Thoughts on Player Development

Player development has been the hot new frontier in baseball. I started really learning about this movement with books such as "The MVP Machine", Driveline posts and articles, FanGraphs articles, and other public resources that are freely available to baseball freaks (and later, Driveline Pitch Design certification).

I got introductions to the new ideas in baseball, with concerns of teams evolving from finding existing assets (players) that other teams didn't value correctly to the modern age, with teams implementing growth mindsets and CREATING assets that otherwise showed little signs of becoming assets.

Today, I spent some time going through the baseballr package in R. In addition to learning more about player development, the technical knowledge of being able to scrape and present data has also been vital if I have any hopes of really learning more about baseball. I wanted to put together a graph or visualization showing the relationship between something, anything, we understand in today's game. Maybe look at the relationship between top exit velo for a hitter and his WAR, wRC+, wOBA or something, as through reading the sabermetric/coaching tweets and articles (well, and intuitively it makes some sense) I see that we are coming to realize that max exit velo can be a sort of foreshadowing to what we can expect in the power department for a hitter, not dissimilar to a pitcher's velocity. This is just an example, as there are so many relationships you can at least explore statistically with all this data that it can be overwhelming.

There is just an incredible amount of data anyone can freely load into their laptop. In a few minutes I was able to pull up years worth of statcast and fangraphs pitching data which I could use for visualizations, statistical analysis, or anything I needed.

This is what got me thinking about where baseball is heading with regards to player development and how front offices actually even find marginal wins anymore. The older conceived notions of sabermetrically-inclined organizations poaching statistically undervalued players from other, less-smart teams? Well it took me a few minutes to find the function in baseballr to scrape fangraphs or baseball savant data for expected stats based on contact quality, batted ball data, among other types of data. I could immediately see which pitchers' expected wOBAs were lower or higher than their actual wOBA allowed, expected slugging, barrel percentages, etc. It's not a revelation anymore for an organization to see what pitchers are due for a bounce back or better future performance. The peripherals and data are there and are factored into market prices and evaluations.

With teams now valuing value similarly with depth and looking beyond surface stats to get to true talent, how is there an edge to be sought after? This is the fun of player development. It's what I said earlier, how do we take a player that in his current state is not "factored into the market" to be even a solid reliever down the road, and turn him into a solid reliever. How do we create value? This has really intrigued me since reading The MVP Machine after graduation September 2019, and was why I did the Driveline Pitch Design certification. I was naturally drawn to the idea of how can organizations completely change the outlook of a player, as teams probably no longer get marginal value from booting up R and seeing who had the lowest expected FIP last year (I am aware that the statistical analysis teams do is far more significant than that however).

Of course teams still need to do analysis with things like R, expected wOBAs, batted ball numbers, etc. for their own organizational evaluations as well as when looking to acquire players from a team in a different competitive phase. And who knows, maybe there are teams out there ignoring guys with great peripherals in AAA that could be big league pitchers.

But, with all of these smart organizations evaluating players similarly, these are my thoughts on why player development is becoming so important. If teams can take a struggling pitcher, a Rapsodo, and an Edgertronic and hammer out what he needs, whether its an increase in spin efficiency to make a pitch more effective high in the zone or a change in spin axis to get a pitch to behave in a way more suited to the rest of his arsenal, that's where a team could outperform their competitors. It's an openness and willingness to ask the right questions and find creative ways to find value. You have to bring in good people to the front office and coaches that will deliver a standardized idea of growth, as well as being able to interpret the science of a pitch (well, and other things, but focusing on pitch ideas with the Driveline certification fresh in my mind). How can we replicate Clayton Kershaw's curveball? "It's magic" shouldn't be the answer. Every pitch has a spin axis, spin efficiency, spin rate, velocity, horz. break and vert. break. Let's get in the lab and see how close we can get to those numbers.

It should be said that this process has already long started for some teams. It should also be said that there are natural things that limit a pitcher's ability to dramatically change their pitch characteristics. I remember reading Brian Bannister talk about that, where those pitch characteristics sometimes are limited by a person's limb flexibility, etc. Sport science is another huge deal here that would take some time (and education) to get into. Teams want to see how a player's body allows them to do certain things. Whether it's a hitter who's body suggests he needs to go on a specific body changing program to reach a certain flexibility/strength point to hit more fly balls, whatever the case. I get the sense teams are really trying to figure out what body motions and science creates the better ballplayer, working from the ground up to create an ideal player body assortment.

But yes, as an organization having the mindset to be able to use the data and technology and change players' entire outlooks has been growing ever so popular. In a world of analytically-focused front offices, creating value with data and technology is a challenge worth pursuing if you want to uncover one more win than your competitor. What happens when every team has the resources and passion to scientifically build better ballplayers? It's onto the next idea.