Friday, October 22, 2021

What’s Going on with the Washington Nationals Pitching Development Program?

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In a culture that is highly reliant on data and analytics for making all different types of decisions, why is it that the Washington Nationals invest so much of its salary into its pitching staff, lagging behind other Major League Baseball teams in its pitching development program?

According to our research, Major League Baseball teams as a whole spend more than $1.5 billion on pitchers, which is five times more than the salary of every NFL quarterback combined. In Washington, we saw how important pitching can be for an organization and has become the lifeblood of this team’s success. However, we have all seen how important it is to keep pitchers healthy and develop future arms. One tiny band of tissue in the elbow keeps everything in check. 

The explosion of “sabermetrics,” a term coined by Bill James to explain the analysis of performance data via detailed statistics, has revolutionized how professional baseball clubs interpret the efficiency of players and especially pitchers. 

In a recent article in Athletic.com,  Lindsey Adler, who covers the New York Yankees, was able to get an inside look at how the New York Yankees develop their pitching. According to the article, the New York Yankees have a specific facility at the club’s minor-league complex in Tampa for the spring where the team has developed a “Gas Station,” for pitchers. “Inside [the Gas Station], pitchers will find Trackman (radar) portable machines, Rapsodo (radar and camera) machines and high-speed Edgertronic cameras. Toward the back of the shed, they can throw rubber-coated weighted balls off a mound toward a wall that measures their velocity instantly. The goal of the facility is largely explained by its moniker: “Tune up a pitcher’s mechanics, increase velocity, profit.” 

Over the last few seasons, clubs across MLB have begun investing in things like Rapsodo which is a small machine that is placed a few feet in front of a catcher and is aimed toward the pitching mound. The machine measures the spin rate, spin axis, vertical and horizontal drop, and velocity and transfers that data collected quickly to an easy-to-understand iPad app. In addition to the use of Rapsodo, many clubs use Edgertronic cameras which shoot up to 17,00 frames per second that allow coaches and pitchers to extremely slow down their movements and pitching mechanics and correct any issues. 



In June 2019, the Atlanta Braves took a step forward and did a complete turnover in their scouting and player development department. According to various news reports, the Braves hired Ben Sestanovich as director and another notable hiring in Paul Davis as pitching coordinator, who comes from the Cardinals and Mariners as an analytics-based guy as opposed to the old guard previously in the Braves department. 

In addition to using technology, a handful of MLB Clubs have also created specific facilities for their tech-heavy pitching development programs, which many pitching prospects don’t have to pay out of their own pockets. This isn’t the case within the Washington Nationals farm system. 

Many high-profile pitchers such as Max Scherzer, Noah Syndergaard, Cory Kluber, and Justin Verlander attend a pitching facility called Cressey Sports Performance Center. Cressey Sports Performance “is a high-performance training facility designed by athletes for athletes and those looking to make a serious commitment to their long term health.” There are facilities in Palm Beach Gardens in Florida and in Hudson Massachusetts. 

(Related Article: Perspective: Don’t Worry Nationals Fans no matter what happens next; Max Scherzer will forever be a Washington National)

Founder and co-President Eric Cressey is a highly sought-after coach for athletes who want to achieve their highest level of performance in a variety of sports. Cressey has an impressive resume in strength training. Cressey holds several state, national, and world records in powerlifting and he served as the strength and conditioning coach to the USA Baseball Under-18 National Team that won the gold medal at the 2015 World Cup of Baseball in Osaka, Japan.

Another popular facility that many pitchers go to is P3 which is located in Wentzville, MO. According to its website, P3 “trains pitchers at every level of competition for baseball excellence.” P3 designs pitching development programs for college and professional coaches and were founded by Brain Delunas who is the University of Missouri Assistant Coach on Pitching. As many Nationals fans know, Max Scherzer went to the University of Missouri.

In his three seasons working at the University of Missouri before heading to Detroit, Delunas’s pitching staff helped Missouri rack up over 400 strikeouts each year, and specifically, in 2008 and 2009, Missouri pitching staff produced top-five single-season records with 495 and 492 strikeouts. During this season, Deluans spent the majority of the season as a special projects coordinator in the New York Mets Organization where he focused extensively on pitching development. Deluna also spent three seasons with the Seattle Mariners as the bullpen coach and director of pitching development and strategies.

While with the Mariners, DeLunas helped star closer Edwin Diaz achieve his 57-save season.


Latest Perspectives on the Nats Report


Pitchers such as Jon Means, Ross Detwiler, Tanner Houk, Sam Coonrod, have or currently train at this facility. But these facilities aren’t cheap. Many players pay for this type of development out of their own pocket in the Nationals system, and they end up trusting the coaches’ knowledge at facilities like Cressey and P3 over the organization coaches. This is a huge problem. 

This begs the question, and the whole point of our article, “what, if anything, are the Nationals doing to help their pitchers develop and identify issues”. According to individuals who have a deep understanding of the pitching development process with the Nationals, the answer is simple: nothing and that is a big problem. 

According to Lindsey Adler, and the Athletic article, the New York Yankees “began using Rapsodo and Edgertronic technology on the field during spring training in 2020, coinciding with the hiring of coach Matt Blake”. When Blake was hired as a 35-year-old with experience in player development but without experience in things like mound changes, it was an easy flashpoint for the old school versus new school debate. 

Recently, the Nationals have started to rebuild their player development staff which will become a greater focus now that the Nationals have started a rebuild of their minor league player development. Jesse Dougherty from the Washington Post reported on September 21, that the Nationals let go four more minor league coaches which included Gary Thurman (outfield and base-running coordinator), Tommy Shields (manager for high-Class A Wilmington), Brian Rupp (hitting coach for Class AA Harrisburg) and Pat Rice (pitching coach for low-class A Fredericksburg). It has also been reported that the long-time assistant general manager of analytics Mondry-Cohen was told that the Nationals wouldn’t be renewing his contract at the end of this season. 

Could this be the start of the Nationals revamping and overhaul of the team’s analytics and player development departments? 

Even the Baltimore Orioles have started to put resources into improving their pitching development process. On September 15th, Premier Pitching and Performance announced a partnership with the Orioles in a tweet. According to P3, they worked with the Orioles to provide assessments for their pitchers in their organization. 

Recently, I had a chance to talk to Cody from Premier Pitching and Performance and we talked about the importance of the development of prospects in pitching and why they should be using analytics and data to improve their delivery. “Tech and analytics allow us to make the best decisions in the shortest amount of time as it pertains to player development.  By shrinking trial and error periods we can create better player player development plans in the short term.  From a long term perspective it allows us to track progress and make adjustments at appropriate times. Ultimately it provides layers of information that allows for conversations with athletes to support continued practices or to explore adjustments. Having objective data allows for the the elimination of subjective bias.” 

So, what should the Nationals do? What are some of the best practices that the team can take to help further develop and improve their pitching development department? Many believe, it takes a complete organizational culture change from top to bottom and a commitment to improving and using technology to help with their player development, and also hiring the right people and giving them authority to make the necessary changes and improvements. Cody from P3 shared his thoughts on what Major League Baseball teams can do to improve the effectiveness of their pitching development program: “MLB teams should continue to track in-game data as much as possible. This includes pitch tracking, biomechanics, etc.  These tools blended with individualized performance plans can improve pitcher development, especially when considering building more individualized development plans in the off-season months.  Current technology being used would include Hawkeye, Trackman, and markerless motion capture.”

No matter what, let’s hope that with the new focus on rebuilding the farm system and acquiring young talent that can be developed over time, the Nationals will also give important resources to the players to help their development, from access to facilities, technology, analytics, and more opportunities for players to review and analyze film. With this, a new foundation and culture can be developed over time.

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