Part of being a functioning member of 21st century society is learning new technology. Just think about all the tools and gadgets you’ve had to learn to operate over the past decade – from smart phones and tablets to DVRs and robotic, parallel-parking cars.
It takes time to figure out all the bells and whistles. But just imagine having a 4,000-square foot piece of new technology with a price tag of $220,000.
Welcome to the world of Steve Rodriguez and Baylor baseball.
“The best way I can describe it is when your phone gets an update,” Rodriguez said. “You update it, you turn it on, and you’re like, ‘What is this?’ So you literally have to start using it and playing around with it. You go on to Google and go, ‘How do I do this now?’ It’s very similar to that. So we’ve seen all this technology and then you go, ‘Oh my gosh, now I have to learn that.’ But it’s great, it’s because it’s where (baseball) is now.”
Baylor zipped into the future at warp speed in January when it unveiled its new Jack Ward Pitching Lab. The university took an old weight room located beneath the first-base grandstand and transformed it into a state-of-the-art facility for its pitchers. The room is lined with artificial turf and equipped with three pitching mounds, five motion capture cameras and a software program allowing coaches to track a pitcher’s every movement.
As freshman reliever Tyler Thomas ran through a bullpen session on Thursday afternoon, BU pitching coach Jon Strauss stood nearby examining data of Thomas’ biomechanics that instantly popped up on his iPad. In addition to long-established baseball data like velocity, this new software measures a pitch’s flight path, its location in the strike zone and other useful information like spin rate.
“The big thing is, how does it help them?” Strauss said. “I can show them numbers, and that’s good, but how does it really help them? What can they do with these pitches? That’s the lesson in all of it. I was telling Ty, ‘That’s a good curveball. That’s a major-league curveball based on the numbers. So you should throw it and not be afraid to throw it.’”
Like so many renovation projects, the Pitching Lab required a few years of planning and development. When Rodriguez was hired in the summer of 2016, he looked around Baylor Ballpark and took inventory. The weight room housed in the location where the Pitching Lab now sits was basically superfluous, and Rodriguez and Strauss immediately began dreaming of the space’s potential.
“We got here and we saw the space,” Rodriguez said. “It was a weight room and we knew we weren’t going to be using it as a weight room, simply because we had other weight rooms here on campus that we were utilizing. So it was a matter of, what do we want to do with this room to maximize it for not only our current players, but for recruiting? Not to mention try to do something different than maybe nobody else has.”
As far as Baylor coaches know, nobody else in college baseball owns a similar facility, at least not one tricked out with the technology that Baylor has constructed. Rodriguez said that Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and USC all have rooms or areas devoted to pitchers, but “I don’t think they have a space like this.”
In a way, the Bears are the “guinea pigs,” Rodriguez noted. He has already fielded calls from other coaches around the country asking questions about the lab and the technology housed within. He shares the information freely, but make no mistake – he and his coaches also want to use Baylor’s new position as a burgeoning Institute for Pitching Science as a recruiting tool.
“It’s neat, because most pitchers don’t usually have spaces or rooms specifically designed for them,” Rodriguez said. “Usually (schools) have batting cages and clubhouses, but this here is specifically designed for them. So being able to come in and know that you have technology, you have video, you have pitching coaches – you’ll be able to see it, he’ll be able to see it. We can work together hand-in-hand, knowing that if there is any mistake we’ll be able to catch it right away.”
Case in point – through sessions in the Pitching Lab, Baylor coaches determined that relievers Kyle Hill and Troy Montemayor could use their superior spin rates to their advantage. Strauss noticed that it opened up the strike zone for both pitchers, allowing them to work higher.
“I don’t think they grew up thinking, ‘Throw up in the zone,’” Strauss said. “Troy throws 87 miles an hour, he probably didn’t think, ‘I should throw up in the zone.’ He’s been taught to throw down and he’s really good at it. But now there’s a whole other dimension that you can use. It’s a whole other pitch for him, really.
“Kyle Hill can throw a pitch toward the letters that by rule is a strike – whether they call it or not, who knows – but by rule it’s a strike. And I’m looking for contact. I’m looking for an out. I’m not trying to set up something else. I’m looking for you to get an out right now on this pitch, whether he swings and misses or whether he pops it up. Then guys who don’t have that spin rate, we’re not going to waste our time throwing that pitch, because you’re going to get killed there.”
Cody Bradford has also benefited mightily from the new facility. The sophomore left-hander was mostly a fastball-changeup pitcher as a freshman in 2017. But aided by sessions in the Pitching Lab, he has developed a pair of more effective offspeed pitches.
Plus, he just likes geeking out at all the numbers.
“I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to the numbers,” said Bradford, who sports a 2-1 record and 2.55 ERA. “Mathematics has always interested me, even in school, so I like looking at some of the various stats, like gyro spin and true spin rate and false spin rate. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but there’s a lot of stats that come up on there.”
It’s a new age, to be sure. It’s certainly different from when Strauss and Rodriguez were playing. Major League Baseball clubs have embraced the advanced metrics in earnest. Now it seems college baseball is catching up, and Baylor may be on the forefront with its Pitching Lab.
Of course, the toys are cool, but they’re not just there so Baylor’s coaches can play mad scientist. It’s all about maximizing a pitcher’s potential and improving his long-term health and durability, Rodriguez said.
“You’re always trying to better your craft, and if there is new technology out that will make us better coaches and make them better players, then it’s a win-win for all of us,” he said.