My first year of real college coaching came in my 6th year of coaching overall. It was at this point where a 23 year old baseball lifer realized he knew nothing about actually helping players get better. The previous coaching experience had been mostly high school summers and one year as a volunteer assistant at my Alma Mater where I had no real direction for helping the players other than what we had been taught.
Attempting to implement that with no real understanding for why we did it and why it worked for some and not for others didn’t bode well for moving into a new situation with unknown players and being made responsible to make them better. The first year was riddled with frustration and anger when things didn’t go well, I believe due in large part to the feeling of having no actual control because I was unable to create a system at that point. The first year (spring of 2014) was underwhelming on the surface, finished the season 14-24 with a 7.46 ERA, almost a 1:1 K/BB ratio, .314 batting average against, and 6.9 K/9. Woof. Things that are apparent to even the casual observer from that stat line. We didn’t attack the zone very well, and when we did our pitches weren’t very good. Offensively, the program was in pretty decent shape, so it was ever more apparent that in order to win, we had to overhaul the pitching process.
It didn’t take these results to be finalized for me to realize we needed direction and a system to benefit us top to bottom. The helpless feelings in the fall where I tried to simple re-create practice plans from my playing experience and not having a strong impact on our players inspired me to search for something else. This was my first introduction to the world of online pitching resources. Fortunately for me, I was able to stumble onto the pre-order of Hacking the Kinetic Chain, the flagship book from Driveline Baseball.
December of 2014 changed everything for me as I read through this book with a fever as it combined my two great loves, science and baseball. I immaturely began attempting to implement some of the designs of the program in the spring like a kid with a fancy new pet, and probably did more harm than good for the results of that season, but what we sacrificed on the field we gained tenfold in establishing direction for the staff.
Luckily, after a horrendous spring, I was allowed not only to keep my job, but I was still allowed full autonomy over the pitching staff and the processes to help us get where we wanted to be. We started with off-brand plyocare implements and worked through really rudimentary versions of the core Driveline drills with me trying to piece together how they could be improved for guys. It was loosely coming into some vague shape of a real player development process as the season went along, but still we needed much more understanding and improved implementation. Spring of 2015 did not show marked improvement as we spun it to a 14-22 record, an ERA of 7.02 (somehow lower than our opponents ERA), a slightly better K/BB ratio hovering around 1.1, K/9 staying around the same, and opponents hitting .313 off of us.
If it hadn’t been for the patience, understanding, and guidance of one of the best mentors a young coach could ask for, this would’ve been full blown panic mode for me that over the course of a year we hadn’t changed things completely. The words will forever impact me in my coaching career to disassociate emotionally from the statistics. I felt they were a representation of me as a coach and as I let them go, I allowed myself to become committed to the process and everything changed.
Being dissatisfied with how things were going, I continued my education and attempted to bring in as much information as I possibly could. I wanted as robust a solution set as I could create for the complex problems that would undoubtedly arise with players. This meant more Driveline content, the baseball ranches, the rise of Tread Athletics and their content, Paul Nyman’s rotational throwing ebook simulation, anything I could get my hands on, I bought and read. Consume the information and make it make sense to me so it can shape my coaching. Rather than trying to follow someone else’s blueprint to development, I was writing my own.
In our first year and a half, we had done mostly plyocare work for arm health and patterning. Our arm injuries were probably around average for most college programs in those two years, but by year three they dropped off completely. We had the additional benefit of one of our pitchers going out to Driveline for the summer and returning with better information on how we could implement things. Spring of 2016 we saw a huge improvement in our command. Our walk numbers dropped by 20% over the course of the year, but we still couldn’t get the ball off the barrel of the bat consistently enough to make a big impact on the wins and losses (6.5 ERA, .330 BAA). We were more competitive and lost more close games, which made it that much more frustrating because we could taste it. Finished the season 17-18 overall and still one of the lower teams in the conference. We could see the tides rising, individuals were making huge strides in their velocity, command, and stuff, it just hadn’t clicked yet.
Check in on 2017 and the magic of the overnight success that took 3 years to build finally came for the program. Program best for wins with a 26-17 record, made the conference tournament and proceeded to win it for the first time in program history and attended a regional. Picked to be one of the worst teams in the conference in preseason yet again, the team came out of nowhere to not only compete with the annual powerhouse teams, but to beat them and no longer see them at this untouchable level. We pitched to a 4.15 ERA overall and 2.99 in conference games which was good for second in our conference. Opponents batting average dropped to .269, we maintained our low walk rates, and increased our strikeout rates, albeit still not a strikeout heavy team. The biggest piece was the hits we gave up, were not on the barrel. Giving up one base at at time wasn’t going to beat our offense. We had 2 pitchers honored with all-conference awards and one of them gaining all-region notoriety as well, and many more that are deserving of recognition for all of the big outs they got for us in the season. Seeing them dogpile after the conference tournament game, and being able to have the guy out there that we did for the final out, was the biggest validation I could’ve ever asked for in why all the long hours, countless dollars spent learning, bus trips, missed family celebrations, are forever worth it.
We kept the momentum going into 2018 as we were able to win another 21 games and make the conference tournament in back to back seasons for the first time in program history. Two more all conference pitcher honors and one of them again getting all-region in his senior year, setting a program record with a 1.66 ERA.
There are obviously other factors that play into a program change like this, but the ability to implement a system of development, create buy in, and have leaders in positions to push the agenda to the team is a cornerstone. Especially in the D3 model where there is so little coach contact, having structure available and drivers in the right places on the staff are vital. I am forever grateful to the type of young men that we had to be able to do something special for the program. It creates a culture of accountability, it creates a culture of competition, and it creates a culture of success.
This initial step was made possible with the influence of Hacking the Kinetic Chain and it has continually evolved with new resources and information and I am forever grateful to those in the industry sharing their content for young coaches to help make a positive difference in the lives of their players. For all the players that had to endure the early parts, I am sorry that I couldn’t provide you more. Thank you to Head Coach Matt Parrington for the incredible patience and guidance he provided as I learned to walk all over again. Thank you to the players who dove in head first with me to try and figure things out and help effect change for the program.
Continually learn, continually challenge your ideas and methods, but create a system that works for the players and as you learn more allow flexibility for tweaks or small adjustments rather than overhauls. On the team level, it makes a huge difference to have something set that people can come into. I still prefaced all of our incoming pitchers that if they don’t want to do it, they don’t have to. We could try some things and see if they work and feel good, and if they don’t we make an adjustment. The only thing that matters is that the players make progress and have a good experience regardless of how we need to get them there.