’s professional organization; most of their work is done remotely, communicating by phone, text, and email with lessons imparted via video annotations.
Oates was watching the 2015 NBA Finals when the broadcasters mentioned James’ work with Ravin. Oates had been head coach of the Capitals and co-coach of the Devils but was passed over for a few other jobs, so this new line of work appealed to him. He now tutors a few dozen NHL clients including Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Minnesota Wild stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
“And I started a business—right there, that day,” said Oates, who also works with amateurs through the site My Pro Hero. “Our game is getting more complicated, and I’m helping with that.”
Kesler’s partnership with Johnson has grown and last winter expanded to include his line mates with the Anaheim Ducks, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano. The trio was often pitted against opponents’ top lines and, by Kesler’s admission, had trouble sustaining an attack in the offensive zone. The three split the cost of flying Johnson down to Anaheim twice for four-day midseason sessions, once in January and once in February, working with him on specific skills for 30-to-60 minutes before practices. Kesler said his knowledge of Johnson’s instruction was helpful, but the benefit rose exponentially when they were all on the same page. Johnson likened line play to a rock band’s guitarist, bass player, and drummer “working together to make sure the orchestration happens.”
After scoring just three goals in his first 41 games, Silfverberg netted 17 in the season’s second half (tied for fifth-most in the Western Conference) while Kesler added 13. All told, the three had 89 points after the midpoint, compared to only 35 before it, an increase of more than 250 percent.
“The game almost slowed down,” Kesler said.
Not every organization would be receptive to an outside solution. Kesler acknowledged that the coaching staff was initially “standoffish” but came around, with assistant Trent Yawney particularly interested; he added that general manager Bob Murray was very supportive and made sure the line got the necessary ice time.
A few people around the sport have criticized Oates‘ methods, but he makes sure not to interfere with team systems and strategies, emphasizing the minutiae on which he focuses. Oates gave a couple examples. He described teaching a defenseman how to better go back into his zone to retrieve a puck bouncing around the boards while an opponent chases—“the hardest thing in our sport,” he said—and explained the magnitude of even a four-percent increase in face-off percentage, given that each team takes about 5,000 per season.
“Anybody who wants to make it more than that—no, no, that’s pretty much it,” Oates said, admitting that his work is “not sexy.”
Some skill instructors begin as sporting outsiders, bringing a creative and unorthodox approach to training. When Ravin, a lawyer by trade, first worked with James, as recounted in Chris Ballard’s excellent book, “The Art of a Beautiful Game,” he convinced the superstar that he needed to work on his ball-handling by tapping James’ chin every time he looked down. Quarterback guru Steve Clarkson, whom ESPN has tabbed the “most powerful QB coach in football,” completed just one pass in his professional career—with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in Canada. (By contrast, there is also the Manning Passing Academy run by the family’s three NFL quarterbacks, who are as insider as it gets.)
Self-taught baseball hitting coach Bobby Tewksbary, whose own career stalled in independent ball, learned his craft by watching YouTube videos of swings from Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams; he now counts AL MVP Josh Donaldson among his clients. Driveline Baseball founder Kyle Boddy—known for his weighted baseballs and biomechanical analysis—is a highly sought-after pitching trainer and consultant to MLB teams, yet his pre-baseball professional background was as a data consultant.
Blue Jays performance coach Steve Springer, who works with minor leaguers on the mental side of hitting, is a career baseball man. He played 14 minor league seasons—making a pair of big league cameos with four career hits—before becoming an agent. In that role, he taped a cassette with advice on approach to distribute to his clients, later entering a recording studio to preserve his advice on CDs. Roughly 15 years later, Springer’s “Mental Side of Hitting” remains in regular use among big leaguers, a cadre that includes All-Stars Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, A.J. Pollock, and Mark Trumbo.
“Yeah, it’s vintage,” Trumbo, whose 30 home runs for the Orioles lead the majors, said of the CD, which he has digitized. “Some guys listen to it daily. I think I have it more or less memorized myself.”
Trumbo and Springer see each other a fair amount in their native Southern California, where they’ll often play a round of golf, but otherwise call and text a fair amount. Trumbo, who is with his fourth organization in as many years, appreciates the continuity of a longtime confidant. (Because Springer is employed by a rival, they don’t communicate when the Blue Jays and Orioles play each other.)
“You rely first and foremost on the coaches within the team, but every now and then, maybe somebody’s who has seen you for a lot longer can be a nice reference,” Trumbo said.
When Johnson isn’t on-site, he breaks down his clients’ play remotely. With Kesler, for instance, he’ll analyze film overnight and then send emails with video attachments to break down what he sees. He’ll often attach metrics of his own device, such as results of play when the puck is 20 feet from the board compared to 10 or 5 feet. Johnson emphasizes a logical and cohesive language while discussing skills and notes that mistakes can occur so sporadically that the underlying cause isn’t readily apparent.
“There’s a very holistic connection between all of the skills and, really, there’s a correct way to do everything,” Johnson said. “If you do the proper skating mechanics, the proper stick-handling, and the proper passing, then your shot actually gets better every day.”
The rise of this skill-development niche can be attributed to the increasing professionalization of sports.
“No question because, No. 1, money,” Oates said. “No. 2, this generation of athlete is a more dedicated 24/7/12-months-a-year athlete to their sport.”
The mentoring model extends to amateurs, too. Oates, fellow Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, and seven-time All-Star Theo Fleury are among the coaches working with My Pro Hero, which Oates described as an opportunity and platform for younger players to receive instruction that hasn’t always been accessible.
“It allows people from all over to get this information,” Oates said. “You know what, I think it’s going to make coaching better.”
Similarly, Springer said Twitter—where he can be found @qualityatbats—“changed his life” by allowing him to connect with more people in and out of the game. In addition to the recordings he peddles, he is a regular on the speaking circuit.
“I give the same spiel to major league All-Stars that I do to a 12-year-old,” Springer said. “I’m all about today. I’ve got a new game, new pitcher, new hitter with every single day.”
The impact such gurus can have on a player ranges from supplementary to transformative.
“Before, I was all about speed and I feel like my game has evolved into being more of a complete player,” Kesler said. “That’s because of Ron.”